Thursday, April 11, 2019

Speaking Strategies for Oral Exams

Whether you are preparing for a B2, C1 or C2 language examination in English, at some point during the test you are required to maintain discussion for about 1-2 minutes on your own. This is something students sometimes find difficult to do as they have very few ideas about what to say after having stated one or two basic points. 

Regardless of the awarding body and certificate you are sitting an exam in (IELTS, Cambridge CPE or FCE/ First for Schools, ECPE or ECCE, MSU CELP or CELC, LRN, TOEIC, ESB, PTE), you will have to find ways to expand your answers to show that you can speak English without needing anyone's help. To do this, you need to keep the examiner from having to ask you one or two follow-up questions in order to elicit a longer response from you. In other words, if a task requires a candidate to speak for about two minutes on a topic, and the candidate manages to speak for a minute and 10 seconds only, the examiner will have to ask another question to get more information from the test-taker.  

In the mind of the examiner, having to ask that extra question or two translates into one of the following two things:

a) the candidate simply doesn't have ideas to express (which can't be penalized)


b) the candidate simply doesn't have the vocabulary to maintain conversation on this topic (which most definitely is peanlized)

If the examiner sees that short answers are the norm and not the exception, they will conclude that the candidate isn't comfortable speaking the language because of lexical gaps (gaps in the range of vocabulary).

Therefore, what can be done? The key to creating a longish answer to oral exam questions is to follow a strategy that mimics the organization of essays. In this way, you force yourself to produce an extra two to three sentences you normally wouldn't say if you were talking among friends in a more relaxed atmosphere (even though candidates should treat oral exams as just another casual conversational environment with only one or two added twists that display better knowledge of vocabulary and grammar). In addition to this, you force yourself to follow a train of thought that gradually exposes your response to the question asked instead of coming out with a direct answer which merely states the basics.

This post centers on three key tasks that oral exams may require candidates to deal with, so the strategies that follow are for questions that require you to 
  • describe
  • narrate
  • give your opinion on a topic
The examples that will be given have primarily been formatted to adequately answer questions for the B2 exam in English whose awarding body is Michigan State University (in other words, the test I'm talking about is the MSU-CELC), but the strategies can be implemented to any similar questions that may crop up in other language examinations at B2, C1 or C2 level. As you well know, the IELTS Task 2 Speaking exam question often tells you to describe something (eg. the best gift you've ever gotten) or talk about a time when something happened to you (eg. your greatest achievement to date), meaning that you need to follow description and narration strategies respectively. Task 3 questions require candidates to give their opinion.


Examples of the type of question you may have to talk about:

  • a place (restaurant, school, home, monument, shopping place, holiday resort)
  • time of day
  • film / book / song / band / singer
  • person / animal
  • object (gift, your favorite photograph, your first toy)
  • an activity (hobby, going out with friends, meal, morning routine)

  • repeat the question 
    • My favorite beach is …
  • state the topic 
    • ... one located in the north of Greece in Chalkidiki, to be more precise.
  • talk about time / place / people involved
    • It's just about an hour’s drive away. I go there every summer for a month, but also go whenever I can at the weekend throughout the year. It’s too cold to go during Christmas, but if Easter Sunday falls late in spring and the weather isn’t too cold, I go there for about four or five days with friends and family.

  • state details
    •  It’s a wide beach but you can’t tell anymore when hotels and caf├ęs fill it with sun beds and umbrellas in the summer. It gets really crowded and there’s a lot of noise and even the water sometimes isn’t crystal clear, but I continue to go there because we see friends who come from abroad at that time of year and in the evening when everyone leaves, the beach is quiet so we have it all to ourselves.
  •  state feelings
    • Even though things have become too noisy and crowded, I still cannot imagine going anywhere else, because it’s the beach that feels like home. It relaxes me and takes the stress away.
  •  close your answer
    • So, that’s all I have to say about my favorite beach, even though I could go on talking about it for hours.



You are usually asked to narrate an event you experienced, such as a

  • recent visit to a
    •  relative, doctor, zoo, theater

  • time when you 
    • had to lie, let sb down, got lost, had to do sth difficult, lost sth, did badly on a test, had a fight, did sth nice for sb, got into trouble, were treated rudely

  • repeat the question 
    • When I recently had to visit a relative’s house …
  • state the topic 
    • …it was my aunt and uncle’s house.
  • talk about the time / place / people involved 
    • I went there this Christmas with my family because we had been invited and my parents had accepted. So we left at around half past twelve because if we wanted to get there at around two o’clock, we needed to start early, because my aunt and uncle live a little over 100 kilometers from Thessaloniki, so it takes a while to get there.
  • state details
    • I didn’t want to go but had to because my brother and sister get along so well with our cousins and always have a great time when we go over to their house, and my parents naturally enjoy my aunt and uncle's company. I’m the only one who is bored every time we go there seeing as I don’t have anything to do. My cousins are much younger than me, so they play with my brother and sister, but I find their games to childish so I sit there fidgeting with my cell phone all the time, chatting with friends or watching videos, and this is what happened at Christmas as well. 
  • state feelings
    • It was really boring, even though I have to admit that the meal was lovely and everyone was nice to me. 
  • close your answer
    • All in all, I can’t really complain, but this visit to my relatives was like all the other ones I’ve had so far, meaning boring.
Find useful vocabulary posts by clicking on the image

Opinion Questions

  • topics vary
    • law (voting, driving, smoking, working in a different country, helping elderly people)
    • education (studies, books, school subjects, schools, teachers, homework, class excursions)
    • sports
    • art / culture
    • health
    • the environment (pollution, animals, recycling)
    • the future
    • technology (cell phones, computers, social media, video games, the internet)
    • tourism / travel
    • human qualities (honesty, determination, loyalty)
    • hobbies
    • city & country life
    • celebrations / traditions
    • parents & children (chores, deciding about studies)

  • repeat the question 
    • My view on living in the city versus the countryside
  • state the topic 
    • …  is somewhat unclear. I mean both sides offer equally convincing arguments.
  • state arguments in support of the first side of the argument with explanations and/or examples 
    • If you live in the city, you have a variety of facilities that can make life easy and interesting for you.  For instance, you have large stadiums which means you can sign up and train with a team or just watch matches, or you usually have large supermarkets which have everything you need including convenient parking space. This is something you probably won’t find as easily in the countryside. There might be a small cinema or one or to smaller grocery stores, but in general your choices are limited. There's also the question of care facilities. Larger cities have larger, better equipped hospitals.
  • state arguments for the other side of the argument
    • However, if you live in the countryside, the air is much cleaner and you’ll probably be living in much nicer surroundings, with houses that aren’t big blocks made of cement and bricks that all look alike. You’ll be able to see charming cottages, or smaller-scale apartment buildings that won’t make the town look too ugly. There’ll be parks or forest areas with trails for you to ride your bike or hike. Of course, the downside is that people who live in smaller towns in the countryside feel as if they don’t have much to do in the evenings or the weekends.
  •  state your opinion to close your answer
    • So, having said all this, I think it would be preferable to live in the city. Actually, the best thing would be to live in a city and be able to get away for the weekend to the countryside. Then you’d have the best of both worlds.

For more posts dealing with oral exams, click on the image below.

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