At a loss for words- tips for English speaking tests

Are you going to take a speaking test in English in a few weeks? Are you suffering from ‘stage fright’ in the face of such an exam? Here are some tips that might help you overcome your performance anxiety, or simply, help you feel more confident.

BEFORE THE EXAM:

  1. Train for the exam. Know its structure, and be prepared for what examiners expect from you. 

Get acquainted with the structure of the exam. That way you can prepare specifically for the different tasks you will be required to carry out. Most institutions make sample papers or past papers available on their websites for prospective candidates to see.

Speaking tests are designed to resemble real communication as closely as possible, but unfortunately, they are not: they are always going to be artificial situations. The upside is that their structure tends to be predictable. I tend to compare them to driving tests: you need to practise to pass your driving test, where the examiner will ask you to carry out different processes to make sure you can drive. When you’re driving in a real road, though, nobody is guiding you, or telling you what you are supposed to do- that will be real driving.

Likewise, at different CEFR levels, you’re required to perform at different levels: up to A2-B1 levels, you’re expected to ‘drive’ (=communicate in a basic manner): be able to understand and make yourself understood. At B2 level, you’re supposed to ‘drive confidently’: the degree of precision you’re required to show is higher. At C1, and of course, C2 levels, you’re supposed to be a ‘professional driver’: you’re required to use the language both academically and professionally.

2. Listen to lots of English

To be able to produce, you need to have received input before. That is the way babies learn to speak, by listening to their parents and adults around them. Listen to any rich input you might find either attractive and/or useful for the level you’re at. Here are some suggestions:

Listen to the radio:

TV shows:

Films:

Songs:

YouTube videos: you can use YouGlish to find videos related to a specific subject, or containing specific words.

3. pronunciation: 

When you’re in class, pay attention to the way your teacher pronounces new words (or words you thought were pronounced differently). Make a note of it.

You can also check with online dictionaries or online pronunciation dictionaries such as Forvo or YouGlish (more information here).

4. practise your speaking: 

It’s always a good idea to participate actively in class, and, if you carry out speaking activities, pay attention to your teacher’s feedback.

If you’re preparing at home, you can think of one of the topics you’re discussing in class. What would you say about it? What ideas can you come up with? What relevant language and keywords would you use? Then, record yourself and listen to it. Do I sound fluent enough? Are my answers too short / too long? Have I used relevant language?

You can also speak English with friends/classmates/members of your family. Alternatively, you can also join a speaking group in your city. Here are some cafés and pubs in Zaragoza.

RIGHT BEFORE THE EXAM: 

Warm-up

Athletes don’t start running in a race without warming up first. Similarly, professional musicians tune their instruments and play for a while before a concert. Why should you start speaking English out of the blue when you start your exam then? Try thinking in English (and if possible, speaking English) while waiting for your turn.

If you are alone, listen to something in English (podcast, song…) on the way to the exam, and while you are waiting at the door.

If you happen to have the other candidate waiting beside you, start having a conversation with them in English. That way, both of you will get used to your English speaking voice.

Try to avoid the kind of candidates that are so nervous that will make you nervous as well. Give them a polite but wide berth.

DURING THE EXAM: 

  1. Make effective use of your think time

If you are given some thinking time for your task, think of

a) what you want to say- the ideas you want to communicate, and how you are going to glue them together (linking words). Think of enough ideas for all the length of time you are supposed to be speaking.

b) what relevant keywords and grammar you are going to use to show that your English is of the level you’re being tested on. Impress the examiners.

2. Be coherent and cohesive

Even if you are given questions as bullet points to help you come up with ideas, try and make your speech cohesive: relate your ideas by signposting them, by using linking words, and by making your speech coherent (don’t contradict yourself).

3. Use the language of your level

The questions you may be given are intentionally easy: they have probably been written at a lower level than you are being tested on to make sure you really understand them. It is your job now not to give very easy or short answers (especially, the higher the test you’re taking), but rather to show that you can communicate at that level of language, however simple your questions may apparently be. Don’t just answer the question: elaborate a bit further; use interesting adjectives, keywords, nice structures

4. Use natural, intelligible pronunciation and intonation

If your pronunciation and/or intonation make it hard for the examiner to understand what you are saying, communication is not being achieved. It’s not a question of sounding ‘native’, but at the very least, of making yourself understood. Again, this can be helped by having listened to lots of English and having paid attention to the pronunciation of tricky keywords.

5. Self-correct

If you realise that you have made a mistake, it’s OK to self-correct (if it is immediate). That will show the examiners you know the right way of saying it, and that it was not a mistake or error, but rather a slip of the tongue.

6. Use fillers (but don’t overuse them). 

Fillers are words/expressions that may not mean much, actually. However, they will allow you time to think about what you’re going to say next. In this post you can find some examples of fillers used by native speakers of English. Just bear in mind that their overuse is discouraged.

7. Interaction/ collaborative tasks- You need to interact!

If you are asked to hold a conversation with another candidate or the examiner, you may have to reach an agreement, make a decision together…you need to interact: both of you need to speak, agree, disagree, suggest…You need to be able to give the floor and hold the floor (=the right to speak). Think of it as a table tennis match: both players keep passing the ball to each other. So, it is NOT one monologue after another. In most exams, you will already have your turn to speak individually. Now it’s your turn to show you can have a conversation with somebody else.

8. Use expressions that encourage interaction: 

You can use some of the expressions on this post:

Expressions to use in a speaking test (monologue/interaction)

 

 

Further resources:

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