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One of the most relevant aspects of the structure of an essay is signposting: giving clear indications about the content of your writing not just in the introduction, but in every section. Imagine you were giving indications to a driver to prevent them from getting lost: that is the function of signposting language. That way, your text will be much easier to read, much clearer.
This is essential, even at intermediate levels (B1-B2). You can find ideas of signpost language in the document below:
For some years now, whenever my students were speaking in pairs or groups, I would write down comments I would like to make on my iPad: I would go round, monitoring their conversations, and I would jot down ideas as they came up. These would typically include a mixture of grammar, vocabulary, or pronunciation mistakes, or simply alternatives I could provide to what they were saying. I would also add further ideas that occurred to me while listening to them. Then, I would project my notes and give feedback to my students following those notes in that ‘chronological’ order.
I was more or less happy with that system, but somehow I felt I could be more organised. That’s how I came up with this chart: it is based on a single-point rubric with four criteria (vocabulary range and control, grammatical accuracy and range, phonological control, discourse). Rather than descriptors, I can write my comments under each of the headings: ‘needs improvement’ and ‘not quite there yet’ on the left-hand side, as ‘areas for concern’, and ‘suggestions’ (=alternatives, synonyms..) and ‘good!’ (expressions I liked) as positive comments on the right-hand side.
Using this chart allows me to give feedback to their spoken productions and interactions in a more organised way, making all the comments about one particular item (vocabulary, pronunciation…) at once, rather than randomly as they came up in their conversations.
You can download the chart by clicking on the image below. It is still a work in progress, so contributions are welcome!
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:
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:
YouTube videos: you can use YouGlish to find videos related to a specific subject, or containing specific words.
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.
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:
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:
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.
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:
This is just intended as a guide to help students understand how to use punctuation marks properly:
Watch this video for an explanation of how to use this structure: