PEARTREE LIFE: Experiencing Languages

KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON! It’s only a CAE speaking exam

As we wrote last week, we want to help our students as much as possible to prepare for their exams. So here we go with another article from our Cambridge exams series. It is also about the speaking part of the Cambridge exams but today it's about the higher one: CAE.

Let’s get started with CAE speaking then!

First of all, take a look at this video to get an idea of what to expect. As you can see, it is not very different from the FCE speaking exam, you are just expected to use a wider range of and more complex vocabulary together with more advanced speaking skills. As you can see in the video, you just enter a room along with another student. There will be two examiners there - only one will talk to you - and there are 4 sections. In some parts, you talk to the examiner, in some you talk alone, and in some parts you talk to the other student.

There is one thing you should totally avoid: silence or in, other words, “dead air.” - this is a disaster in your speaking exam.The exam is around 15 minutes and some of that time will be taken up by the examiner giving you instructions. For half of the rest of the time, the other candidate will be talking. Did you watch the video with Raphael and Maude? I timed how long Raphael spoke. In part 1 he spoke for just 25 seconds. In parts 2, 3, and 4 he spoke for 84 seconds, 64 seconds, and 98 seconds. That's a total of 4 minutes 50 seconds - not much time to show all the vocabulary and grammar he had learned! So the most important lesson to learn about the speaking test is never to leave dead air. If you forget a word, keep talking and try to find another way to say it. If you realise you just made a big grammar mistake, correct yourself and keep talking. If you're speaking but no-one is smiling at you and you think you are doing badly - KEEP TALKING!

The above-mentioned advice is only applicable when it is your turn, of course. But what should you do when it is the other student's turn? Well, what not to do is switch off. Let your body language speak now - the other non-speaking examiner is observing. You should turn your body slightly towards the other candidate. Look at them and listen to what they are saying. Nod, smile, be (or at least seem to be) interested - the examiner will see this and feel more positive towards you and more positive about your English. Let’s call it ‘the body language rule’ for the rest of the article.

Part 1 is a nice, easy start. The examiner will ask you and then the other candidate some basic questions about you and your life. You shouldn't talk to the other candidate at this time. When the other candidate is talking, don't interrupt or ask your own questions. So what questions should you expect? Typical questions are about your hometown, your home, your job, your hobbies, and your personality. There could also be one or two slightly more advanced ones. Here are few examples: “Where are you from?; Do you have a job or are you still a student?; How long have you been studying English?; What do you enjoy most about learning English?; How do you like to spend your free time?; What would your ideal job be?; Are you the kind of person who can do two things at once?; Are you planning to do any courses in the near future?; Do you use social networking sites a lot?; Would you enjoy preparing food for a large number of people?; Do you like to give yourself targets or goals?; If you won the lottery what would you do?” (careful, conditional!). When answering the question,keep in mind that you are taking an Advanced exam and that a simple “Yes, I do.” is just not enough. In this case, it is better to go for two more complex sentences.

In the second part of the Cambridge English: Advanced Speaking test, you are given a piece of paper with 3 photos on. The photos are almost always about people. You have to talk about 2 of the pictures, on your own, for a minute. You are supposed to compare them (if you just describe them, you may lose points). So, say what is similar or the same and what is different using these three magic words: “both, whereas and while.” Another thing you should do here is to speculate about what they perhaps may be or seem to be doing and why. If you are not sure how to use this type of language, please ask during your next private class. Then, the examiner will ask the other candidate a question about your pictures. After that, the other candidate will have to talk for a minute about some different pictures, and you will be asked a question about those pictures (here, it is very important to apply the body language rule advised above). The technique for answering this follow-up question is the same as in the part one - respond in about 3 sentences and try to show off your vocabulary.

Let’s move to the third part where you and your speaking test partner are given a 'mind-map' or a 'spider web' with five keywords linked to a theme. The themes are often universally interesting - in the example below the theme is communication; it could also be health, the environment, social issues, jobs, technology, relationship, money, etc. It's often called the 'collaborative task' because, for the first time in the CAE Speaking test, you have to work as a team. You discuss the first question for two minutes, and then there's another question you talk about for one minute. To succeed in part 3, you have to ask your partner questions, agree and disagree with what they say, include them in every step of the process and be interested in what they have to say.

“But what if my speaking partner is shy/nervous/aggressive?!,” If this question came into your mind, you are not the only one. Almost every candidate gets stressed thinking about who their partner might be and how this partner might ruin THEIR chances of getting a good grade! The first thing to know is - you can choose your partner! If you know someone who is taking a CAE course in your area you can register together and list them as your speaking partner. But if you can't, don't worry - the only person who affects your grade is you. The Cambridge examiners are EXPERTS and they have seen everything many times before. They will understand whatever situation you are in. If your partner talks too much in part 3 they will penalise him/her, not you. If you have to talk too much because the other candidate is so nervous, that won't count against you. Whatever happens in part 3, the examiners will assess your performance in the whole Speaking test in a fair way. (Having said that, you are able to interrupt people who are talking too much, for example by saying: “Can I just add something here?; Is it okay if I jump in for a second?; If I might add something…; Sorry to interrupt, but..”)
And this finally takes us to the fourth, and last, part of the speaking test which takes the topic from part 3 and extends it. While CAE Speaking test part 3 is quite structured, you have more freedom in part 4. You can answer questions in a more natural way, like you would in everyday conversation. However, there are some strategies to keep in mind, and the questions can be quite challenging. You should consider this part of the exam a continuation of the previous section. You don't have to reach a decision together or talk about keywords, but you do have to use the same techniques - ask your speaking partner questions, organise your responses with linking words etc. Your replies in this section can be longer than in part 3. The biggest mistake students make in this section is thinking they should talk to the examiner. Yes, the examiner starts by asking you a question, but after you've answered it you should bring your partner into the discussion ("What do you think?"). When the discussion has run its course, the examiner will ask a new question (still on the same general theme). Remember, if you take the lead and ask your partner what he/she thinks, that's more speaking time for YOU.

In other words, say what you think about the topic and finish with: “... don't you agree?; ... or... do you have a different opinion?; ... or... maybe you know more about it?; What's your idea?; What are your thoughts on all of this?; Wouldn't you say?; How do you feel about that?.” It would be quite impressive to refer to something your partner said earlier in the exam. For example, if she is a dentist and the topic in part 4 is health, you could say, 'You're an expert in this area - what do YOU think?'

In last week's English for lunch, we looked at answering questions in the 'discussion' parts of the speaking exams (CAE/FCE part 4 and IELTS part 3). Our main focus was on remembering to show your language range by using a variety of ways to give your opinion (e.g. saying 'For me,...' or 'I'd say...' instead of just 'I think... I think... I think...'). We also discussed some strategies for dealing with difficult questions and giving yourself a bit of time to think before you answer - responding with 'That's a really good question...' or 'Hmm, I've never thought about that before...' is a lot better than just saying 'uuuuuuuhhhhhhh...' Finally, we looked at building up small sets of vocabulary specifically for topics that often come up in these parts of the speaking exams, and how this can help you to improve and extend your answers. For example, if you're asked about environmental problems, not only will making sure to mention 'climate change', 'global warming' and something 'eco-friendly' help you avoid struggling to find something to say, it will also increase your vocabulary score.

We hope that you have enjoyed today’s article. If you have more time and you are interested in some more general information, you can take a look at some other articles we’ve written in the past, here and here.

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Peartree Languages is a language school located in Cardiff.


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