How to do well on the day of your speaking exam

In any speaking exam, your main enemy is not your grammar or vocabulary problems. It's not even your fluency or pronunciation. All these things are important and the examiner is marking you on them but, the biggest problem you face is overcoming nerves.
It's easy to say "relax" but, for Cambridge exams in particular, what many students don't realise is that the speaking exam is actually one of the easiest to pass. For a start, the speaking exam is shorter than any of the other papers (between 8 and 19 minutes). And PET, KET, First, Advanced and Proficiency are marked on a scale of 1-5, where 3 or over is a pass. Getting a 4 or a 5 and being "perfect" isn't necessary to show you can speak at the minimum level to pass the paper. However, this piece of information might not be enough to stop the panic as you enter the room.
So what else can you do?

Tricks to help you feel confident

  1. While you're waiting to go in, speak English to the people waiting with you. That way you're not going in "cold" – suddenly having to switch from your own language to English. Think of it like doing warm up stretches before going for a run
  2. Forget about grammar and vocabulary today. Concentrate on answering the questions, listening to the instructions and your partner (for tasks where you have to interact with another student). If you've been studying for the exam for months beforehand, you know all the grammar and vocabulary you're going to know. So, there's no point worrying about that on the day of the exam!
  3. If you make a mistake, correct it and move on. Don't let it interfere with your fluency. You get marked down for hesitation and long pauses. But, correcting your mistakes, or even, asking the examiner or the other candidate to repeat or clarify something can gain you marks. It's called a 'repair strategy' and it's a sign of good communication skills.

Tricks for success in the exam

  1. Be interesting! Remember the examiner has been going through the same routine all day and he or she is bored. There are standard questions at the beginning of the exam about where you live, your free time and school subjects, for example. The examiner has probably heard the same answers all morning. If you're taking the exam in your own country, this is especially true as most candidates live in the same city. Before the exam, think of some interesting fact about the place you live, or a hobby you have that is a bit different, or give an opinion about your school subject. Just one or two sentences are enough to get the exam off to a good start.
  2. Interact with the other candidate. Not everyone can get top marks for grammar, vocabulary or pronunciation, but there's no reason not to get a 5 for 'interactive communication'. This mark is for initiating conversation, responding to what your partner has said, and trying to move the discussion towards an outcome.
    Acknowledge something the other candidate has said and develop it – just like a conversation in the real world. Try to avoid just giving stock phrases like "I agree with you" and then moving onto a different topic. Say why you agree (or disagree) and discuss the point. For example 'That's what I think too because…'. You can ask the other candidate why they have that opinion too.
  3. Be yourself! It's OK to make jokes or use humour. Just because it's an exam doesn't mean everything you say has to be super serious. If your personality comes across, then it means the examiner is more likely to think of you as someone who expresses themselves well in English.

So, take a deep breath and remember – in under twenty minutes, it's all going to be over!


Article contributed by Nicola Prentis who is a teacher and materials writer, based in Madrid and London. She is the author of Speaking Skills (B2+) - a self study book with Collins.