One of the biggest challenges students face when it comes to oral exams is remaining calm and performing to the best of their ability.
Nerves can get the better of all of us. No matter how prepared we think we are, all that changes when we are forced out of our comfort zone. Think about the last time you spoke in public, did an interview, or took a test. Unless you are extremely confident, there’s a good chance your heart was thumping, your hands were sweaty and your mouth dry, making it near impossible to come out with what you had planned.
When you remember that students have to do this in another language and face enormous pressure to pass, it’s no surprise that it can often end in tears (literally).
As the busy exam period begins and many of you start thinking about teaching summer intensive courses, we thought we’d share some of our top tips to beat exam day nerves, focusing on the Cambridge B2 First and C1 Advanced qualifications.
Know the exam
The better your students know the different parts of the speaking paper and what is expected of them, the less likely they are to face any nasty surprises.
Students should remember that there will be two examiners in the room. The interlocutor who reads the exam script and interacts with the students and the assessor who listens carefully and marks the students based on their performance. Candidates do the exam in pairs (or occasionally in a group of three if there’s an odd number of candidates and their exam is at the end of the session).
When it comes to the structure of the speaking section, the First and Advanced exams are almost identical.
Part 1, known as the interview, involves a conversation between the students and the examiner. They will ask questions about interests, studies, careers, etc. This part lasts two minutes.
Part 2, known as the long turn requires students to talk about two pictures on their own, for about minute.
In the Advanced exam they must choose two pictures from a choice of three, whereas in the First, they have to compare and contrast the two photos they are given.
To help students, the question they have to answer during this part is printed at the top of the exam materials. Once they’ve finished the long turn, their partner is asked a question related to the theme and then they swap.
The third part of the exam (the collaborative task) is when the students start interacting with each other. They have two minutes to discuss the prompts given and then another minute to make a decision about something.
The exam finishes with the discussion phase. Students are given questions related to the theme in part three and are required to talk about them together in more detail. In the First exam part four lasts four minutes and in the Advanced it lasts for five minutes.
Four techniques to keep cool
Before the exam
Understanding the different parts of the speaking exam is one thing. However, if you really want your students to remain calm, they need as much practice as possible. The more you work on the different parts of the exam in class, the more automatic it will become. You should also organize mock exams where they do the full test with another teacher who they are not as comfortable with. This will be nearest thing to the real exam.
You should also show them videos of the exam so they know what to expect. Below is an example of the B2 First and C1 Advanced speaking exams.
Tip: students can often choose their partner in the exam. If they do it with someone they know and have practiced with before it will be much easier than doing it with a stranger.
You can take familiarization to the next level by practicing visualization with your learners. This is where you get them to mentally rehearse the day of the exam. The idea is for them to imagine what it will be like. What they will see, hear and feel. This will be much easier if they’ve practiced the exam and watched the videos above.
Have the students sit down in silence with their eyes closed. Then read the following script or adapt it to fit your learners.
Imagine you are sitting outside the exam room. It’s your turn next. How do you feel? What do you see? Who is there with you? What are you talking about?
The pair before you leave the room. They look happy. The exam must have gone well.
You enter the exam room. The examiners welcome you with a smile and invite you to sit down. What do they look like? How do you feel now? What are they going to ask you first?
How does the exam progress? What goes well? What do you find difficult? What do you wish you’d practiced more?
The time is up. The exam is over. You are free to leave. How do you feel as you walk out of the door? How will you celebrate?
By focusing on the positives and helping students to identify anything they may be worried about you can help reduce anxiety in the lead up to the exam.
During the exam
One way to look and feel more confident is by using body language. Encourage students to use their hands to make a point they feel strongly about. Remind them to make eye contact with the examiners and their partner. Smiling, laughing and nodding at appropriate times will help show interest in what the others are saying and it may also help boost their marks for interactive communication.
It’s important to practice this in class so that it is done in a natural way.
Even for the most confident and well-prepared students there may be a time during the exam when they get stuck. Something as simple as forgetting a word in English can really affect a candidate’s confidence. If nerves get too much during the exam and they start to panic, the best thing they can do is pause, take a couple of deep breaths and then either try again or simply move on to the next part of the question or exam.
Here is a technique we recommend you trying with your students in class:
- Take a long, slow breath in through the nose, filling the lower lungs first and then the upper lungs.
- Hold in the breath for 2-3 seconds.
- Breath out slowly through pursed lips, trying to relax the muscles in the face, shoulders and stomach.
This is also a great way to prepare students mentally for the visualization techniques we mentioned before and can really help calm nerves.
Things to remember:
- The examiners are listening for things students CAN do rather than what they CAN’T. If students notice they’ve made a mistake – they should either correct themselves or just move on and forget about it.
- Marks are given on performance of the WHOLE exam and not individual parts. Even if a candidate completely freezes and is unable to complete the long turn, for example, it doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t pass.
Preparing for Cambridge English qualifications
Help your students feel confident and prepared for their speaking exams by using a course like Gold Experience 2nd Edition.
These fast-paced materials for secondary learners now include levels B2, B2+ and C1. Full of exam practice, tips and strategies, it´s the perfect classroom partner, helping you apply all the techniques we´ve mentioned in this article. What’s more, there is a full practice exam in unit 10 of the Workbook.
Download a sample now!
If you are teaching adults we also have a new edition of Gold B2 First. Check the website and find out more about the changes and and see how Gold B2 First New Edition can help your learners pass their Cambridge exam.