Preparing for oral examinations in foreign languages

Student listening to headphones on laptop

Here are six ways to make sure you're ready for your speaking exam

For students of all ages and levels of proficiency, one of the most daunting things about language qualifications is the speaking exam. What if you say something wrong or your mind just goes blank?

With this guide to preparing for oral language exams, hopefully the task ahead will seem less ominous and you can walk in with confidence in your ability and show 'em what you're made of.

1. Arm yourself with plenty of vocab

Having a wide range of vocabulary to express your ideas during the exam is key. Not only will it help demonstrate your knowledge of the language, but it will also reduce the chances of you getting stuck on how to answer a question.

Know your synonyms. Pick out one word from a vocabulary list at random and think of as many synonyms as you can for it, and repeat this with as many words you can. The more ways you have to say the same thing, the less likely you are to blank during the exam.

Knowing specific vocabulary on the topics you have studied on your course is also important. If the examiner asks a question under the topic ‘healthy living’ on eating disorders for instance, and you don’t know the word for ‘eating disorder’ in your foreign language, you could find yourself in a sticky situation.

2. Vary your tense and grammatical structure

Make sure you include as many tenses and complex grammatical structures as possible in your exam to show off your skills. Prepare some general phrases that you can use in multiple situations (for example the Spanish ‘es importante que...’ can be used in almost any answer).

Think of potential situations where you can make use of different tenses. If you get asked a question concerning your opinion on modern life for example, you can use the past tense to talk about how we live today in comparison to the past, and then you can use future or conditional tenses to talk about what you think life will be like in the future compared to now. This response structure can be applied to lots of questions.

Having a wide range of transition words like furthermorenevertheless and therefore, sentence openers like in my opinionif you think about it this way and I believe), and filler phrases like wellso and in a sense never hurt and will reduce the chances of awkward silences throwing you off.

3. Prepare ideas

Despite the fact that speaking exams are for the most part spontaneous, there are specific steps you can take to prepare yourself for the kinds of questions you might get asked.

Look over the topics and units your syllabus has covered and make sure you have solid opinions and arguments for any issues the examiner might bring up. For instance, if you have covered a topic on holidays, it would be worth ensuring you have ideas for responses on what your best or worst holiday experience has been, where you would like to go on holiday in the future, why taking holidays is important, holiday locations and so on.

To make things even simpler, your exam board or teacher may provide a pack of sample questions under each topic. Make sure you know how to respond to the questions but there's no need to memorise answers to them. The chances are the examiner will ask a similar question but from a different angle, and memorising set responses will only limit your flexibility in the exam.

4. Record yourself speaking

However cringeworthy and embarrassing it may be to listen to yourself speaking, it will work wonders in improving pronunciation and overall awareness of repeated mistakes.

You will also be more likely to notice issues such as trailing off at the end of sentences and fluency in your speaking.

5. Organise a mock

Most schools should organise mock exams for you but if for any reason this is not pre-arranged, it is vital that you set up at least one with a teacher or language assistant. This will help you get to grips with how the exam will work and calm your nerves as you'll know what to expect before going into the real exam.

You don’t have to treat the mock like the real thing, but do take it seriously. The more work you put into your mock, the more realistic your mock result will be and the more accurately you will be able to see what level you're currently at.

6. Relax

The most important thing when it gets close to exam time is to relax. The examiner will not be trying to catch you out; in fact they will most likely want to help you achieve the best results you can.

If you lose your train of thought or can’t think of a word on the spot, don’t worry. Breathe and pause while you gather your thoughts instead of panicking and rambling about something that is irrelevant to the question.

Although the wait beforehand will seem endless, the exam will be over before you know it and afterwards you can relax and congratulate yourself on a job well done.

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