Preparing for oral examinations in foreign languages

Your speaking exam can be challenging. Here's how to be ready


Preparing for an exam!


For students of all ages and levels of proficiency, one of the most daunting prospects about earning any degree of language qualification is the speaking exam. The questions ‘What if I say something wrong?’ ‘What if I forget everything I’ve learnt?’ and ‘What if I blank?’ are only some of those that plague the minds of prospective examinees. However, with the following guide to preparing for such tests of oral proficiency, hopefully the task ahead can seem less ominous and you can walk in with confidence in your abilities to demonstrate the extent of your knowledge in your chosen language.


Arming yourself with a wide range of vocabulary to express your ideas with during the exam is the core of success. Not only will it help exhibit your knowledge of the language, but it will 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. Do 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 French/Spanish/German (or whatever your foreign language may be), you could find yourself in a sticky situation.

Grammar, Structures and Tenses

In terms of ensuring you include as many tenses and complex grammatical structures as possible in your exam, there are ways of preparing to do so. Make sure you have some general phrases up your sleeve that you can use in multiple situations (eg: ‘Es importante que...’ subjunctive in Spanish can be used in almost any answer). Additionally, think of situations in which you can make use of different tenses. For instance, if you get asked a question concerning your opinion on modern life, you can use past tenses 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 (furthermore, nevertheless, therefore), sentence starters (in my opinion, if you think about it this way, I believe), and filler phrases (well, so, in a sense) can also never hurt and will reduce the chances of awkward silences throwing you off.

Preparing 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/worst holiday experience has been, where you would like to go on holiday in the future, why taking holidays is important for holiday makers/holiday locations etc. 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 don’t 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.

Record Yourself

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.

Organise a Mock

Most schools should organise mock exam situations 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 not only help you get to grips with how the exam will work, but it will calm your nerves somewhat if you 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 the outcome will be and the more accurately you will be able to place yourself in terms of grade boundaries.


The most important thing when it comes 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 whilst 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.