Top Tips for Preparing for the Cambridge Advanced (CAE) Speaking Exam

Students arriving at a C1 level should have little difficulty in expressing themselves while speaking. C1 students should also make very few spoken errors, especially when using the basic structures and lexis. However, even with accurate control of grammar and vocabulary, students may not get the marks you desire in the Cambridge Advanced (CAE) Speaking paper. Here at Atlas, as well as extending the range of language you will need to get higher scores in your Speaking exam, we help our students to develop and apply the vital techniques that will push your score higher. Read on for some of our top tips that we strongly recommend our students to take on board when preparing for the exam.

1. Get familiar with what you have to do

In the Cambridge Advanced Speaking (CAE) test, you will demonstrate your ability to respond to questions and to interact in conversational English. In developing conversation, you will be expected to use a wide range of appropriate functional language (i.e., speculating, deducting, expressing your opinion, etc.) and show a very good degree of control. So, when preparing for the test, you really need to get familiar with the structure of the paper and develop a good awareness of what language you’ll need for each part of the Speaking exam.

Here’s a breakdown of the 4 parts of the Speaking test. When preparing for your upcoming exam, consider in some detail what sort of language the examiners are looking for in each part.

 Part 1 A conversation between the interlocutor (the person asking you the questions) and each candidate.
 Part 2 An individual ‘long turn’ for each candidate, followed by a response from the second candidate (the content will be both visual and written including spoken instructions)
 Part 3 A two-way conversation between the candidates (the content will be written, with spoken instructions)
 Part 4 A discussion on topics to Part 3 (the questions will be spoken)

You can find more information on each part in the section on the Speaking paper in the Cambridge Advanced Handbook (pp.75–89). Take a close look at what each part of the test requires you to do and think about the range of grammar structures and lexis you’ll need to in order to build a conversation with your partner.

2. Practise paraphrasing the question and extending your answers in class

You will have about 15 minutes to show your ability and get high marks for your Speaking test. Remember, you won’t be marked on your potential, you’ll only be marked on what you actually say. So, if you get asked a question like ‘where are you from?’, even though it is a basic question, make sure you give an extended answer and make it interesting or memorable in some way. Show the examiners that you can extend using a wide range of lexis.

For example:

  • Interlocutor: Where are you from?
  • Candidate: I come from a quaint little village, just about a 30-minute drive from Rome. For the last few months, though, I’ve been living in Dublin studying English.

We can see from the above answer that the candidate uses a lovely adjective to describe their village and also contrasts where they are from with their current host city. These kinds of descriptive, complex sentences are what will get you good marks.

Take advantage of your class-time and practise extending your answers in this way whenever possible. The more you do this, the more able and confident you will be when you have to take the exam. If you’ve done the Cambridge First exam and are stepping up to the Advanced, one difference that you’ll have to recognise and get to grips with is that at the higher C1 level you must be ready to answer more complex and abstract questions, and be ready to respond with good answers that involve at least some complex language.

Here are typical questions you could be asked in the Speaking exam with some responses:

Question A. Who has more influence on your life – your friends or your family? …… (Why?)

Response: Well, I would have to say my father has had a massive impact on my upbringing. He was there for me whenever I needed him and he encouraged me to take up the saxophone.

Question B. Do you ever wish you were rich and famous? …… (Why? / Why not?)

Response: Hmmm… well, I can’t say if that lifestyle would be for me. Of course, I wouldn’t mind being well off. However, I wouldn’t like to be in the public eye all the time. It would be too exhausting.

We can see that both responses contain extended answers and the student has made sure they paraphrase the questions and not repeat them.

How to prepare for the CAE Speaking

To give you a better idea of how to extend your answers you can find some clearer examples of good and bad answers on the British Council website here.

3. Develop your communication skills

You will not only be tested on your ability to answer questions with extended answers using a wide range of grammar and vocabulary, but also on your ability to communicate with your partner and build a conversation, especially in parts 3 and 4.

To develop your communication skills here are some points you will need to take into account:

Interact effectively
Make sure that when your partner makes a comment you respond directly to what they say and justify why you agree or disagree with them. You get marks for showing that you are listening to and can respond effectively to your partner.

Build the conversation
Whenever possible, try to build the conversation and add extra snippets of information or opinion to what your partner says. For example, if they say “I think that spending the money on a round the world trip would be a great idea”, you could respond with something like: “That’s a great idea. That would be wonderful. Do you think it would be better to do that alone or with a friend?” Simply responding with “I agree” will not help you get you those extra marks.

Give your opinion, justify and ask
A useful pattern that you can use in your speaking would be to;

  1. Give your opinion: “Going inter-railing around Europe would be the best option”
  2. Give an example: “Because you might not get the chance again when you’re older”
  3. Ask your partner questions: “What do you think about this idea?”

Practise this pattern of interaction over and over before your exam. It can really help you improve the interactive communication side of the Speaking test.

In the Cambridge Advanced exam you will also be required to use more advanced functional language, i.e., language for evaluating, negotiating, deducting, etc. So, again, make sure you are prepared and are ready to use structures without thinking twice in your exam.

4. Practise dealing with silences and ‘breakdowns’

Freezing and going blank can happen when dealing with difficult questions under pressure. So what can you do if this occurs in the exam? Here are a few things you can practise to help you avoid and also deal with any ‘breakdowns’ in the communication in the exam.

Buy yourself some time
Use vocabulary that can help you buy a little more time to think about a good answer.
For example:

  • Let me see.
  • That’s an interesting / tough / tricky question.
  • I’m not quite sure about what to say here, but…
  • Wow, I haven’t thought about that question before.

Paraphrase what you are trying to say
Try practising paraphrasing by using synonyms and simplifying what you are trying to say.
Some useful language here could be:

  • Let me try and rephrase that.
  • What I’m trying to say is….
  • It’s kind of like a….
  • It’s similar to….

Ask the interlocutor to repeat the question
Don’t be afraid to ask the interlocutor to repeat their question. Remember, though, the interlocutor cannot paraphrase the question. They can only repeat the words they see on the test paper. And, also, make sure to ask politely:

  • Could you repeat the question, please?
  • I’m sorry, I didn’t quite get that. Could you say the last part again, please?

5. Learn to be more emphatic

Becoming an advanced speaker of English will require you to use more emphatic language. We use emphatic language to stress the importance of something or to increase the dramatic effect.

One way you can be more emphatic is by using collocations that use intensifiers (these are adverbs and adjectives that can make a verb or noun stronger or weaker).

Here are a few examples:

  • I was deeply disappointed the day I discovered I couldn’t get into Yale.
  • I have a great passion for football and attending football matches
  • I sincerely hope I get to go abroad next year.
  • I honestly believe that we have chosen the best answer.

You can find more examples of these collocations here.

Another example of emphasis is the emphatic ‘do’. We use this form to add emphasis to affirmative sentences. We tend to use it only when speaking and it can also be used to contrast opinions and ideas.

Here are a few examples:

  • I don’t enjoy watching football matches but I do enjoy playing it.
  • I don’t often watch movies even though I do quite like going to the cinema.

You can find more examples of the emphatic do and other examples of emphasis here.

So, using accurate phrases will not be enough at the C1 Advanced level. The examiners want to see more than a good degree of grammatical control of simple language. They want to hear a wide range of language – both grammar and lexis – and they want to hear you take control of the questions with your partner and develop and build interesting conversations.

Contact us to Sign up
for a CAE Preparation course at Atlas.

Familiarise yourself with what the examiners are looking for early on in your exam preparation course, and practise some of the techniques we recommend to our students. The more you practise, the more naturally you’ll be able to use the extended, more complex language with ease in the exam.

We have more tips that we recommend to our students when preparing for the Cambridge Advanced exam at Atlas, such as our Top Tips for Preparing for the CAE Writing Exam.