Top Tips for Preparing for the Cambridge First Speaking Exam

Some students, especially those living in an English-speaking country, often think that they can just walk into the exam and get high marks in their speaking. However strong your speaking skills are, though, you need to prepare properly for the speaking exam.

With well-focused preparation, you can get a good score in your speaking test. Here at Atlas we provide our students with a lot of practice to help you gain those high marks. Here are some of the things that we strongly recommend you take a look and do before sitting the exam.

1. Get familiar with what you have to do

In the Cambridge First speaking test, most importantly, you are expected to be able to respond to questions and to interact in conversational English. But when preparing for the test you should 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. You should look in detail at what the examiners are looking for and take that on board while preparing for your upcoming exam.

Here’s a breakdown of the exam:

 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 how to do each part in the Cambridge First Handbook here (Pgs 71 – 81):

Know what you need to do, know what the examiners are looking for if they are going to give you high marks, and get practising using a wide range of grammar structures and lexis.

2. Practise extending your answers in class

In the exam, if you’re asked “where are you from?” and you simply say “Hamburg” and nothing else, this will not help you get a high score in the speaking exam. Take advantage of your class-time and practise extending your answers whenever possible. The more you do this, the more able and confident you will be when you have to take the exam.

One idea to practise answering questions for Part 1 is to make sets of questions on everyday topics and take turns with a friend asking the questions and giving extended answers. Typical topics you may be asked about are your likes and dislikes, hobbies, media, and technology, etc.
Questions could be:

  • How do you normally like to spend your evenings?
  • Tell us about a TV programme you’ve seen recently.
  • What did you do on your last birthday?

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

3. Develop your communication skills

You will not only be tested on your ability to answer questions correctly but also on your ability to communicate with your partner, 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 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 information on what your partner says. If they say “I think that spending the money on a round the world trip would be a great idea”, try to respond with “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: “What do you think about this idea?”

Practising this pattern enough before your exam can really help you improve the interactive communication side of the speaking test.

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 overcome your nerves

Time is important in every part of the first exam. Make sure you practise sufficiently with the stop clock on your phone to get an idea of what a minute is. The more prepared you are the more relaxed you are.

Also, don’t worry if the interlocutor asks you to stop talking. In the Part 2 long turn, for example, if you are answering the questions you’ve been set and are going over the one minute you are allowed, you won’t lose marks if the interlocutor has to ask you to stop.

If you make a mistake, don’t worry about it. If you get the chance, correct it and continue. Otherwise, don’t worry and move on. We all make mistakes in all our languages and if you correct yourself from time to time, you can even get extra marks as it will show you have a good awareness of grammar and vocabulary.

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Prepare thoroughly for the speaking test and go into the exam feeling confident that you are going to impress the examiners with your English and you can ask and answer questions and develop conversations. Go for it!

The next part after your Speaking Exam will be the Reading and Use of English Exam. Find useful tips on how to prepare for the Use of English exam here!