Helping Students Improve their Speaking Abilities for Proficiency Tests – an #eltchat summary

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Helping Students Improve their Speaking Abilities for Proficiency Tests – an #eltchat summary

This summary was contributed by Andrea Wade on her blog and is reproduced here with her kind permission.


This is a summary of the #eltchat which took place at 12noon BST on Wednesday, 11th July, 2012.  It was an informative discussion with most of the ideas coming from the participants themselves, rather than through links to external websites and articles.  The chat was expertly moderated as always, this time by @Shaunwilden, @rliberni and @BrunoELT.

We began by establishing that we were including all types of speaking tests in our chat, not just CPE.  We also agreed that the main worry for students taking a proficiency test (apart from the speaking itself!) is the thought of the exam room and wondering what the examiner expects.


Should we be aiming for accuracy or fluency?
Whilst in an ideal world we want our learners to be both fluent and accurate, the consensus seemed to be that fluency is the key for proficiency tests.  ‘Drying up’ is the worst case scenario for most students and, if it happens, it knocks their confidence and it’s very difficult for them to get going again.  Accuracy is more difficult to achieve in the heat of the moment and the effective communication of ideas is usually the most important thing.  If we focus on accuracy or grammar over fluency, the danger is that students think about words and structures and don’t actually speak!
What role does personalisation play in a speaking test?
@teacherphili told us that, in his experience, some institutions ‘help’ students by making the test easier with familiar pictures.  This is probably not a problem if the tests are internal, but could mean that students are ill-equipped for external tests.

Of course, we all like to talk about ourselves, so it’s helpful to have personal anecdotes to tell.  Students are given the opportunity to do this in all internationally recognised proficiency tests.  When students talk about something that matters to them, they sound naturally enthusiastic.


Practical ideas to help learners improve their speaking for tests:



  • Start with lots of general fluency practice to build confidence and overcome the fear factor, before moving on to more exam-type activities.
  • Encourage students to read about varied topics so that they have ideas.  If they do not have ideas, there test is over!
  • Use speaking board games to encourage fluency.
  • Play ‘Just a Minute’, based on the long-running Radio 4 programme – great fun and really engaging for the students, especially if you can supply them with bells, buzzers or whistles!
  • Play the old favourite ‘Chinese whispers’ – good for listening practice and also for highlighting pronunciation issues.
  • Play ‘Impromptu Speeches’ – someone plays the MC who invites students to speak for a minute on a topic drawn at random from a hat.
  • Use storytelling where each student gives one line and the next must follow on in his or her own way.
  • Try ‘shadowing’ – a technique where you begin by repeating what your partner says and then move on to paraphrasing, like a translator, but in the same language.  I attended a workshop on this recently and am currently ‘road-testing’ it in class.  Early results are good and I plan to blog about it soon.
  • Record students as they practise for their speaking tests and encourage them to critique each other.  When I started doing this here in Vietnam, my students were initially reluctant to peer correct, but, over the weeks, I think I’ve unleashed a monster and I now have to remind students to give some positive feedback, too!!
  • Use Web 2.0 tools to facilitate the recording process.  Start with mobile phones, which students find less intimidating, and then progress to sites likeAudioboo, Voxopop or Vocaroo which can be used for students to build up portfolios.  These can then be used to show students their improvement over time.
  • Use correction sheets to give feedback after speaking practice and review/revise at the start of the next lesson.  (Leave room on the sheet for some positive comments.)
  • Use pictures and photos to spark conversation, especially from eltpics.
  • Practise the long turn with silly topics – this reduces the stress and students can concentrate on sequencing their talk (via @andyscott55). This activity is a great precursor to the ‘real’ tasks.
  • Get students to perform a live news programme as if they were on air.  They have to speak about exam-type topics and have performance pressure (via @Sharonzspace).
  • Practice speaking via Skype (student to student, rather than student to teacher!).
  • Don’t forget to give advice on appropriate body language – a good speaking test score is not all about utterances.
  • You should also remind students about the role of listening in dialogic speaking, linking this to appropriate (physical) responses.
  • Get students to listen to/watch real candidates doing real tests to show them what is good or bad.  I use IELTS 5.0 from Garnet Publishing as a core text for some of my students.  This is a great book with lots of listening to real answers from candidates, which invites critique and reflective practice.
  • Make sure that students know the format of the test inside out – there should be no surprises on the day.

Practical ideas to help students overcome their nerves:

  • Encourage students to think silently for a minute about the picture or question before starting to speak. @timjulian60 believes that this can help them to gain confidence, though @Shaunwilden worries that examiners might misunderstand the silence and think that the candidate doesn’t know what to say!
  • We need to remember that even native speakers stumble when faced with high-level proficiency tests (CAE, CPE, IELTS, TOEFL, etc.) so lots of practice is needed in gathering and organising your thoughts.
  • Nerves are a huge problem for my students, so I like to use roleplays with someone being their ‘worst nightmare’ examiner!
  • If you are teaching YLs, funny accents and voices can help.
  • Remind students that examiners are not monsters – that, in fact, they want the candidates to do well, but that they must demonstrate their ability.

(A few) Links: