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Humanising Language Teaching
Humanising Language Teaching
Humanising Language Teaching

Facing the Oral Examiner with Confidence

Craig Stevens

Craig Stevens is the Academic manager at OISE Bristol, a member of the OISE Academic Board and Academic Co-ordinator for the OISE Group. He is qualified with an MA in TEFL and Linguistics from UWE, and has a wide range of experience in and out of the classroom in both ESOL & EFL contexts. His professional interests include confidence building in the classroom, the promotion of learner autonomy and the successful integration of IT into the EFL/ESOL classroom. His current work as Academic Co-ordinator and member of the Academic Board focusses upon teacher training & development. E-mail:


How can we define Confidence in relation to oral examinations?
Skills Analysis: How can we develop confidence?
IELTS Speaking Module
Skills Analysis: How can we develop confidence? (2)
The Need for a Teacher/Mentor
Activity: Mentoring Skills - Personal Audit
Mentoring Sessions
Identifying Learning Styles
Putting Theory into Practice
FCE - Typical Mistakes
IELTS - Typical Mistakes
Incorporating knowledge about Individuals into Classroom activities
Suggested Activity:Classroom


The aim of this paper is to raise awareness of some of the issues we need to take into account when preparing learners for oral examinations; looking at typical mistakes made by candidates in IELTS & FCE & discussing these and what skills an effective mentor should possess when preparing students for such high-stakes examinations.

How can we define Confidence in relation to oral examinations?

We can approach confidence on 2 levels:
- In the classroom: firm trust in the teacher and assured expectation that class input will meet individual needs.
- In the exam situation: the candidate will have developed his/her skills in order to be able to demonstrate self-reliance and boldness in his/her performance.

Skills Analysis: How can we develop confidence? (1)

In the areas of Classroom input and student mentoring we asked the question:
"How can we, as teachers, develop our students' confidence in oral exams?"
We are aiming for the stronger students to fulfil their potential and the weaker students to perform to the maximum of their ability. By examining the formats of the IELTS (two-way interaction) and FCE (Three-way interaction), the broad base of skills needed to achieve success in any oral exam can be identified as follows:

- Social Interaction Skills - listening to others, giving personal information, talking generally, giving opinions.

- Individual Turn Language Skills - comparing, contrasting, eliminating, speculating (visual prompts).

- Collaborative Skills - exchanging ideas & opinions, making suggestions, agreeing & disagreeing.

- Discursive skills - ability to develop conversation to cover broader, more abstract ideas & opinions.

FCE Speaking: Paper Five

General Description

Paper Format
The paper contains four parts. The standard format is two candidates and two examiners. One examiner acts as both interlocutor and assessor and manages the interaction either by asking questions or providing cues for candidates. The other acts as assessor and does not join in the conversation.

Task Types
Short exchanges with the examiner and with the other candidate; a one minute 'long turn'; a collaborative task involving the two candidates.

Task Focus
Exchanging personal and factual information, expressing and finding out about attitudes and opinions.

Approximately 14 minutes

Candidates are assessed on their performance throughout the test.

Part Task Format Candidate Output
  Interaction Pattern Input Discourse Features Functions
Part 1

Interlocutor interviews Spoken questions - responding to questions
- expanding on responses
- giving personal information
- talking about present circumstances
- talking about past experience
- talking about future plans
Part 2
Long turn

Four minutes
Interlocutor delegates an
Individual task to each candidate
Visual stimuli, with spoken prompts - sustaining a long turn
- managing discourse, including: coherence organisation of language & ideas appropriacy of vocabulary clarity of message
- giving information
- expressing opinions through comparing & contrasting
Part 3

Three minutes
Interlocutor delegates a collaborative task to the pair of candidates Visual stimuli, with spoken prompts - turn-taking (initiating & responding appropriately)
- negotiating
- exchanging information & opinions
- expressing & justifying opinions
- agreeing and/or disagreeing
- speculating
Part 4
Three-way discussion

Four minutes
Interlocutor leads a discussion with the two candidates Spoken questions - responding appropriately
- developing topics
- exchanging information & opinions
- expressing & justifying opinions
- agreeing and/or disagreeing

Source: FCE Handbook. UCLES July 2001

IELTS Speaking Module

The Speaking Module takes between 11 and 14 minutes. It consists of an oral interview between the candidate and an examiner.

There are three main parts. Each part fulfils a specific function in terms of interaction pattern, task input and candidate output.

In Part 1 the candidate answers general questions abut themselves, their homes/families, their jobs/studies, their interests, and a range of similar familiar topic areas. This part lasts between four and five minutes.

In Part 2 the candidate is given a verbal prompt on a card and is asked to talk on a particular topic. The candidate has one minute to prepare before speaking at length, for between one and two minutes. The examiner then asks one or two rounding-off questions.

In Part 3 the examiner and candidate engage in a discussion of more abstract issues and concepts which are thematically linked to the topic prompt in Part 2. The discussion lasts between four and five minutes.

All interviews are recorded on audio cassettes.

The overall structure of the test is summarised below.

Part Nature of interaction Timing
Part 1 Introduction and interview Examiner introduces him/herself and confirms candidate's identity. Examiner interviews candidate using verbal questions selected from familiar topic frames. 4-5 minutes
Part 2 Individual long turn Examiner asks candidate to speak for 1-2 minutes on a particular topic based on written input in the form of a general instruction and content-focused prompts. Examiner asks one or two questions to complete the long turn. 3-4 minutes (incl. 1 minute preparation time)
Part 3 Two-way discussion Examiner invites candidate to participate in the discussion of more abstract nature, based on verbal questions thematically linked to Part 2 topic. 4-5 minutes

The Speaking Module assesses whether candidates can communicate effectively in English.

Source: IELTS Specimen Materials. UCLES July 2001

Skills Analysis: How can we develop confidence? (2)

Further detailed examination of the components of the IELTS & FCE spoken tests allows us to identify the following sub-categories of skills/strategies in classroom input that are of paramount importance in preparing a candidate:

- Knowledge of examination format
" Interaction Skills - with interlocutor & other candidate(s)
" Listening Skills
" Conversational Strategies
" Discourse Management
" Ability to "think on your feet"
" Appropriacy & Range of Vocabulary
" Pronunciation - especially intonation
" Body language
" World / Current Affairs Knowledge

The Need for a Teacher/Mentor

Whilst classroom input is of vital importance in exam preparation, of equal relevance is the need for the exam teacher to adapt to the role as 'Mentor' in the exam classroom.

A mentor can be defined as 'an experienced and trusted advisor'. This is a very important ingredient in exam preparation and refers back to the earlier definition of confidence i.e. ensuring that the student has firm trust in the teacher that expectations will be met in the classroom and valuable advice will be received.

With such high stakes exams as FCE & IELTS, it is important that the teacher understands his/her responsibility to ensure that all the students in the class are prepared as thoroughly as possible.

In order to assess ability to take on the role of mentor in such circumstances, a 'Mentoring skills - Personal Audit' checklist is suggested overleaf, to identify current levels of skill and development requirements.

Activity: Mentoring Skills - Personal Audit

Tick the box next to each statement to indicate your current level of skill in that area and any development requirements. Which areas do you need further training? How will you meet these development needs?

1. Understand your individual students preferred learning styles.

Low High

2. Can plan & manage activities for group counselling lessons.

Low High

3. A good listener.

Low High

4. Confident in giving students study skill advice.

Low High

5. Approachable.

Low High

6. Have positive relationships with students.

Low High

7. Confident in planning classes to benefit all i.e. Differentiation

Low High

8. Good time management skills.

Low High

9. Well-organised.

Low High

10. Aware of the latest examination developments.

Low High

Mentoring Sessions

It is recommended that regular meetings take place on a one-to-one basis between the teacher-mentor and the candidate to discuss individual concerns/needs. This meeting will also identify areas that the candidate lacks confidence in, and enable the teacher-mentor to give advice on how to improve, what to study etc as well as allowing the teacher to gain feedback on previous teaching input and identify common areas to target/revise in classroom input.

Formal mentoring sessions should typically set a class task or a workshop series of tasks for all students to be working upon whilst individual meetings take place outside the room/ in a quiet area of the room where the teacher-mentor will go through a prepared checklist and give feedback on progress to date.

Such meetings can be invaluable in that they by showing that the teacher is concerned and interested in the student, thereby creating a feeling of trust and assurance in the classroom that can only have beneficial effects. Additionally, here the teacher-mentor also has the opportunity to reassure and show the student how they have improved thus far, for example by initially taping the student in the first week and playing back this tape for self-analysis a few weeks later.

Identifying Learning Styles

These meetings will also provide valuable follow-up to any initial needs analysis (highly recommended) done when the student(s) first commence the exam class in being able to assess individual learning styles. Here is a brief overview of current thought:

Individual students have preferred individual learning styles & strategies, described by Rebecca Oxford (1990) as: Memory: Creating mental linkages, applying images & sounds, reviewing well, employing action. Cognitive: Practising, receiving & sending messages, analysing & reasoning; creating structure for input and output. Compensation: Guessing intelligently, overcoming limitations in speaking and writing. Metacognitive: Centring learning, arranging and planning learning; evaluating learning. Affective: Lowering anxiety, encouraging oneself, taking your 'emotional temperature'. Social strategies: Asking questions, cooperating with others, empathizing with others.

The work of Howard Gardner (1993) argues that humans possess a number of distinct intelligences that manifest themselves in different skills and abilities. All human beings apply these intelligences to solve problems, invent processes, and create things. Intelligence, according to MI theory, is being able to apply one or more of the intelligences in ways that are valued by a community or culture. The current MI model outlines eight intelligences, although Gardner (1999) continues to explore additional possibilities: Linguistic Intelligence: The ability to use language effectively both orally and in writing. Logical/Mathematical Intelligence: The ability to use numbers effectively and reason well. Visual/Spatial Intelligence: The ability to recognize form, space, color, line, and shape and to graphically represent visual and spatial ideas. Bodily/Kinesthetic Intelligence: The ability to use the body to express ideas and feelings and to solve problems. Musical Intelligence: The ability to recognize rhythm, pitch, and melody. Naturalist Intelligence: The ability to recognize and classify plants, minerals, and animals. Interpersonal Intelligence: The ability to understand another person's feelings, motivations, and intentions and to respond effectively. Intrapersonal Intelligence: The ability to know about and understand oneself and recognize one's similarities to and differences from others.

Putting Theory into Practice

Therefore in a teacher-mentor role students' preferred learning styles can be identified and teaching input adjusted to take these into account.

Whilst it is true that every member of a class will have preferred types of activity and thus may be less interested/motivated in others, by striking a balance and covering a range of activities in a given classroom situation it should be possible to meet all students' needs and expectations.

The handouts shown below detail typical student mistakes in the FCE & IELTS oral examinations; analysis of these and categorisation of errors indicates just how many marks were lost due to lack of awareness of the exam format and the formality required.

Teachers should be encouraged to think of ways in which they can ensure that similar mistakes are not repeated by their candidates.

FCE - Typical Mistakes

(with thanks to Jenny Blinkhorn)

Part One:
- The candidate is thrown by some questions that differ to those asked to the other candidate(s).
- The candidate produces an obviously learned response and is unable to respond to an interrupting question designed to clarify what is being said.
- The candidate is confused by the scripted nature of the exam and makes inappropriate wisecracks, using informal or profane language.
- When questioned, the candidate struggles to extend his answers.
- The candidate clearly feels superior to the other(s) from his seating style and body language.

Part Two:
- The candidate describes each picture separately with little comparison until the end of her turn.
- There is little extension or supposition in a candidate's answer. Instead a very literal answer is given.
- One candidate interrupts another during the individual turn.
- The candidate is unable to remember what the other said adequately enough to comment at the end.
- The range of descriptive language is limited to "nice, lovely, good, bad "etc.

Part Three:
- There is a clear lack of collaboration and listening to each other displayed by both/all three candidates.
- There is insufficient discussion on the merits of each item. "Choosing the best one" becomes the primary focus.
- There is too much agreement with little extension or addition of new opinions or ideas.
- The candidate asks for the meaning of words to be explained.

Part Four:
- The candidates do not respond enough to each other in the general discussion.
- The examiner is often looked upon as the dominant person in the discussion.
- Mother tongue influence and flat intonation make answers unintelligible.

IELTS - Typical Mistakes

(with thanks to Jenny Blinkhorn )

Part One:
- The candidate is thrown by questions such as "What shall I call you?", typically answering "I am from "
- The candidate brings in an old ID card in their own language which has a photograph from around 15 years ago on it.
- The candidate is aked "Can you describe your street?" and answers in detail about the facilities in his town.
- The candidate is aked "What's your favourite colour?" and proceeds to answer in great length the reasons for his choice so that there is little time left for further questions.
- The candidate produces an obviously learned response and is unable to respond to an interrupting question designed to clarify what is being said.
- The candidate is confused by the scripted nature of the exam.
- The candidate uses very informal language.

Part Two:
- The candidate does not make notes during the preparation stage and delivers a disorganised, fractured answer.
- The candidate ignores what is written on the cue card in her answer.
- The candidate is unable to talk for a minute on the subject, finishing too quickly.
- When questioned, the candidate struggles to extend his answers.
- The candidate clearly has little knowledge on the subject and is unable to talk at length or answer questions.

Part Three:
- The candidate clearly lacks ideas on the topic.
- The candidate does not extend her answers adequately.
- The candidate produces long, very monotonal responses.
- The candidate hesitates, clearly not for thought but to choose language.

Incorporating knowledge about Individuals into Classroom activities

A final suggested activity looks at a class profile of very mixed nationality and age group with the task of identifying strengths and weaknesses and ways in which learner roles could be assigned in classroom tasks that would best meet learner needs in terms of skills focus and preferred learning style. E.g. Some students may be highly fluent yet lack discourse management; others may present well-organised answers yet lack natural fluency. In this case, pair work with peer correction would provide an excellent focus for both looking at these areas whilst also emphasising the need for active interaction, vital for any oral exam.

Suggested Activity:Classroom Profiles

Anticipate the oral examination needs and potential strengths and weaknesses in these hypothetical classrooms. The student mix is very eclectic to generate lots of discussion; it can of course be adapted to real world examples in your school/institution for training purposes.:

Profile A : FCE Class

8 students:
4 Italian university students: 2 male, 2 female; a Swiss-German businesman; a female Japanese secretary; a Saudi male ministry official and a male Russian undergraduate.
All are taking the exam for the first time except the Japanese secretary.

Profile B : IELTS Class

5 students:
A male Chinese university student wanting to enter university in Australia; a female Iranian dentist needing the exam to practise in the UK; a West-African undergraduate male wanting to enter university in the UK; a female Polish au-pair studying the exam for her own interest; a male German graduate wanting to study at university in the UK.
All are taking the exam for the first time except the dentist who did not attain the required grade previously and is repeating the exam.


We can summarise the key ingredients of an approach to oral examination classes that aims at equipping students with the confidence needed to pass oral examinations as follows:

- Clear identification of class strengths & weaknesses.

- Ability to recognise different learning styles.

- Ability to mentor effectively in terms of advice & encouragement: the teacher being seen as a source of encouragement and support and able to help learners reflect on learning and identify areas that have improved and need improving.

- Awareness of individual differences in terms of preferred learning styles and strengths and assigning roles within tasks to maximise student participation and development.

- Effective planning and delivery of a teaching programme that uses a variety of teaching techniques and class dynamics that address the needs & expectations of all class members.


Gardner, H (1993):"Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences "(10th anniversary ed.). New York: Basic Books.

Gardner, H (1999) "Are there additional intelligences? The case for naturalist, spiritual, and existential intelligences ". In J. Kane (Ed.), "Education, information and transformation" (pp. 111-131). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Oxford, R (1990) : "Language Learning Strategies: What Every Teacher Should Know", Boston: Heinle & Heinle

Scarcella R.C. & Oxford, R (1992): "The Tapestry of Language Learning: The Individual in the Communicative Classroom", Boston: Heinle & Heinle

Recommended 'one-stop' resources:
Discovering Preferred Learning Styles:

Multiple Intelligences: Theory and Practice in Adult ESL by Mary Ann Christison, University of Utah
Deborah Kennedy, Key Resources (ERIC Digest, December 1999)

Speaking/Listening Skills Development:
The Internet TESL Journal

For Teachers of English as a Second Language
Articles include:
Brainstorming, Interaction, Impromptu Speaking/Active Listening; Conversation Skills; Conversation Strategies through Pair-Taping; creating a Dynamic Converstaion Class; Interactive Tasks for Small Groups; Role-playing to encourage thinking & creativity; Creative and Critical thinking; Oral Presentations

FCE/IELTS oral examination study tips/ lesson plans:
One-stop English Dot Com:


Please check the Humanising Testing course at Pilgrims website.
Please check the Secondary Teaching course at Pilgrims website.

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