Funny thing how we perceive time. When we have fun, one minute disappears in a blink of an eye. In a stressful situation, say a speaking exam, one minute seems to last forever. That’s how our students feel when they enter the exam hall and speak on their own. It’s good to practise speaking for one minute and get to experience what one minute feels like. It’s also good to know how to fill this one minute, so it ends sooner than we expected.
In my teaching career, I have had the opportunity to meet two types of students – those who love and those who hate speaking activities. Regardless of their stand on this matter, it’s important to teach students how to speak naturally in the most unnatural situation – the speaking exam.
In B1 speaking part 2, students speak alone for about one minute about a picture. Inform them that if they finish before their time is up, they will have to endure awkward silence until the end of the time. Therefore, they need to think of something to say about the stock pictures.
Before you even start teaching speaking exam strategies, you should always try to help students understand what they are being assessed on. Inform them that speaking assessment is divided into four parts grammar and vocabulary, discourse management, pronunciation and interactive communication. Speaking Part 2 is an individual task, so students are marked on everything except for interactive communication.
I always told my B1 students that if they don’t know what to talk about and they still have some time left, they should speculate about what they think is happening and give reasons for it. For example, if you see a group of people, elicit and explain their emotions. If the picture was taken outdoors, describe the weather and the season. If it’s a group of tourists, guess the country! However, I was never quite sure how to help them remember all those things. A week ago, I attended a webinar Top tips for exam success and beyond: Ask us anything about A2 Key and B1 Preliminary, and one part, in particular, grabbed my attention.
The speaking circle, as seen above, gives students ideas of what they could talk about during the speaking assessment. It’s divided into eight sections, people, words, feelings, actions, sounds, numbers, sight and nature. Give students an example picture that they would typically be asked to describe in the exam. I chose a picture from B1 Preliminary for Schools – Handbook for teachers for exams from 2020, which is available to download for free from the Cambridge Official website. Ask students to look at the picture and think of three possible questions that would fall under each category. You can find my example below.
People: Who are they making a cake for? What is their relationship? Whose birthday is it?
Actions: What are they doing? How do you make a cake? What do they need to do after they finish baking?
Feelings: Why are the girls smiling? Are they enjoying making a cake? What the person who the cake is for is going to feel like?
Numbers: How many people are there? How long does it take to make a cake? How many ingredients do they need?
Sounds: What sounds can you hear at home? What sounds can you hear in the kitchen? Is it loud or quiet?
Words: What are they reading? What is the name of this cake? What other files are there on the tablet?
Sight: What can you see in the background? How could you describe the kitchen? What can you see on the tablet?
Nature: What is the weather like? What time of the day is it? Is it hot or cold?
As I was completing this task, I realised that some of the answers came to me more easily than others. It’d probably change depending on the picture and where its location. However, these eight categories would definitely help me prepare my answer and speak for one full minute.
I think the best way to score high in this part is to combine the answers to these questions and talk about them in a logical order. For me the most effective way of describing pictures is as follows:
- General description: In one/two sentences say what and who you can see and what they are doing in your opinion. Mention where the people are.
In the picture, I can see two girls making a cake in the kitchen. They look alike, so they are probably sisters.
- People: Talk about their actions and possible reasoning behind it. Speculate about their relationship and feelings. Briefly describe their physical appearance and clothes.
The girl with longer hair, who is wearing a patterned dress, is cracking some eggs and adding them to flour. The other girl, who has got shorter and curly hair and is wearing a white T-shirt and jeans, is helping her by reading the recipe from the tablet. They seem to be having a lot of fun doing this activity together because they are smiling. I think that they may be preparing a birthday cake for someone in their family. They seem to be recreating the recipe they are following. I think that the cake must be quite easy to make, as they don’t have that many ingredients on the table. Except for flour and a few eggs, they also have a jar of sugar on the table.
- Background: In case there is some time left, focus on the background. If possible, talk about the weather and seasons. Just because it is a picture, it doesn’t mean that you can’t get into speaking about sounds that they may be experiencing.
As I mentioned before, they are in the kitchen. The kitchen is quite big and light. I can see some cupboards, a cooker, and of course an oven behind them. Everything seems to be very well organised, so they will probably have to clean the kitchen well once they finish. The place appears to be very calm, so I don’t think that it is very noisy. Maybe they are listening to some music while making the cake.
I think that following the topics in the circle is beneficial for students as it helps them structure their answers and concentrate on the grammar and vocabulary part of the assessment. It also helps with understanding that they can talk about anything that they can see in the picture while giving possible reasons for each answer. My biggest issue is with getting the feeling of one minute. This can be achieved through regular training exercises, but remind them that as long as they talk until being stopped by the interlocutor, they should be fine.
I like to supplement any speaking activities by showing the actual speaking exam. I chose this picture, as it is being described in a video recorded at an actual B1 Preliminary for Schools Speaking Test. You may want to show this video before to further understand each part of the speaking exam and get students used to the exam setting. You can also ask them to watch the video and write down any mistakes they heard. During feedback, you can elicit different ways of improving these answers.
I’m glad that I attended the webinar on Top Tips for the Cambridge Exam as it really ensured me that I understand the speaking assessment and also gave me plenty of ideas of how to improve my classes by introducing new and effective activities. Click the link to check the whole webinar for yourself. Hopefully, you will find something inspiring there!