HomeAssessmentPreparing for those “Umm....” moments in a Speaking test

Preparing for those “Umm….” moments in a Speaking test




Woman looking confusedKathy Gude, author of New Fast Class, tackles the challenge of making Speaking exams that little bit easier for students.

For many students, the Speaking Paper can be a stressful ordeal. Our role as teachers is to prepare and encourage them as best we can. In my experience as an exams teacher and exams course book author, I’ve developed some strategies for making students more comfortable with the whole process. I’ve listed a few of them here. I hope you find them useful.


Because of their perceived unpredictability, tests of speaking and listening put tremendous pressure on the taker, so the more preparation students have, the more they will know what to expect and the more confident they will become. Giving students full-length practice tests under exam conditions before the exam is excellent preparation and will prevent them wasting time during the test checking what they have to do or asking the examiner for clarification. In addition, students will be more aware of how long they need to speak for in each part of the test and what types of tasks they will need to be able to cope with.

Teach them to listen

Students are often unaware that to be a good speaker, you need to be a good listener. Listening carefully to what they have to do, to questions they are required to answer, or to their partner in a paired test, will help students give a coherent and appropriate response to the task in question.

‘Umm…’ moments

Students often find speaking tests unnerving because they worry about not having anything to say. One useful way of dealing with this problem is to give students a range of fillers to use while they formulate their response. This enables them to begin speaking immediately while, at the same time, giving themselves an opportunity to come up with a suitable response. Depending on the students’ level of English, phrases like ‘Well, that’s a very interesting question…’, Let me see…’, ‘I’ve often wondered…’, ‘It’s difficult to say exactly but…’, etc. will prove extremely useful if they can’t immediately think of a reply.

Extending and expanding

Students in speaking tests often fail to take up opportunities to show what they can do by not extending their answers. One way of combating this is to teach them words in context which they will be able to use in a variety of situations. For example, while it is essential to know the difference in usage between words like ‘interested’ and ‘interesting’, how much more useful is the phrase ‘I’m not really very interested in (science fiction)’ or ‘I don’t really find (science fiction) very interesting’? Being able to draw on a ‘chunk’ of language, rather than a more fragmented response, greatly increases the confidence and fluency of a second-language speaker.

Train students to expand on their answers. A good technique is to give a short response, which is quite acceptable as an initial answer, and then expand by giving a little extra information. For example, ‘What’s your favourite kind of TV programme?’ might prompt the response ‘Oh, costume drama. I like programmes that have a good story and teach me something about what life was like in the past’.

Unexpected questions

Many students feel nervous about speaking tests because they feel they will be put ‘on the spot’. Some online workbooks now contain a ‘Speak and record’ speaking section, where students can record themselves doing specific tasks. This is excellent preparation for a test where the student is required to ‘think on the spot’. As a confidence-builder it is invaluable practice.

Being heard

In many speaking tests, there are two examiners: an assessor and an interlocutor. The assessor often sits slightly apart from the candidates and does not take an active part in the test. It is therefore important for candidates to speak loudly enough for the assessor to be able to hear them. For this reason, showing students how to project their voices, or simply getting them to speak a little louder will greatly enhance their chances of being justly rewarded for their performance.

Mid-sentence mishaps

When students are speaking under pressure in a test, they often begin a sentence then find that they have lost their train of thought, or cannot finish the construction they started. Sometimes they cannot think of the word they are looking for. Explain to students that this in itself should not put them off. This can happen to native speakers, too, and they deal with the problem by means of repair strategies. Teach students to reformulate and express their ideas in other ways. They can use phrases such as: ‘What I mean is …’ or simply begin the sentence again using another construction. If they cannot think of a word, they can always paraphrase: ‘It’s something you use when you…’ etc. The important thing is to encourage them to keep going and not pause for so long that it becomes intrusive and wastes valuable time in the test.


Finally, reassure students that the examiners in Speaking tests want candidates to do well and will try to put test-takers at ease and encourage them to perform to the best of their ability.

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  1. Thank you Kathy – you’ve given us some great tips here.

    When I’m helping students prepare for speaking exams, there are a couple of other things I like to do as well.

    (1) I like to show the students sample videos of students doing the speaking exam (thank you youtube). This gives them the chance to become familiar with the test format and criteria. They can then come up with their own list of dos and don’ts. It also helps them gain confidence as they realize they are not aiming for perfection.

    (2) I let students take it in turns to interview me. They then listen and note down ways in which I expand my answers, deal with difficult questions, and even cope with those mid-sentence mishaps. This helps them develop the strategies you’ve mentioned, and it also ends up being a great confidence booster … for them.

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