Monday, 31 August 2015

How to train students for success in speaking exams

Training for speaking exams is always a challenge. In an average-size class (which, for many of us, means ’a class with too many students’), we never have time to devote individual attention to all our learners during speaking practice. We may either opt for trying to simulate the exam tasks as closely as possible, and therefore train only a handful of students at a time (during which what are the other students in class going to do?) – or we do speaking exam practice as pairwork or groupwork, which allows more students to speak, but of course, makes it more difficult for us, teachers to monitor what they are doing and provide support or feedback as needed. It’s a balancing act, there’s no denying that. All the time.

In this post, I’m describing a few activity ideas that I used recently for a teacher training tour. If you like them, feel free to try them with your own students in class, then perhaps you might also like to share your experience here. Each activity targets a specific skill or strategy needed for typical speaking exam tasks.

Conversation lead-in

Most speaking exams start with a short conversation with the examiner, more often than not focusing on some personal subjects or themes immediately connected to the candidate’s own experience. This part of the exam is not always assessed, but it is the learner’s first opportunity to make a good impression on the examiner. And first impressions are important, even in a tightly controlled exam situation.

The problem with learners is that their fear of making mistakes is so strong that they begin playing a game of language avoidance – they say as little as possible to limit the chances for error. But of course that’s entirely the wrong thing to do in an exam. A speaking exam is about taking a sufficient sample of the candidate’s communicative abilities to make a reliable assessment of their competence. A learner who doesn’t speak enough is more likely to fail than a learner who speaks fluently but with a lot of mistakes.

Activity 1: Expanding your answers

1.       Give students a list of typical conversation questions/prompts together with some (again, typical) limited learner responses. For example:
How do you usually spend your weekend mornings? A: Sleeping late.
How are you planning to celebrate your next birthday? A: With a party.
What is the most unusual present you have ever received? A: A hammer.
What is your best friend like? A: She’s nice.

2.       Put students in pairs or small groups, and ask them to brainstorm what kind of information they could add to each answer so it makes a better impression on the examiner. Ask them to consider expansions that don’t make the language content any more challenging. (In other words, they shouldn’t simply rephrase the answers with more sophisticated vocabulary, but think about extra details they might be able to add easily.)

3.       In open class, elicit some ideas for the types of things added. For example: examples, reasons (why?), details of circumstances (where? when? with whom?). Students may also be able to add more adjectives (which are safe to use as they have no impact on the grammar) where they were going to use just one.

4.       Encourage students to use these ideas in the speaking exam to ensure their answers are as detailed as they can make them, without making them sound like unnatural mini-essays. 

Situational role-play

Another common exam task type is the situation role-play, either one-on-one with the examiner – where the candidate plays the more active role, and initiates exchanges, or in a paired exam format – where two candidates talk to each other.

One of the problems with practising role-play in class is that students are too familiar with each other. This means, role-playing as themselves often creates no information gap – their partners can already predict their most likely answers to most questions. Without an information gap, there is no interest, and therefore little motivation for paying close attention to each other.

Activity 2: Constructing a persona

1.       Before setting any exam practice role-play tasks, prepare a series of background questions to help students create a different persona for the task.

2.       Ask students to imagine they are someone else, then make very brief notes of their answers for your questions as that imaginary person. Encourage them to take on a character as different from their own as they like. Read out the questions one by one, allowing sufficient time for students to think about their persona and write down their answers. Questions may include things like:
- Are you a man or a woman?
- How old are you? When and where were you born?
- What’s your dream job? What’s your actual job?
- What makes you happy? What makes you sad?
(Mention just one thing for each question here.)
- How did you sleep last night?
- How are you feeling right now?
- What are your favourite items of clothing? What are you wearing today?
- What’s your favourite dish? What did you have for breakfast this morning?

3.       Choose a role-play task from the coursebook, and ask students to do it in pairs as their imaginary persona. As they do the activity, ask them to listen carefully to each other and try to work out what their partner’s imaginary character might be like.

4.       If you ask any pairs to perform in front of the class, you can set the same listening task for the rest of the class (and therefore ensure they keep quiet and pay attention to the speakers – which doesn’t always happen automatically otherwise, does it?) – that is, to listen and guess who the characters might be.

When students use a constructed persona, they can break down a psychological barrier which sometimes prevents them from opening up in conversation with a stranger (i.e. the examiner). In exams, we often have to talk about fairly personal subjects: personal experiences, significant people in our lives, and so on – and this makes some speakers more reluctant to speak at length about them than ideal in an exam setting. And, as I said before, it creates an element of unpredictability and interest during practice.

(Thanks to Csilla Járay-Benn for sharing this activity idea with me at the IATEFL Hungary conference in 2014.)

Picture description / Picture comparison and contrast

Almost all speaking exams feature either a picture description (working with a single image) or a picture comparison (working with two or more related images) task. One of the challenges for learners is the ’blank sheet syndrome’ – it can be incredibly difficult to decide where to begin, and then find things to say. The problem, of course, is that in this setting, there is no real communication need: the examiner can see the pictures just as vividly as the candidate, so what’s the point in telling him about what’s in them?

The other great challenge for learners is the fact they have to continuously speak about the topic at length. Again, the most typical learner strategy to avoid errors and failure is to stop speaking: that is, to stop providing sufficient evidence of their speaking skill. This is quite possibly the worst strategy to apply.

One way of helping students to overcome the ’blank sheet syndrome’ is to allow them to brainstorm ideas about images before they begin the exam task proper individually. Remind students to seek answers to the four basic questions: Who? (Who are in the picture?) Where? (Where are they?) What? (What are they doing?) Why? (Why do you think they are doing it?) This is where all good descriptions begin, and once students have answered these, it is much easier to move on to speculate about what else the image might suggest.

Activity 3: Comparing the incomparable

1.       Choose two UNRELATED photos. They can come from, say, two different units of your coursebook, or from your own collection. The point here is that they should not be connected in any obvious way.

2.       Instead of asking students to identify and describe the differences between them, ask them to work in pairs and find and describe 5 similarities between the two images. The more different the photos are the more students will need to rely on their creativity to come up with similarities.

These two images were taken from Oxford Matura Trainer (basic level) published by Oxford University Press for Poland in 2014 (copyright OUP). 

This activity helps students to notice key details in images, and therefore to get them started with their descriptions. It also makes the picture task more involving, and potentially more interesting for students to do.

(This suggestion is based on an activity idea by my fellow teacher trainer, Shaun Wilden.)

Activity 4: Just a minute

1.       Put students in groups to work. Ask them to toss a coin or roll a die, or use any other method you like to decide in what order they should do the task.

2.       One student has to speak on the specified subject for 60 seconds. This can be the subject from the current coursebook unit, one of the topics from the exam specifications (either chosen by yourself, or written up on prompt cards for students to select from at random). Or, to make the task slightly less difficult, students may choose their own topic.

3.       The point is to speak continuously and meaningfully at the same time. If the speaker hesitates, repeats a key point she has already mentioned, uses her mother tongue, or says something irrelevant/off-topic or something completely untrue, another student can challenge. The clock is stopped.

4.       The challenger, if the challenge is accepted by the group as valid through a quick vote, must then continue speaking for the remainder fo the 60 seconds.

5.       The winner in each group is the student left speaking when the clock runs down.

6.       Repeat the activity with another students until everyone in each group had a turn.

Doing this activity helps students to develop conversational strategies for gaining thinking time, and for building a coherent response. In order for the first speaker to win the point in each round, they must learn how to keep up the conversation without pauses, repetition or digression. The right to challenge, in the meantime, provides the rest of each group with a reason to listen and be involved.

(I learned this activity idea from my good friend and colleague, Jeremy Bowell.)

Stimulus-based discussion

This task type is specific to the Polish Matura exam (taken at the end of upper secondary studies, normally at the age of 18), but similar tasks appear in other examinations. In the task, students must consider two (or more) stimuli, including images, complex visuals like posters, web pages or leaflets, or text input, and select and justify the selection of one of them that in their opinion best meets the task parameters. There is no correct answer – the task focuses on the learners’ ability to consider alternatives and reason persuasively about their choices.

Activity 5: Reverse engineering

1.       Choose a suitable task (as described above) from your coursebook.

2.       Ask students to cover the task instructions and look only at the stimulus provided.

3.       Put them in pairs to speculate on what might connect the two (or more) alternatives. Ask them also to find and describe similarities as well as differences.

4.       Based on their brainstorming in the previous stage, ask them to write down what they think the exam task may be.

5.       Ask them to reveal the instructions, check their predictions, and then do the exam task.

6.       Alternatively, you may like to allow students to choose whether they want to do the actual exam task as printed, or the task they wrote down as their own idea. This gives learners a bit of freedom in selecting their challenge, and it makes them more personally engaged (and more motivated) to complete the task. Also, students completing slightly different tasks with the same stimulus makes it more interesting for the rest of the class to listen to their performances when you ask some pairs to perform the task in front of the whole class.

Controversial statement

Some higher-level language exams feature a task where candidates are required to argue for or against the ideas given as a statement, as a short text quote/extract expressing someone’s opinion or other form of text input.

Many learners find it very stressful to defend an opinion against someone who disagrees with everything they say. Which is exactly what happens in an exam setting, as the examiner’s goal is to provoke/inspire as much discussion as possible by disagreeing with the arguments given. Students should perhaps therefore train themselves not to argue automatically for the side of the issue they personally believe in, but for the side that they can introduce more arguments for.

Activity 6: Random opinions

1.       Ask students to read the input. Give them a minute to think about about some possible arguments for and against each statement.

2.       Put them in pairs to work.

3.       Students in each pair (Student A and B) take turns to start discussing the input.

4.       Give the following instructions.
Student A: Use a coin. Before you discuss a statement, toss the coin. If it lands on tails (the number side), you must give an argument FOR that statement. If it lands on heads (the picture side), you must give an argument AGAINST the statement.
Student B: Disagree with whatever your partner says, and use one of your own ideas to support the opposing view.

5.       Ask students to swap roles and repeat the task the other way around.

6.       As a variant, you may like to act as the playmaster. Allow a minute or so for the students to do the discussion one way around, then simply announce: Switch!, and ask pairs to switch sides in the argument, and start defending their partner’s previous position – and vice versa. Encourage stronger students to try to come up with new arguments rather than reiterate what they have already heard from their partner previously. (You may even like to ask them to switch more than once.)

This activity helps students anticipate counter-arguments better. It also reduces the element of personal involvement, and turns the task into a demonstration of communicative ability – rather than a battle of views.

As I said at the start, feel free to try any of these ideas in your exam preparation classes, and perhaps you might even like to share your own speaking exam preparation ideas with me? 

Good luck with your classes, and all the best for the new school year – if you’re one of my colleagues in the Northern Hemisphere, facing the imminent start of the 2015/2016 school year!

No comments:

Post a Comment