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How to succeed in the CAE exam speaking paper

Cambridge Certificate in Advanced English shows that your ability to use English is at an advanced level. The CAE certificate is valuable for your international professional career and studies abroad. Therefore, we have created an overview of the different parts in the CAE exam.

Part One

The first part of the CAE speaking exam only lasts two minutes. The examiners know that you will be feeling nervous and so these questions are relatively straightforward about you and your life. These are aimed at helping you warm up and feel more relaxed. Typical questions may be ‘What do you enjoy about learning English?’ or ‘If you could have one wish, what would it be?’ Your answer needs to be approximately two to three sentences; your initial answer to the question and a further explanation, such as why you feel that way. The CAE exam is an advanced level exam and so short answers are not going to get you any points. Also, it’s important to remember that the more you speak, the more opportunity you will have to use all the C1 level vocabulary you have learned.

For example:

Examiner: What do you like most about learning English?

Possible answer one: Speaking.

This does not give the examiner any idea about your level, and also makes you seem unwilling to communicate, which will not give him/her a good impression of you as a ‘communicator’. Not speaking results in what is called ‘dead air’ – wasted speaking time. There is no point going to a CAE speaking exam and not speak! You need to use every second of your time. That said, don’t dominate. Make sure your partner has equal speaking time.

Possible answer two: I like speaking and vocabulary but I find grammar difficult.

In this answer you are not really saying anything interesting or demonstrating your knowledge of C1 vocabulary. It’s quite a dull answer and will not make you stand out from the other CAE exam candidates.

Possible answer three: It would have to be learning new phrases and using them when I speak (initial response). The vocabulary is so rich that I can express myself in a variety of ways depending on who I’m talking to. This is helpful as it enables me to communicate with people from all four corners of the earth and all walks of life (further explanation).

This last answer is great because it not only uses some interesting and advanced level collocations (rich vocabulary, enables, all four corners of the earth, and all walks of life) but it also demonstrates a range of grammar (would have to be, so & adjective that, the demonstrative pronoun ‘this’).

One thing to remember is that you need to listen carefully to the tense or grammatical structures used in the question and use appropriate ones in your answer. For example, if the question is ‘If you could have one wish, what would it be?’, the CAE examiners are expecting you to use would + verb in your answer as it is hypothetical. If the question is ‘How will your life be different in five years’ time?’, you should use some sort of future form. It sounds obvious but it’s amazing how many candidates don’t do this.

In terms of vocabulary, don’t learn full answers as you will never remember them in the exam, the examiners can tell immediately, and you will rarely get exactly the same question. It is far more beneficial to learn some good expressions, collocations and vocabulary that can be used in a number of situations, for example ‘it would have to be….’ and ‘a wide variety of…’.

Finally, while your partner is speaking, make sure that you don’t switch off. You need to turn to face him/her slightly and show that you are listening and interested. Doing this will help you and your partner feel supported.  

Part two

This part lasts about four minutes. You have one minute to answer two questions about some pictures and then to answer a short question about your partner’s. The examiner will give you three pictures but you only need to talk about two of them. There are two main things the examiners are listening for in this part of the exam.  Firstly, your use of language of speculation. The questions are normally worded as ‘How do you think the people might be feeling?’ and so you should be using language such as ‘They must/might/could/may be… , must/might/could/may have + past participle…, it seems to me that… , I get the impression that…’.  You mustn’t simply describe what you see in the pictures but go beyond them.  Think about how they might be feeling or if the pictures feature people talking on the phone, why might they be making the call? Who are they talking to? The second thing you have to do is to compare the pictures, talk about what is the same and what is different.  Use language such as ‘in contrast…, in comparison…, … are similar/completely different because…, however…, while…’. 

Your answer to the question on your partner’s pictures should be two to three sentences, like part one, possible answer 3. 

Part three

In this part of the Cambridge CAE exam you have to collaborate with your partner. The examiner will present you with a question with five different prompts to consider, and give you 15 seconds to read the question and prompts. You will have two minutes to discuss these. The examiner will then ask you to choose one that you consider to be the most/least important, beneficial, serious, for example. You will have 1 minute to make your decision.

It’s important in this part to listen to what your partner is saying and react to it by either agreeing or disagreeing. Use a variety of language to do this. Ask your partner questions if you don’t understand. Show interest in what your partner is saying and build on it. However, be careful not to turn this into long monologues where you dominate the conversation.

It’s tempting to rush through all the topics but it’s far better to analyse each point in a bit of detail as this will allow you to use more vocabulary. Try to find similarities between the prompts, sometimes two or more are similar and you could potentially group these and talk about them together. That said, try not to get caught up talking about just one point, keep the conversation moving.

In terms of the second question, don’t rush into making a decision too early. You have a whole minute! You may wish to disagree with your partner and offer an alternative. This is fine as long as you provide a reason for your opinion. When doing this, be careful not simply to repeat the reason you gave earlier. Try to find another reason or if you do need to repeat it, make sure you use different vocabulary.

In this part, the CAE examiners are looking to see how you interact with each other and the language you use to do this. They are also keen to hear you use linkers so it’s essential that you justify and develop your ideas fully. Try not to repeat vocabulary that has been used in the question but find synonyms (words with the same or similar meaning) – this will demonstrate your range of vocabulary.  It may also be possible to use some cause and effect language in this section, i.e. ‘this can often result in/lead to…’.

Make sure you adjust your body language to reflect the fact that you are working together. Turn to face each other and make eye contact.

Part four

This part of the CAE speaking exam lasts for five minutes.  The examiner will ask you some questions which develop the topic introduced in part three. He/she may direct a question specifically at one of the candidates or may just open it up for either of you to answer. Regardless of who answers the question, it’s important for the other candidate to refer to what their partner has said, offering a different opinion or building on their partner’s. It’s fine to disagree with your partner. It can make the conversation interesting, as long as you do so politely and explain why. This part should feel like a discussion. Use the same techniques and interaction as part three - don’t just speak to the examiner, look at your partner as well.

It’s a good idea to know what the common topics for the CAE exam are and make sure you have enough vocabulary to be able to discuss them. Remember, it’s important to display a wide range of interesting vocabulary and collocations as well as grammar (modal verbs, passive, conditionals, comparatives). Make sure that you develop your ideas fully using linking words, relative clauses and pronouns (to avoid repetition). 

General tips

1)  Practise in advance so that you know what one and two minutes feels like when you are speaking.

2)  Make sure you understand what you are being marked on, i.e. the marking criteria.

3)  Listen carefully to the questions and think about the tense/grammar you are using in your answer.

4)  Try to come across as cheerful and friendly. It will make a good impression and make you seem, and feel, more confident and relaxed.

5)  Be aware of how much you are your partner are speaking, is it more or less balanced?

6)  Don’t worry if your partner makes lots of mistakes or stops speaking, this has no influence on your score. Just try to continue with the tasks as you would in normal life.

7)  Don’t panic if the examiner stops you when you are speaking. This happens all the time. It may be because your time has finished or it could simply be because the examiner needs to move on. They have a strict timetable they need to stick to. Equally, don’t worry if the examiner looks really serious, they are probably concentrating on what you are saying.  It’s not easy being a CAE examiner – there’s a lot of multi-tasking involved!

8)  Finally…. STAY CALM, it doesn’t matter if you forget a word or make a mistake. Keep talking as it may be that in your next sentence you use some brilliant language. 

Good Luck!! 

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