For most EFL/ESL students, speaking exams are a terrifying prospect. It seems like so many things can go wrong and just the slightest mistake can make you look foolish. This is worse for unprepared students.

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Fortunately, the Cambridge B2 First exam is well established, with plenty of resources out there to help. That means, as a teacher, you can give your students all the tools to overcome those nerves and make it the strongest part of their overall test grade.

This guide will help you do just that.

I’ve been preparing students for the B2 First exam (and other Cambridge exams) since 2016, both as a private tutor and in public schools. For me, the speaking part is where students can really excel.

First, we’ll look at the exam format and assessment criteria. Then we’ll focus on each of the four speaking parts in detail, before looking at a few specific aspects to focus on, and finally thinking about how to prepare students emotionally for the big day.

Before getting stuck in, I highly recommend you download a copy of the B2 First Handbook. It contains masses of information about all parts of the exam, and I’ll be referring to it in this article, and giving advice on how to interpret certain sections. You can get it from this link.

Also, I suggest watching this video that Cambridge has published to see what the exam looks like in practice.

What is the format of the Cambridge B2 First Speaking exam?

Quick facts:

  • Duration = 14 minutes.
  • Exam is done with 2 students (very rarely this can be 3, in which case the duration is longer).
  • There are 2 examiners. One asks questions, the other listens and takes notes.
  • The exam is not recorded.
  • The speaking exam is worth 20% of the overall B2 First grade.
  • There are 4 parts: Interview, Long turn, Collaborative task and Discussion.

The Cambridge speaking exams are unusual in that they’re done in pairs. I think this is a great way of doing things, as it takes some of the focus and stress away from each individual candidate and allows them to share and discuss more diverse ideas.

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It does have one downside, though. If you’re preparing an individual student, they’ll have to do it with a randomly assigned stranger. You can’t control that, so there’s some risk. But it’s not as bad as it sounds, and later we’ll look at how to deal with difficult partners.

If you’re preparing multiple students, perhaps a whole class, you can choose who their partners will be when the exam is booked, so you can make pairs of students who work well together.

On rare occasions, if there’s an odd number of candidates, students will do the exam in a group of 3. This means the duration is longer to let everyone speak, and it can be a little trickier for shy students to develop their ideas.

How is the Cambridge B2 First Speaking exam assessed?

Students who are great communicators but struggle with accuracy will be delighted to learn how the speaking test is marked. That’s not to say accuracy isn’t assessed at all, but other skills are considered, too.

Those who are precise with their language but a little shy in conversation shouldn’t fear either. There are specific ways of gaining marks for communication. They don’t require an extroverted personality or a great degree of social confidence.

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Each student is assessed individually. The performance of one student does not affect the grade of their partner.

The maximum number of marks is 25. These come from 5 different categories, each assessed from 0 to 5.

Two examiners perform the assessment. The first is called the interlocutor and is the one who asks questions and interacts with the candidates.

The interlocutor is responsible for one of the five categories – Global Achievement. This is a general mark assessing how well the candidate did overall. It’s worth 5 out of the total 25 points.

The second examiner is called the assessor. During the exam, they don’t interact with candidates, but instead sit to the side and observe. They are responsible for the 4 remaining categories.

If you go to page 84 of the B2 First Handbook, you can see the assessment scales used to grade the exam. In reality, examiners use a more detailed rubric, but we don’t need to get into quite that much detail.

Notice the four categories:

  • Grammar and vocabulary
  • Discourse management
  • Pronunciation
  • Interactive communication

Each contributes a maximum of 5 points to the overall score. Together, they make up 20 points of the overall speaking mark.

Grammar and vocabulary is a pretty obvious category. Range and control are key words. Students should use a variety of advanced and specific vocab and grammar (not just basic words and structures) and do so without too much difficulty.

But it doesn’t all have to be super complex. In fact, to get the best score, you only need to show “some complex grammatical forms.” And students will even get points if they fail an attempt at a complex form.

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Discourse management comes down to creating coherent ideas. This means not too much hesitation (although a little is allowed), ideas expressed with clarity, and the use of connectors. Throwing in a couple of advanced connectors (whereas, first of all, however, etc.) can boost this score.

Pronunciation is about whether the words they speak are understandable. It doesn’t matter if students have an accent. As long as they are intelligible, they won’t get penalised for not sounding like a British or American person. Intonation and correct stress patterns are also taken into account.

Interactive Communication is where confident, chatty students thrive. Answering questions with extensive information, negotiating solutions with partners, and considering what others have said and reacting to it are all part of this category. It’s especially relevant in part 3, but is considered throughout.

We’ll now explore each part of the speaking in detail, and talk about what students can do to get the best marks.

Part 1: Interview

The aim of the interview is to break some of the tension in the room and get students speaking comfortably. Topics are personal and familiar, like “what movies do you like?” or “tell me about your best friend.”

The duration is 2 minutes (about 1 minute for each candidate).

The first couple of questions are always “What’s your name?” and “Where are you from?” These do not require extended answers.

But the following questions need plenty of information. That doesn’t mean telling your life story, but it’s a couple of sentences worth of details, taking about 20-30 seconds.

For example, the examiner asks “What do you enjoy doing in your free time?”

A BAD answer would be: “I like playing tennis, watching movies and meeting up with my friends.”

A GOOD answer would be: “I have a few different hobbies. I love tennis because it’s a sport I have played since I was a kid. But if I want to relax, I prefer to watch movies in the cinema with my friends, or just hanging out with them at someone’s house or in the park.”

Students should NOT prepare stock answers in advance. First of all, the variety of questions is too broad, and students won’t be able to remember all the prepared answers. Secondly, it’ll come across as unnatural, and examiners will penalise it. They’re looking for natural, spontaneous speech, not robots.

In part 1, students don’t have to go crazy and try to use complex language. Sure, it’s a good opportunity to throw in some more advanced grammar or specific vocabulary, but it doesn’t need to be forced. They should focus instead on getting their points across clearly and coherently.

Part 2: Long turn

In part 2, students are given two photos related to a topic, but showing different perspectives. For example, on page 78 of the B2 First Handbook, there’s a picture of a footballer getting help for an injury, and below it is a picture of a tourist getting help from a police officer.

Also, there’s a question connected to the pictures: “How important is it to help people in these situations?”

One candidate is given 1 minute to talk on their own about the pictures, compare them, and answer the accompanying question.

Once they’ve done that, the other student is asked a follow-up question, in this case “do you find it easy to ask for help when you have a problem? Why/why not?” After that, students switch roles and repeat the task.

For some, 1 minute is an eternity, for others, it’s over in an instant. It takes plenty of practice to get the timing right and ensure students cover everything. Get students used to the minute limit. And don’t be afraid to cut them off when time is up – the examiners will do this, even if it seems rude.

Here’s the best way to approach the task, in three phases.

  1. Brief summary of each picture, with a comparison. This shouldn’t take long at all. For example, In the first picture, there’s a boy getting help for an injury he got while playing football, whereas in the second picture, a lady is getting help in a different way. I think she’s a tourist who is lost in a city, and the police officer is helping her find her way. Students should avoid too many irrelevant details.
  2. Answer the question. Get this done early, or time will run out. If answering the question goes to the end of the time limit, that’s alright. For example, For me, it’s really important to help people who are injured, because if they don’t get treated, they can have serious physical problems later. Likewise, we need to help tourists like this lady, because if they get lost they’ll have a bad time in the city. It looks like she’s in London, which is a big, confusing place and she could end up in a dangerous area without help.
  3. Make further comparisons. If there’s still time, and the question has been answered, compare the pictures in more detail, focusing on how people are feeling (the boy is in pain, while the tourist is confused), the location, maybe even the time of year or weather.

Notice the three words I’ve put in bold: whereas, likewise, and while. They’re all advanced connectors for comparing two things. Whereas is the best. It can be used to show the differences between the pictures in reference to a specific idea, like “why they’re getting help”, or “how they’re feeling”.

Likewise is also great, doing the same thing as whereas, but showing how the pictures are similar.

While is an optional third connector, but I would only suggest it for students who are confident with grammar, as while is used in a couple of other ways, too, so it’s a bit confusing.

Discourse management is the big assessment category in part 2. With practice and the clear process I’ve outlined above, hesitation shouldn’t be too much of an issue, and ideas should be focused and organised.

Here are some more quick tips:

  • Students shouldn’t panic if they don’t know a word. Move on instead of hesitating.
  • The other candidate should remain silent, but still listen. In the follow-up question, they can treat it like a question in part 1, giving 20-30 seconds of information. Bonus marks for referring to something the other candidate said in their 1 minute speech.
  • Students should avoid pointing at the pictures. Get them to imagine they’re speaking to someone who can’t see the images, so have to use their language to describe what they see.

Part 3: Collaborative task

Part 3 is potentially the trickiest task for students who aren’t super confident in social situations. It involves giving opinions, agreeing/disagreeing, and negotiating a solution with the other candidate, so the interactive communication assessment category comes into play.

Students are given a piece of paper with a question in a central box and five or six ideas/solutions surrounding it. See page 79 of the B2 First Handbook. In this example, the question is “Why would these ideas attract more tourists to the town?”

The interlocutor will set the context, give the candidates a little time to look at the ideas/solutions, then ask them to talk together. They have 2 minutes to do this.

When that’s done, the interlocutor asks a further question, which is usually along the lines of choose which one is best. In this example, it’s “which idea would be best for the town?”

In the first phase, candidates should move relatively quickly from one idea to the next. They want to cover everything in time. If they miss out one idea, that’s alright, but if they only talk about one or two of the options, they’re going into too much detail. 30 seconds on each is optimal.

There are three skills to focus on: expressing opinions, agreeing/disagreeing, and asking questions to move the conversation forward.

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Expressing opinions in a variety of ways (for me, from my point of view) is a good way to show control of language. Opinions should be backed up with good reasoning, too, often with a because connector.

Agreeing/disagreeing is a great way to get marks in interactive communication. I encourage my students to disagree on something (even if it’s not their real opinion) in order to show they can. Also, when agreeing, students shouldn’t repeat the same reason as their partner. Either move on or offer a new argument.

Asking questions to move the conversation forward is vital for success in this part. A well-timed “what do you think?” or “Do you think ________ is a good idea?” shows you’re able to manage a conversation well.

An ideal conversation would look like this.

A: From my point of view, providing parks and other green spaces would attract a lot of tourists because most people like nature and taking a relaxing walk, maybe seeing some cool monuments on the way. What do you think?

B: I’m not sure about that. I don’t think tourists really visit a place to spend time in the park. Building a nightclub would certainly get more young people visiting the town. What do you think about improving the nightlife?

A: I think that’s a great idea. If young people like the town, they’ll come back again and again later in their lives. But they’ll need somewhere to stay. Holiday apartments would be a better solution in the short term, right?

You can see a formula in each of these short paragraphs:

  • Agree/disagree (unless you’re the first one to speak)
  • Express your opinion
  • Give a reason for your opinion
  • Ask the other candidate about a different idea, moving the conversation forward

In the second section of part 3, students have one minute to decide on the best idea. This may have already been established in the conversation so far, in which case, it’s an awkward minute to fill.

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My advice to students is to take control early, and choose two ideas that both candidates liked and offer them up. That means the minute can be spent debating the advantages and disadvantages of both without getting bogged down by all the other ideas.

I think we should choose either the flats or the nightclub, because we both thought they were good ideas. Which one would you prefer and why?

IMPORTANT: There is no correct answer. It doesn’t matter which one the candidates pick, as long as they use English to negotiate and compromise.

Dealing with tricky partners

The advice above is all well and good if your student’s partner is well prepared and willing to cooperate. However, in rare cases, partners may cause issues. There are two types of problem partner.

First, you have the candidate who wants to speak all the time and show off how great they are. Ironically, they’ll get deducted points for interactive communication for not involving their partner. Here’s my advice to students for dealing with them:

  • Interrupt when necessary. I know this can be hard, but it’ll show examiners you’re part of the conversation, too.
  • If they talk a lot, make sure you get your ideas in, perhaps talking a little longer than you normally would. Don’t just say a short sentence then ask them a question, otherwise they’ll eat up all the time.
  • Ask them at least one question to show you’re interacting positively with them.
  • Listen and react to what they say, referring to points they made.
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The other side of the spectrum is the partner who doesn’t say anything at all. It’s frustrating because your student will feel like the conversation isn’t balanced, and they don’t want to get penalised. Here’s what I say to my students to deal with this situation:

  • Try to get the partner involved as much as possible with plenty of questions.
  • When it’s their turn, let them pause and hesitate for a little while, but jump in when things are clearly going nowhere.
  • Really react to what they say, even if there isn’t much to go off. Try to develop their opinions and reasons as much as you can.

In both cases, if your student tries to interact positively, the other student’s attitude shouldn’t affect the overall grade. That doesn’t stop it being stressful, though. I’ve found the vast majority of the time, partners are kind, considerate and well-prepared, so this scenario is very unlikely.

Part 4: Discussion

On the surface, part 4 looks a bit like part 1, except it’s four minutes instead of two. The interlocutor asks questions, and students answer.

But there’s a difference. Questions in this part are not personal – they’re general, and students should give their opinion on bigger ideas. The topic follows on from part 3, so in our example, questions will be about tourism and travel.

There are two types of question in part 4. The individual and the partner discussion. Generally, the first couple of questions are directed at students individually, and answers should be relatively extended (30-40 seconds).

Later, though, the interlocutor will ask a question and do a gesture with their hands, indicating that the candidates should discuss the answer together. You can see in the video below (12:17) how the interlocutor doesn’t make eye contact when asking the question, then opens her hands at both of them.

There aren’t too many tips and tricks for this part. Good quality English and interacting with the partner, considering what they said and reacting to it, and expressing opinions are all going to score points.

A certain level of maturity is required in the answers, to give a reasoned opinion. But it doesn’t really matter what your students’ opinions are, as long as they express them with good language. Topics are rarely controversial.

Often, my students try to make this part personal, like in part 1. They answer questions based on their own preferences, rather than talking about people in general. While it’s good to use personal experience to reinforce ideas, the purpose of the part is to discuss bigger themes.

7 key practice strategies

  1. Teach different ways of introducing an opinion (from my point of view, for me, etc.)
  2. Practice comparing/contrasting connectors (however, whereas, likewise, etc.)
  3. Develop ways to agree/disagree (I’m not sure about that, that’s a great point, etc.)
  4. Practice asking questions to the partner (what do you think about ______? What’s your opinion?)
  5. Practice quickly summarising pictures without getting lost in too much detail.
  6. Encourage students to answer questions with plenty of information.
  7. Record audio/video of students doing the exam. This gives you time to assess afterwards, and you can play it back to provide feedback.

If you’re teaching an individual student, practicing parts 3 and 4 can be tricky. You’ll have to play the role of both interlocutor, assessor and candidate. It can be a good exercise to act as a difficult partner and train your student to react to that kind of situation.

Alternatively, see if you can link up with another student who’s preparing for the exam. Getting them together once or twice before the big day can be a great way for them both to get comfortable chatting with a stranger in a nervy situation.

Emotional preparation can make the difference

Speaking exams are terrifying. It’s normal that your students will be extremely nervous going in, and who can blame them?

But excessive nerves can be devastating. That’s why you, as a teacher, need to help them with the emotional journey, not just the mechanics of the exam. But how do you do this?

Firstly, relieve pressure on accuracy. Students will make mistakes, and that’s fine. Remember, the assessment doesn’t require absolute perfection. Don’t go too hard on correcting their practice, else you’ll knock their confidence.

Secondly, remind students they’re in control. It doesn’t matter who their partner or examiners are, they can still do the exam in the same way. All they have to do is concentrate on themselves and they’ll find success.

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Thirdly, get them familiar with the exam. Watch the example videos online together. Go through the assessment criteria in relation to the candidates in the video (the example I’ve given provides links to the examiners’ feedback. You can also find it here). Did they think Maria was a bit rubbish? Guess what, she passed!

Do a mock test (or two) and give them feedback. Show them where they can improve, and they’ll soon see where they can pick up points.

Finally, make sure they understand the more they speak, the better they’ll do. The examiner will stop them when needed, and if they do, that shows you’ve said plenty and you’re doing great.

For almost all of my students, I frame the speaking test as an opportunity to gain as many points as possible, rather than as a potential disaster.

Because if students follow the advice and steps in this guide, they can get a really good grade. Those extra points can make up for lost marks elsewhere (such as famously difficult Use of English part) and make the difference between a pass and a fail.

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