Pity the poor student who has to sit an oral exam. Speaking in public is daunting enough – but in a foreign language? On a topic you haven’t chosen? With the knowledge that a poor performance could adversely affect the rest of your life? What a nightmare!
But sit them they must. So how should you help them prepare? Everything you do to improve their general level of English will contribute to success, but only if they manage to show off what they know come the big day. Here’s how to give them the best chance of doing that:
- Resist the temptation to over-correct in class or fill every silence. Students need to get used to the sound of their own voice – including the sound of their own voice petering out. You’ll never learn to swim if you don’t take your armbands off.
- Cover the topics you expect to come up in the exam. Sounds obvious, perhaps, but there is a temptation to gloss over some of the more hackneyed topics like recycling, education, childhood memories, and so on, in search of areas that are more stimulating and original. Be careful: off-beat topics are likely to generate little that is transferable, and well-worn topics are very likely to crop up in the exam.
- Get them talking in pairs and groups. Not only will some students be more forthcoming in the relative privacy of a pair or small group, but also it increases the total amount of speaking that each student can do within the time available. You can’t monitor every conversation – which may not be a bad thing in itself – but you can spot check.
- Whatever topics you cover, expose students to a range of ready-made opinions and insights. Examiners do not give marks for original thoughts, mainly because they have no way of detecting them. So don’t be hard on students who repeat verbatim what they’ve just heard or read – just make sure they understand it!
- Teach set phrases for the functions they’ll need in the exam: presenting opinions, justifying yourself, presenting counter-arguments, and so on. And practise them until they are second nature. For example, arm your students with three or four different ways to frame an opinion: “To my mind, …”; “The fact is, …”; “The way I see it …”. (To really sound like a native speaker, opt for ungrammatical constructions like: “The key thing is, is that …”)
- Discuss the details of the exam format. Some people love surprises, but this is not the time or place. Make sure your students know exactly what to expect, and when you practise exam tasks, do it in a way which is as close to the actual exam format as possible. And as the big day approaches, they need a few dry runs in exam conditions.
Once you’ve done your bit to boost their chances, the rest is in the lap of the gods – and your students’ own hands.