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Student Guide: How to Prepare for Oral Exams

Exams can be very stressful, with lots of pressures on your time as you prepare. However, there are lots of things you can do to help you prepare for your oral exam that you may not think of but will make the world of difference in your revision.

Teacher Toolkit have put together this guide to help you achieve the best possible result with our top tips and phrases to help you prepare for any Oral Exam. We hope you find them useful and wish you the best of luck with your studies!

The Layout of a Foreign Language Oral Exam 

Oral exams usually come with a clear structure that you can learn and practise in advance as part of your regular revision. Combined with this preparation, you can learn useful phrases to give yourself extra thinking time or overcome forgotten vocabulary, and it is these speaking strategies that can really boost your oral exam performance.

Top Tips for Oral Exams 

Don’t leave your preparation to the last minute – revise regularly.

This may seem obvious, but many students cram in their revision at the last minute. Trying to overload yourself will only add to your stress and you may find that you retain less information.

Get a good night’s sleep before the exam.

Basic but important. Getting a good night’s sleep, between 7-9 hours will ensure you’re putting your best foot forward when you walk into the exam. If you stay up all night before the exam trying to do last minute revision, you will only leave yourself more stressed and tired.

In the lead up to the exam and on the day, make sure you eat healthily, exercise and keep hydrated.

These are the basic needs of the body to reduce stress levels. Making sure you are in the best possible health will aid your performance on the day.

Arrive at the school or exam centre in plenty of time.

A last-minute dash to leave the house, problems with transport and arriving to the exam hot and flustered will not help your performance! Plan ahead. Get everything you need for the exam together the night before and aim to give yourself plenty of time to get there. Have some time beforehand to read over any notes.

Make sure you know the format and timings of tasks.

Knowing when you will be required to answer, and how long you will have to speak will ensure you are not caught off guard in the exam. You can also structure you revision and notes so as to only include the most important points.

Practise with a classmate or friend (especially common conversations or topics you find particularly difficult). Time yourselves when you do this, so you are more familiar with the time constraints.

Practising with someone you are comfortable with will make speaking in the exam much more natural and give you more confidence. Ask for feedback to see if they notice anything you could improve on. Doing this will also give you the opportunity to work out what information you need and what you can cut out in the time you have.

If you have been asked to pre-prepare a topic, make sure you know it well.

Obvious right? But how well do you know the topic? Questions may arise that you have not prepared for if you haven’t researched the topic in depth. It is always better to be over than under prepared.

In the exam, make sure you read through any task more than once before you respond or, if you have preparation time, before you start your preparation. Check the task instructions regularly to make sure you don’t stray off task.

Read, read and read it again! The first time you look at the task, you may misread it or not fully understand especially when under stress. Taking your time to process what is being asked of you will prove invaluable.

If you have been asked to take on a role, identify with your role as described in the instructions.

Again, make sure you take the time to process what is being asked. Don’t automatically presume that you understand. Think of the role and the situation as a whole to ensure you are playing the part described.

Identify and focus on the main points. Sometimes these may be numbered or bulleted.

Look through any material you have been given (text or images) and underline or highlight key information; decide which things to concentrate on and which to ignore.

If permitted, make short notes.

Briefly referring to your notes throughout the exam will keep you on topic and ensure that you don’t miss out on anything important.

It is good to show a wide range of language, but ensure it is appropriate to the task and the context.

Knowing a wide range of language may sound impressive, but in the wrong context this will hinder, not help in your exam. The aim is not just to show what language you know, but that you know how to use it too.

Try to articulate clearly - even over-articulate.

Nerves may make you speak faster, so try to speak naturally, and not rush. Take your time to focus on the important points rather than rushing to try to cover everything. Show that you know a topic well and can use the right language in context. Quality not quantity is key.

Even if you need to pause to refer to prompts or notes, look back at your audience before you start speaking again and make eye contact.

Looking down for a minute to gather your thoughts and read your notes is important if you are struggling or need a reminder of what you want to say. But come back strong and confident.

Use a normal voice but be loud enough to be heard clearly.

Basically, don’t shout or whisper! Just like speaking faster, this is a common experience many students face in oral exams when the stress and nerves kick in. Speaking clearly comes best from your normal voice.

In a discussion or any other conversation:

  • Listen carefully to what others say.
  • Say if you agree or disagree.
  • Express your opinion clearly.
  • If necessary, ask for clarification.

    Things to avoid when revising for speaking exams

    If making notes, don’t write full sentences.

    There are a multitude of ways in which you can condense information when revising. You could try writing single words or phrases on Post-it notes and place them around your room or how about drawing a picture to remind you of a particular point? People learn and retain information in different ways. Take the time to find what works best for you.

    Don’t quote at length from any text you have been given.

    Examiners want to know your understanding, thoughts, and opinions, and how you have used the text to give your answer, not for you to read it back to them. Pick out the important information from the text and paraphrase – keep any quotes short. Quoting at length only reduces the time you to have to give your answers and demonstrate your understanding.

    Don’t look at your notes all the time or read directly from them.

    This may feel like the comfortable thing to do, especially when nervous, but it won’t help your mark in the exam. Being able to engage with the audience and speak from memory shows examiners that you have revised, learnt, and understood the topic.

    Don’t talk about things that are irrelevant to the topic.

    It is easy to go off at a tangent. You may forget what you want to say, or where you were going with your answer. If this happens, take a minute to compose yourself and gather your thoughts. It is better to do this than waste time talking about something irrelevant.

    Don’t stop talking if you don’t know an expression or word – instead, try to paraphrase.

    Standing there in silence being unable to think of a word can make you panic. Instead, use language that you know relates to the word you are trying to use or use a different term.

    Useful Phrases for Oral Exams

    To help you prepare for your speaking exam whilst planning exactly what you’re going to say, you can use some phrases to help you buy some time and make conversation flow more naturally. Using phrases like this will also show wider research that will help you achieve more marks.

    Phrases to use when:

    You’re presenting

    Hello everyone, thanks for coming.

    I’d like to begin by…

    To start with, I’m going to…

    First/firstly/first of all…

    Next…

    I’d now like to…

    Finally…

    To sum up…

    In conclusion…

    Thanks very much for listening.

    Talking about numbers and data

    A/the majority…

    A/the minority…

    An equal number of…

    Over/under half/a third/a quarter/(four) percent of…

    Less/more than…percent…

    Fewer/more than…people…

    One in two/three/twenty people…

    Starting a conversation

    Okay..

    Well…

    Taking up a turn in the conversation/introducing a new thought

    Well…

    So…

    Conceding

    But…

    However…

    Despite this/that…

    That (being) said…

    Having said that…

    Giving examples

    For example…

    For instance…

    Contrasting

    On the one hand…/On the other hand…

    Whereas…

    In contrast…

    Buying time

    Let me think…

    I’m not sure…

    I suppose…

    Explaining a result or consequence

     

    So…

    As a result…

    Consequently…

    Returning to a previous topic or thought

    Going back to…

    If I could just return to the subject of…

    As I was saying earlier…

    Giving your opinion

    In my opinion…

    I think (that)…

    I firmly/strongly believe (that)…

    It seems to me (that)…

    To my mind…

    I’d like to point out that…

    The way I see it is…

    You’re saying something unexpected or surprising

    Actually…

    As a matter of fact…

    Returning to the main topic

    Anyway…

    Asking for clarification

    What do you mean?

    Could you explain that?

    Could you explain that?

    Making things clearer by re-phrasing

    I mean…

    What I mean is…

    To put it another way…

    In other words…

    Generalising

     

    In general…

    Generally speaking…

    Moving off topic

    By the way…

    Incidentally…

    Making suggestions

    We could…

    What/how about…?

    Why don’t we…?

    Making decisions

    Agreed.

    Okay, that’s settled/decided.

    Let’s agree to…

    Asking for others’ opinions

     

    So, what do you think?

    What’s your opinion?

    Any thoughts/ideas?

    Agreeing

    I agree.

    Absolutely.

    I’m with you on that.

    Disagreeing

    I’m not convinced.

    I disagree.

    The way I see it is…

    Showing surprise

    Really?

    You’re joking!

    I don’t believe it!

    Dealing with unknown words

    I’m not sure what it’s called but it’s…

    It’s a bit like a…

    It’s a type of…/a sort of…/kind of…

    It’s made of…

    It’s used to…/It’s used for


    You can also download these phrases
    here

    Final conclusions for speaking exam preparation

    Oral exams can be extremely different from the type of exams you’re used to, and as a result you will need to take a different approach as you prepare. Learning some of the key phrases above could really help you achieve a higher grade.

    The key takeaway here is that preparation for your speaking exam is key. Speaking in a language you are not used to will require lots of practice and planning, so ensure you follow our top tips above to help you achieve your best.

    Teacher’s Toolkit are leading providers of ESOL resources (English As a Second Language). From beginner’s English flashcards and interactive games to EFL posters for the classroom, we’re here to help. Browse our products online or get in touch if you have any questions.

    Written by the EiA Academic Team




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