More hints for speaking exams

I’ve just re-visited Anne Robinson’s ‘Teaching Together – Cambridge English‘ blog and I came across her post ‘Preparation is the key – tips from the Examiners‘ based around the video from Cambridge English I’ve included above. Both the video and Anne’s post are full of useful tips for improving performance in the Cambridge speaking exams,so I thought it would be a good idea to share it here.

Related articles:

Speaking exams: What to do … and What to avoid

Tips for Speakng Tests (I)

Tips for Speaking Tests (II)

Tips for Speaking Tests (III)

Speaking Activities (Page)

Speaking activity: Would I lie to you?

Speech bubbles

So the Christmas holidays are fading from memory already, but before we start to look ahead and plan the new term, I usually take a moment in class to let my students talk about what they did in the holidays, and about their Christmas presents. There are different activities which can be used to do this. Sometimes I use ‘Speed Dating‘, particularly with older groups, but this year I have used the activity ‘Would I Lie to You?’.

In this activity, I start by asking students to write down one thing they did during the holidays, one place they went and one Christmas present they received. Two of these pieces of information should be true, and one false. I give the a little time to recall all the details surrounding each of these bits of information. When they are ready, the studetns take turns to come to the front of the class, write their three bits of information on the board and answer questions on them from their fellow students. The other students are encouraged to ask open questions in order to get as much detail from their classmate as possible, hopefully causing him / her to make a mistake when talking about the piece of information which is false.

Once the students have asked their questions, have them vote on each piece of information. Make sure they only vote ‘False’ for one of the three. So that all the votes are cast at the same time, I have them write ‘TRUE’ on one side of a piece of paper and ‘FALSE’ on the other side, so that they can register their votes without speaking, and simultaneously.


For less able classes, I use a variant of this game where they simply name three Christmas presents they received, and the others try to find out which one is false.

TESOL France, 2013

TESOL-France conference_13

I’m writing this post from my hotel room, a few hundred metres from the site of the 32nd Annual International TESOL France Colloquium. Over the weekend the delegates have the opportunity to listen to internationally renowned speakers such as Scott Thornbury, Sue Palmer and Rosa Aronson, as well as many others from around France and beyond. Thanks to Debbie West and her team for getting this conference together.

I will be presenting my talk ‘Getting them Speaking’ tomorrow at one o’clock, and I would like to take this opportunity to publish the link to the slideshow of the talk, as well as links to posts on this blog which have covered some of the activities which I am using in my talk. I hope you find it useful.

Getting them speaking (article)

Mission Impossible!

Numbers Biography

Picture Dictations

Speed Dating

‘It was a dark and stormy night…’ – Resources for Halloween

English: American Jack O Lantern, a Hallowe'en...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s interesting how a pre-Christian festival from the north of Europe seems to have taken hold worldwide. However, there’s no denying the popularity of Hallowe’en, so here are a few resources which we can use in class this week, promoting skills and vocabulary development while following the Hallowe’en theme. I’ve tried to grade them by age, but different teaching circumstances mean that different activities will be useful for different students. If you’re unsure of any details about the history of Hallowe’en, this infographic will provide you with plenty of information about how the festival has evolved over the centuries.

Pre-Primary / Early Primary

The objective of this festival for very young learners is to avoid scaring them while giving them the opportunity to learn a new song or to make something in arts and crafts which will link them to the idea of Hallowe’en. One of the things we do with our youngest students is pumpkin carving. The teacher wields the knife, but the students get a chance to help empty the seeds and design the scary face to cut out. The Jack o’ Lantern created is then used to decorate the class on the 31st October. In parallel with this, the children can prepare Jack o’ Lantern masks to wear on the day. You can find other ideas for Hallowe’en masks here.

Trick or treatAnother fun activity for younger learners is to go Trick or treating around the school. This takes a bit of organising, but the kids love it. Have each class group prepare a Hallowe’en song before the day of the festival, then organise a rota so that each class can visit another class of the same age. The visiting class sings their song to the others, and then each student receives a gift (traditionally sweets, but check your school’s policy on this type of treat beforehand). This is particularly good fun if the students can come to school dressed up for the day! If they can’t come in dressed up, it would be nice for them to have masks prepared in class. If the teacher has prepared a Jack o’ Lantern for the class, they can carry that with them when they visit the other classes.



Photo credit:

For older primary students, articulated Hallowe’en decorations can be great fun. You can find a number of diferent copiable designs here. This can be combined with the CLIL science class if you choose to make articulated skeletons. These can be combined with Jack o’ Lanterns, and spiders webs made from teased cotton wool to create a really spooky atmosphere for the classroom.

On the British Council Learning English website, there are several games for Hallowe’en. For example, here is a version of ‘I Spy‘ for Hallowe’en, useful for practising vocabulary. There is also a spelling game, ‘Spelloween‘ which promises to be a lot of fun.

Another idea would be to try out traditional children’s party games, such as Apple bobbing, where you try to get an apple out of a bowl of water using your mouth. If this is considered too risky, you can make the activity safer but even messier by placing the apples in a tray of flour! Other traditional games can be adapted to a Hallowe’en theme – for example, ‘Pin the tail on the donkey’ can easily become ‘Pin the tail on the witch’s cat’.


In secondary, we seem to pay less attention to festivals in general, but there are still some useful activities which we can do with our students. One possibility, if they have an intermediate level or above, is to challenge your students to write a ghost story. You can give them the first line, perhaps ‘It was a dark and stormy night…’ and have them complete the story, either individually or in pairs. it would be a good idea to brainstorm typical vocabulary from ghost stories first, and possibly talk about the usual structure of this type of story. Alternatively, you could take the first paragraph of a ghost story and turn it into a jigsaw dictation (there are many ghost stories available as graded readers, so this should not be too hard to organise). Once they have reconstructed the opening paragraph, you can have the students write how they think the story continues. Mission Impossible! also lends itself very well to creating Hallowe’en stories, and the Zombie round is particularly apt!

An alternative to writing exercises can be found on You Tube, courtesy of Mr Skype lessons. This is a listening exercise based on a short story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle:

The art work which accompanies the listening text is fantastic.

Finally, here’s a full lesson plan from the British Council’s Learning English website, based on the story ‘The King of Pumpkins‘. I hope you enjoy these resources, and feel free to add more which you have used and enjoyed.

Happy Hallowe’en!

300th Post – Speaking exams: What to do… and what to avoid

This is the 300th post in this blog. I would like to thank everyone who has visited this site, and left their comments or likes. To celebrate this milestone, I am reblogging the post which has been most visited, Speaking exams: What to do … and what to avoid’, first published on 27th May as part of the ‘How to…’ series in associaton with the TESOL Spain e-newsletter.

thank you for your attention

David's ESOL Blog

This post is published in association with TESOL Spain e-Newsletter. For other posts in this series click here.

As the main external exam season starts, I thought this would be a good time to write a post giving tips for how to approach the speaking exams in particular. To kick off, here is a new video from Cambridge English TV with some useful ideas about answering questions in the speaking tests.

Answering the questions

Clearly, you cannot be marked on language which you do not produce, so you should aim to answer questions fully. However, sometimes the question seems to be asking for a simple answer – an apparently closed question with no interrogative pronoun. In this case, the temptation is to give the simple answer, but these questions are provided with a possible back-up question in the examiner’s script – ‘Why?’, so if the candidate does not…

View original post 1,139 more words

Who am I? An existential ice-breaker


This is relatively simple ice breaker activity which can be done at any point of the programme, but since I like to start my conversation classes focusing on questions I plan to do this in September. It also helps to build a sense of team spirit in the classroom, as it obliges students to speak to other members of the class, but at the same time gives them a clear objective to achieve from the interaction, making the interaction less threatening.

Before the lesson, you need to prepare name tags, or pieces of paper with the names of famous people on, one for each student in the group. It is important that your students should know who the famous people are. At the beginning of the activity, tape the name of one famous person onto the back of each student. The students then stand up, mingle and pair up. Each student looks at the name on the back of their partner, then the students take turns to ask one question (which requires a yes / no answer) to their partner about their famous person / character.

Once they have each asked their questions they thank the person they have worked with and look for another partner. It’s a good idea at this stage for the people looking for partners to do so wth their hand raised, to make it easier for the others to see them. This continues until the person has guessed their character. At this point they take the name taped on their back and tape it on their chest.

Students mingle with faculty members

The students who finish first now become counsellors for the others. At any time  a student who has not yet guessed can go to one of the students who have the name tag on their chest and ask for advice. The counsellor should first ask what the person already knows abut their character, then suggest a possible line of questioning. The counsellor does not give clues as to the identity of the character, just helps with the questions.

During the activity, the teacher should be mingling too, monitoring the activity and helping students who have difficulty with the language, although it is up to the counsellors to help with the content of the activity.

A nice follow up activity to this would be for each student to write a short biography of their character, basing themselves on the questions they asked which led them to guess their character. Or they could use the same material to give a short presentation on their character.

Obviously you are not limited to famous people for the name tags. If you are working with literature or extended reading with your group, a variation on this exercise could be to assign each student one of the characters from the book you are reading in class. In this way you get the students to think about the characteristics of their character in more depth. If you are working with science, the names could even be names of elements from the periodic table. You can adapt the activity to suit the content you want to practise or review. Because the students need meaningful clues, they are forced to think of the specific characteristics, and this will help them remember what they have learnt far better.

Speaking Activity: Jigsaw dictations

One of the things which I try to do in my conversation classes is to help students become aware of the structure of the texts they are interacting with at the same time as they develop their speaking skills. For this reason, I like to include dictation exercises from time to time, although I use variations which require the students to manipulate the text in some way themselves. In previous posts, I have examined Picture Dictations and other variations on dictations. In this post, I’m going to focus on what I have come to call ‘Jigsaw dictations’.

a drawing of a 4 piece jigsaw puzzle

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The main idea behind a jigsaw dictation is that the students initially receive the sentences of the text jumbled up, and after the dictation they have to decide how to put the sentences together to recreate the original text. In doing this, the students not only have to transcribe the words that are dictated, but also apply their knowledge of grammar and text structure – what Halliday and Hasan (1976) called ‘texture’ – in order to produce a coherent text.

The initial text can be delivered to the students in a variety of ways. The teacher can dictate the sentences to the students in the traditional way, first making sure that the students write down what they hear as discrete sentences rather than as a paragraph. Alternatively, and this is the option I prefer, the list of sentences can be pinned up on the wall, and the students can do a running dictation in groups. In this way, the students take an active part in the dictation from the start. Another option is to give each student one of the sentences when they come into the classroom and they have to find partners who have the other sentences from the text before they dictate their sentence to the team they have formed (here it is important to tell them how many different sentences there are in the text, so they know how many people they need in their group). I used this variation to begin my talk ‘Making connections‘ at the II Arenas Teaching

Once the sentences have been dictated, the students should try to recreate the original text in pairs or groups. It is important that they get a chance to talk about their ideas, as in this way they activate their knowledge of the language as they explain the reasoning behind the order they are suggesting. The teacher should be going around the class monitoring the activity, but should not intervene at this stage unless absolutely necessary. The students need time to experiment with the language and try out different combinations.

Here is an example of a jigsaw dictation which I used with my B1 class this year, and also in my talk ‘Making connections’:

  • Today,  in comparison with places like London or Manchester, Norwich is quite small, with a population of 150,000, but in the 16th century Norwich was the second city of England.
  •  The first cathedral was built in 1095 and has recently celebrated its 900th anniversary, while Norwich itself had a year of celebration in 1994 to mark its 800th anniversary as a city.
  • Norwich, the capital of the part of Britain known as East Anglia, has existed as a place to live for more than 2000 years.
  •  At the time of the Norman invasion in 1066 it had grown to become one of the largest towns in England.
  •  With two cathedrals and a mosque, Norwich has long been a popular centre for various religions.
  •  Nowadays, there are far fewer churches and pubs, but in 1964 the University of East Anglia was built in Norwich.
  • It began as a small village beside the River Wensum.
  • It continued to grow for the next 300 years and got richer and richer, becoming famous for having as many churches as there are weeks in the year and as many pubs as there are days in the year.

The correct version can be found in the powerpoint ‘Making connections‘. The title of the text is ‘Norwich’.