Hi friend, how is it going? In this post, we delve into the fantastic world of the Speaking section of the FCE exam, which is also widely known as First Certificate in English or Cambridge English: First and some other nicknames.
So, if you didn’t know, now you know: the Cambridge English range of available certificates features more names than Gandalf, the wizard of Middle Earth. 🧙♂️😂
This post is part of a in-depth series about the specific parts of the FCE exam. If you want to have a look at the First Certificate in English in its globality, here you are ⬇️
For a few of us, the Speaking part is not a big deal; but for some, it is an ordeal. 🤕
If one’s English is not too strong, in the rest of the exam you have some time to ponder, go forth, come back and correct something. Unfortunately, that’s not the case in the Speaking part: still, by preparing well, it’s feasible. ✌️
Let’s examine together a couple of things here: the structure of the Speaking section, how to improve your oral production skills in general, then how to ace the Speaking part of the FCE exam specifically.
⚠️ WARNING: THIS POST IS NOT FOR COWARDS ⚠️
This post has around 4K words in it, which is a 14-minute reading.
Decide right now whether your determination to pass the FCE Speaking is stronger than your desire to check on Instagram what a glorious party night your friends had.
And now, it begins.
FCE Speaking: How it works
In the dynamics of the FCE exam, it comes last:
- Reading and Use of English (1 hr 15 mins)
- Writing (1 hr 20 mins)
- Listening (40 mins)
- Speaking (14 mins)
(Actually, it could take place on a whole another day, but we will see this later).
The Speaking section of the FCE exam takes place in a room where there are two examiners 👩🏫👩🏫 and two candidates. 👩🎓👩🎓 A bit like this (pardon my less-than-immense artistic skills):
One of the examiners sits in front of you the whole time and interacts with you and the other examinee. The other is kind of an international OCDE observer: he is there, he observes, he reports back home but do not meddle. 🧐
Joking aside: the examiner in front of you administers the exam and gives the instructions. The other takes notes of your performances.
Something you have to keep in mind: examiners are no cave trolls determined to skewer you with a Morgul spear-thrust. 👹 They are just human beings who want to evaluate your English in a fair way, hence… relax.
The exam is structured in the (in)famous four parts:
Part 1 (2 minutes)
The examiner asks both of you about wordly matters such as: who you are, what’s your favourite dish, how do you spend a typical day and so forth.
Part 2 (4 minutes)
The examiner gives you two pictures: you have to describe them and compare them during 1 minute. Eventually, he/she asks your partner something about your pictures, to be answered in 30 seconds. ⏱️
But then, it’s your fellow candidate’s time: he/she gets two pictures and has to talk about them during 1 minute; then, it’s your turn to answer a question, in a 30-second response.
This is but one of a thousand different examples. Consider the following pictures:
How do you think people are feeling about rearing animals?
Part 3 (4 minutes)
This part is collaborative. You and your fellow are both given five conversation starters which you have to use to entertain a conversation together during two minutes. ⏱️
Eventually, the examiner intervenes: you’re given an extra minute to reach an agreement about what you’ve been talking.
Below one of the gazillion possible examples:
Here are some possible reasons for desiring learning languages and a question for you to discuss.
First, you have some time to look at the task (15 seconds).
Now, talk to each other about how important speaking languages is in contemporary world.
Part 4 (4 minutes)
The examiner asks deeper questions about what you’ve been conversing about in Part 3. There’s some interaction with the other candidate.
So, this is the FCE Speaking section in a nutshell. You can get a mock exam for free also in the FCE page of the Cambridge Assessment English website.
As you probably know, there are two versions of the FCE exam: a paper-based and a computer-based one. With regard to Speaking, there is no difference: however, if you want to know better how both formats work, here you have it ⬇️
Anyway, before to train specifically for the exam, your English must already be at a B2 level.
Let’s see how to get there.
FCE Speaking: How to improve your general speaking skills
The mechanisms of Second Language Acquisition are one of world’s most important puzzle. We have a substantial corpus of data, though it’s far from conclusive. 🔬
Why do I mention this?
Because the scientific method to make someone a fluent speaker has not yet been found. The fact that we have tons of new publications yearly on this is there to show the matter is not settled.
Why do some non-native learners find it simple right from the beginning, whereas others experience searing pain when speaking English? 😓
All in all, the voluminous body of research has yielded a battery of tools, enabling us to turn hesitating speakers into confident oral communicator.
You may feel I’m restating the obvious, but it’s better to be clear here. Reading, listening and writing are all precursors of speaking.
Reading and listening are the raw materials you make provision of: writing and speaking is the finished goods you ship out.
Reading and Listening: input ➡️🧍
Writing and Speaking: output 🧍➡️
In the FCE Listening guide I have already mentioned it: not only listening to loads of English content helps you with building your listening skills (I’ve just reinvented the wheel, didn’t I?): there’s a previous step that is reading.
And reading, is better with some knowledge of the IPA.
A bit of IPA is useful
I don’t know how a non-native English speaker would know how to type /ˈlɛstər/ when hearing it. I, for one thing, heard the city of /ˈwʊstər/ a number of times and the idea it was Worcester hadn’t crossed my mind. 🤦♂️
So, we need to read. If you can read and listen to what you’re reading at the same time, great. However, that’s not only possible, and that’s when knowing some basics of the IPA comes in handy.
IPA? Yes: International Phonetic Alphabet, in case you thought I referred to beers and ales. 🍺 It’s that weird sequence of known-alien letters, in a dictionary entry, next to the word.
Why is it useful, even though you’re not a linguist or a phonetician?
Look at the word ewe: that’s an adult female sheep. 🐑 Now, if you’re reading it somewhere and you have a a good online dictionary at hand, you may immediately find out its pronunciation by clicking on the play button ▶️ next to the word.
If you haven’t that but you still have the phonetic transcription, you’re going to see that ewe is rendered as /ˈyü/ in IPA: at least, it gives a strong clue about how to pronounce it. So, when you find the toponym Worcester, you’ll be able to utter something closer to /ˈwʊstər/ rather than /’worchester/. 😵
What are good dictionaries available on browsers or App? Merriam Webster and Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries are both marvellous, but Wordreference isn’t bad either.
The importance of listening
So, we were saying that reading is what – somewhat – precedes listening, but we have to acknowledge also that listening is what comes before speaking.
Speaking is fundamental, not only because it’s part of an exam, but because it’s the most immediate, ancestral, revealing form of communication.
Think about it: when we want to say that someone master a language, don’t we say speak a language? 💬
The route may be: reading comprehension > listening comprehension > writing texts > texting in an instant messaging App > talking.
Beside this, listening is also fundamental in order to acquire prosody. What’s prosody? Very brutally described, prosody is accent’s big brother.
So, let’s talk about accent for a minute.
Accent matters (a bit) in the FCE Speaking
Care your accent, without turning it into an obsession. What do I mean?
I mean that there is no need for you to gain the RP voice of a breakfast BBC programme presenter 📺: you can certainly have an accent that puts you unequivocally on a map, as long as it does not hinder comprehension.
Having said that, being able to mimic Received Pronunciation, being taken for a middle-class Briton, it’s an amazing skill to feature in an exam. It helps you in passing the Speaking section even if you drop some mistakes here and there, because you convey a nativeness impression. 💂
There are different ways to achieve a native-like pronunciation, being the following the easiest:
- Listen to a piece of audio; 🎧
- Pause it, grab a recorder, record yourself while you repeat it out loud;
- Listen to your recording and compare it with the original;
- Repeat the process twice more, paying attention to sounding each time more native, sort of parrot-like. 🦜
Now, this is all true and fun, but… what kind of material should I deal with? Novels? Textbooks? Essays? Podcasts? Let’s dig into it.
What to read, write, watch and listen to
In simple terms, B2 is the level at which one can move where the language is spoken and be immediately productive. What does that mean?
It means thanks to a B2 English you can go to East Midlands and: settle down, face red tape, find home, sign papers, study, participate in public and social life, get a job and earn money. 💷
Are you done with the language? You’re so NOT done with it.
At a B2 you just start being linguistically independent: a lot of path is still to be walked, but you have a moderate grasp in most areas of English.
So, surprise surprise: you have to absorb as input and produce as output an English appropriate for most situations of life. Hence, it’s not only knowing the subtleties of grammar, but breadth too: you can’t cherry-pick topics you like and throw away other relevant matters. 🚮
Personally, I couldn’t care less about furniture and apparel, but I can’t take an exam like FCE without knowing this vocab: hence, at least merely for preparing this test, study it.
Now, supposing your English is already B2, let’s go back to the exam. Let’s focus to the best way to prepare for the FCE Speaking section.
FCE Speaking: How to train for the exam
Get a preparation book
Take a prep book and a stopwatch. Get to the Speaking section:
- First, answer in black and white all the questions available there, ✍️
- then, close your notebook and answer them orally.
You can find the books I recommend the most in: First Certificate in English (FCE): How to Ace it.
Here’s the most important of them all:
Then, there’s at least another one I would strongly encourage you to use, this one:
Speaking B2+ Upper Intermediate, by Nicola Prentis: another excellent instalment of the English for Life series by Collins. The best around to prepare specifically the FCE Speaking.
A brief personal introduction is crucial in the FCE Speaking
And as you are going to have a brief moment of chilling informally with the examiner at the beginning, you are going to be asked a couple of things about you:
- who you are,
- where you live,
- how you learned English,
- why you’re taking the exam,
- etc. 💬
Thus, it’s compulsory to have a personal introduction ready to be unsheathed. 🗡️
If you don’t know what to reply to questions like:
What is your educational background? How do you spend your leisure time?
Oy vey… B2? More A2, I gather. 🤦♀️ It’s a way for the examiner to test your English, of course, but also to break the proverbial ice. Don’t waste this opportunity.
And now, let’s grind the meat of the Speaking.
Don’t cheat in the FCE Speaking
If in Part 3 – or any moment before that – you mention something (i.e. “I’m keen on literature”), you may discover later that the examiner asks you more about it.
Certain candidates suppose that by telling the examiners they love something “intellectual”, they are going to gain credits: classic authors, theatre, movies from the 60s in the original version 🎞️, opera, etc. Why, on earth? It’s your English that it’s about to be assessed, not your humanistic stature.
If you’re asked what your passions are and you love blacksmithing, macramé, motorcycle trials 🏍️ or trash TV, just say it.
Don’t mumble: talk
Utter well-structured answers. Humming, mumbling, noes and yeses without any development aren’t sound forms of communication, are they?
When answering, keep in mind that if you run short of points to make, you can always bring up an example: with that, you can stretch the answer.
A bunch of interesting phrases ready
The amount of phrases you can use is infinite. This is but a little, microscopic fraction of them: start from here and build your portfolio up.
Talking about your interests:
- I’m fascinated by wildlife.
- I’m fond of tennis.
- I’m keen on genealogy.
- I’m passionate about Italian food (who isn’t? 😏)
Expressing your viewpoint:
- I think / guess / believe…
- As far as I’m concerned…
- In my (humble) opinion…
- My point of view is…
- In my view…
- The way I see it, …
- I would say that…
Passing the ball to your pal:
- What do you reckon? 🤔
- What’s your take on this?
- Do you agree?
- Don’t you concur?
- What would you say concerning…?
- What do you think about…?
- I’m afraid I disagree. 🤨
- I don’t see it this way.
- You may be right; you have to consider though…
- I think we’re missing a critical point here, …
- I agree.
- That resonates with me. 👍
- You’re (absolutely) right.
- What you’ve just said represents my view too.
Bringing the conversation to an end:
- So, in light of what we’ve said…
- Do we have a deal on this? 🤝
- Shall we agree on…?
- It seems we’ve reached an agreement here, don’t we?
Describing the pictures:
- On the top picture… whereas on the bottom one… 👇
- On picture A/B…
- Both photos feature/show…
- The most striking difference between the two photos is…
If you aren’t sure whether something is colloquial or vulgar, hmmm, refrain from using it. 🤐 You won’t prompt any OMG this guy is so fluent reaction, rather a this guy can’t tell befitting language from inappropriate one.
And as usual, snick idioms, phrasal verbs and collocations here and there, to dress your speech of a native touch.
The three following books can help you immensely in this, enabling you to become the overlord of Cambridge qualifications, 👑 even beyond the B2 First exam:
English Idioms in Use – Intermediate, by Michael McCarthy and Felicity O’Dell: as I said a thousand times, any material published by the Cambridge University Press can be purchased blindly.
English Collocations in Use – Intermediate, by Michael McCarthy and Felicity O’Dell: awesome textbook: rich and easily workable.
English Phrasal Verbs in Use – Intermediate, by Michael McCarthy and Felicity O’Dell: I can’t but repeat the praises sung for the two above.
Don’t bite more than you can chew
Sometimes, when training your oral expression skills in the classroom, you have such brilliant ideas you’d like to put forward, and you get so excited, that you do not pause to realize you just don’t know how to express it in English.
⚠️ Please avoid falling into your own trap.
People in such quagmire sometimes end up, when practising with their teacher, either in steering the conversation somewhere else rather abruptly, or explaining their thoughts in their native language.
However, in the Speaking section of a Cambridge exam you can’t do that, can you? Think first at what you’re able to convey, then pick up the ideas to communicate, because – again – is your English prowess you have to demonstrate, not how brilliant your insights are. 🤨
The same goes, actually, for the FCE Writing, in which you may be equally tempted to go out of your depth. But we’ve spoken enough about this on that specific post.
Want to know more about the FCE Writing itself? Read: Cambridge English: First. Tips for the FCE Writing.
Practice the FCE Speaking format with a teacher
No one as a Sherpa if the summit of mount Everest is where you’re heading. ⛰️ No one as a qualified teacher if the FCE certificate is what you’re after.
A good teacher:
- Identifies your weaknesses,
- suggests corrective actions you can work on your own,
- put your English to test, 🧪
- fine-tune your oral skills so that the FCE Speaking will become a manageable task.
I’m in strong favour of private teaching versus group teaching: rehearsing for the FCE Speaking is no exception. Whatever you eventually choose, please rely on a professional: it’ll save you a lot of work and money.
Need help to pass the FCE exam? Feel free to check my language tutoring page.
FCE Speaking: Hurdles
The BCS (Broken Cyborg Syndrome)
When speaking with the examiner and with the other candidate, show that you’ve listened to them and you incorporate in your oral intervention stuff they told.
Why do I recommend so?
Because certain candidates think they can get away with a few standard sentences they’ve learned by heart and they pronounce mindlessly.
I had a student once, whom was repeating like a broken cyborg a phrase like “I believe this issue must be dealt with utmost sensibility as there is much at stake in this matter…”. He just didn’t care what was the context. 😧
Examiner: What do you think of environmental protection?
Cyborg: “I believe this issue should…” (Y)
Examiner: What do you think public school should focus the most?
Cyborg: “I believe this issue should…” :-/
Other candidate: So I guess camping is a better option than going to a resort. What’s your point of view on this?
Cyborg: “I believe this issue should…” ehm, what?
Examiner: Do you want a coffee?
Cyborg: “I believe this issue should…” aaaaargh!
By all means, learn an amount of phrases you can pull out and stick in into whatever conversation. But please, talk like you’re paying attention: don’t be a broken cyborg. 🤖
The asepticity of the exam room
You’ve prepared for the exam in the comfort of your studio 🛋️ or perhaps, in a school classroom you had time to grow familiar with.
Then, on Speaking day, you’re in an uncharted exam room: it’s normal to feel a bit off balance. How can you avoid that? By pushing yourself to prepare in unfamiliar environments. It works magic.
Alone or with your prep teacher:
- go sitting on a park bench, or
- at the entrance of the commercial centre, 🏬
- train while commuting on the bus,
- in a reading room somewhere,
- at your aunt Betsy’s,
- in a train station waiting room. 🚉 Train there (no pun intended).
In life as in the Speaking preparation, it’s a brilliant idea to push oneself out of the linguistic comfort zone.
The OMG-I-dont-know-this-topic syndrome
A B2 English is about depth, so to say, in the inner workings of language: syntax, grammar, tenses, etc.
But it is also breadth, which is how knowledgeable you are on different areas. In order to pass the FCE Speaking, you have to prove a reasonably high grasp of most topics of daily life, work, study, global issues.
Why do I stress this? Because certain candidates panic when they see a pair of pictures on something they’re not able to give a lecture about. 😨
Relax, as there is no lecture to give, no groundbreaking discovery to disclose.
Imagine you have two pictures about food 🍲: if you were well-versed on nutrition, well, you’d perform better. If not, you can still build a decent case by using food-related terms you know plus some more neutral, topic-unspecific language.
A minimum about food, though, you must know. 🤨
It’s just as dangerous, if not more, than its opposite. Overconfidence makes you believe you’re a lion, when in reality you’re a kitten. 🐱
If you’re highly sure of yourself, maybe you’ve chosen the wrong exam: taking the C1 Advanced might have been a more apt option perhaps?
Anyway, it’s never fruitless to do a LRC (Linguistic Reality Check): go talk with a native speaker, in a non-didactic situation, and see how it goes. ☑️
Why is a LRC useful?
Because sometimes you’re lead to believe you’re going to be successful, without serious ground for such assumption. You know why? Simply because you haven’t had the chance to venture outside the cocoon of your classroom or the protection of a teacher that tells you WELL DONE MATE! whatever BS you utter. 👩🏫
I was the best in my Chinese class, during my first year of course. Fifteen months after having started – and studied Chinese more than any other single subject in my whole life – I bumped into a lady from Beijing, faraway from classroom, in my leisure time. 🇨🇳
She missed 99% of what I was saying. Or better: my oral skills seemed to stop at 我是Fabio, which you’d learn during your first lesson.
That was impossible: my teacher always told me I was the best student she ever had. This Pekinese lady is a fraud! She is just as Italian as I am, pretending to be Chinese. Turns out she was really from the capital and a real native Chinese speaker. 😶
Alas, that was totally possible: that day I learnt there’s a difference between being a good student inside the classroom and a fluent speaker in the real, four-dimensional world. That day I had my first LRC with Chinese. ❌
So, my recommendation is: don’t wait too long before to have your Linguistic Reality Check with English. Speak to natives, struggle, see them frowning, learn words, learn patterns, learn body language, improve, speak to them again, see them frowning less than before, keep speaking, keep learning. 🙇♀️
It’s just as recommendable as having a medical check before to register for an Ironman.
FCE Speaking: Conclusions
So, this is in a nutshell what the FCE Speaking is about and how I’d suggest you to prepare for it.
Through the combined weight of the strategies mentioned here, you have high chances to come out successful from these 14-minute gut-wrenching experience. 💪
Most of these strategies are valid for the CAE (Cambridge Advanced English) and CPE (Cambridge Proficiency English) too: if you get them right, you’ll be sweeping those exams too.
Here you are the main guide to the FCE, with proper redirections to each part of it, in case you want to dig deeper into them:
If, on the other hand, you’re unsure whether the First Certificate in English is the most suitable for you, you’d like to go through this post:
Do you need further help with your preparation? Please contact me: I’ve been turning English-speaker into Cambridge English qualification holders from all walks of life for decades now.
I wish you to obtain this very result in your FCE exam:
Be vigilant, be brave, be polyglot. 👍
Your personal prep teacher, 😉