Dealing with complexity
in Part 2 of the Speaking exam at Cambridge Certificate in
Advanced English (CAE) level
by Sandra Bradwell
How can we help students become effective in this skill?
Richards (1990:76) mentions two main approaches to teaching
conversation. The first is an indirect approach which sees
conversational competence as 'the product of engaging learners
in conversational interaction', designing activities whereby
students can interact with the language, through information-gap
type activities, discussions. The second is a direct approach
which 'focuses explicitly on the processes and strategies
involved in casual conversation' (ibid:77) Thanks to the research
which has been carried out by linguists (Brown and Yule 1983;
Cook 1989; Richards 1990) and corpus data, we know that conversation
is not a haphazard activity but highly organised, requiring
skills and strategies on the part of the speaker and the listener.
Dörnyei and Thurrell (1992) in a very practical book
explain how conversation works and suggest many practical
2). We must provide opportunities for learners to become
aware of these skills and strategies and create meaningful,
varied contexts whereby they can put them into practice.
So what are the implications in the classroom?
The most important factor is to provide a classroom environment
that builds confidence and trust while maximising opportunities
for developing the speaking skill. A low affective filter
can maximise learning. Teachers sharing anecdotes so that
students share their own anecdotes in pairs or small groups
leads to students taking more interest in each other. There
is a desire to participate when the teacher, exploiting student
interests, personalises activities as much as possible. Penny
Ur 'we must supply the need for students to relate to the
subject and to interact with each other'. Brumfit (1984:77)
'Small groups provide greater intensity of involvement, so
that the quality of language practice is increased, ..The
setting is more natural than that of the full class, for the
size of the group resembles that of normal conversational
groupings. Because of this, the stress which accompanies 'public'
performance in the classroom should be reduced'. This takes
pressure off the shy or under-confident students and ensures
they gain valuable speaking practice.
Materials and activities must be relevant and varied to enable
a combination of skill getting and skill using activities.
It is important to design activities with information gaps
or jigsaw features which involve sharing of information. They
create a real 'need' to communicate, but also activate useful
language skills for negotiating meaning, asking and giving
opinions. If we remind students of this, activities have the
dual purpose of developing language learning and developing
speaking skills: conversational strategies such as paraphrasing,
circumlocution, as well as giving practice in openings, turn
taking, interrupting. Communication games such as describe
and draw , find the difference can develop these skills as
well as adding fun to the learning situation. Sequencing communicative
tasks systematically, building on what students know to extend
their repertoire gradually, is also important for learning
to be effective.
We need to be creative to maximise resources at our disposal
- video, BBC world service, fellow teachers, songs. If learners
wish to gain in fluency, they need to have exposure to features
typical of spoken language and time to reflect on these features.
Listening to natural speech and exposure to a variety of accents
will facilitate listening but highlighting features of natural
speech in the transcripts will help students become aware
of these features and improve their speaking skills. As Dörnyei
and Thurrell (1992:x) point out 'if learners are conscious
of the strategies they could use and the pitfalls they should
avoid, and if they have a wide repertoire of set expressions
and conversational formulae on hand, they are likely to make
much faster progress towards becoming relaxed and polished
conversationalists'. Most course books at advanced level suggest
students discuss topics in pairs to involve students in the
subject matter but provide little help with the lexis or natural
language needed to carry out these tasks effectively. Speaking
about the subject matter will help students become more fluent
but it will not help their conversational skills or develop
greater linguistic complexity. More and more emphasis is placed
in language teaching on awareness or consciousness raising
(C-R) activities. Willis and Willis (1996: 67/76) point out
'There are two ways C-R can help. The first is by making the
students conscious of what knowledge is invoked in carrying
out a given task. The second is by helping them to organize
their language in a way which will help them tap this knowledge.'
Students may not immediately put into practice features that
have been brought to their attention, but if they notice features,
they may be conscious of them in future input. Posters in
class, cue cards or checklists actively encourage some students
to use the expressions or features.
One of the great difficulties is to improve pronunciation.
Firstly it is important to raise students' consciousness of
prominence or sentence stress in continuous speech when listening.
This bottom-up approach will help focus learners on perceiving
the alternation of strong and weak syllables, and the reduction
of unstressed syllables to heighten their awareness of speech
rhythms. Once they are familiar with the idea that the content
words generally carry the stress, like a telegram, students
can be encouraged to predict stress and divide discourse into
sense groups. Helping students become familiar with linking
and weak forms and occasionally doing controlled 'shadow reading'
activities where they read with the cassette can help them
produce speech like the model and sound more 'English'. Taping
students regularly and transcribing their conversation with
hesitations marked by pauses (
.) can also help them
realise they hesitate too much (Appendix
1). By providing a model of the conversation on cassette,
emphasising the sense groups and natural pauses, we provide
learners with opportunities to imitate a more natural way
of speaking and make improvements in this area.
To be confident in Part 2 of the CAE speaking exam students
need to be aware of what is expected of them in terms of the
structure of the exam and task demand. Guy Cook (1989:49)
mentions '..the language learner, in order to be able to operate
effectively as a participant in discourse, needs to be able
both to identify what type of discourse he or she is involved
in, and to predict how it will typically be structured.' According
to the CAE examiner's report, failure to listen carefully
to what they are asked to do frequently leads to poor performance,
therefore it is essential to train students to listen to and
repeat instructions. Additionally it is important to teach
them strategies for asking for clarification or repetition
if they have not understood the task.
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