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Dealing with complexity in Part 2 of the Speaking exam at Cambridge Certificate in
Advanced English (CAE) level
by Sandra Bradwell
- 1

'Becoming a more effective communicator is not simply a matter of practising the spoken language; practice certainly helps, but the real improvements come from planning how to approach a speaking task and evaluating how well you spoke' Lynch/Anderson (1992:1) It is also essential to be in a 'language rich' environment where the teacher's role is to push learners to complex and varied language use instead of allowing them to fall back on a very limited range of expression.

Most students at advanced level can express what they want and need to say in English. Students who have been to an English-speaking country can generally speak more fluently and confidently and have developed a lot of the strategies inherent in normal conversation because they have had many opportunities for interacting with people and a greater exposure to English in a natural setting. Students who have not had this opportunity need to watch videos, exploit satellite television and radio broadcasts and maximise opportunities for speaking in the classroom. For students preparing the CAE exam, it is not sufficient to have a good command of English, they need to be trained in and develop skills which are demanding for a native speaker. Part 2 of the CAE speaking exam requires students to compare and contrast photos and then speculate or hypothesize about what people are doing in a minute. 'The inability to take up long turns in conversation is a feature of many second language speakers' according to Richards (1990:70). Consequently a lot of work needs to be done to prepare learners for this very demanding task.

Let us consider some of the problems.

Environment is the first major problem. Studying three hours a week in the native country provides little exposure to natural English. Unless students use English at work, they have to make a conscious effort to watch films, listen to the news. It can be difficult for teachers to find resources. Cassettes or videos accompanying course books provide very few authentic, unscripted dialogues or conversations. This means a lot of time and effort needs to be invested to find appropriate materials and exploit them effectively. Speaking, unlike writing, has many features which are difficult to record or transcribe due to its very nature and this complicates the task for the teacher. For newly qualified teachers it is a huge task.

Another problem is motivation. The higher the level, the more difficult it is to perceive progress. Learning a language is hard work and improving speaking skills is a slow process when students attend class for so few hours a week. It can be frustrating.

Some personal factors can hinder the learning process: shyness, lack of confidence, nerves. These can be dealt with in the right learning environment. However, some students can be over concerned with accuracy and find it difficult to achieve fluency, other students can be very fluent and not pay enough attention to accuracy. The teacher needs to help students become aware of the handicap of these two extreme behaviours.

Let us move on to specific problems with the skill and with Part 2 of the speaking exam in particular.

Bygate (1987:3) distinguishes between a student's knowledge of the language and their skill in using the language. He goes on to separate skills into 'motor-perceptive skills' which 'involve perceiving, recalling, and articulating sounds and structures of the language' and 'interaction skills' which 'involve making decisions about communication: what to say, how to say it, and whether to develop it, in accordance with one's intentions, while maintaining the desired relations with others.'(ibid:6) The nature of speech and the demands it puts on learners: the time pressures, the grammatical and lexical choices to be made, the rapid planning and execution needed to be effective, the role as listener and importance of understanding, all contribute to the complexity of the skill. Helping students bridge the gap between 'linguistic competence' and 'communicative competence' is an extremely complex task.

Features of pronunciation in the native tongue can cause problems. Spanish is a syllable-timed language and this often transfers into English making it sound very jerky. Students may pause or hesitate too much. This is especially the case with shy students who speak little or hesitantly in their own language (Appendix 1). A narrower voice range can sometimes make students sound uninteresting or uninterested.

Awareness of body language and turn-taking conventions are also important in communication between people from different countries, since their cultural expectations and experience will tend to make them interpret these non-verbal signals in different ways. It is easy for some students to be considered rude.

Part 2 of the speaking exam is especially demanding because of the cognitive demands of the task and the time constraints imposed. It involves sustaining a 'long turn' for a minute, with little time to prepare, in exam conditions. Students need to be capable of using formal spoken discourse, with complex noun phrases, rich vocabulary and a variety of expressions in order to make an impact on the examiner. Learners need to prepare it well.

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