A web site for the developing language teacher

Discourse Analysis, Advanced Learners
and the Cambridge CPE Exam
by Alex Case
- 2

Paper 4 - Listening
In looking at this paper, I was especially looking for two things. Firstly, as someone who is reaching a fairly high level in my second language, I tend to find that what I do not understand in conversations with groups of native speakers or in the media is not the 'language' so much as the 'shared knowledge'. It is interesting to see how much this 'shared knowledge' of native speakers is necessary to pass the exam, especially as I was told on first starting to teach this level that 'it's all about them finding out who Mrs Thatcher, Milk Snatcher is'. The text includes several examples of this (see Appendix 1), including references to a miners' strike. The actual questions seem to deliberately avoid these points, however, as do most EFL materials. This seems fair in a world where sources such as CNN contain far less of such things than the texts analysed here, but the question remains whether students managing to pass even this exam would still find themselves lost in a group conversation with native speakers, and if so how much this should be taught. Given the sheer volume of such information in authentic texts, the teacher has little choice than to deal with it as it comes up.

The second point was if students' understanding of native speakers' use of stress and intonation was tested. Although one of the questions focuses specifically on someone's reaction, all of the questions could be answered simply by reading the tapescript. Tone of voice did give important clues, however, especially in the second text where the speaker 'grudgingly agreed' etc.

The Speaking paper brings up an interesting point are far as the testing of students' mastery of discourse are concerned. The test seems to test the student's ability to speak in a long turn much more than their mastery of turn taking. When I taped native speakers doing CPE speaking tasks, the first thing that became clear was their unwillingness to produce long strings of improvised speech. The second is a clear pattern of techniques used to give thinking time, especially repeating or re-phrasing of the question, something language learners seem unwilling to do. The third is a lack of overall structure to each piece of discourse. Again, I have found that students guided to use their common sense and think about a format such as 'describe person, describe setting, make suppositions' do this better than an uncoached native speaker.

Part Two of the Speaking provides students with the opportunity to talk about where a piece of text might have come from and how it ties in with the general theme. Whilst students are being tested, quite rightly, on their language rather than their ability to analyse the text, this does provide a perfect opportunity to start students start analysing language as discourse in a way that shows instant relevance to the exam. See the attached lesson plan for one way to start this process.

The lack of interaction in the test poses the same question as in the Listening. If the students are not being trained for conversation with native speakers- something which, after all, provides for endless challenge- what exactly is the test for? The answer seems to be, again, English for academic purposes, in this case perhaps university tutorials.

The tools that discourse analysis give us seem to be very important for the CPE exam, very obviously in the writing paper and more subtly but just as strongly in the reading. In fact, as important as it is simply to pass the exam, the weaknesses of the exam as a general test of English, such as the lack of interaction in the Speaking, are precisely where students are not being tested on things such as turn taking, and hence where the teacher could let their students down by concentrating too much on the exam. It will be interesting to see how the revised exam responds to these short-comings.


(1) 'Discourse Analysis' Brown and Yule, CUP 1983
(2) 'Introducing Discourse Analysis' David Nunan, Penguin 1993
(3) 'Cambridge CPE Handbook', UCLES
(4) 'Advanced Masterclass CAE' T.Aspinall and A.Capel, OUP
(5) 'Distinction' Mark Foley and Diane Hall, Nelson

Appendix 1 Part One
Analysis of June 1992 CPE Paper

Results from analysis of text

· Wide range of referring expressions ( at the time, the event, their etc.)
· Wide range of conjunctions (however, but etc.)
· Two large lexical sets: 1) agriculture/ hunting and gathering ( the offerings of the animal and plant kingdom, food source, cultivating, irrigation etc.)
2) groups of people ( family unit, tribe, camp etc.)
· Text seems to follow format of 'setting the scene (before change), false start, first faltering steps in right direction, big step, how big step happened.'

Results from analysis of questions

· 3 questions (26, 27, 30) test mainly vocabulary, of which one ( 'seasonal offerings.....') is a synonym of other expressions in text, therefore helped by knowledge of lexical chains. Other two aided by examination of referring expressions.
· 1 question easier to answer with knowledge of overall structure of text above

Appendix 1 Part Two
Analysis of June 1992 CPE Paper

Results from analysis of text
Possible culturally specific references in text

· The (a) miners' strike
· The Consumers' Association
· The growth of 'green products' in western nations
· The idea of small shops competing with supermarkets


Alex Case is working as Senior Teacher (Materials and Teacher Development) and a freelance EFL writer in Tokyo, after working in Turkey, Thailand, Spain, Greece, Italy and the UK. He is also Reviews Editor of and you can comment on this article and other TEFLy things on his blog- "TEFLtastic with Alex Case" (

Back to the first page

To the lesson plan

Back to the articles index

Back to the top

Tips & Newsletter Sign up —  Current Tip —  Past Tips 
Train with us Online Development Courses    Lesson Plan Index
 Phonology — Articles Books  LinksContact
Advertising — Web Hosting — Front page

Copyright 2000-2016© Developing