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5 Steps to Beat Oral Exam Nerves – Keep Calm and Nail it!

Updated: Mar 8

I know that this is the most nerve-wrecking element of the entire exam. I too sat there in the corridor trying to talk myself into calmness before my name was called for French, Spanish and Italian oral exams. I would curse myself for having chosen three languages at GCSE level and then two at A Level and yet another at university. Nonetheless, I got through them, all 16 … survivor! After completing a couple, you get to know the process:

beating oral exam nerves

1. talk to yourself all week in your target language - in your head when in public or that would be weird…

2. desperately (and unsuccessfully) demand your brain to switch off the night before exam day

3. force a breakfast

4. silently catastrophize in your morning classes

5. turn into a bag of nerves in the language department corridor

Despite this daunting build up, I knew that the nerves would dissipate as soon as I settled into the exam and they always did. At the end of the day, it is just a chat.

The right preparation is fundamental for giving you confidence in your oral exam, which is directly linked to performance. I may have gone through two deodorant cans in the 20 minutes leading up to entering the room, but when I was in there, I knew exactly how the next 15 minutes were going to play out. I had done my homework (both literally and metaphorically), I had studied the exam structure so as not to have any surprises, I had studied specific vocabulary relating to the exam topics, I had also repeated expressions so often that when the time was right, they just rolled off my tongue. Not only this, but I knew what the examiner was looking for so could score some easy points. Whilst preparing, I was lucky enough to have a competent practice buddy with a flare and talent for languages and although there was no-one there to correct our mistakes, it was useful speaking out loud. Not everyone is fortunate enough to have a twin, I am lucky enough to have been blessed with two, but there are a myriad of ways to gain confidence and practice, which we will discuss in this article.

5 Steps to Building Confidence

1. Know the exam structure

Usually your teacher will provide you with exam information, if they do not, ask them or Google. If you are a self-study student, look up the exam board and you will find the information on their site. I have done the research for you; the following links will take you directly to the respective exam board site: Cambridge, Trinity and IELTS. Having this information means that when the examiner asks you to do a task, there is no confusion or misunderstandings. It will help the exam go much more smoothly. It also means you can practice the skills required for each part. We will look at this in much more detail as we dissect the specific tasks and skills in Cambridge, Trinity and IELTS exams in future articles.

2. Know the mark scheme

You want to score top marks, right? In that case, you need to know how you are marked and what the examiner will be looking for in the exam. If you do not know how you will be assessed then how can you possibly hope to score in the top band? Here’s what you do… print a copy of the oral mark scheme and highlight content in your target band and start practicing your answers and longer dialogue around those key elements. In the oral exam, you are usually marked on lexical and grammatical range and accuracy, pronunciation, discourse management and interactive communication. Make a list of adverbs and linkers e.g. Luckily, unfortunately, firstly, apparently, basically, in spite of, therefore, as a result, seeing that, etc. (we’ll go into significant depth on linkers in our exam writing skills video), start saying sentences using these words. The more you practice slipping them into sentences the more automatic it will be in your exam. When you practice your listening skills, pay attention to how many linkers and adverbs you hear.

If you are aiming for the top mark band, make a list of idioms, phrasal verbs and collocations and do the same exercise as above. Even if you are just talking to yourself (aloud), it will help them roll out of your mouth with relative ease in your exam (check out my X (formerly Twitter) for daily idioms).

3. Know the exam topics

Each exam will have a list of topics e.g. the environment, home life, lifestyles, etc. You already know from analysing the mark scheme that you will be assessed on lexical range. For each exam topic make a mind map of vocabulary relating to the subject and then make links between the words (you will have to develop and expand on ideas within the subject, especially in your writing!). This exercise not only helps you gain points for using subject-specific lexis but also gives you the opportunity to practice linkers e.g. “Accelerated global warming is reported to be due to the use of fossil fuels” or “climate change leads to a myriad of global challenges…”. You can increase your topic vocabulary by listening to related podcasts or reading related articles.

Just a note for those preparing for the Trinity ISE – do not learn your topic by heart! I run multiple simulations throughout the year and it is clear when the candidate has memorised a speech, in fact, the examiner WILL interrupt you, ask questions about other parts of your topic and do what they can to prevent you from returning to your script. If you have learnt your topic this way, then you will be knocked off balance and lose points in the part of the exam, which is relatively easy. You should have bullet point notes under each heading, which serve only to organise your monologue into a logical structure.

4. The power of voice

When possible you should speak English aloud. This could include exercises like while you are getting ready for the day in the morning, talk to yourself about what you are doing at that moment, what you are going to do in the day and what you would like to do in the day. When you get home in the evening talk to yourself about what you did that day and what you would have done if you had not done those activities. This is a great exercise to practice different tenses every day. The examiner will fall off her chair if you add in some idioms from the above exercise and then just drop in a third conditional sentence!! You need to do this aloud so your mouth muscles are used to making those particular movements. If I can offer an analogy - you have to put together a simple table, you know how it needs to go together, you have the screws and the screwdriver but you are doing it for the first time. You will take much longer to do the task than the person who has built five tables a day for the past month; in fact, he can probably do it blindfolded. The fact that you have been training your mouth by making these sentences and using expressions on a daily basis means that they will come spontaneously during the exam; they will be on the tip of your tongue!

5. Simulate the exam

IELTS exam simulation FCE simulation CAE simulation mock speaking exam simulations

Lastly, now that you have done all the above exercises you are ready for the exam simulation. Ideally, you would do this with an ESL exam expert and someone you do not know to simulate the exam as closely as possible. This would also allow for feedback on your “performance” and advice on improvements and how to direct your studies. You could ask your local English centre if they provide such a service or do it online with Key & Compass English. If this is not a possibility for you, find another English learner and take turns being the examiner and the candidate. If this is still not an option, you can ask a non-English speaker to ask you written exam questions so at least you can practice your answers spontaneously and speaking in front of someone. If this is still not an option, in the worst-case scenario you can play a YouTube oral exam simulation, listening to the examiner and pausing the video to answer the questions.

To conclude, know the exam format to avoid surprises, know the mark scheme so you know how to get the top marks, write down and learn idioms, linkers, adverbs and topic-specific vocabulary, speak aloud using different tenses and simulate your exam! Practice makes perfect. I hope this article helps, follow the videos and watch out for more articles for exam part analysis and tips.

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