Teacher Guide: How to Prepare Students for Oral Exams

Written by: Larry Walder



Time to read 5 min

There are plenty of online resources and videos which give students advice on how to prepare for oral English exams (see our Student Guide: How to Prepare for Oral Exams blog) and I have written a summary of the top ten tips in the paragraph below. However, the main part of this post will be focused on how we as teachers can ensure that our students are prepared for, and are confident in, the skills needed to negotiate presentations and oral exams.

Top ten tips for students:

  1. Practise, practise, practise!
  2. Know what you are expected to do.
  3. Be punctual and dress appropriately.
  4. Speak slowly and clearly.
  5. Listen carefully to the examiner and/or speaking partners.
  6. Ask for clarification if necessary, using good English.
  7. Make sure your talk or presentation has a good structure.
  8. Keep to the task.
  9. Pay attention to body language.
  10. Use visual aids wisely.

Now let’s look more closely at some of those headings and think about how we as teachers can best prepare our students in those areas. The main focus of this post is on the talks and presentations students have to give as part of their exams, but most of the advice applies to other aspects of oral exams as well.

1. Practise, practise, practise!

Having to talk and present in English should come as no shock to our students. Obviously, in the run-up to the exam, we will encourage our students to practise their prepared talks as often as possible before the exams begin. As teachers, we can offer tips and suggestions to improve talks and presentations. Other students can also be used as a critical but constructive audience and can test their peers with questions. But the real practice comes much earlier in the student’s school career. From the youngest and earliest levels, our students should know that they will be expected to speak in every lesson. By the time they are practising talks or presentations for an exam, giving clear and structured information in English should be second nature to them. Whatever the age or level of our students when we first meet them, we need to get them used to speaking and presenting in English in every lesson. They also need to overcome any fear of speaking in front of others. By the time they come to revise and prepare a talk for a serious exam, we should be able to concentrate on honing the subtle points of grammar, vocabulary, structure and pronunciation rather than overcoming the fear of speaking publicly in English. So, “Practise, practise, practise,” should be a mantra for both our students and ourselves from the first time we meet in the classroom. I often use the Discuss This cards from TEFL-Toolkit to instigate teaching activities in class.

2 & 3. Know what you are supposed to do

In order for your students to know exactly what is required of them, the teacher needs to be fully informed first. Exam requirements can change, and they can vary from exam board to exam board, region to region, season to season, and person to person. It is worth keeping in touch regularly with whomever is going to be testing your students in case any small details or requirements change. Make sure you are aware of administrative requirements as well as academic ones; for example, what kind of paperwork or I.D. should your students bring with them to the exam centre? Administrative requirements may also include point 3 from the list above, ensuring that students arrive on time for their exam and dress appropriately.

The remaining points all refer to the content, structure and manner of speaking during an oral exam or presentation.

4. Speak slowly and clearly

I always tell my students that it is better to sound unnaturally slow rather than nervously fast. When presenting information in any context, it is essential that the information can be heard and understood. Nervous students tend to speak more quickly than normal so it might be an idea to empower your students with some breathing or relaxation exercises to do before the exam or presentation begins. I usually act out some presentations speaking too fast and then slower than normal so that the students can see and hear for themselves which way is better.

5 & 6. Listen Carefully and ask for clarification

I try to drum it into my students that listening is as important as speaking even in oral exams and presentations. Before coming up to oral exams I try to do a few tricky listening tests that focus on following instructions. These will be activities that they will get wrong unless they listen carefully and ask for clarification whenever necessary. It could be something as simple as dictating telephone messages which include names, addresses and phone numbers. I try to make the point that no matter how good their English is, if they don’t follow the examiner’s instructions or answer the specific question put to them, they will probably lose marks. I also reassure them that there are extra points to be won by using the correct phrases to ask for clarification.

Rather than fear the examiner, encourage students to use him or her as a resource who is bound to give marks when they hear appropriate phrases and questions. For example, if the student says ‘I’m sorry I didn’t quite catch that, could you repeat the question please,’ they might get more marks than if they simply answered the question without asking for clarification.

7 & 8. Good structure and keeping to task

I find the best way to monitor and improve my student’s ability to structure their presentations or talks is to have a lot of practice writing argumentative essays. In written compositions, you can see structure more clearly, and from your marking, the students can see what they have done well and where they need to improve. Talks and presentations are an extension of skills developed in writing. It is also much easier in essays to point out where students have wandered off task and given information that is irrelevant or confusing.

Depending on the type of talk or presentation needed, I encourage my students to begin with an essay on that theme which can later be adapted to an oral presentation. Also, I frequently model presentations with lots of mistakes and bad structure so that the students can correct and reorder them appropriately.

9. Pay attention to body language

Videos are an excellent way to show how body language, eye contact and use of gestures can help or detract from a good presentation. There are hundreds of such videos available online from various exam bodies and institutions. You could also make your own videos in class or include some drama activities in which students have to either avoid or over emphasise particular aspects of body language such as ‘no eye contact’ or ‘too much fidgeting’.

10. Use visual aids wisely

This is an area that sometimes needs to be taught didactically with a lot of examples. As the teacher, you need to be well-versed in what kind of visual aids the students are allowed or expected to use in particular exams or presentations. Whether it be simple photographs or sophisticated PowerPoint presentations, any visual aids should add to the information being given. They can also be used as prompts to help the students structure their talk. You need to emphasise that all visual aids should be relevant to the argument being made.