ESL Oral Exams: Tips for Students and Teachers on Taking Them and Preparing for Them

When teaching English as a second language, one of the best forms of assessment available to teachers is the oral exam. It provides the necessary assessment to judge how well the student is able to apply their knowledge of the language in everyday conversation. It seems rather useless to test only a language students reading and writing skills as everyday application requires oral communication. Yet students are still highly confused about what is to be expected from an oral exam. In many cases students fail their exams due to easily avoidable grammatical errors or misunderstandings of what is expected. As such, it becomes a teachers job to not only teach the material, but to prepare each student for their oral exams in a way that doesn’t take the spontaneity from the questions that will be asked. So just how can a teacher do this? How can a teacher best prepare their students for an oral exam? And how can a student go on to prepare themselves? Below are some valuable tips for both teachers and students on taking and preparing for oral examinations.

One of the biggest mistakes students make during oral exams is to give one to two word answers. Although as native speakers we generally answer with a “yes” or “no” and rarely elaborate unless asked to do so, this isn’t appropriate during an oral exam. There is simply no way to gauge a students grasp of English with yes or no answers, so students need to be aware of this and encouraged to give not only complete sentences, but elaborate ones. Encourage them to expand on what they’ve said. Simply put, they should not only answer the question, but give a “why” as well. This allows the examiner to really see how the student uses the language and applies grammar rules to create, or not create, solid fluency.

This first fact also helps students with the second. It is imperative that students understand that their answer should contain at least part of the question. Sure, this helps with creating a complete sentence, but more than that, the tense of the question nearly gives you the tense you need to use. If the question is a conditional question, you answer with a conditional. Likewise, if the question is in past tense, the student should answer in past tense. Teaching the students this simple skill can make not only oral exams easier, but everyday conversation faster and easier. This rule can be applied in many different situations, so encourage it as much as possible. As soon as the student sees the connection between the question and the answer, the sooner their English will improve drastically!

Another important point, yet seemingly obvious, is to teach the students the standards behind their oral exam. Many times students go into an exam and know nothing about what is expected of them or how it is graded. Knowing this information can be extremely important. Granted, this point isn’t applicable in everyday conversation, but for a student seeking to pass their ESL class this point can make a great deal of difference. Students should know how they are being graded, so at the beginning of class, as well as before the exams, review the grading structure. If students are being graded on pronunciation, fluency, grammar, vocabulary, and content, explain each category and give them examples of answers that are poor, acceptable, and extraordinary. Allow the students to see the difference between a good answer and a poor one. With an example of what it expected students are more likely to have a clear picture of the mentioned expectations. Additionally, it is important that the students have a clear understanding of the grading structure so they don’t think the oral exam is completely subjective. True, each grader is an individual, however, with clear standards laid out the student can be graded fairly without the uncertainty or inconsistency between graders that subjectivity promotes.

Moreover, practice! There is no need for a student to go into an oral exam, especially a final oral exam, completely cold. Have a practice test in class in which you ask each student several questions. This can be done separately or as a class. The goal of doing this is to give them a chance to practice giving answers off hand, applying the techniques previously listed (such as listening for a specific tense and using it in the answer), and a means of critiquing or pre-assessing the student before the exam. In this way, both teacher and student can obtain an idea of where the student’s strong and weak points lie. Without a doubt, this is an extremely important study tool for the student and can really improve their performance on both the exam and overall application of the language.

The key to a student’s success on an oral exam lies not only in the student’s ability to perform, but the teacher’s efforts in preparing them for it. A well prepared and well studied student can go on to pass the oral exam and apply these techniques to everyday use of the language, while a student who spends little time preparing will likely perform poorly and quickly forget the principles taught. Success lies in knowledge and hard work, and preparation and study will allow the student the knowledge they need to not only pass one oral exam, but retain the information to pass many.

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