Format of FCE Speaking Part Two/ What students need to do in FCE Speaking Two
After simply answering personal questions in Speaking Part One, students really get down to business in the second part of the FCE Speaking test, which is an extended speaking task where each student speaks uninterrupted for a minute. Unlike the personalised tasks with written prompts of exams like IELTS and BULATS, for some reason in the FCE the task always involves comparing and contrasting two colour photos and then making some kind of comment on them, explained by the examiner in words like:
“In this part of the test, I’m going to give each of you two photographs. I’d like you to talk about your photographs on your own for about a minute, and also to answer a short question about your partner’s photos.
Ozge, first it’s your turn. Here are your pictures, which show people posing for different kinds of photographs.
(examiner hands over the sheet with two colour photos with – since the 2008 update – the second question that they must answer written on it)
I’d like you to compare the photographs, and say how you think the people who are having their photos taken probably feel. All right?
(after the candidate finishes or interrupting after just over a minute)
Bridget, have you ever had a formal portrait photo?
(after the candidate finishes answering or after 30 seconds)
Now, Bridget, here are your photos…”
The photos given to the second candidate are usually unrelated to those of the first candidate. The short question asked to the person listening is not the same as the second question that the person speaking must answer, and it doesn’t usually rely on having listened to their partner speak, nor even usually to look at the photos closely. For both people, being interrupted by the examiner while they are still speaking is fine, and maybe even a good sign that they had plenty to say. However, the main person speaking should at least get onto the second question (“and say how you think the people who are having their photos taken probably feel” above).
Common sentence stems for the shorter questions include “and say why you think people are…ing in these places/ ways” and “and say how useful you think it is for… to do these things”. Common questions for the person listening include “Which place would you prefer to…?”, “Do you enjoy…?” and simply “Do you…?” (meaning “Do you often…?”).
What students need to do to do well in FCE Speaking Part Two
The first thing to notice about the questions is that the word “describe” is not used at all. Therefore in the first (and main) part of the speaking task, the candidate should concentrate on comparing the two pictures as they have been told to. This can, and probably should, include talking about both similarities and differences, and I recommend that every sentence or pair of sentences that they come up with should compare or contrast the two photos. It is also theoretically possible to describe one picture for twenty seconds or so, then switch to the other and compare and contrast it with the first one. However, timing is difficult when you do it this way and it’s almost impossible to make sure that the things you say about the first picture are things that turn out to be relevant when comparing the second picture with it. In my experience, students trying to do this are also much more likely to run out time before even getting onto the second question.
These “compare not describe” instructions mean that phrases sometimes taught in FCE books like “in the top right corner” and “in the background” are of very little use – and sometimes actually dangerous as they usually lead to descriptions which are impossible to compare with the other picture. Instead, what students most need is language to compare and contrast. In approximate order of how useful it is likely to be in this part of the exam, language that should be taught and practised includes:
Note that actual comparatives as taught in almost every EFL textbook like “The guy in the top photo looks much more relaxed than the girl in the bottom one” are quite difficult to use in FCE Speaking Part Two, and students are unlikely to be able to come up with more than one or two such statements. They would therefore be better off concentrating on the language for talking about similarities and differences from higher up in the list above. Note also that superlatives are wrong with just two things to talk about.
Students are unlikely to be able to use “on the other hand” (because they are not comparing in order to choose one) and “on the contrary” is completely wrong in this task. “However”, “Despite”, “In spite of”, “Even though”, “Though” and “Although” are likely to be useless for similar reasons. “Nevertheless” and “Nonetheless” can only be used when summarising how similar or different they are in sentences like “Nonetheless, they aren’t really that similar” – something that isn’t really necessary unless they run out of things to say.
Students will need to make sure they use a range of language, preferably not repeating any comparing and contrasting phrases at all. For that reason, I generally suggest that they leave simple phrases like “but” until later in the minute of speaking, at which point they will probably be running out of ideas. Although “and” is used by native speakers to contrast things in normal speech, I recommend students avoid it because of how low level and sometimes confusing its use can be.
As seen in one of the example phrases above, another kind of language that candidates are likely to need is the language of speculation. For example, “This man is happier than this woman” is simply wrong, because it is impossible to know just from photos. Instead, they will need to use language like this (in approximate order of how useful it is likely to be in this part of the test):
The related phrases “some kind of…”/ “some sort of…” are also very useful.
Again, you might notice how the related grammar point that comes up in every textbook is far less useful than simpler phrases. In this case, this means modals of possibility/ probability like “must be” being much less useful than adverbs like “probably”. Students are also very unlikely to need negative expressions, as it isn’t really natural to say things like “He can’t be a serial killer” in this task!
The third major language point that comes up in this part of the exam is structuring their speaking with phrases like “The first thing that jumps out at you”, “One more similarity”, “Turning to the differences” and “As for the second question,…” This can be emphasised too much, as the Cambridge description of “Discourse management” in FCE focuses much more on not pausing too much and putting ideas together logically. It can also seem a bit forced when students make too much of an effort to use such phrases. I therefore probably wouldn’t teach it or do practice activities specifically for this point, but it’s something well worth giving feedback on after students’ practice this task. As I’ve done above, you can also include this kind of language in the speculating and comparing/ contrasting phrases that you present.
Other discourse management phrases that could be useful include, in approximate order of how much so:
If they finish too quickly, they might also want to say “Going back to comparing,…”
Another kind of functional language they might need is confirming/ check phrases when they don’t understand the second question written on the card or the question after their partner speaks (the other “I’d like you to compare…” question always being the same). This is far more important in other parts of the test, especially Speaking Part Four, but if you haven’t presented it before it is worth getting in early.
They might also be able to comment on what their partner said with phrases like “Like Maria Jesus, I think this guy seems a bit bored, and I’d feel the same way so…” This again is more likely to come up in other parts of the exam but might be worth a mention here.
If students run out of ideas, one possible tip is for them to contrast things that they can say with a fair amount of certainty about one picture with things they can’t be sure about the other with sentences like “I’m pretty sure the man in the top picture is satisfied with his meal, but I have no idea the couple in other photo feel”.
Although students only really need one tense and should in fact be consistent once they have chosen one, there is a choice of talking about things happening in the photo with Present Continuous (“It looks like he is enjoying his drink”) or with past tenses because of course the photo was taken in the past. Especially with extended speaking, the former seems more natural to me – and also brings in a tense that students are unlikely to need much in the rest of the exam. The examiner also uses the Present Continuous to ask the shorter question.
Students who aren’t speaking should look at the person who is and listen to what is being said just in case they can mention something from it when they answer the short question for the person speaking (although this actually being possible is quite rare in Speaking Part Two).
I probably wouldn’t present “the foreground” etc for the “compare, don’t describe” reason given above and anyway it is okay to point at “This picture” etc, but it probably is worth teaching “The top photo”, “The one underneath”, “This part of the picture”, etc. Unfortunately, once they’ve said “photo”, “photograph” and “picture” they will have to repeat or use simpler referencing expressions like “this one here” as other expressions like “pic”, “picky”, “snap” and “the former/ latter” don’t sound very natural here. Because of the “compare, don’t describe” advice, students also don’t really need subject-specific vocabulary.
Classroom practice of FCE Speaking Part Two
As with all kinds of exam practice in class, the most important thing is to make it as realistic as possible. The most important thing is to get students used to answering both questions in one minute (or at least starting on the second question in that time), and I never do this task without timing and interrupting them at just over a minute. I also insist on comparing and contrasting (rather than describing) from day one, and it is well worth the extra expense to always use colour photos to get them used to this aspect of the exam. You can easily find photos to match almost any topic in your class or textbook (e.g. the reading text which you cover before or after Speaking Part Two practice), but don’t emphasise the topic specific language that could come up too much.
When it comes to presenting and practising the language above, one thing students could do is rank one or more of the lists of useful language above (comparing and contrasting, speculating, etc) by how likely they are to be able to use it while doing this task, then compare with your suggested order. With a different selection, students can also rank them by how sure the person speaking is or how similar or different the two things being compared are.
These ranking tasks are easier to do and more fun if the phrases are given on pieces of paper to put into columns on the table. Students can then deal out those pieces of paper and try to use them during a speaking task, feeding back on which ones actually turned out to be easiest to use.
With classes who would benefit most from being pushed to use more and higher level language, you could give them points for using phrases that no one had used so far, including even more points for more obscure speculating and comparing phrases.
The game above works best if students take turns making statements about the same pair of photos, something that is also worthwhile practice more generally despite it not being extended speaking, as it really helps students stick to comparing and contrasting. Students can take turns trying to find more and more comparisons between the two photos, or they can set challenges for each other by making a statement about one photo including an aspect that their partner must mention when then talking about the other one.
It is also possible and useful to sometimes set it up as a pairwork communication task, with each person having one of the two photos and getting them to find similarities and differences without showing them to each other. This makes it easier for students to combine both speculating and comparing, with the initial statements that they make needing the former and then working together to achieve the latter. You can also let them speculate about their one photo in pairs before changing groups to do the blind comparisons thing with someone else.
The extended nature of speaking in this part of the test makes it the most suitable for classroom analysis of recordings or transcripts of candidates’ answers. They can judge:
- Staying on topic
- Range of language (especially not repeating)
- Spending the right amount of time on the two parts of the task
- Structuring the answer
Especially if you edit it to make it worse, they can also try to improve on the performance shown in a (real or imaginary) transcript. For example, you could take out all comparison, speculating and/ or discourse management language and get them to put it back in. You could also have them correcting actual grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation mistakes such as minimal pairs and false friends. However, students often have too much of an emphasis on avoiding mistakes already, and those who lack fluency and/ or confidence wouldn’t benefit from this at all.
An alternative is to get students to replace expressions in the text with something at least as good, maybe underlining the ones that you want them to look at.
You can link from transcripts to other parts of the exam by designing a Use of English task around one, with Part One (multiple choice open cloze) and Part Two (open cloze) being the easiest. Something similar can also be done with individual useful phrases, e.g. sentence transformations with speculating language, but you’ll need to make sure you don’t go too far away from phrases that are actually useful in this part of the exam in order to ensure that students don’t try to say “It must have been…” in the speaking.
You can also link to other tasks through choice of the topic of the photos. This is possible for almost any part of the exam, e.g. a Use of English text on the same topic, but is probably best with Speaking Part Three as they can use almost exactly the same comparing and speculating language in that task too. However, you might want to point out that Speaking Part Two and Speaking Part Three never have the same topic in a real exam, with Part Three being rather linked to Part Four.