exams

How to Pass the FCE Speaking Exam (Tips from an Examiner)

Ever wanted a certificate that proves you are a B2 level English speaker? If so, the FCE speaking exam could be the IELTS alternative you are looking for. The First Certificate in English is a B2 level Cambridge exam. In this study guide, I am going to explain how the speaking exam works and give you my secret tips on how to pass it!

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What you will learn:
My name is Tom and I have been helping students pass the FCE exam for more than 6 years. I have also been a speaking examiner for this exam for more than 3 years. In this study guide, I am going to share with you my insider tips and experience to help you get the best possible score.

 

How is the FCE Speaking exam structured?

The First Certificate Cambridge exam includes 4 different parts: Reading & Use of English, Listening, Writing, and Speaking. During the FCE Speaking test, 2 or 3 candidates are assessed at the same time.

When 2 candidates are being assessed, the duration is 14 minutes, whereas for 3 candidates it takes 20 minutes. This is so each candidate has enough time to speak and give the examiner and assessor an accurate picture of their level.

Content and length of each part of the speaking exam:
Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4
ContentGetting to know you60 second monologueDiscussion with partner(s)Further questions
2 Candidates2 minutes 4 minutes 4 minutes 4 minutes
3 Candidates3 minutes6 minutes5 minutes6 minutes
FCE Speaking Part 1: Getting to know you

In Part 1, you have to answer some questions about yourself. That’s it. Imagine it is like a chat with someone you have just met, and that you are finding out about one another for the first time.

As examiners, we always ask questions like:

  • What’s your name?
  • Where are you from?
  • What do you like about living in candidate’s hometown?

We also like to ask about your likes and dislikes in the context of hobbies, food, films and TV, books, holidays and education or work. Sometimes we might ask you about the future or achievements you are proud of.

 

FCE Speaking Part 2: 60 second monologue

This is the part of the speaking exam that most candidates worry about!

  1. The examiner shows you two pictures and a question to answer (about these pictures)
  2. You have 15 seconds of thinking time before you start speaking
  3. Then you have 60 seconds to compare the pictures and answer the question
  4. After that, your partner is asked a question about the topic of the pictures

For example, if the examiner shows you pictures of people travelling, the question might be: “Which way of travelling is more convenient for families?” After your 60 seconds, your partner might be asked: “Which type of transport do you prefer, and why?”

 

FCE Speaking Part 3: Discussion with partner(s)

Now we enter the section of the speaking exam that is all about interacting with your partner. For part 3, you will be shown a spider diagram with a question in the middle and 5 topics connected to it (see the picture in the video below).

  1. First, the examiner explains a situation to you and shows you the spider diagram
  2. Then you and your partner are given 15 seconds to look at the questions and the related topics before you begin
  3. You get 2 minutes to discuss the different topics in a pair, and 3 minutes if you are in a group of 3 candidates
  4. Then an extra minute, 90 seconds if you are a group of 3, to come to an agreement with your partner(s)

FCE Speaking Part 4: Further questions

During part 4, you will be asked questions based on the topic that you discussed in part 3.

  1. The examiner will ask you a question
  2. Then he/she will ask your partner if they agree/disagree, or what they think
  3. The examiner will then repeat this with a different question, but ask your partner first
  4. After this, the examiner will ask a question and then use a hand gesture to show they want you to talk together with your partner

Depending on whether candidate are shy or talkative, the examiner may ask you questions one by one, rather than letting you begin another random discussion yourselves. If you and your partner enjoyed the discussion in part 3, sometimes the examiner may let you continue this longer. However, the examiner will interrupt with another question if/when the discussion slows down or stops.


 

What should I expect on exam day?

When you arrive at the exam centre, there will be someone waiting to check your ID and give you a mark sheet. When it’s your turn, an examiner will call you into a room. They will ask to see your ID again, before you sit down with only your mark sheet and pen in front of you. When the test begins, the examiner will take the mark sheet from you to give to their colleague (the “silent assessor”). Your exam will then start…
 

What does the examiner want to hear from me?

In the speaking exam, there are actually two examiners present. One will be asking you the questions and one will be silent for the duration of the speaking exam. The “silent assessor” is the one who will be scoring your speaking based on 4 different criteria. The “main examiner” (who will be asking the questions) will give you a score for an general criterion called Global Achievement.

Everything the examiner wants can be found in the official FCE marking criteria. Sounds kind of boring, doesn’t it? But let me tell you a little secret: the keys to passing every exam are found in the marking criteria. This document can be long and complicated, but you should take the time to understand it fully before your exam!

Here is the criteria for the FCE Speaking exam. I have simplified the wording to make it clearer and easier for you to understand:

PronunciationGrammar & VocabularyDiscourse Management or FluencyInteractive Communication or Talking with your partnerGlobal Achievement or Overall performance
5 = C1“Sometimes I can’t hear an accent at all, and it is really easy to understand them.”“They know their stuff. Uncommon vocabulary AND complex structures, perfect!”“This person has only paused 3 or 4 times. They talk quite naturally.”“Worked well in their conversation to find an answer to the task.”“In general, they rarely paused, used some specific vocab and had a good conversation.”
4 = B2/C1Mix of above and below
3 = B2“They have an accent, but I can understand most of the time.”“They know the basics and have tried some complex stuff. It wasn’t perfect but they tried it.”“They paused a few times, but nothing longer than 5 seconds.”“Good conversation with their partner and used a bit of variety with their phrases.”“In general, some pauses, some almost perfect language and a good conversation.”
2 = B1/B2Mix of above and below
1 = B1“Couldn’t understand them sometimes.”“This person is finding it difficult to use the basics.”“Ok, that pause was like 15 seconds!”“They had a conversation but said ‘I agree’ too much.”“In general, too many pauses, not enough accurate language use, and just a basic conversation.”

Now let’s take a look in more detail at what examiners (like me!) want to hear from you in each part of the speaking exam.

Part 1: Getting to know you

Why does the speaking exam start with these types of questions? The main reason is: to make you feel more relaxed/comfortable. Speaking in a second, third or fourth language is all about confidence. If you start the exam answering simple questions about yourself, then this gives you a chance to “warm up” a little. This helps you prepare mentally for the more difficult parts of the exam that come later.

As these questions are about you, most of them use the present tense. If they use a different tense, try to copy this from the questions themselves, for example:

  • “When was the last time you did something fun with your friends?” – The use of was in the past simple indicates that this is the best tense to use in your answer.
  • “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” – Saying 5 years at the end of the question is a clear indicator that you need to use future tenses here. If you are sure about something, use will, as in: I will finish university in 5 years. If you are more hopeful (but not 100% sure), it’s better to use would: In 5 years, I would love to have a big house and a beautiful wife.
Part 2: 60 second monologue

“Discourse management” (or more simply: fluency) is the focus for this section of the exam. Cambridge want to see how fluently you can speak. Even a native English speaker might find it hard to talk about two random photos, so don’t feel bad if you have to pause once or twice during this exercise. Just don’t make your pauses longer than 4-5 seconds.

The main focus here is to compare and speculate, so you should start with the basic comparative forms, for example:

  • This city is more beautiful than that one / He is happier than her
  • Then throw in something more complex like: They are as bored as her
  • For speculation, use verbs like: think, believe, reckon.
  • Use modal verbs like: could, might, may if you’re not 100% sure about something. Use can, cannot, must if you are 100% sure.

Making obvious comparisons first can give you time to think of more complex points to add later. You don’t have to speak in a fast, unbroken manner for the whole 60 seconds. You can use “time filler phrases” like: Let me see…, I would probably say…, etc. or repeat the question the examiner has asked you: Why are these people enjoying the cinema?…well I’d say… You can even comment on the photos themselves: Wow, this looks like a lot of fun!

Part 3: Discussion with partner(s)

This part of the exam involves the most interactive communication. Once the examiner has explained the context/situation, the candidates take centre stage and talk with each other. If possible, you should try to forget that the examiner is in the room – focus 100% on your partner.

Don’t be afraid to express your opinions or to disagree (politely!) with your partner. If you both have the same opinion, then don’t copy each other word for word. Instead, try to use different language to express the same view point, but in another way.

 This section is all about two things:

  1. Expressing opinions and beliefs
  2. Agreeing and disagreeing

FCE Speaking Part 3 has a wide variety of possible topics to stimulate discussion. These include: education, family and health. Sometimes examiners also introduce topical subjects, such as: the environment, online shopping and the (over)use of mobile phones.

Part 4: Further questions

Section four continues the focus on “interactive communication”. The topics are the same (or similar) to those in part 3. However, as the questions are more specific, you should be prepared to answer in more detail/depth. This part of the speaking exam gives you a good opportunity to increase your score in the higher level bands.

Try using examples or personal experiences to support your points. You can even use metaphors or hypothetical situations to demonstrate your knowledge of more complex vocabulary and grammatical constructions.
 

Tom’s top tips to improve your FCE Speaking score!

1. Use Part 1 to warm up and settle your nerves

When you start the exam, the “silent assessor” will be busy filling in your details on the marking sheet for the first couple of minutes. This means he/she probably won’t be 100% focused on every detail of your opening few of answers. You can afford to make a couple of minor mistakes here while you warm up and settle your nerves. Keep your answers simple…and smile!

2. It’s ok to pause briefly or clarify the question

Some questions, especially in Part 1, can confuse or surprise candidates. For example, “Who are you most like in your family?” – this question is not asking who you like best in your family, it is asking which relative you are similar to in character/appearance.

If you get a confusing question like this on your exam and you aren’t sure what to say, you can ask the examiner to repeat the question again or use a “time filler phrase” like: Hmm, that is a good question… or Wow, I have never been asked that before!

One of the main rules that speaking examiners must follow is: “Stick to the script!” This means the examiner must read word-for-word from the official paper script and is not allowed to add anything extra or to paraphrase. If you don’t understand a question, you can ask the examiner to repeat it as many times as you want.

3. Always answer the question directly

In the speaking exam, you don’t have a lot of time so always focus on completing the task in front of you now. Stay on-topic and answer the question directly.

For example, something I tell all of my students for Part 2 is: “Don’t just describe the pictures!” The examiner has asked you to compare them, NOT describe them. Don’t waste time – start comparing immediately.

4. Practise how you will approach each part of the exam

It pays to have a strategy for each part of the FCE Speaking exam. Read up on common FCE topics and make sure you know the structure of each speaking section. Try to practise regularly with a “study buddy” or native English tutor.

Example of a winning strategy for Part 2:

  • Break up the 60 second monologue into 3 parts
  • Aim to spend 20 seconds on 1 comparison of the pictures. This will give you a total of 3 comparisons in the time allowed.
  • Try to use comparatives, but also modal verbs (more complex) so you can get a better score for “Grammar”.

Example of a good strategy for Part 3:

  • During the discussion with your partner(s), the examiner will show you a spider diagram with 5 topics. Aim to answer just 3 of these.
  • For each topic, give yourself enough time to state an opinion and reply to your partner’s viewpoint. If you feel like you have spent a lot of time on one topic, then move on. If the examiner stops you because the time has run out and you haven’t reached an agreement, don’t worry because this has no impact on your score.
5. Don’t use memorised answers (be more spontaneous instead!)

Cambridge always tells its examiners to give higher marks when a student is “spontaneous”. If you sound like you are reading your answers from a memorised script, then you won’t get a good score on the exam!

For example, one of the first questions in Part 1 is: “Where do you live?” But if you answer with: “I live in the city of London, it is a large multicultural city in the south of England with many neighbourhoods and parks. I love living there because…”, then the examiner will mark you down. This sounds like an answer copied from a textbook. Be more spontaneous, add some personal touches to your answer, and make it sound more like you.

6. Quality is more important than content

Never forget what the FCE is: a qualification to show how good you are at speaking English. The examiners are trying to see how good or bad your language skills are. The content just provides the context in which to demonstrate your ability. Therefore, the content itself is less important than the quality/accuracy of your English speaking. It must be relevant, but that is enough.

If you get asked about a good film you’ve seen recently or an interesting good book you’ve read, you can just invent a film or book! The examiner isn’t going to check it exists and lower your score if it doesn’t. The factual accuracy of what you say isn’t what is being tested on this exam. As long as it sounds plausible, that’s fine.

7. 93% of communication is body language

I love that fact! That’s a high percentage, right? Body language is an important part of any language. If you are staring at the floor with your arms crossed when you are speaking to your partner, it’s more difficult for the interaction to flow well. This can stop you from getting higher marks for interactive communication. Try to relax a little and express yourself verbally and non-verbally.

8. Sometimes “no answer” is the answer

It might not happen a lot, but sometimes you just don’t have an answer to a given question. In an exam preparation class many years ago, I did some test practice by asking random students some questions from the speaking exam…

I asked one girl: “Have you seen any good films recently?”

She went red, giggled and said: “No!”

The class laughed, and so did I. She began to get really worried and asked: “What if I have nothing to say about the question?” The answer is to explain WHY you don’t have anything to say about it! For example: “To be honest, I prefer watching Netflix series and right now I am watching Ozark, which is excellent”. Job done!

9. FCE Speaking examiners are humans too, you know!

You don’t have to wait for the exam to begin before you start talking to the examiners. If you say “Hello, how are you?” when you arrive and “Thanks, have a good day!” when you leave, then you will be remembered by the examiners as being friendly and engaging. This leaves a good impression, and it’s a polite thing to do.

Whether Cambridge admit it or not, this may have a small subconscious impact on the examiner. If there’s a borderline score, then making that extra effort to be friendly and communicative might just put you in a higher band.

Also remember that sometimes one FCE examiner might have to ask the same question over 25-30 times in one day! Give them some interesting answers to remember you by, add a little humour in places perhaps, don’t just say the same boring stuff as every other candidate.

10. Even native speakers correct themselves sometimes

Correcting yourself shows awareness of language and spontaneous speaking. Even natives occasionally make mistakes when speaking and have to correct themselves. Don’t feel bad for doing the same. Correct you error, don’t stress about it, move on.

Need professional help with your FCE Speaking exam? You’re in the right place! OTUK provides bespoke 1-to-1 exam preparation courses for FCE and other Cambridge examinations. Lessons are done online from the comfort of your own home with an experienced native British tutor. Contact us today to request your free consultation, and see how we can help you get a higher band score!

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Download: This blog post is available as a convenient and portable PDF that you can take anywhere. Click here to get a copy. (Download)

Tom Johnson — ESL Tutor
Tom J. —
ESL Tutor
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