A Simple Inspiration Builder for Speaking Exams

by Alez Zagorac

Speaking exams, be it Cambridge Main Suite or any other, require training in exam strategies, for a simple reason: time limitation.  A candidate must structure their speech within a limited time frame so as to demonstrate a range of grammar and vocabulary, and also to have enough ideas to put forth when discussing the questions with their partner. However, many candidates, due to stress or other personal factors, simply run out of inspiration. To prevent that, and to help future candidates demonstrate the widest possible range of their speaking skills, I have designed a simple diagram, which keeps reminding them of their (numerous) options for speaking about any subject whatsoever.

Alex Zagorac diagram
Here is a question from FCE Part 1: “Do you like cooking?” [1]. Candidate O, a 32-year-old woman, answers before being introduced to the diagram (this conversation took place mid-course, so she was not a novice to the test format):Noticeable improvement

“Yes, I do. I usually cook for my children and husband…err.. I like preparing different types of food, such as Italian, Mexican… I also like baking cakes… and sometimes I like trying new things… like vegetable burgers and… stuff like that.”

As you can see, she sounds repetitive and, as she later confirmed, she was surprised by the “banality”of the question. In other words, the question was too general for a prompt response, or at least that is how she felt about it.  Then she was asked to look at the diagram and underline the points she might use to “enrich” her answer: for example, to use at least one more grammatical structure, other than the present simple. So, she underlined:

– in the “PEOPLE” section: family, relatives;

– in the “FACTS”: past;

– in the “PLACES” : country;

– in the “SPECULATIONS”: if  and  2nd Conditional.

She was given a minute to prepare, without making notes (but I would suggest note-making as a preparation stage with less confident students). This was what she said afterwards:

“Yes, I like cooking for my husband, just like my mother used to cook for my father: soups, vegetables, roast chicken and pork… We also like making barbecue, like so many people in Russia, especially on 1st May. If I had enough time I would try to cook something new every day, something from different countries, such as Mexican tacos, or Italian pizza…But unfortunately I have to work late, usually …”

Now, let us analyse how the second attempt differs  from the first one: here we have two more grammar structures (‘used to’ and 2nd Conditional), one of them regarded as complex (the conditional), and this can already be qualified as a range of grammatical forms; then, she incorporated a range of topics (her family, countrymen, working late…); that range helped her exhibit a clear organisation of ideas (emphasis on ideas-plural!); and, in turn, this clear organisation of ideas helped her speak with very little hesitation(important for Discourse Management mark) .

All the words in italics are taken or paraphrased from the speaking assessment scales in [2]. As you can see, at the very beginning of the Speaking Paper, she managed to cover five top-mark items, in as many as three sentences. Naturally, she would have to continue performing in the same, varied, manner to finish off with high marks, but the point is that the diagram keeps reminding her of different approaches to any topic whatsoever, thus combating stress, fatigue and – primarily! – lack of inspiration; not to mention that it helps her stretch her language abilities, imagination and creativity to the maximum. Also, there is a beneficial side-effect: students can allocate more attention to time tracking, which should help avoid being cut off by the interlocutor, i.e. fully completing the task at hand.

 Applicable to all age groups

Here is another example: a teenager answering a FCE Speaking Part 4 question: “Do you think you have to spend a lot of money to have a good holiday?”[3]

Before consulting the diagram:

“No… well, maybe yes, because all the famous destinations are very expensive. But, the best holiday is when you travel with your friends, and you can share cost, so it doesn’t have to be so… costly, you don’t have to spend so much money. Especially if you go camping, you can enjoy the beauties of nature, mountains, forests, and that costs nothing…”

After consulting the diagram, and underlining:

  • in the “people” section – “people in general” and “townsmen”
  • in the “facts” – all
  • in the “places” – “exotic places” and “town/city”
  • and in the “speculations” – “as soon as”

This is how he rephrased his answer:

“No, I don’t agree with that. I think that many people used to spend lots of money on trips to exotic places, but nowadays especially young people prefer nature, or adventure holidays. For example, people from my town, because we live near mountains and lakes, they like resting in countryside… much more. As soon as I finish this exam I’ll go camping with my friends to relax, and we won’t need much money for that. In the future, I think people are going to spend more time… outdoors than in expensive hotels.”

In comparison to his first answer, here we have four different grammar structures (‘used to’, Future Simple, Going to, 1st Conditional), which falls under a range of grammatical forms; then, a range of topics (people in general, his townsmen and friends, he himself, people in the future),  than a range of cohesive devices (i.e. a clear organisation of ideas, arranging ideas in climactic order [from general to specific, from past to future]; then a range of discourse markers and linkers (but, as soon as, for example), and speaking with very little hesitation.

Suggestions from other teachers

Naturally, these improvements rarely happen straight away, and it takes some student training to achieve such flexibility in discussing different topics. But, so far, this diagram has been used by some of my colleagues and they have found it to be a very useful, yet simple, tool. Some of their suggestions are:

  • Expose students to the diagram section by section (cut it up in four pieces if necessary), repeating (i.e. expanding, varying) the same task, each time with yet another section.
  • Put the diagram up on a wall, so it’s clearly visible at all times (that enables peripheral learning as well).
  • After getting the students acquainted with the diagram, give them a blank version to fill in with their ideas (some of which can be very interesting, e.g. under “PEOPLE”: TV people, politicians, superheroes; “PLACES”: school, classroom, club…) .

Apart from this, I believe that it is essential to emphasise to our students that the purpose of this Inspiration Builder is to have options, not to try and use all of them at any cost, since that might have the opposite effect: confusion, rather than clear thinking.

This method also lends itself to a mnemonic technique of “embedding memory triggers from learners’ immediate surroundings” [4]. In other words, since classrooms are, usually, of a rectangular shape, with four walls, we can have our students visualize the reminders belonging to the four sections on different walls (more about memory techniques in [4]).

The key question is: how would you use this kind of a reminder in your classroom? Would you consider adapting it to different exam types?  Would you create similar ones to develop other language skills, apart from speaking?

All in all, this idea makes sense only if we take it as a promising beginning, and keep it open.

Author’s Bio: Alex Zagorac, a teacher with BKC-IH Moscow, has been teaching students of different levels for over 17 years. Memory techniques are but one of his special interests – he is very keen on using the Silent Way and other approaches and techniques which help his students become as autonomous as possible, including highlighting connections between L1 and L2.


[1] Cambridge English: First Handbook for Teachers, http://www.cambridgeenglish.org/images/cambridge-english-first-handbook-2015.pdf, accessed on 03/02/16

[2] same, pg. 78

[3] same, pg.77

[4] http://ihjournal.com/memory-techniques-in-language-learning-by-alex-zagorac