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How to Prepare for a Speaking Test

How to Prepare for a Speaking Test

Are you thinking about taking a speaking test? There are many reasons to do it: strong test results on your résumé can help you get a job, or they may be necessary when applying to move to a foreign country. Or, you may simply want to get a clear idea of your skill level.

No matter your reason for taking the test, you'll need to prepare in order to get the best results you can. So in this article, we've collected some tips and suggestions to help you get ready. There are several things to think about, so where you focus your time will depend on your personal English level and what you feel are your strengths and weaknesses.

Take a practice test

Our first tip is the most basic, but it's worth mentioning anyway. No matter what the particular test you're taking is (for example, IELTS, Versant, TOEIC, etc.), there is a good chance you can find a practice version of it online. Find them and use them! Once you know the kinds of things you can expect in the real test, you'll have a much better idea of what to study in advance. Your time is important, so don't waste it focusing on things that won't help you improve your score.

Using practice tests is an example of what we call "working smart" instead of simply working hard. Hard work is important, of course, but it will be much more effective if you do it in a clever way.

Make sure your grammar is strong

Grammar study materials written on a chalkboard

Naturally, you'll need strong grammar to score well on your speaking test. However, strong grammar doesn't have to be advanced grammar. Remember that the goal of this test (as well as the goal of learning a new language in general) is communication. The important point is that you can express your ideas clearly, accurately and naturally. You can do this even without using very formal English or high-level vocabulary.

Instead, it would be better to master the grammar you know so that you can speak comfortably about a variety of topics. In addition to any studying you do on your own, find as many opportunities as you can to speak with others, and practice until you can say what you want without hesitating or wondering about sentence structure or other details. The goal is for speaking English to become an unconscious skill, something you don't need to think about.

Improve your vocabulary

If you’ve taken a practice test, you should have an idea of the kinds of topics you will be asked to talk about. Be sure to learn vocabulary related to these topics and practice using them so you’ll be ready. Similar to our tip on grammar, being able to use what you know skillfully is better than trying to impress the judges with big words or fancy expressions. 

Also, don't just memorize words. Speak out loud while you study and get used to actually saying them. Practice making sentences with them and using them in different tenses. You may know the words, but can you express your ideas with them? Simply memorizing vocabulary isn't enough; you must have control over it!

Brush up your pronunciation (and listening) skills

A man hosting a podcast from a home studio

Having strong grammar and vocabulary is fantastic, but you're preparing for a speaking test, which means the way you say everything is also very important. So if you want to get the highest score possible, make sure your pronunciation is clear and accurate.

This is an area where all of the digital tools we have today can be a big help. Listen to English-language podcasts or watch YouTube videos of people speaking and copy them. Focus on one section of audio, listen to it over and over again and try to match the sounds you hear. This technique is called "shadowing" and it can be very effective. YouTube also has a handy feature that lets you slow down a video's speed, which can be helpful for sounds you find especially difficult.

The extra benefit of this pronunciation practice is that it will also help you improve your listening ability, so you can kill two birds with one stone! If you need extra help, meet with a tutor to work on improving specific sounds. 

Time and structure

A woman's hands holding up a large alarm clock

You’ve taken care of everything on this list, so you’re ready, right? Not so fast! Can you use all of those skills to speak about a topic clearly and with a good structure?

This skill isn't only useful for tests; creating clear and concise arguments will also help you with things like giving speeches and writing papers, no matter what language you're using. A good structure usually includes an introduction of your main point followed by two or three pieces of information to support it. A few important words to help you move from one point to the next — such as "also," "however" and "therefore" — will be very useful for making your response sound smooth and organized.

Also, don't forget that you won't be able to take as much time as you like when speaking. That means it's time to use your stopwatch. Practice talking about a topic while challenging yourself to complete your response within the time limit. As you continue to practice, you should be able to adjust your response so that you can say everything you want to say without feeling rushed.  Record yourself, then listen back for points where you could improve.

Put it all together

If you've followed our tips, you should have strong grammar skills, a good vocabulary and clear pronunciation before it's time for your test. Remember: You don’t have to be perfect. Instead, you should be able to use what you know with skill and confidence — that means not searching for words or repeating yourself in order to pronounce them correctly.

Once speaking English has become “second nature,” or so natural that you don’t need to think about it, you know you've prepared yourself well.