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1. Don’t just describe the pictures

In this part of the Speaking test, you look at three photographs and choose two to speak about. Your task is to compare the two photos and answer the questions about them. It’s tempting to describe the pictures in detail as that’s quite common in speaking exams … but not in Cambridge Advanced! Instead, you need to describe the similarities and differences between the photos. If you spend too much time telling the examiner what you see in the photos, you won’t have enough time to make comparisons and answer the examiner’s questions. For your turn, you speak for one minute. It’s suggested you spend half the time comparing the pictures and the other half answering the questions. Let’s look at an example:


  • How might the people be feeling?
  • Why might they be in these situations?

In the exam, you could say: In the first picture there appears to be a person hiking in extremely hot, dry conditions like in the desert or a canyon whereas in the second picture the person looks to be ski touring in some snowy mountains. In picture one, they might be feeling boiling hot on account of the weather while in picture two they must be freezing cold! In both pictures I suppose the people are feeling exhilarated by the activities that they are doing.

‘Whereas’, ‘while’ and ‘both’ are magic words that you can – and should! – use for comparing your two chosen photos.

Take care! The answer above is a good start, but it’s not complete. It would only take about 40 seconds and only answers one of the questions asked. The examiner wants to hear whether you can talk at length (for the full 60 seconds) and develop answers to both questions.

You could go on to say: I suppose they are in these situations because they wanted to get away from it all. Maybe they felt like getting some exercise. Or perhaps they were looking to clear their minds while spending time alone in nature. I think in both cases the activities look quite challenging so the people could be looking for adventure.

Test takeaway: In the Speaking test, you’ll be graded on how relevant what you say is to the task. So, stick to the topic if you a better mark!


2. Be ready to speculate

For the most part, there are no right or wrong answers in the Speaking test. The examiner doesn’t expect you to be an expert on the topic being discussed. Instead, they will assess you on how well you can express your ideas and opinions about that topic. In other words, the focus is less on what you say, and more on how you say it. That’s why it’s important that you practise speculating as you prepare for your exam. Let’s look at an example:

Do you know what the man is doing? I, for one, have no idea!

In the exam, you could say: It’s difficult to know what he’s doing up there. Perhaps he’s a hunter so he’s looking out for wild animals or he might just be relaxing in a strange spot…

‘Perhaps’ and ‘might’ are two examples of speculative language. Here are some others:

  • I’d say …
  • I guess …
  • Maybe he’s …
  • He’s probably …
  • It seems like/ as if he…
  • He appears to be …
  • He might …
  • It could be that …
  • Judging from the photo, …

Test takeaway: When you see the images you might think to yourselfHow should I know what’s going on there?’How am I supposed to know what they’re feeling?’ but don’t worry, that’s exactly the point! There are no set answers.If you’re able to think outside the box, and speculate about the pictures, then you’re bound to do better in the test.


3. Get used to self-correction

When you’re practicing for the exam, and in the exam itself, listen to yourself while you speak and if you hear a mistake, correct it. It’s OK to make mistakes while speaking – native speakers do all the time! The important thing is to try correcting the mistakes, rather than ignoring them. Let’s look at an example:


  • In what ways are people polluting the environment?
  • How easy would it be to stop this kind of pollution?

In the exam, you say: The fabric in the picture is polluting the environment by putting a lot of toxic emissions into the air.

Can you find the mistake in this sentence? How would you self-correct it?

You could say: The fabric sorry, I meant to say, the factory … in the picture is polluting the environment by putting a lot of toxic emissions into the air.

Test takeaway: If you’re able to self-correct, then you’re likely to impress the examiner. So, instead of losing marks because of mistakes, you could end up getting a better one!


4. Try to ‘talk around’ a word

In the exam, you’re sure to encounter words you don’t know, or images you can’t name. When this happens, don’t panic!Take a moment and think of another way to say it. This strategy is called ‘circumlocution’ which is basically a fancy way of saying that if you don’t know the exact word for something, then you can still describe it using words you do know. In other words, you can ‘talk around’ a word which you don’t know or can’t remember.

There are lots of ways to use circumlocution while speaking.For instance, you can use a simple synonym if you get blocked and can’t think of a particular, more advanced word. You can also phrases like ‘it’s a kind / type of …‘ if you don’t know a word but would like to describe it. You can even try to define the word using relative clauses (e.g. that’s a thing which …, it’s the place where … he’s the person who …). Let’s look at an example:

In the exam, you could say: In this picture, people are destroying the environment by cutting down trees and clearing forests. They’re using, hmm…, It’s a kind of vehicle which is used for lifting and moving logs.

Can you spot the example of circumlocution?

That’s right, it’s describing the large, yellow vehicle. To be honest, even native speakers might use circumlocution here as it’s quite an uncommon, largely unknown word.

Test takeaway: Good circumlocution strategies can help you to improve your performance in the Speaking test as they stop you from hesitating too much or getting blocked when you don’t know a certain word or phrase.


5. Focus on listening, not just speaking

In this part of the test, no one should interrupt you, and you shouldn’t interrupt the other student on their turn. Instead, when they’re speaking, listen carefully to what they’re saying because you’ll need to answer a question about their photos. In fact, you’ll be graded on how well you listened and reacted to what they said. in other words —>

The examiner could ask you: Which environmental problem do you think is the worst? Why?

You could say: Well, that’s the good question. As my partner said, factories are a major source of air pollution. I think that they also put a lot of toxic chemicals into rivers, which is not only bad for the environment, but also dangerous for our health. However, I’d argue that cars, which are the biggest source of CO2 emissions, are even worse. Hopefully as electric cars become more popular, the damage done to the environment will decrease.

As you can see, it’s good to summarise what your speaking partner has said, and then give your own opinion. This sample answer would take about 20 seconds. That’s fine – you can talk for up to 30 seconds on your turn.

Test takeaway: Doing well in the Speaking test also involves being a good listener. So, after you’ve finished your speaking turn, remember to stay focused and listen to what your speaking partner is saying. The examiner will quickly see if your mind is wandering, and you won’t get a good mark.

Why not do some speculating before you go?

Take another look at this guy. What do you think he’s doing up there?

Write your answers in the comment section below! First commenters will get feedback on their writing 🙂