Mention the oral exam and you will be surprised at the range of responses from students. They vary from poised confidence where students brush it off, saying it is easy and that all they need to do is to read out loud and to chit-chat with the teacher-examiner; while other students turn white with fear and worry at having to read aloud and to interact with an adult-examiner. To those who tremble at the thought of the oral exam, be comforted by the fact that the skills required to do well for the exam are like any other skill – they can be mastered with practice.
The paper 4 of the GCE ‘O’ Level oral exam (1128) is made up of two main components: (A) Reading Aloud and (B) Spoken Interaction.
(A) Reading Aloud:
For Reading Aloud, students are assessed in 3 main areas:
- Pronunciation and Articulation – pronunciation is the way in which the words sound, while articulation refers to the physical act of using our tongues, jaws, teeth, lips and palates (the roofs or our mouths) and breath to create these sounds.
- Rhythm and Fluency – Rhythm refers to the beat of the reading while fluency describes the smoothness and effortlessness of the delivery. This comprises the pace – the speed at which one reads, and stress which is the emphasis given to certain syllables in a multisyllable word or to certain words in a phrase or sentence.
- The final area is the Awareness of the Purpose, Audience and Context – this focuses on whether the reading takes into account the given scenario, who the text is delivered to and, lastly, the aim that is to be achieved.
A strong reader is expected to demonstrate a clear awareness of the reading text’s purpose, audience and context. He or she will be able to convey the text’s meaning effectively through clear pronunciation and articulation, and to read with an appropriate pace and fluency, using appropriate rhythm and stress.
In my experience, the common mistakes made by students while reading include:
- Students rushing through the reading. This is often due to students being overly anxious so they tend to rush as they are eager to get the oral exam over and done with as quickly as possible.
- The next common problem is that some students read with a monotonous or an unnatural rhythm. They have not mastered the natural rhythm of the English language and also place stress on the wrong syllable.
- Some students struggle with pronouncing multisyllabic words or words consisting of more than one syllable. Placing stress on the wrong syllable in a multisyllable word may cause confusion because the same word may have a different meaning depending on which syllable the stress is placed on. For example the word “present” can be pronounced ‘pre/sent where the stress is placed on the first syllable ‘pre-’. In this case ‘pre/sent is a noun that means a gift. On the other hand, the same pronunciation can be construed as an adjective, depending on the context of the sentence, to mean to be in a particular place, as in My family was present at the party last night. However, if the stress is placed on the second syllable as in pre/ ‘sent, the word becomes a verb. It means to showcase something: I presented my project to the class yesterday.
- Another common problem is that of voice projection. Some students are somewhat shy and are unwilling to open their mouths enough, and this affects their enunciation, or worse, audibility.
- The final challenge that some students face is in varying their tone, expression and other voice qualities to match the given scenario. They must be aware of the purpose, audience and context of the piece they are reading.
For example, if the scenario given is that of a CCA leader speaking to his or her CCA group on the importance of working together as a team, the student-candidate then needs to read in an encouraging and enthusiastic manner as the goal is to motivate the CCA mates.
(B) Spoken Interaction:
The second part of the oral exam is the Spoken Interaction component. Students are to watch a short video clip and they are expected to respond to the examiner’s questions and to engage with him or her in a discussion.
A strong candidate will be able to offer a well-considered response (Personal Response) to the examiner’s questions. He or she will be able to use a wide range of well-chosen vocabulary and structures to express his or her ideas clearly (Clarity of Expression). The student will be able to engage with the examiners actively to sustain a discussion, introducing new ideas, opinions or issues that are appropriate to the discussion (Interaction). The student is expected to use clear and good articulation and pronunciation throughout the interaction.
Below are some tips for the spoken interaction segment:
- Listen carefully to the examiner’s question so that you are able to give an appropriate response. You will be surprised at how often students do not listen carefully and misconstrue the given question, leading them to provide responses that are irrelevant.
Tip: Focus on the keywords of the question: For example, the “WH” words like “Who”, “Why” and “How”, and keywords like “important”, “significant”, “increase/decrease”, and so forth.
- Think through the response before speaking. The response needs to be logical and coherent. Avoid repeating your points or, worse still, contradict yourself!
- Develop on the ideas put forth. Explain and elaborate on the ideas that you have shared. Do not wait for the examiner to prompt you to do so.
Tip: Ask yourself for each statement you have made: “Why?” or “So what?”
- Speak clearly and loudly. Articulate clearly and be expressive. Some students read well but when it comes to the spoken interaction segment, they revert to the soft voices and some even mumble! Remember, the examiner will not be able to respond or interact with you if he or she is unable to hear what you are saying.
Model Interaction Between Examiner and Candidate:
Question: Some people would rather work individually than in teams. What are your views on this?
It is understandable why some people choose to work individually because they do not have to schedule or coordinate meetings with others in the group in order to accommodate everyone’s schedule. When one is working alone, there is also no chance of any form of miscommunication or misunderstanding. They also do not have to put up with the quirks or peculiar habits of their teammates.
Having said that, I still prefer to work in groups as there are distinct advantages in doing so. Working in a team will generate greater creativity and more ideas than if I were to work alone. The presence of teammates will also allow me to bounce off my ideas to them, help me to scrutinise my ideas and find loopholes and problems early.
Working in teams will also allow us to complement our strengths and also to cover our individual weaknesses. Each of us has talents in different areas, so by working together, we can tap into our individual strengths. As a result, our individual limitations are minimised. By pooling our collective abilities, the end product will be greater than the sum of our individual efforts.
Finally, working in teams will enable me to hone my skills in communication as well as conflict resolution. When we work in teams, there will definitely be the need to communicate with one’s teammates. We have to learn to communicate our ideas effectively, and to also ensure that we understand what our teammates are telling us. There will also be times when there will be some unhappiness or misunderstandings among team members. This is where we have to exercise our conflict resolution skills and to seek a mutually acceptable solution to the problem that we are facing.
So while I understand why some people may choose to work alone, personally I think the advantages of working in teams far outweigh the benefits of working individually.
I have shared the important skills required to do well for the O-Levels English Oral Exam and what the examiners are generally looking out for during the exam. I have also highlighted some of the common mistakes made by students. I hope these will be useful for all student-candidates taking their oral exam this year. Wishing you all the best for your exams ahead!