The Official CELPIP Podcast: Episode 24
In this week’s episode, we invite Meaghan, our in-house CELPIP expert to share her top 10 speaking tips! Tune in as she goes over some of her top tips for test day, and how to improve your speaking skills to score higher on the CELPIP Test!
- Reading-related resources: CELPIP Speaking Pro webinar, offered once/month
- Recordings on YouTube channel:
- Free CELPIP Practice Tests
- CELPIP YouTube Channel
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CJ [00:00:02] Hello, everyone, and welcome to the official CELPIP podcast. My name is CJ, and over the next 20 minutes, we’ll give you another round of helpful tips to you, our lovely test takers, to help you get the best possible score you can on the CELPIP Test. Each week we will talk to a variety of guests, from test takers to language teachers, test raters to employment counsellors, and even immigration consultants. We also bring in our fantastic in-house CELPIP staff to give you advice from their long and varied experiences. And as ever, I’m joined by my co-host Chris. Chris, how are things today?
Chris [00:00:39] Hi, CJ, and welcome back to our listeners at home. I’m really looking forward to today’s episode as it focuses on a skill area that so many of our test takers find tricky.
CJ [00:00:49] Ah yes, the dreaded speaking.
Chris [00:00:55] Yes, a skill that causes so much anxiety for so many. There’s a performative aspect with verbalization of a language that just doesn’t exist when you’re writing or listening. You have to deal with the idea that someone is listening to you, and that can cause problems in any language.
CJ [00:01:11] Absolutely. I sometimes get worried about speaking in my own language, let alone another one.
Chris [00:01:17] That’s the thing. If you experience speaking anxiety normally, having to do it in a non-native tongue can exacerbate your negative feelings greatly. And that’s before you even factor in the stress that naturally comes in a test environment.
CJ [00:01:29] Yeah, I really don’t know how they do it. I have so much respect for our test takers being able to express themselves under all that pressure.
Chris [00:01:39] There can be a positive flip side to this though. Some students have said that they actually find an English speaking persona to be liberating. It’s like they create a second personality that’s free from the worries of their everyday lives.
CJ [00:01:50] Wow, that sounds really useful, and I’ve actually heard that before, and similar to what Simon was talking about in his acting episode.
Chris [00:01:59] Exactly. And listeners, if you haven’t heard it already, make sure you check out that episode. It’s full of tricks that you can use from acting training to become a better language learner. The most important thing is to trust yourself as a speaker, realize that there’s no such thing as perfect, and try to stay as relaxed as possible.
CJ [00:02:16] Yeah, I wish I spoke perfectly all the time. Thank goodness for podcast editors.
Chris [00:02:21] I know. So many language students think they have to be perfect in order to be authentic English speakers. But we make mistakes all the time. The difference is that we self-correct quickly and move on, so the mistake doesn’t impact the general conversation. But it’s completely normal to make mistakes.
CJ [00:02:39] And that is such important and if I may say excellent advice, and I’m also really excited about today’s episode because we get to welcome back a favourite of the podcast, as well as favourite of the CELPIP webinars, to give us even more useful speaking advice.
Chris [00:02:56] Indeed, and let’s give her a warm welcome. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome back CELPIP expert Meaghan.
Meaghan [00:03:05] Hi, guys, thanks for having me back and for the glowing introduction and hello again to you, listeners. I’m looking forward to giving you some new speaking tips. I’ve split these into two sections, so a section for before the test and during the test. And this way, hopefully you’ll be able to prepare yourself in the best possible way.
CJ [00:03:27] That sounds awesome. So then let’s get started. How about we start with before the test? What would you say is the best way to prepare for the big day?
Meaghan [00:03:39] I would say that my first tip and probably the most important is to check out all of our free prep resources. We do also have a range of paid resources and you can find those at our online store. But there’s lots available for free, and I would recommend starting with that because you might find that you don’t really need any additional paid material.
Chris [00:04:02] Such a great resource. What exactly can our listeners find for free on celpip.ca?
Meaghan [00:04:08] So first, there are two full practice tests that are free, and these are the best way to get a sense of the format and the features of the test, including the speaking tasks, of course. Another helpful resource on the website is called the Score Comparison Chart, and this is where you can learn more about what the CELPIP levels mean. It includes two real test taker speaking responses at every level from M all the way up to 12. You can read transcripts of the responses and analysis of how those responses meet the required standards for the level that they received. And I think this is the best way to get a sense of like what makes a Level 9 response stronger than a Level 7 and things like that.
CJ [00:04:56] OK, so that’s super cool. Would you recommend our listeners use that score comparison chart every time they practice one of their skills?
Meaghan [00:05:04] Sure. Yeah. By frequently checking your own outputs against the criteria that the raters are looking for, you can start to incorporate the elements that you need for a certain band score far more accurately.
CJ [00:05:20] OK, awesome. Anything else?
Meaghan [00:05:23] Yep, there’s lots more. So if you have registered for a test, check your CELPIP account because you’re going to find some free material from CELPIP Accelerate, which is our self-directed online course. Accelerate is a paid product, but we give away a little piece of it for free to each person who registers for a test. And part of that material will be about two and a half hours from the Speaking section of Accelerate. You’ll find videos about CELPIP speaking tasks and how to approach them, and also some general prep tips.
Chris [00:06:00] Wow, do we give too much away for free?
Meaghan [00:06:03] I kind of think we do. So next, I would recommend checking out CELPIP Live on YouTube. This is a series of livestream presentations by CELPIP experts and guests. Each episode is different, and they’re all related to some aspect of taking CELPIP—for example, improving your writing or listening question format or sample response analysis, speaking with a mask on. Some of them even cover particular tasks like Speaking task 4. You can tune into the episodes live to interact with the presenters and to ask questions, and you can also watch recordings of past episodes. We have lots of episodes that focus on speaking, and you’ll find them in their own playlist on our YouTube channel, which is called CELPIP Official.
CJ [00:06:54] And many of those episodes feature CELPIP superstar Brandi.
Chris [00:06:59] I’ve heard she can’t even go to a restaurant without getting spotted by a test taker.
Meaghan [00:07:03] Yeah, she should start charging for autographs. Our next and our newest free resource is the one that you’re all listening to right now, the Official CELPIP Podcast. Right now, there are over 20 episodes that you can check out, and they’re available through all major podcast platforms like Apple Podcasts and Google Play, and you can also find them on the CELPIP Blog on our website celpip.ca. These episodes are similar to CELPIP Live in that they cover a variety of CELPIP topics. Some are more fun subjects like movies or video games that you can use as a way to practice English, and some are about Canadian life and culture. But the majority are focused on test content like improving your vocabulary or using acting techniques to help you speak better.
CJ [00:07:54] And I love these podcasts. We cover such an interesting variety of topics. And also, they’re so much fun to record.
Meaghan [00:08:02] Absolutely. And lastly, I highly recommend that all test takers attend the Speaking Pro webinars. We have a series of webinars that cover all the parts of the test. Speaking Pro, of course, focuses on speaking. We go through the tasks one at a time. We talk about strategies for approaching them. We do some practice sometimes, and we listen to sample responses from real test takers. There are two Speaking Pro: Target 9+ sessions, and these focus on sample responses around a CELPIP Level 9. Lesson 1 covers speaking tasks 1 to 4, and Lesson 2 covers tasks 5 to 8. During these sessions, you can answer the presenter’s questions, you can follow along and practice. You can also ask any questions or make any comments you like through our chat box. After the session, you will get access to the free Target 9+ Study Pack, which includes all the sample questions and responses that we cover in the sessions. And it also includes strategies for how to approach the tasks. We offer these two lessons every month and you can register for them through our website.
Chris [00:09:19] Wow, that is a huge number of free resources. Great suggestions, Meaghan.
Meaghan [00:09:23] Yeah, that was a lot of information, and the rest of my tips are going to be much shorter, I promise. So I guess we’ll move on to ways to practice specific skills. And my second tip is to do some of your speaking practice in a place where there’s a bit of background noise. It doesn’t need to be a public place; you can turn on the TV or the radio in your home to get the same effect. If you have kids, you probably already have plenty of actual background noise in your home. And the reason I’m suggesting this is that there are going to be other test takers in the test centre with you. You will be wearing headphones that muffle quite a bit of sound, and all the workstations are separated with walls or partitions. But you will still probably be able to hear a small amount of background noise. For test takers who aren’t expecting that, or if they’ve only ever practiced speaking in a perfectly quiet place, this can impact their performance, and we don’t want that to happen to you.
CJ [00:10:26] Yeah, and that’s something many of our test takers worry about. The test room is definitely not silent. But once you get comfortable with low background noise, then it doesn’t become an issue. So that’s great. What’s tip number three?
Meaghan [00:10:41] Tip number three is an activity that you can try sometimes during your practice. You won’t be able to do it every time because it takes a while. But it’s good to do this now and then. So my suggestion is to record your response to a speaking task and then afterward, make a transcript of it and use the Performance Standards to identify some strengths and weaknesses. When you do this activity, I recommend typing out or writing out your own transcript instead of using a transcription app just because it’s a more active experience, and by actually writing, you’re going to be able to notice details in your response. Once you have the response written out or typed out, you can study it. Use the Performance Standards to think about what you did well and what you would like to improve. These Performance Standards, by the way, are a list of the categories and the factors that the raters consider when they listen to each response. You can find them on the CELPIP website and we also discuss them in detail during our Speaking Pro webinars. So you can even turn this into a writing practice exercise if you want to, by correcting errors or making changes to strengthen the sentence structures in your transcript. After you have analyzed your response and maybe made some improvements, you can put the transcript away and then try recording a new response to the same question. See if you can improve on what you did the first time. Of course, this is not something you’ll be able to do on your actual test day, rerecording a response, but it is a great way to build your ability to structure and deliver a solid response the first time around.
CJ [00:12:25] OK, that’s an excellent tip. Should our test takers always use a timer when they’re practising speaking?
Meaghan [00:12:34] No, I wouldn’t say always. And that relates to my fourth tip, which is to do timed and also untimed speaking practice. We get a lot of test takers in our webinars who tell us that they get really nervous when their prep time is counting down and they’re trying to come up with ideas. This is something that a lot of people haven’t done before, so understandably it can be kind of overwhelming at first because it’s a new skill. But you can practice your way to a higher level of comfort. And untimed practice is a really good way to focus on developing your brainstorming skills and also your note taking skills. So after you read a question, give yourself maybe not unlimited time, but maybe a few minutes instead of just 30 or 60 seconds. Give yourself that amount of time to think of the ideas that you want to discuss before you start to speak. Try to use the time to figure out what strategies work best for you for coming up with ideas and also for taking quick notes. Work on coming up with ideas faster; for example, choosing the first topic that comes into your head instead of trying to come up with the absolute best one or a perfect one. Think about aspects of your personal experience or knowledge that you can use to help you come up with details and examples to support your ideas. If you stretch this prep process out and pay more careful attention to figuring out what works well for you, you’ll be less nervous when you do timed practice. It is very important to also do that timed practice so that you’ll be very familiar with the amount of time provided for each task. But you don’t always have to limit your brainstorming to that amount of time during your practice.
Chris [00:14:22] Good point. It’s so important to get that mix right. Is there any other kind of speaking practice that is especially useful?
Meaghan [00:14:29] There is, and it’s my last tip in the “before the test” category of tips. So this tip is to connect with other English learners and join a study group or a conversation club. Speaking is something that improves with practice. There’s really no other way to improve your speaking other than speaking. So the best way to do that is to find some people to talk to. CELPIP is a test of day to day English, so discussing topics from everyday life, like how your day at work was or what you do in your free time, your opinions about current events—that can all be helpful. Doing role play is like imagining you’re handling a difficult situation at work or making a recommendation to your family, that’s also helpful. If there are other CELPIP test takers in the group, you can also focus on skills related specifically to the eight CELPIP speaking tasks. Maybe one day take turns describing a memorable past experience or describing what’s going on in a picture or giving your opinion on an issue and supporting it with reasons. And then maybe after one person delivers their response, the others can say what they think went well and maybe suggest aspects that could be more clear or more detailed. We do have a past podcast episode about joining study groups. It’s episode 13 in season one, so you can give that a listen if you want more advice about this.
CJ [00:15:59] That’s a super fun episode. There’s so much great advice there, Meaghan, so let’s move on to what the test takers should be doing during the test because all the “before the test” was great. But where should they start?
Meaghan [00:16:14] Yeah, it’s worth remembering that even though these are tips for during the test, it’s a really good idea to practice them before your test day so you’ll be super prepared. You’re likely to be feeling nervous on your test day so you don’t want to be trying out anything for the first time on top of that. My first tip for during the test is: during your prep time, take a few quick notes, but don’t try to make a whole outline. If you have done some untimed practice, maybe giving yourself a few minutes of prep time like I mentioned earlier, you may have been able to write a lot of notes before you started speaking, but in your timed practice, you probably noticed that you can’t write a whole lot before the speaking time begins. 30 seconds or a minute is not enough time for anyone to make a careful, detailed outline of every single thing they want to say. It’s not intended to be enough time for that. The prep time is there to give you a chance to read the question and do some quick thinking about it. Most of the tests have a 30 second prep time, and that’s enough to write down a few words after reading the question. Maybe one word for each main idea and maybe a couple of details. When we speak, most of what we say comes to us in the moment, and that’s going to be true on your test as well. But having just a few words written down will help to keep you focused, and it’ll jog your memory about what you want to say.
Chris [00:17:45] And I guess you need to have a really clear approach in your mind when the prep has ended and it’s finally time to open your mouth.
Meaghan [00:17:52] Yeah, I have kind of four points that allow test takers to be really focused on using their quick notes to create a detailed and rounded piece of spoken English. So the first point is to imagine that you’re on the phone with somebody that you like. If you’ve attended the Speaking Pro webinars or listened to sample test taker responses in other resources of ours, you might have heard some responses where the speaker’s voice sounds kind of flat or monotone: there’s not a lot of that up and down in their voice. That up and down is called intonation, and it’s a very important part of communicating in English, so you don’t want to leave it out. It’s how we show emotions, stress our key words, sound more persuasive, and all kinds of other things.
CJ [00:18:44] So, we get this question a lot. Does having an accent negatively impact delivery as well?
Meaghan [00:18:52] Not necessarily. I’ll explain a bit about accents and then I’ll be able to explain that answer more. So almost everyone who speaks English as a non-native language has an accent: that is, their pronunciation, their intonation, their word stress are not exactly the same as a native speaker’s. It’s almost impossible for anybody to speak a non-native language without an accent, and a non-native language is just one that you maybe start to learn later in life or without being immersed in it: the way most of us Canadians learn French, for example. We start taking French classes as young kids, but taking a half hour class like a few times a week, starting from age five or six, from teachers who aren’t usually native French speakers themselves—that’s really not the same thing as being immersed in French full time from birth, the way we are with English. So we all graduate from high school knowing a little bit of French, which is good, but we don’t have anything like the fluency and accuracy that native French speakers do, and we develop strong English Canadian accents. An accent is just the result of importing qualities of your native language, or languages if you speak many, into a non-native language, and usually that happens without even knowing that you’re doing it. For example, you might pronounce certain English words using a sound that exists in your native language but doesn’t exist in English. Or you might pronounce two different English words the same way because your native language doesn’t differentiate between two particular sounds, or it doesn’t use them both. Common ones are r and l, “r” and “l,” or “i” and “ee.” I know there’s lots of languages where those are just—you don’t have both of them, and so you don’t actually hear the difference either. You may also have a natural habit of putting word stress on certain syllables because that is the rhythm of your first language, without even realizing that English words stress isn’t the same. So all of this put together is your accent. So to finally answer the question: no, having an accent does not automatically lower your CELPIP Speaking score. There are many language learners who reach a point where their fluency and their accuracy are similar to that of native speakers, especially if they’ve spent a lot of time living in a country where they’re immersed in that language and using it all the time. Their pronunciation and intonation do still include some features of their native language, but with time and with practice, they’ve reduced those features and so listeners can easily understand them, even though they do have an accent. And if that’s where you are with your English speaking, then your accent will have little or no impact on your score because it has little or no impact on your ability to communicate effectively. If you don’t think you’re at that place yet, you may want to work on reducing your accent. And that means you have to first become aware of the differences between English and your first language, and then really work on learning to form and recognize different sounds and adjust your rhythm and intonation when you speak English.
CJ [00:22:20] Wow. That makes so much sense, and that was a super useful explanation, thank you. Is there anything else we should know about improving speaking performance, perhaps specifically around using the equipment like the headset?
Meaghan [00:22:36] Yeah, on your test day, you’re going to be delivering your responses through a headset microphone. For some test takers, this is a new experience, and sometimes their delivery isn’t as strong as it could be because they’re feeling awkward or confused about kind of the setup of this kind of speaking. If you’ve already done some prep, you might have heard sample responses where it’s kind of hard to hear the speaker. They seem to be almost whispering, maybe because they’re worried about distracting other test takers. But your volume, along with things like your intonation and your pronunciation and your pace—that is a big part of communicating effectively. Of course, you need the listener to be able to hear you if they’re going to be able to understand you. So these are things that raters listen for, and it’s important to keep these factors in mind because if you do them well, that’ll have a positive impact on your score. Using a headset is actually very similar to talking on the phone, so that’s why I recommend that you imagine that you’re on the phone with somebody that you enjoy talking to. Speak at your normal volume. You don’t need to yell; the microphone will pick up what you’re saying. But also don’t whisper. Speaking softly makes it a lot harder to use appropriate intonation and pronunciation. As I mentioned, yes, there are going to be other test takers in the room, but they’re in the same situation you are. They’re wearing headphones and they’re concentrating on their own responses. There’s nobody in the room who’s listening to you or judging you. So instead of worrying about those people, imagine the person on the other end of the phone. You want them to be able to hear you, first of all, and you also want to sound like you care about what you’re saying, like you have real feelings about it, whether you’re excited about an idea, or you’re trying to get them to see your side of a situation, or helping them make a mental picture of something that you’re describing. This will help your intonation sound more natural, and it’ll make your tone more animated.
CJ [00:24:45] Yeah, finding that volume balance is definitely something that comes with practice, and recording yourself also really helps to give you an idea of exactly how loud you should be in the test. All right. So what is number two on test day?
Meaghan [00:25:01] So number two is to develop your main ideas with clear details. And this tip is for everyone, whether you’re a beginner or advanced English speaker. Content is a major part of what raters think about. It’s one of the four main categories on the Performance Standards. Your delivery skills and your grammar and your vocabulary are important, too, of course, but so is what you say: the quality of your ideas, the level of clarity and detail. There are different ways to approach all speaking tasks, and you’ll be discussing different kinds of ideas for different tasks. For example, if you’re describing an image, you’ll be focusing on descriptive details. If you’re giving an opinion, you’ll be focusing on details that help to explain why you hold that position. If you’re discussing an experience from your past, you’ll probably be focusing on some of the five W’s like who you were with, what happened, where it happened, how it felt, things like that. But regardless of what you’re talking about, it’s very important to make sure that you’re including clear and precise details. This is something you can absolutely practice before your test.
Chris [00:26:17] What kind of imaginary situations could our listeners use for their speaking practice at home?
Meaghan [00:26:23] Really, any everyday situation would be useful. Just because I like desserts, my first idea is to practice like describing a dessert that you love eating. Or anything: a difficult situation that you have experienced at work that day, or an activity that you did on the weekend, your reasons for agreeing or disagreeing with a new law or rule in your city or your country. If you’re out with, with your family or your kids or your friends, just practice describing what you see happening around you, at the park or in the grocery store. Try using as many precise words and phrases as you can and describing several specific details or ideas about the topic. Like, if you’re saying something was fun, well, why was it fun? Who was there? How were you feeling? What was the best moment? If the dessert that you had last night was delicious, like, tell me more. What did it look like? What was the texture or the temperature? Did you add any toppings? Getting away from that kind of surface level description and into specific details is the best way to develop your main ideas and improve your content.
Chris [00:27:37] Excellent. And point three?
Meaghan [00:27:39] Yeah, point three is to adjust your level of formality to fit the situation. And we talked about this a little bit in our podcast episode on vocabulary, which was season one, episode 19 if you want to check that out. We often get questions in webinars about how formal the responses to speaking tasks should be. And the answer is: it depends on the question. For some tasks, like if you’re giving advice to somebody that you know or describing a personal experience or an everyday scene, you might be less formal. You might even include some slang, and that’s totally fine for a casual situation. Actually, using slang or casual expressions in a natural way can show that you have a flexible vocabulary. And then for some tasks, like discussing a difficult situation or giving your opinion about an issue, you’ll probably want to raise your level of formality. If the question is asking you to talk to your supervisor or your child’s teacher or a customer at work, your response should reflect that.
CJ [00:28:49] But the key is to sound natural, right?
Meaghan [00:28:52] Yeah. Adjusting your level of formality doesn’t mean you should try to sound like a university professor giving a lecture or try to use every long and uncommon word that you can think of, because a rater, really any listener, would find that very unnatural. Whatever the situation is, you still want to sound like yourself. And this isn’t a specifically English language skill, by the way. We all adjust our level of formality to fit different contexts every day in whatever language we’re using. So on the test, try to imagine yourself in that situation and speak the way you would if it was really happening.
CJ [00:29:33] Awesome. And so then I guess that brings us to point four.
Meaghan [00:29:38] That it does. And I would say point four might be the most important, which is—it sounds easy, but it’s sometimes hard for people to do: just relax and breathe. For most people, it’s just not possible to completely avoid feeling stressed out during a test. It’s naturally a situation where everyone is nervous. But one small thing that can make a big difference is teaching yourself to take a deep breath if you feel like you’re starting to get anxious. This just takes a few seconds, and it can interrupt the physical effects of anxiety. Another important thing to keep in mind is that your speaking score is a product of many, many factors. If you have a look at those Performance Standards on our website or in a webinar, you’ll see that there are four different categories that raters consider. You have at least three raters listening to your responses, and each rater gives a rating to each response in each of the categories. And for every category, there’s a sub-list of individual factors that they think about how they think about all of those when they rate that dimension. So what all of this means is that there are many, many pieces of information from several different people that come together to determine your score.
Chris [00:30:59] I’ve heard test takers say that making just one little mistake can really throw off their speaking confidence.
Meaghan [00:31:04] Yeah, and that’s a common issue. But if you think about it, like there’s so many factors going into your score that one mistake or even one weakness or one whole response that doesn’t go as well as you would have liked isn’t going to ruin your score. A third useful reminder to yourself during your Speaking Test is that nobody speaks perfectly. You guys mentioned this at the beginning of the episode. Speaking is not like writing where you can see the text and you have a chance to make corrections before you communicate it to someone. Speaking happens in the moment. Mistakes and corrections, stopping and starting: those things happen to everybody from beginners all the way up to very fluent speakers. Everyone does it and raters know that, so they’re not expecting to hear something that sounds like you’re reading it from a page. They know that you had a pretty short time to think of some ideas and then you had to start speaking. If you start to fixate on your mistakes, if you’re worrying as you speak that the one thing that you did three tasks ago is going to wreck your score, that’s just going to distract and upset you, and you will do less well than you could have on other tasks. So just take a breath. Try to keep your perspective and stay in the moment. All you can do is your best, right?
CJ [00:32:26] Oh, I love that. What a wonderful bit of positivity to end today’s podcast. Thanks again, Meaghan, for joining us. It’s just a really fantastic selection of tips for our test takers. I feel pretty confident saying that their speaking skills are going to improve after listening to all that. So that—really thanks so much.
Meaghan [00:32:49] My pleasure, as always, and thank you for having me.
CJ [00:32:53] Gosh, lovely to have you here. OK, so, Chris, I guess it’s time to let people know what to expect next week.
Chris [00:33:01] Next week, we’re going to answer some of the most common questions that our Customer Service team answers every day about the CELPIP Test. These are the burning questions the test takers have answered right here by two visitors from our Customer Service team.
CJ [00:33:16] Exciting. Well, thank you for joining us today, listeners, and we hope to see you again soon. Bye!
Chris [00:33:24] Bye.