How to set up an FCE speaking task

There have been many times I’ve taught a gregarious student to whom I’ve shown some photographs from my stock of resources, and he or she has spoken at length about the contents of each one, enabling me to jot down lots of notes about their grammar and use of vocabulary that I can feedback to them after – on other occasions the same pair of photographs have elicited a handful of words punctuated by some lengthy awkward silences.

The reality is that we’ve all had students who are more forthcoming with their opinions than others, and we’ve all been in the situation where we’ve asked students to ‘speak’ on cue, and they’ve looked at us like we’ve asked them to perform on The X Factor.

Notwithstanding aspects related to cultural differences and the varying levels of maturity among students, it can feel highly unnatural to speak unprepared about a specific topic or a pair of photographs about which you have no prior knowledge or interest. Therefore it might be an idea to mention beforehand that the task can feel unnatural at first, but that there are always prompts available for them to keep in mind that will help their words flow more naturally.

Firstly, when there are moments in which they think they have run out of things to say, or when their mind goes blank – remind them that this is normal. When facing an uncomfortable situation, it’s human nature to want the moment to be over as quickly as possible, and to give short answers rather than formulating something more lengthy and coherent. Ask students to consider the following ‘wh’ question words: ‘where’, ‘when’, ‘why’, ‘who’ etc in order to elicit aspects of the pictures upon which they can expand during the speaking task.

Moreover, it is important for candidates to keep in mind that this task requires them to compare and contrast the pictures they are given, and not simply describe each one individually. The use of modal verbs of deduction, such as ‘may’, ‘might’, ‘could’, ‘must’ etc, are especially important here because they will provide the opportunity to expand on the topic in much more detail than by merely describing each photo. Additionally, the use of conjunctions in order to make connections between ideas, such as ‘while’, ‘whereas’, ‘however’ etc, will show a far more advanced level than just making individual statements about each photograph.

Secondly, remind students that the FCE speaking section is a collaborative task, and there is the possibility that the other students to whom they are required to speak may be at either end of the communication spectrum, i.e. extremely garrulous or bordering on monosyllabic. In either case, it will be necessary for candidates to be prepared for both potentialities, and to adapt accordingly.

Lastly, advise students to use the correct tense when they are explaining the contents of each photo – even though the pictures portray past events, we always use the present continuous tense when describing what is occurring, e.g. ‘there are two men playing football’ not ‘two men play football’.

With plenty of practice, and keeping these tips in mind, your students can feel assured of their ability to confidently pass the speaking section of The FCE.

Martin Wilson has been working as a teacher of English to non-native speakers for over 13 years, since qualifying from St. Giles International College, London, in 2004. His Trinity Tesol Certificate was followed shortly after with a Masters Degree in Linguistics and Philosophy from The University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Martin’s experience within the various fields of ELT has been plentiful, and has involved teaching children and teenagers in Thailand, as well as asylum seekers and refugees throughout Europe, and university students and business professionals in London, UK. In this series of blogs, Martin aims to share his insights into the world of ELT, including tips and tricks for students and teachers alike, in addition to observations and reviews regarding current available material and resources. Martin can be contacted at

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