It is the time of year when many students are doing their Cambridge exams – many have probably already done theirs but I know there are some doing theirs in July (such as my Advanced group) and it’s still not clear how long some of the restrictions and constraints brought as a result of Covid-19 are going to last for, so this may yet apply to people doing their exams for some time to come!

What should speaking exam candidates expect?  How might it be different from normal?  The answer is obviously going to change from context to context, with differing restrictions in place in different countries, but having done some mock speaking exams in masks and also having talked to those of my students who did their exam in June, this is what I think they might need to think about or expect.  I am basing this more on what I know of the situation in Portugal, so do bear that in mind.

My understanding is that it is the law here, that in an enclosed space, such as an office or a classroom, everybody is required to use masks.  This means that the candidates, the interlocutor and the examiner will be masked up, and the interlocutor may also be wearing a visor and gloves.  That though I think will be more down to personal preference and/or the requirements of the centre.

Everyone will also need to practice physical distancing.  This can be quite difficult in a classroom / examining room setting, but candidates should expect to be further apart from each other and from the interlocutor.  Whereas previously the candidates would be sat together and on the other side of a desk from the interlocutor, this will now need to resemble an equilateral triangle, with each side being about 1.5 metres long.  If there is a group of three, this will be even more difficult.

There is also likely to be a disinfection process in place.  It may be that materials will need disinfecting, tables and chairs, door handles.


This is likely to impact how the candidates see the materials.  My students told me that in their exam, each candidate was given a set of materials but told not to touch them.  So in the First (FCE) part two, both candidates had a copy of candidate A’s pictures, and then these were swapped for candidate B’s pictures for the second half of part two.  In part 3 where candidates discuss the topic together, again they both had a copy of the visual prompt. Only the interlocutor touched the materials.

I have heard of other systems, such as the materials having been laminated so candidates can touch the materials, which are then disinfected at the end of each test.  I have also heard about plans to display the visuals using a projector, but I haven’t heard of anyone actually doing that yet.

Perhaps more importantly, the presence of masks on all participants is going to affect two key areas of candidate assessment:  intelligibility and interaction.

As a colleague observed the other day “the fabric masks are more comfortable, but the disposable masks easier to hear through.”

When doing practice speaking with my students we all used masks, which was slightly ridiculous working over Zoom, but was quite useful practice as my students did have some trouble hearing what I was saying and they did have some trouble hearing what each other was saying.  I didn’t notice a big difficulty understanding them, but I think it highlighted the need not to be shy about asking people to repeat themselves.  Students need to know it’s OK to do this anyway, but especially at the moment.

What I noticed more, and what my students have reported to me, is the difficulty in reading facial expressions that masks represent, and the impact that this has on interaction patterns.

Doing speaking practice made me realise how much I rely on non-verbal cues to show interest in what my students say and to reassure them when they are searching for langauge or appear uncertain, of course examiners may have a well developed “poker face” for examining purposes, but I think it is worth preparing students for this lack of reaction.  Equally, the way that students interact with each other in part three and four particularly are likely to be impacted by both the masks and the distance between them.  I usually advise my students to turn their chairs at an angle to face each other more easily in part three as this tends to improve the interaction.  This may not be possible under these restrictions, and I think students need to make more of a point of “obviously” interacting with each other in part three – if they can’t use as much non-verbal communication, they will need to practice using phatic expressions and other backchannel devices – the “yeah”s and “uh huh”s – no matter how embarrassing and ridiculous they might feel.  Point out that the better students use these kinds of things naturally anyway……  🙂

It’s also worth reminding students that this is probably a bit new and weird for the examiners as well – they are getting used to the difficulties of working in masks and with all the restrictions – having to get up and walk around the desk to hand over visual materials and making sure they’ve got the mark sheets in the right order.  From what I’ve heard, I don’t think any students have been disadvantaged by having to perform in masks, if anything examiners are probably taking into account the possible impacts on intelligibility and interaction and making allowances for it, so at the end of the day, students shouldn’t need to worry about the exam more – because of the masks.  They just need to worry about it as much as they would have without the masks…..


If there’s anything else you think might be useful – let me know if the comments section!




Image adapted from a photo by L N on Unsplash