Criteria for Cambridge Proficiency (CPE) Speaking Exam

Anyone who is preparing to take the Cambridge Proficiency Exam should know what criteria the exam will be marked with, and this is especially true for the speaking part of the exam!

    The CPE Exam is graded using the following 6 (not 5!) criteria
  1. Grammatical Resource – How able were you to use grammar?
  2. Lexical Resource – How large was your vocabulary?
  3. Discourse Management – How fluently and well structured did you speak?
  4. Pronunciation – How effective were the sounds of your English?
  5. Interactive Communication – How well did you interact when you communicated?
  6. Global Achievement – The most important: How did you handle the communication and express yourself.

The first 5 criteria have the same weight (13.33%), while the 6th (Global Achievement) is worth much more (33.3%).

Cambridge.org have published a number of materials which specify what is required within each criterion to get a certain score. And that is what we will be looking at.

criterion: the singular of criteria! Many people use criteria though, especially in speech or informal writing.

At the bottom of this article I have included the various .pdf documents that Cambridge have published regarding this.(see documents [1] [2] & [3] at the bottom of page)

However the documents are fairly heavy going, and so to help students I have summarized the key and most pertinent information below so you won’t need to read and study all that info: more time for studying!

Let’s have a look at each of the 6 different criteria.

Criterion 1: Grammar Usage in the CPE Speaking Exam

This is the assessment of your grammatical prowess and capability.

prowess: ability, often indicating ease and/or power

Cambridge.org in the Assessing Performance pdf [2, p2] give the following guidelines:

Band 1 “Shows a good degree of control of a range of simple and some complex grammatical forms.”

Band 3 “Maintains control of a wide range of grammatical forms.” C2 LEVEL

Band 5 “Maintains control of a wide range of grammatical forms and uses them with flexibility.”

Notes:

Cambridge.org do not give guidelines on Bands 0, 2 or 4 in the documentation. Instead they say the following:

  • 0 = “Performance below Band 1”
  • 2 = “Performance shares features of Bands 1 and 3.”
  • 4 = “Performance shares features of Bands 3 and 5.”


So the key phrases here are “maintains control”, “wide range of grammatical forms” and “flexibility”.

But what do these terms mean?

Well, luckily the Teacher’s Handbook tells us! [3, p60]

Grammatical control “the ability to consistently use grammar accurately and appropriately to convey intended meaning.”

Ok, so now we know that the examiner cares a little about grammar (13.3% cares to be precise).

And also that the grammar does not need to be perfect… you need to have control over a “wide range of grammatical forms”. So, what is a “grammatical form”?

Well simple grammatical forms are: “words, phrases, basic tenses and simple clauses.”[3] – which I hope is not a problem for you if you are planning to take the CPE!

And then also complex grammatical forms: namely “longer and more complex utterances, e.g. noun clauses, relative and adverb clauses, subordination, passive forms, infinitives, verb patterns, modal forms and tense contrasts. “[3]

Basically the typical grammar you have been bored with studying for quite some time now.

And how much of this complex grammar do you need to know and use? Well a “wide range” it says.

Range: “the variety of words and grammatical forms a candidate uses. At higher levels, candidates will make increasing use of a greater variety of words, fixed phrases, collocations and grammatical forms. ”[3]

Here the “wide range” refers to “grammatical forms” - but the idea/benchmark of "range" returns to most other sections later too.

So what does all this mean? It means that to get a Band 3 at CPE you will need to produce a variety of grammar AND (of that wide range of grammar) you should be able to produce it without error.

This is not saying you need to use perfect grammar at all times, that there cannot be mistakes in your grammar - no, it means that when the examiner considers the amount of grammar you used correctly, they can say that you used a 'wide range of grammar'. In other words, that you produced a good selection of well used grammar – once we remove the errors you made.

What does that mean for you and your CPE study plan?

Well, it means two things:

  1. That you should try and identify YOUR typical speaking errors and ideally eliminate them. Perhaps a blitz on a particular mistake of yours!

  2. That you should try and expand the variety of grammatical forms you make. However, if you do this (for grammatical purposes) it adds no value to your grammar performance if the grammatical forms are incorrect! For it to count, it must be produced correctly.


The Difference Between Band 3 and Band 5 for Grammar: "Flexibility".

The difference in wording between a Band 3 and Band 5 in usage of grammar is the expression “and uses them with flexibility”.

wording: the way something is described/explained with words

And how does Cambridge.org define “Flexibility”?

“Flexibility: the ability of candidates to adapt the language they use in order to give emphasis, to differentiate according to the context, and to eliminate ambiguity. Examples of this would be reformulating and paraphrasing ideas. “ [3, page 60]

Well, what does that mean in practice?

It means that the speaker can use grammar as a means, a tool, to communicate more information.

A simple example:

  • “Do you support a team?”
  • “I support the best team in the world!”

Here a speaker might stress the word ‘the’, changing the indefinite article to the definite article. And emphasizing the word adds information for the listener. (Your team is unique, singular, in a class of its own, etc.)

Or in a more nuanced way:

  • “Did you visit the museum when you were there?”
  • “No, but I would have if I had had time.”

So the candidate has not repeated the same tense but instead used the conditional perfect to describe an alternative scenario.

Notice the less flexible answer, “No, I didn’t have time.” Here the candidate just copies the tense used.


How can you add this to your English?

Well there are at least two ways to do this.

  • A) Revise grammatical usage and isolate the differences between them.
    • For example, what does it mean to use “If I won lottery” v “If I win the lottery”? “Well, if I won the lottery… no sorry when I win the lottery, I will….”

  • B) Have a look at how advanced and native speakers might paraphrase an idea, or extend an idea, or, rephrase what they themselves had just said.
    • For example, “Oh I love to buy presents, and I love to be bought presents too!”

    Here just mixing in the passive keeps the focus on you, while at the same time you are still talking about what others actually do.

EXAM TIP:

The handbook also states: “Spoken language often involves false starts, incomplete utterances, ellipsis and reformulation. Where communication is achieved, such features are not penalised. “[3, p60]

So the exam guidelines state that if you change your mind, or correct yourself, that is not a problem.

That’s good news and bad news. It’s good news that you don’t need to be a perfect talking robot, and you can be a human being who changes their mind! A normal person who doesn’t complete sentences and needs to start over again if they made a mess. But it’s bad news if you start filtering and correcting all the things you have said, eg “The government is...the government are?… is? The government are?...oh anyway….” this is not good because you are not communicating. [It could be ‘is’ or ‘are’, by the way – see Group Nouns]

a mess: (here) a lot of confusion



Criterion 2: Range of Vocabulary in the CPE Speaking Exam

The second criteria is your choice and variety of vocabulary, or “Lexical Resource” as they term it.

Cambridge.org in the Assessing Performance pdf [2, p2] give the following guidelines:

Band 1 “Uses a limited range of appropriate vocabulary to give and exchange views on familiar and unfamiliar topics.”

Band 3 “Uses a range of appropriate vocabulary with flexibility to give and exchange views on unfamiliar and abstract topics.” C2 LEVEL

Band 5 “Uses a wide range of appropriate vocabulary with flexibility to give and exchange views on unfamiliar and abstract topics.”

So the key phrases here are “range”, “appropriate”, “flexibility” and “unfamiliar and abstract topics”. Let’s come back to “range” last.


First, “appropriate”

Cambridge.org define Appropriacy as: “Appropriacy of vocabulary: the use of words and phrases that fit the context of the given task. For example, in the utterance I’m very sensible to noise, the word sensible is inappropriate as the word should be sensitive. Another example would be Today’s big snow makes getting around the city difficult. The phrase getting around is well suited to this situation. However, big snow is inappropriate as big and snow are not used together. Heavy snow would be appropriate. “ [3, p60]

So they talk about 2 things here, first is appropriate for the context (‘get around’ is a good choice for moving oneself in a city). And secondly, appropriate as in correct. We do not describe a person as high if we mean tall.

This goes back to the idea of collocations. And is another reason to learn words in phrases (with real possible collocations) rather than as single words. With single words you are constantly piecing them together like a jigsaw puzzle – that’s not how anyone speaks any language naturally.

Exam Tip: Remember that if an examiner penalises you for inappropriate collocations, a “business journey” for example (but that this error does not impede in any way your Discourse Management or Global Achievement) then you can still get great marks in those other criteria!!


Next, “flexibility”

Well we saw already the definition of 'flexibility' in terms of 'grammar usage', and here flexibility is a key difference between Band 1 and Band 3. You need this 'flexibility' quality to get a C2 level in this category, lexical resource.

What does “flexibility” mean for vocabulary? Well, I think we all know this instinctively, it just means having alternative words and phrases for the same thing. And to use them to give more information.

For example: “Well I wouldn’t call it a lunch, it was more of a snack really.”


The next phrase is “unfamiliar and abstract topics”

Cambridge.org describes unfamiliar as: “Unfamiliar topics: topics which candidates would not be expected to have much personal experience of. “ [3, page 60]

So what does that mean? It means they will want to push you into talking about something you don’t know about.

For example, how it feels to be a superstar, or live in space, or be 100 years old, or have 15 children, or live in the future.

Exam Tip:

Knowing that the exam aims to give you topics that you have never thought about is useful to know. Simply remember that they are just trying to write questions that almost no one in the world can ‘know’ personally about.

So when you are studying just accept this and ‘Play the Game’. And as you go into the exam expect that you are going to have to talk well about things you have never given two hoots about in your life before!!

to not give two hoots about: to not care at all about


Cambridge.org defines “abstract topics” as: “Abstract topics: topics which include ideas rather than concrete situations or events. C2 Proficiency tasks that require candidates to discuss how far the development of our civilisation has been affected by chance discoveries or events, or the impact of writing on society, exemplify abstract topics.”

So much like “unfamiliar topics” you are going to have to think and talk about strange stuff. It is part of the exam.

Note how “abstract topics” is a differentiator between Band 1 and Band 3. So they must feel that this capability separates CAE (Advanced) from CPE (Proficiency). Why?

I think the rationale here is that talking about abstract subjects requires the speaker to personify nouns or make them the subject of the discussion, and to structure answers in a more hypothetical manner.

For example: “Writing has been fundamental to society for a number of reasons. Mainly because… and also it permitted… and I guess fundamentally it allowed...”

This kind of logical structure would be very difficult to encourage a student to produce when discussing concrete nouns [unless the speaker was very familiar with the subject].

Finally in Lexical Resource, let’s have a look at range.


Range

We looked at the cambridge.org definition of range already, and here in vocabulary marking schema we can see that the quality of RANGE demarcates each individual band:

  • Band 1 = “limited range”
  • Band 3 = “range”
  • Band 5 = “wide range”

So what would a “limited range” mean? And what would a “wide range” mean?

Range is about ‘variety’. You may not be giving extra information with the words (that is kind of ‘flexibility’ more) but just being able to use synonyms for style and accuracy.

And ‘limited’ must mean that the student repeated themselves; that they continually used the most common adjectives, nouns, phrases, etc.

While ‘wide’ would be interpreted that the student has shown they do not need to repeat the same word too often, and that they don’t rely heavily on the most common and most generic words and phrases.

Basically for a C2 performance you will need to use a medium to large vocabulary set.

Exam Tip:

Note that 'Appropriate' is used at each band. This means that technically if you use an inappropriate phrase it would not help you – irrespective of how different, rare or fantastic it is, all the vocabulary you use must be appropriate before it can be considered worth considering. What does that mean? It means do not learn phrases or adjectives or nouns and then use them willy-nilly. For example, do not respond to the examiner’s “Good morning” with “And what a fine morning it is!”, while it is a wonderful phrase, it is out of context and thus would be considered inappropriate and so adds no value to you. So do not just learn repeatable phrases without learning their uses too!

willy-nilly:(here) without thinking or consideration, without any 'will'



Criterion 3: Fluency, Communication and Expression in the CPE Speaking Exam

The third criterion is called “Discourse Management” and basically covers the areas of ‘quality of communication’.

The bands are divided as follows:

Band 1

  • • Produces extended stretches of language with very little hesitation.
  • • Contributions are relevant and there is a clear organisation of ideas.
  • • Uses a range of cohesive devices and discourse markers

Band 3 C2 LEVEL

  • • Produces extended stretches of language with ease and with very little hesitation.
  • • Contributions are relevant, coherent and varied.
  • • Uses a wide range of cohesive devices and discourse markers

Band 5

  • Produces extended stretches of language with flexibility and ease and very little hesitation.
  • • Contributions are relevant, coherent, varied and detailed.
  • • Makes full and effective use of a wide range of cohesive devices and discourse markers

Assessing Performance pdf [2, p2]

So what are the main differences here?

There are three sub-categories Production, Contributions, Structures. Let’s look at each one.


Production of Language

This must be very close to the general idea of ‘fluency’.

The basic ability here must be “extended stretches of language” and “very little hesitation”. You must be able to open your mouth and have a lot of English ‘fall out’. Contrary to everything your parents or teachers told you, for the CPE exam you have to speak before you think. Just think of yourself as a politician on the television asked about something you don’t have the faintest clue or foggiest idea about!

no faintest clue:(here) no idea at all, or even a link to such an idea
no foggiest idea:(here) (from 'fog') not even a vague idea of something

Cambridge.org define it as: “Extent/extended stretches of language: the amount of language produced by a candidate which should be appropriate to the task. Long-turn tasks require longer stretches of language, whereas tasks which involve discussion or answering questions could require shorter and extended responses. “ [3, p60]

So you don’t really just talk and talk at every opportunity – but you should practice an ability to occasionally 'turn your mouth on' if you like!

For Band 3 they specify that you need to talk with ‘ease’ - which I can only infer means that the examiner should not feel uncomfortable listening to you; and that you do not talk as if you are hating the experience. So smile and try and ‘enjoy’ the exam!

For Band 5 they have added that word ‘flexibility’ again.

What could flexibility mean in terms of production? Perhaps, it is the idea that as the exam progresses that the type of output you give varies according to the situation. For example, sometimes you give detailed feedback to your partner, another time you give a simple affirmation.

What you will want to avoid is always either opening your mouth and saying 5 words, or when you talk with your partner you always give a 30 second speech etc. You show some flexibility in your choice of production.


Contributions

This is about the content of what you say. In particular if it is relevant and how well organized it is.

Contributions are expected to be relevant at all CPE bands. So you must stick to the topic. Be aware of this at all times.

In terms of organization, Band 1 says that you must have your ideas organized but to get to Band 3 you must be “coherent and varied”.

“Varied” just means that your speech does not follow the same patterns of structure, for example “[opinion] because [reason]”… “I like that because...” “I agree with that because...”.

To understand if you are over reliant on a few limited structures reflect on the next couple of sections about coherence and cohesion.

So what is “coherent”?

Cambridge.org defines coherence as: “Broadly speaking, coherence refers to a clear and logical stretch of speech which can be easily followed by a listener.”

We will look at how that is achieved in the next section on Structures, but essentially is it “logical” and “easily followed”.

What is the difference between coherent and organized? Essentially being organized [Band 1] is about the content of your ideas. Are they separated and demarcated?

But being coherent adds the emphasis onto the listener’s level of understanding: that your organization is logical and easy to follow. But also that I am clear in MY head about your argument. If you have communicated your organization if you like.

For example? Well, we have all heard the occasional speaker who seems quite organized and precise in their discourse but ultimately we are left with a feeling of not getting them. So perhaps they jumped a step in their logic, or they didn’t explain well enough why B follows A – but we have appreciated that B and A are separate.

More on this in the following section Structures.

And here in Contributions the higher Band 5 is achieved by being “detailed”.

Detailed here refers to being able to either give precise examples to back up your points, or in terms of precision of your ideas with specific information. In other words not simply generalizing or being vague in your answers.

The third and final section of Discourse Management is Structures.


Structures

Here the focus is on “cohesive devices and discourse markers” which are based on the idea of ‘cohesion’.

Cohesion they define as: “Cohesion refers to a stretch of speech which is unified and structurally organised.” … which seems very similar to ‘coherence’, in fact Cambridge.org states that: “Coherence and cohesion are difficult to separate in discourse.”

So if coherence is about being logical and easy to follow for the listener, cohesion is probably how that is achieved. Namely by being “unified” (and of course “organised”).

And in fact Cambridge.org go on to state:

“Coherence and cohesion can be achieved in a variety of ways, including with the use of cohesive devices, related vocabulary, grammar and discourse markers.”

So there you go, the secret sauce here is made up of

  • Cohesive devices
  • Related vocabulary
  • Grammar
  • Discourse markers

secret sauce: colloq., what constitutes the complete best, and secret, ingredients to make something fantastic.

We will have a look at each of these in turn, but first let’s briefly see what level must be achieved for each in turn.

Band 1 expects a “range” of these cohesive devices and discourse markers, Band 3 then expects a “wide range”, and finally Band 5 “Makes full and effective use of a wide range”.

What is the difference between a “range” and a “wide range”? I mean a range is already wide if you think about it, so I presume what is intended here is that the candidate uses much more than the standard phrases (and, but, then, because, first of all, etc etc) and also incorporates many less common and more specific phrases (above all, on the other hand, one must remember, bearing in mind that, etc etc) – these two together would incorporate Band 1 “a range” and a “wide range” would mean that those more specific phrases were used often and with little to no repetition.

Exam tip:

The reason I feel that repetition of uncommon or noteworthy statements is detrimental is because the more specific the phrase the more it will stand out. And so reusing it dulls its impact and might give the impression you don’t have an alternative. Thereby indicating perhaps you do not have a “wide range” of vocabulary. So avoid overusing the same phrase!


And then for Band 5, what is this “full and effective use”? I feel here there is something that all levels of learners should strive for. And that is namely “Driving the Bus”. 'Driving the Bus' is the analogy I use for structuring your language so that the people who are 'sitting on your bus' when you are talking don’t 'fall off their seats' when you change direction. Or sit confused by not knowing what you are actually talking about, or why it is relevant to the discussion. Passengers who are worried where the driver is taking them are not able to enjoy the view out of the window! (This is called 'stretching an analogy [too far]')

If you look at a lot of written and spoken language you will see between 25 to 40% is “non-informational” or “rephrasing”. So a lot of good communication takes its time both in terms of conveying the information and structuring the information.

That is what I feel “full and effective use” means. It means that the student uses Discourse Management to really drive home their points. This can be done with the same phrases as Band 3 but with just more skill in getting the listener to pay attention.

A possible example?

A Band 3 candidate might very nicely say “There are two things we must consider with this argument, on the one hand time and on the other [hand] cost or money spent.”

A Band 5 candidate might say perhaps: “There are two things we must really consider when we look at this question, on the one hand time – you know, how long it is going to take, and on the other hand the cost – what is the money, the budget, we have available.”

You could argue that the information is the same – and at a very top level down view it is! - but who is being more effective in communicating the idea? And how well are extra details, or ways to view the same information, included?

So speaking very well is not the same as saying more, it is about communicating more. The difference? When you say a lot the listener finds it difficult to remember what you said once you have finished speaking. Yes, they heard lots of words and followed your ideas but nothing stayed with them. However, if you communicate well, the ideas remain with the listener in a clear way.

Ok let’s get back to to the four elements of Discourse Management.


Firstly, “cohesive devices”.

Cohesive devices are defined by Cambridge.org as: “words or phrases which indicate relationships between utterances, e.g. addition (and, in addition, moreover); consequence (so, therefore, as a result); order of information (first, second, next, finally).”

And then goes on to add:

“At higher levels, candidates should be able to provide cohesion not just with basic cohesive devices (e.g. and, but, or, then, finally) but also with more sophisticated devices (e.g. therefore, moreover, as a result, in addition, however, on the other hand).”

So here it is essential to learn new linking phrases and have alternatives so that you do not repeat yourself.

Study tip:

Keep a list of phrases (and group them by function) and pay particular attention when you are practising your writing to use as many of these phrases as possible. Then hopefully you will also use more and more of these phrases in your speaking. Additionally, if possible have someone tell you when you overuse certain phrases in your speaking too.




Secondly, Related Vocabulary.

Cambridge.org defines Related vocabulary as:

“ the use of several items from the same lexical set, e.g. train, station, platform, carriage; or study, learn, revise.”

The idea here is that when paraphrasing, or rephrasing, information is not lost because the vocabulary is not specific enough. For example “When you are waiting for a train, and you are standing there on the uhmm…. Errr...” [platform].

This is slightly different than vocabulary in general, only because it allows the speaker to structure information in different ways. I would consider it a minor point for structure when done properly, but noticeable, unfortunately, if the vocabulary is not quite produced.


Thirdly, Grammatical devices.

This is defined as: “essentially the use of reference pronouns (e.g. it, this, one) and articles (e.g. There are two women in the picture. The one on the right …).”

Again make a list of possible options if you are not already using a variety of phrases. This is again tied to the idea of Driving the Bus – being able to not confuse the listener with language that is just not specific enough for the situation. Aim to make things as clear as possible.


Finally, Discourse Markers

Discourse markers are defined as: “words or phrases which are primarily used in spoken language to add meaning to the interaction, e.g. you know, you see, actually, basically, I mean, well, anyway, like.”

So again this is language that is not informational, it serves to help the listener follow what is being said. And it also allows you to introduce rephrasing or to give examples.

One thing to note here is that Cambridge.org even specify that these are used more in speaking and that is because the spoken language is different and as they said: “Spoken language often involves false starts, incomplete utterances, ellipsis and reformulation. Where communication is achieved, such features are not penalised.”

“So, you know, speaking like this is, basically, normal and I guess the extra words in the sentences – those words I don’t really need to say, are kind of, a way, a tool if you like, of making sure I can focus your attention on the WORDS I stress. Like that word for example.”

That is all very natural, and again focuses the importance on communication, not just speaking.


How Important is Pronunciation in the CPE Speaking Exam?

Criterion 4: Pronunciation

The fourth criterion in the CPE Speaking Exam is Pronunciation.

Band 3, the “Pass” Band, states that the following is required in your pronunciation:

“Is intelligible. Intonation is appropriate. Sentence and word stress is accurately placed. Individual sounds are articulated clearly” [3, page 60]

The difference with Band 1 is noticeable. For example in Band 1 pronunciation is required to be “intelligible” as well but intonation, stress and sounds are all only required to be “generally” OK.

Intelligible by the way is defined as: “Intelligible: a contribution which can generally be understood by a non-EFL/ESOL specialist, even if the speaker has a strong or unfamiliar accent.” - so accent is not important but getting understood is.

In other words, for Band 1 there can be general mistakes while for Band 3 there can be no such errors. In short, Band 3 requires a near ‘perfect’ production.

What do I mean by 'near perfect'? Well, firstly in the sense of mechanical or muscular production of sounds, ie that you are physically able to produce all the sounds correctly. And secondly that you are able to produce language sounds that are appropriate, ie your phonological features do not create any problems or misunderstandings.

If we consider Band 5 we can see the difference. Cambridge.org states: “Phonological features are used effectively to convey and enhance meaning.”

It presumes that the student has no limitations caused by any mechanical issues regarding pronunciation and can actually give meaning through “phonological features”. What does that mean?

It means we go beyond simply not making mistakes to actually using these characteristics to give extra meaning.

Consider the sentence: “I went to the shops on Thursday.”

The most probable sentence stress is going to fall on “shops” - but it will not be too exaggerated.

However, if we change the intonation we can change the meaning….

I went to the shops on Thursday.” [not you or anyone else!]

“I went to the shops on Thursday.” [not Wednesday or Friday or any other day!]

and even if add more stress to the word ‘shops’: “I went to the SHOPS on Thursday.” [not somewhere else!]

So here the speaker is conveying a lot of information through intonation and this is considered a key and fundamental part of speech.

In reality in fact, this is such an important part of spoken English that it should be something students are being taught at all levels – and while examining bodies (like Cambridge) may not require it until C2, it would be appreciated by ANY examiner if it was used in any exam from A1 upwards! Eg “I have FOUR cats!”.

Criterion 5 Interactive Communication

How to Interact in the CPE Speaking Exam

Let us have a look at how each band adds to what the previous band considers essential.

So, starting at Band 1 (not CPE Level)

This is what is considered an absolute minimum and you must perform better than this to pass this criteria, the student...: “Initiates and responds appropriately, linking contributions to those of other speakers. Maintains and develops the interaction and negotiates towards an outcome.”

So for Band 1 you are expected to already be starting conversations; to be commenting in a suitable way to the other people’s contributions; to be able to keep a conversation not only going but moving forward but to be moving forward towards an “outcome”.

An “outcome” could mean the solving of the pictures question in Part 2, or in fact actually answering any question you’ve been asked, especially the principal question in Part 3 (the long turn)!

Included in the idea of “develops” is that the student does more than the minimum in the conversation. The student is looking to open the conversation outwards rather than closing it down.

Exam Tip:

Don’t forget that the examiner themselves are included in ‘other speakers’. They should not be viewed as simply a ‘talking exam question’. So do consider linking and responding to what they have asked you, “Oh that’s a good question!” or “Well I’ve never really thought much about it but I guess I would say….” etc etc.


When we move to Band 3, Cambridge.org says: “Interacts with ease, linking contributions to those of other speakers. Widens the scope of the interaction and negotiates towards an outcome.”[3,p60]

The two features that define a C2 pass here are “with ease” and “widens”.

So the examiner will expect that a C2 level candidate communicates freely, and, even though they are all sitting in an exam, the student is able to be relaxed using their English. That is not a particularly easy objective! My advice would be to practice as much as possible before the exam! And to make sure you are extremely familiar with the structure of the exam so that you feel very confident about what is happening in that moment, and what is about to happen, during the exam.

As regards to “widens”, a C2 level candidate is expected to be pushing the conversation in new directions; expanding the areas covered in terms of information and possible new directions.

There are two possible tactics here in the exam. The first would be in the photos section to ask your partner a question or two that goes beyond the simple describe, compare and consensus. For example: “Do you think the photo also needs to look [professional, natural, spontaneous, …]?” or “Yes, that photo could be the one to choose, can you think of any reason why it might not be suitable?” or similar.

A second possibility would be in Part 3 in the long turn. Specifically when there is a clear opportunity to broaden the question, for example: “When we ask people to consider what food they buy, we should also ask them to consider what animal products in general they consume, like shoes, bags, furniture even!”

And in Band 5, this idea of widening the scope is extended because students must also show the ability to develop “it fully and effectively” [3, p60] towards an outcome. Much as the example above, where the student has given some examples and could later mention this idea again.

Finally in Band 5, the student “interacts with ease by skillfully interweaving his/her contributions into the conversation”. What does that mean, then?

Well, to interweave is to be able to place something within another object so they do not appear to be separate items.

I suppose the element that is being tested here is the ability to smoothly move between diverse functions within your speech. For example, the very functional.

“Well, I think it is fundamental. What do you think?”

Compared to the more conversational: “Well, yes, I think it is fundamental, I mean, do you think the same or….?” So what changes here? Well that the sentences are joined and that the speaker is not delivering a mechanical list. And also the use of ‘yes’ softens the ‘I think’ as well as acknowledging the previous speaker. And then the idea of prompting the other speaker with ‘same’ rather than simply “What”. All in all the speaker has merged a number of speaking qualities into the contribution (introduction, response, opinion, discourse marker, question, prompting, turn signaling with the “or…?”) in what I personally would consider seamless.

Finally we move onto the single most important criterion of the CPE Speaking Exam: Global Achievement. [See below for an explanation of the CPE Speaking Exam marking system]

Criterion 6: Global Achievement Scale

This is a score given to the student that should reflect their general communicative performance in the exam.

What aspects are assessed in the Global Achievement Scale?

In brief the four criteria that are included in the handbook [3] are:

  • - Handling of communication
  • - Hesitation
  • - Linguistic resources
  • - Coherence of extended discourse

But it is also true that these criteria have been looked at separately in the previous 5 sections, so what is the difference? Simply, how well did you put everything together. If the previous sections were of a ‘technical’ nature then this is of a ‘functional’ nature when you put all these things together.

Looking at Band 1, Cambridge expects the following basics: “Handles communication on a range of familiar and unfamiliar topics, with very little hesitation. Uses accurate and appropriate linguistic resources to express ideas and produce extended discourse that is generally coherent.” So the student is expected to talk fluently and be understandable for almost all the time.

For the student to move up to Band 3, the CPE Pass grade for this criteria, the student also: “Handles communication on a wide range of topics, including unfamiliar and abstract ones, with very little hesitation.”
so now:

  • - wide range of topics
  • - unfamiliar and abstract topics
and: “Uses accurate and appropriate linguistic resources to express complex ideas and concepts and produce extended and coherent discourse.”
so now:
  • - express complex ideas and concepts
  • - now the extended discourse is not weakened by ‘generally’

So the examiner must feel that you the student are able to discuss almost every topic that is covered in the exam in a way that is structured and not give simplistic black and white answers but rather nuanced ideas.

And finally Band 5, here the student is required to be able to talk about not just ‘almost’ all topics, but actually all topics. And to communicate your ideas with a degree of ‘flexibility’ - meaning that in addition to the content of their words, also the style of language they use (in all its aspects) adds value to the meaning they are communicating.

This whole criterion could be summarized as a general feeling as to how “satisfactory” the communication had been. And Cambridge themselves state: “Always remember that Level C2 is generally described as ‘Fully operational command of the spoken language’”. [2, page 2] And this holistic viewpoint is being tested and appraised with the mark given in this section.

Exam Tip:

Just remember for any exam:

The best way to win any game – and every exam is a game… is to know the rules of the game before you play the game!



Extra Question:

How is the speaking exam marked?

Cambridge say “The assessor gives 0–5 marks for each of the following criteria: Grammatical Resource; Lexical Resource; Discourse Management; Pronunciation; and Interactive Communication. Marks for each of these criteria are doubled. The interlocutor gives a mark of 0–5 for Global Achievement. This mark is then multiplied by five. … Marks for all criteria are then combined, meaning there are 75 marks available in the Speaking test. “ [1, page2]

So apart from it being some sort of crazy maths game that you do when you are child..”think of a number between 0 and 5, double it, triple it etc...” - what is key here is that each of the first 5 criteria have the same importance and the last one is worth much more.

They also published this table


[pdf 1 p2]

Which then converts to


[pdf 1 p1]

So for a C2 performance in the speaking exam you will need to achieve 45 marks.

Doing a bit of crazy maths…. (10x + 5x = 45… x = 3…. ) I can see that a Band 3 in each category will get you a C2 level in the speaking exam. And that if you completely bomb out [0 or 1] in one of the first 5 criteria then an average 3.5 will just get you through too!

In short don’t despair. Yet.

Just for you to bear in mind Cambridge.org also state: “Examiners may award half marks.”

This is important just for you to understand where you might be when you and your teaching are assessing your progress. Cambridge.org give guidelines as to what is a Band 1, a Band 3 and a Band 5.

Exam Tip:

So if you felt that you managed the Band 3 pretty well but not the Band 5, and not quite frequently enough to get a Band 4 then perhaps a Band 3.5 – so what you say? No big deal. Well….

...getting just half a Band mark in 6 categories means an improvement overall of 7.5 points, that’s 10%!

And if you fail badly on one criteria [Band 1] the extra 6 points from 0.5 marks will exactly compensate enough to get you to have ‘passed’ the speaking at C2 level!

References Used in this Article

[1] The Cambridge English Scale explained

[2] Assessing Speaking Performance

[3] C2 Proficiency: Handbook for teachers

Here are some links that could be of interest!

Check out: Useful-Phrases-CPE-Speaking-Exam

Check out: Agree-Formal-Informal-Write-Speak

Check out: Complete-Approach-to-Learning-Vocab

Check out: Phrases_Words_Give_Time_To_Think