Useful Phrases for the CPE Speaking Exam
23 Useful Phrase Types for the CPE Speaking Exam
In the CPE Speaking Exam it is impossible to know what topics or what questions you will have to talk about, but you can learn some phrases that will be useful all through the exam!
I thought of 5 main categories and 23 sub-categories! If you can think of any others let me know!
23 Useful Phrase Types for the CPE Speaking.
Phrases To Start Speaking With
- Introducing Your Contribution
- Thinking Time Phrases
- Brief Long Turn Intro
Phrases To Make Things Better
- Make Things Interesting
- Speculating About A Photo
- Widening The Argument
- Stressing Details
- Predicting Or Imagining
Phrases To Make Things Clearer
- Structure Any Longer Answer
- Move Between Topics
- Switching Direction Phrases
- Going Backwards
- Giving An Example
Phrases To Highlight Interactivity
- Disagreeing Nicely
- Verbal Nods
- Involving The Examiner
- Asking Your Partner Questions (4 Types)
Phrases To Create Harmony
- Being A Nice Person Phrases
- Giving Mild Or Balanced Opinions
- Refer To Your Partner
When I was researching this topic (after a student had asked me to find some useful phrases) I found that a lot of the options that you could find online or in books were pretty poor actually.
I saw that phrases were just simply listed for students without any context and that they were a little stilted, sometimes too formal, and perhaps even too specific...in the sense that they would be difficult to reuse unless there was a very precise situation/context.
So the problem that this created was that students would learn the phrase(s) and attribute a function to the phrase – but when they said it the examiner might smell a rat, they might think that has just been learnt by heart.
Which is true after all!
So what I have tried to do here is compile some phrases that are fixed or semi-fixed in nature (so they are considered common and natural) and are neutral in the sense that you could use them in business, and in academia, as well as with your friends - exactly the type of tone the CPE exam wants to recreate!
I have also tried to explain them in terms of a more precise function and common usage.
You should be pleasant but not stuffy. And saying some of the more formal phrases out of, or even slightly out of, context… well at worst is seen as rote speaking, but also as possibly inappropriate as per the exam criteria! [see my breakdown on the criteria for the CPE speaking exam here]
So let’s begin with the first category, Phrases to Start Speaking With!
Section 1. Phrases to Start Speaking With
In general it is obviously good advice to start to speak confidently – the exam stresses the need for minimal hesitation.
One way to imagine a conversation is that someone is passing you a ball when they ask you a question – and if you have the ball, you should be speaking! And so to signal that you accept it is your turn, ideally you will start to speak almost immediately.
This is, of course, a cultural habit. Some cultures in the world like the person to respond after reflection… but not us! No, no, we value instant responses, silences are taboo. Maybe I am exaggerating… but maybe not when we look at the way the exam is marked, hmmm.
Phrase Type 1: Introducing Your Contribution
I have listed a few here, but actually many of the other sections could be used to start your speaking, for example Widening the Argument, or Refer to Your Partner, etc.
- I guess…
- I suppose...
- ...speaking from experience, …
- ...as far as I am concerned…
- ...in my opinion…
- ...as I see it …
- ...to be honest …
I recommend using an ‘utterance’ because it is such a common and natural way of ‘accepting the ball’. And you can inhale immediately afterwards – this signals that you have understood the question and the very slight pause [it is not a hesitation now!] allows the listener to get ready for your answer.
Phrase Type 2: Thinking Time Phrases
Be careful here because in order to buy time these phrases have to be a bit longer than the standard "Introducing Your Contribution". So they can appear stilted and that you have learnt them by heart… well because you have!!!!
So what I would recommend is that you don’t say them unless you are desperate!
And that you get the natural ‘surprised’ intonation that comes with the phrase when said in its normal context.
- Oh that’s an interesting question because there are a number of factors involved, such as...
- Oh, ok, I’ve never thought much about that but if I were to make a guess, I think...
- Well that’s difficult to say because on the one hand, I guess….
These are real sentences and said in the right context with the right intonation are more than acceptable – just remember it is a little bit of a high risk solution that could backfire (a little).
Phrase Type 3: Brief Long Turn Intro
Here are three examples of Long Turn cards that can be given to students:
Here we can see three possible types of questions. The first could almost only be considered impersonal in nature – while the third, could be discussed naturally either in an impersonal way or using personal experience. The middle option could be a real mix of the two styles.
It is highly recommended to merge the two styles if you are feeling confident.
Remember that the suggestions under the card are only suggestions. You are not obliged to use or say them all, or even any, of them if you don’t need to.
So firstly, if you wish to begin as a personal story (these longer sentences need to be practiced to sound normal):
- This reminds me of something that happened to me actually, when I was...…
- From my personal experience there was a period in my life where...
- I have first hand experience of this question from when I was...
Alternatively you could simply say:
- Well, once when I was…
- In my personal experience,
- This reminds me of when I was…
And then you will need to link this story to you answering the question:
- ...and this experience taught me that…
- ...and I learnt from this time that there are 2 main problems/issues
- ...and I saw that the key factors here were...
Here there are two options really, one is that you could talk in depth about one factor and why that is the single most important factor – and use your experiences directly, or you could list the factors and now present them in an impersonal way.
Alternatively you could begin with an impersonal introduction, namely:
- Well, there are 3 main areas to consider here…
- This is an interesting question and there are at least 3 issues to consider…
- This is [a very topical problem] at the moment, and three of the main factors are...
Then as you begin the discussion I would list the three suggestions on the card (trying to paraphrase if possible).
- Firstly … secondly... and then finally
Then later in the 'Long Turn' I would look at the "Move Between Topics language" to structure the ideas better.
If you have no more things to say, you can then move from an impersonal analysis to a personal example, with phrases such as:
- ...and I guess if I think of an example from my own life…
- ...and I saw this personally when I went to…
- ...a good example of this was when I...
So looking at two of the three exam example questions above:
Question 1) impersonal and switch to personal
Question 3) personal switched to impersonal
Section 2. Phrases to Make Things Better
Well, of course you would like the speaking exam to go better!
These are phrases which improve the quality of the content – in some cases allowing you to introduce more content, and in some cases to make your content more powerful. All in all, better!
Phrase Type 4: Makes Things Interesting
The things we say are not automatically interesting. But here is something interesting, I am saying this boring sentence - but you have increased your attention!
Ha ha! You see by telling someone that something is interesting or important it automatically gets their attention and you seem to be a more powerful speaker.
Interestingly, I think the one time that this has the opposite effect is when we announce that something we are about to say is ‘funny’ - for some reason that is guaranteed to mean no one laughs!!! Isn’t that funny?
So some phrases which subtly convince the other person that you are indeed interesting are:
- ..and this is exciting because…
- ...and an interesting thing is…
- ...which is odd because…
- ...and that is strange if you think about it because...
Phrase Type 5: Speculating About A Photo
In the photo(s) section of the exam it is very easy to simply say, “and here the person is...” etc.
This is not wrong, but sometimes the photos are not clear about what they are showing, so you cannot simply say “this is”, instead consider:
When it is visually not clear:
- As far as I can tell …
- I can’t quite make it out but I think…
When it is ‘functionally’ not clear:
- It looks as if/though…
- I get the impression that...
When I mean “functionally not clear” I kind of mean ‘why they are acting like that’ or ‘what is the hidden story here’. Basically For example:
- I get the impression that…
- ... it is not real.
- ...this is not the whole picture.
- ...they know each other.
- It looks as if…
- ...the place is very busy.
- ...they are actors, it looks fake.
- ...something exciting is about to happen.
Part of the exam criteria states that higher marks can be achieved by ‘Widening The Argument’ and this is the next section, but also these types of comments about the photos allow the discussion to be much wider than just what is obvious.
Phrase Type 6: Widening The Argument
The examiners appreciate when a student really expands the discussion so that it is much more than the initial question. (Without losing sight of the original question of course!)
Ideally you will also have the opportunity to talk briefly about the extra issues raised; but be careful to not get sidetracked. Keep the discussion focused on the question, but show an ability to open out the discussion naturally.
Some typical phrases might include:
- What springs to mind when we talk about this is also the fact that...
- One thing we haven’t mentioned yet is the bigger picture - in terms of...
- And of course now we could go on to talk about the impact on….
- This opens up a whole new series of questions regarding….
And then you could possibly just give an example of what you mean, and leave it at that.
Phrase Type 7: Stressing Details
Much like the section on "Makes Things Interesting", here we are focusing on individual details or facts that you are talking about.
The idea is to really focus the thoughts of the listener on your main idea.
The risk in not doing this is that the listener is left with the slight feeling that they do not know what your main point is. Or, how you feel in particular. This means in a way that your contribution has not been effective because I will need to ask you another question to find out what is the key take away from what you have said.
You can focus on a detail or fact in two ways, one is before you say it:
- To some extent the key/main issue/problem here is…
- Taking everything into account, I would choose/say….
- If I had to pick one factor, it would be...
The other way is afterwards,
- This is really important because it is the only way…
- In fact I would say that was the key issue here because….
- Which if I think about it, that is probably the key factor here because...
Either way you should aim to explain why it is important too:
- For me the primary reason is X, and that is because….
Another variant of this is to introduce an idea with interesting imagery, this also grabs the listener’s attention and highlights your idea:
- What flashes through my mind when I think of this is….
- So off the top of my head I would say...
- Something that springs to mind here is...
Phrase Type 8: Predicting or Imagining
There are many times in a normal conversation you will want to hypothesize about possible facts or situations. This should also be part of your natural conversation in the exam.
The most natural moment for these type of sentences will be the Photos part (see "Speculating About a Photo" section above), but you can use these phrases to great effect whenever you are being required to give an opinion about something you are unsure of, for example:
- (I’m not sure but ) I bet X is a factor in this.
- (I don’t know about this personally but) the chances are that…
- (I have never looked into this but) my guess is that…
These are also very nice phrases to use in real life because you are presenting your ‘facts’ as a non-expert and that they are just ideas - it is less bombastic and leaves more space for the other person to have their ideas too.
Section 3. Phrases to Make Things Clearer
Presenting your ideas clearly is a fundamental requirement not only of CPE but also CAE, this is what it means to move between ‘Intermediate’ and ‘Advanced’.
As a person speaks for a longer period it becomes more and more likely that the other person is going to lose YOUR train of thought. You will need to structure your ideas more clearly.
And another time that clarification is vital is if an initial statement does not fully capture your idea, so you will need to rephrase, or give an example, etc.
Phrase Type 9: Structure Any Longer Answer
This is much of a variation on the section “Brief Long Turn Intro”, so consider looking at that too.
Basically this is simply a way of telling the audience that you have more than one point to make on the question. It allows them to start to listen to you with some structure from the get go.
- Well there are two things to consider here, firstly…
- Actually there are a number of issues here (, two for example are….)
- I guess we have to look at four key areas,
While you could start to talk immediately about the first point, a more structured approach would be to actually list the things you would like to say:
- ...namely X and Y.
- ...for example X, Y and Z.
- …and they are / would be A, B and C.
And then you could begin talking about the first one:
- So if we look at X first…
- Firstly X…
- Taking X first….
Phrase Type 10: Moving Between Topics
Following on from structuring a longer answer would be the need to subsequently move between the topics, issues or examples you have already listed, or alluded to.
We can use the number based phrases, secondly, thirdly, - however that can seem very regimented and less relaxed (which the CPE exam aims to be). Often when we DO USE them (as I had just done) it is especially when the points are short and close in time, or initially when we list them.
Later though, once you have developed a point you should probably use a simple signal that you are changing focus.
These can be very simple, but they are very effective:
- Moving on to …
- Now if we look at...
- So turning to...
Help people follow your logic by structuring your ideas clearly.
Phrase Type 11: Switching Direction Phrases
Sometimes we need to change direction completely within a point.
We should really tell the listener that it is about to happen, else they will be trying to understand how the new idea fits in with the old idea.
- ...but I'm in two minds about it because we can also…
- That's one way of looking at it but I guess on the other hand …
- And yet if we look at it from the completely opposite direction, we see that...
Phrase Type 12: Rephrasing
The exam criteria states: “Spoken language often involves false starts, incomplete utterances, ellipsis and reformulation. Where communication is achieved, such features are not penalised.” [3 p60]
This means that you should not fear rephrasing any statement if you feel it went across badly.
Simple phrases such as these should help announce your intent:
- To put it another way...
- In other words…
- Maybe that wasn’t clear, I wanted to say…
- Sorry let me start again…
Phrase Type 13: Going Backwards
Not quite the same thing as rephrasing, this is where you go backwards in terms of logic or in terms of the flow of the argument.
Phrases such as:
- Sorry, just to come back to the point I was making …
- (When I was talking about X) I forgot to mention …
- Actually we could have mentioned X when we were talking about Y earlier…
Phrase Type 14: Giving An Example
Of course throughout the exam you will want to give occasional examples, here are some alternative structures to the standard “So for example...”
- If we take X for example we can see…
- One of the best examples I can think of this is…
- For instance, if we look at...
- We’ve all heard about the famous example where…
Section 4: Phrases to Highlight Interactivity
An important aspect of any dialogue is the interaction between people. And this is reflected in the marking scheme for the CPE Speaking Exam.
It is important to remember that all the language you produce in the speaking exam is viewed in the context of the conversation. Speaking well about a subject that has nothing to do with the matter in hand is frowned upon and will not be given a good grade.
And so within the exam students should aim to show consideration to the other speakers, not only in terms of listening and giving them time to talk but also in what you say.
Phrase Type 15: Agreeing
Many students do not acknowledge that they actually agree with what the other person said, they just continue with their own ideas.
Phrases that show agreement can be very simple:
- I agree.
- You’re right
- That’s a good point.
You can be a little more emphatic occasionally:
- I think I have to agree with you on that point
- That’s exactly what I was thinking
- That is completely true
You can also change your mind
- On second thoughts, I have to agree with you…
- After listening to what you just said, I think you are right
And you can also partially agree
- Yes, I think I’d agree with you to a certain extent, however, one thing is…
- Yes, that’s so true, however it is also true that...
[As I mentioned before I have written a long post on agreeing and disagreeing which you can find here]
Phrase Type 16: Disagreeing Nicely
So once we have mastered agreeing we have to master disagreeing too!
A fundamental issue about disagreeing – even more so than agreeing – is to acknowledge the other person’s ideas in some way - and even then, ideally, in a positive way.
The basic structure is:
- APOLOGY + DISAGREEMENT
- I am sorry to disagree with you, but…
- I’m afraid I have to say that is not quite true…
- Unfortunately that is not the case…
Another version is:
- ACKNOWLEDGEMENT OF GENERAL IDEA + DISAGREEMENT
- I think I see what you mean, but …
- I see what you’re getting at but …
- Right, more or less, however...
A more sophisticated structure might be as so:
- COMPLIMENT + change of direction + SPECIFIED CRITICISM
- There are some very valid points there, however, what you said about…
- I think that is almost perfect, just one thing, when you mentioned…
- I agree with everything you said, there is one minor point however, if we look at...
Again, as I have said on other occasions – be careful about memorizing these very long structures without practicing the rhythm, and, making sure you can insert them into a conversation in a natural way!
Phrase Type 17: Verbal Nods
Verbal nodding is as much a cultural phenomenon as it is a language skill.
It simply refers to how we would expect a listener to behave while they are listening!
In some cultures there is no problem if the listener is passively sitting there, but to be honest we find it shows a level of disinterest. So as not to be rude, we use verbal nods.
- Oh yes
- Uh huh
But most of the time, I’ll be honest with you, we just look toward the person, nod our heads occasionally (like a nodding dog) and say “yeah...yeah... yeah….exactly... yeah...yeah...”. And then as soon as they stop talking we disagree with them… ha ha!
For the exam I recommend a few “Yes” “Right” “Exactly”, an occasional “Oh yes!” and “That’s interesting!” etc.
You can also use some longer expressions (in a very soft voice, while the other person talks) like:
- That’s a good idea
- That’s just what I was thinking
- That's an interesting point.
- That’s a good point.
- You’ve got a point there.
- You’re absolutely correct.
Most of these expressions could also be used just as you are about to start speaking, to recognise the other speaker's ideas before starting your own. Much like the Agreeing phrases.
Phrase Type 18: Involving the Examiner
The exam criteria states: “Development of the interaction: actively developing the conversation, e.g. by saying more than the minimum in response to the written or visual stimulus or to something the other candidate/interlocutor has said;”[1, p61]
“Responding: replying or reacting to what the other candidate or the interlocutor has said. “ [1, p61]
While you shouldn’t ask the interlocutor a question directly, you should react accordingly to their questions. (As I mention in a moment, you can ask the examiner to repeat a question however).
This means that you react to what they said as if it were part of a conversation – not just an exam question!
So do consider linking and responding to what they have asked you:
- Oh that’s a good/difficult/tricky question!
If you feel the question is something you need to think about a little, then say so – it is a conversation!
- Well I’ve never really thought about it much but I guess I would say….
- In terms of X, I had never really considered that aspect, but I suppose...
- That’s a side of the issue I have never dwelled on, but, thinking about it now, I would say...
If you haven’t understood the question, you could simply say
- I am sorry, could you repeat that?
If you just missed a word, then perhaps:
- Sorry I didn’t quite catch that word (after “K” / you said “when you….?”)
Or alternatively, if you understood the words but were not sure of the meaning, then you could say:
- Ok, by X do you mean Y…?
- Sorry, if I understood correctly, are you referring to…?
And then respond with a
- Oh ok, thank you!
Phrase Type 19: Asking Your Partner Questions
When your partner is speaking listen carefully and 'actively'. Show interest in their opinions by responding to comments he or she makes.
This might be by showing you agree or disagree with something they've said, but could also be, to ask them to expand or clarify a comment they've made. For example, look at the going deeper questions.
There are probably four main types of questions you should look to ask your partner:
Direct questions, these are the standard type of questions where you clearly signalling for the other person to speak:
- What do you think of all that?
- How do you feel about…
Going deeper questions, here you are really taking a decisive position in the conversation, but with a friendly tone it could be an excellent way to improve the quality of your discussion; especially when deciding your solution in the photos section:
- So, when you say ........, do you mean ........?
- Could you explain what you mean by .......?
Only ask these type of questions if you are genuinely interested or confused. An insincere question will stand out like a sore thumb. It will sound simply rehearsed and not natural!
Challenging questions, these are questions where you are challenging the stance of the other person. Keep the tone friendly and inquisitive and not accusative or aggressive.
- Don’t you think that….?
- Yes, but what about…?
Looking for agreement: Sometimes you might have different opinions than your speaking partner, and that is not a problem in itself. However, you may want to find a conciliatory position, especially with the final choice of photos, so perhaps:
- Well, can we agree on…
- Do you go along with that?
Phrase Type 20: Interrupting
There will of course be many speaking exams where one of the speakers dominates, or tries to dominate, the paired tasks. The examiners are aware of this, and even the exam criteria acknowledges that this is not desirable in terms of interactivity.
However, do not expect the examiner to help you!
They may notice it and take that into consideration, but it is also your responsibility to manage the conversation, so be prepared to interrupt!
Simple phrases should suffice:
- Sorry to interrupt, but I think perhaps..
- If I might add something…
- Yes, and if I could just say that…
If you are in a more serious situation, you could try something a bit stronger with a firm voice, such as:
- Look, I am sorry, if I could just get a chance here….
- Please. I would like to get a word in here…
- Sorry, could I say something please?
In such a rare situation, I would then advise you to say something fairly short (at least the first time!) and use some phrases from the section below on "Refer to Your Partner". They will be angry or embarrassed, so aim to keep things as pleasant as possible!
Section 5: Phrases to Create Harmony
Like it or not. Agree with it or not, but the Cambridge Exams are a product of a culture and like every culture there is a preferred way of doing things.
Being harmonious in a conversation is considered polite in British culture and by some people it is even considered essential. So in an ideal exam you could try to do the same.
Phrase Type 21: Being a Nice Person Phrases
So just aiming to be a positive nice person is a great start!
Do smile, do do your verbal nods, refer to your partner, give them time to speak. And so on.
All the phrases that I have listed here could be considered nice, but especially such things as:
- Agreeing to disagree: "Let’s agree to disagree on/about…
- Giving feedback about their ideas: "Yes, I think that is a great idea...
- Giving feedback about their opinions: "That’s really interesting...
- Agreeing where possible: "Yes, I totally agree with that! In fact….
Phrase Type 22: Giving Mild or Balanced Opinions
Another option here is to avoid being bombastic or dogmatic in your opinion.
So we might often begin with a phrase that admits we could be wrong or that there is room for disagreement;
- I'm inclined to think/believe that .…
- I could be wrong here but I think…
- It is just my personal opinion but I would imagine that…
- It is just one side of the argument but I tend to agree more with...
- I am open to other opinions, but I think…
This allows you to give an opinion without appearing to be overtly opinionated.
Phrase Type 23: Refer to Your Partner
When giving your opinion, and this could be especially during the photos or after listening to their long turn, or in the final conversation, aim to comment on, or simply refer to, your partner's views.
You could agree with them:
- I think you were right when you said…
- I agree with what you said about….
You could simply comment on something they said:
- It was an interesting point you said about…
- I think what you have just said is really important.
You could simply refer to what they said, showing that you were listening:
- You were saying that…
- You mentioned X, which is interesting because...
You could build on what they talked about
- And to take your idea one step further we could….
- Yes, I think that’s a great idea and if we added….
So there you go many many ideas for phrases that you could use or use as a starting point to find your own versions!
Happy studying and good luck in the exam!