Speaking in Exam Preparation Classes: Students’ difficulties



Greece has a strong testing culture since teaching foreign languages is linked with language exams. Students learn foreign languages mainly to get a foreign language certification. The Greek market offers a large number of English Language exams and certifying bodies. All these exams consist of various sections – some evaluate all language skills and others emphasize specific skills. However, all the exams test oral production even though they present variations in terms of content, format and marking criteria. 

 By Dr Irini - Renika Papakammenou*

English language teachers dedicate much time in preparing students for exam tasks that test relevant skills. One of these skills is speaking. According to research on ‘washback effect’ (the influence of testing on teaching), speaking skills seem to be conditioned by the specific exam students prepare for each time (Papakammenou, 2016; Tsagari, 2012). Not only the materials but also the tasks and activities, as well as the teaching practices (how teachers teach) teachers use when teaching speaking skills are influenced by the exams. So, teachers spend a significant amount of time in exam preparation classes practising certain tasks or activities found in the respective language exams. Thus, students experience feelings of stress and boredom in speaking classes when preparing for exams.


Taking under consideration that the speaking skill is not that easy for the students to possess in English language classes it becomes even more difficult to acquire in exam preparation classes. Speaking requires first and foremost a large extent of practice and exposure. Essentially, being able to speak a foreign language means having communicative efficiency in that language. These elements are much more difficult to practice and develop in exam preparation contexts because both teaching and teachers are restricted by the exams. Teachers feel stressed to achieve exam success and accommodate their teaching methods following exam format, as washback studies (Alderson and Wall, 1993; Papakammenou, 2016; Tsagari, 2012) have shown. More specifically, research has shown that the activities and tasks teachers employ in speaking classes are taken only from books which prepare students for the specific exam and are largely exam practice tests which resemble the exams (Papakammenou, 2016; Tsagari, 2012).


So, even though Greek students go through a great deal of preparation for the exams why do they find it difficult to express themselves in English and hold a conversation? In other words, what are the causes that make Greek students experience difficulty in communicating effectively in English? These are inhibition, nothing to say, participation - interest and mother tongue use (Ur, 1996).



Unlike the other skills – reading, writing and listening – the speaking skill is more demanding to develop. Students are exposed to an audience and often feel inhibited about saying something in a foreign language. This feeling becomes even stronger when it comes to exams. Students are extra worried about mistakes and shy about their ideas and their answers. Also, in exam preparation classes students know that the audience in the exams will not be a person they know such as their teachers or a friend but an examiner who evaluates their outcome. Knowing all these, they become more shy and timid, pushing themselves to think the answers more and thus feel performance anxiety.


Nothing to say

Learners often complain that they do not have anything to say. Teachers may use motivating tasks or activities with topics relevant to students’ age and interests but even so they find their students reluctant to express themselves. This becomes even worse in exam preparation classes in which teachers are obliged to teach specific topics which might not be of any interest to students or they know nothing about. The type of tasks or activities in the exams plays a role as well. Students often complain about the type of tasks or activities that exams require them to prepare for. There are students who prefer role-plays and others who prefer answering questions. The ‘multi-exam context’ (Papakammenou, 2016) that Greece offers, can be a solution. There are many English language exams for the same level in the Greek market so students and teachers have more choices when it comes to choose which exam to sit for. Teachers can choose an exam which offers speaking activities that suit the candidate’s abilities. Therefore, the correct choice of exam may help students to become more motivated and willing to participate in class. In addition, ‘multi-exam classes’ (Papakammenou, 2016) which prepare students for more than one exam in the same class, allow students to practice and get involved in various speaking tasks or activities regardless of the exam he/she aims for.


Participation and Interest

Speaking classes can be the most interesting ones depending on a lot of factors. One of these factors is teachers and teaching methods. Following the content of the exam, teachers fail to make such classes more interesting and help students to participate. There is very little talking time for all students and exam tasks need time. Also, in most cases the topics and the content of the speaking section of the exams is age inappropriate, difficult and irrelevant to students thus making preparation for speaking frustrating rather than funny and interesting as speaking should be, compared to all other skills. Teachers in speaking exam classes adopt methods that save time and ensure success to the test. So, there is not enough time and focus on tasks or activities that develop communicative competence. Unfortunately, students know the routine of a speaking class and once they have done the task and know the score they get discouraged to participate in the lesson any longer.


Mother tongue –Memorisation

English in most cases is not practiced outside the classroom and mother tongue interference makes communication much more difficult. One way to help students avoid thinking in or translating from Greek is memorization. Teachers give chunks or key words and useful expressions which can help learners improve their speech, sound more natural and accomplish the task. Even though it ensures success in exams it does not allow students to express themselves or be willing to produce free speech in the target language.


Thus, teachers need to become assessment literate and more knowledgeable about new teaching methods and assessment techniques and to integrate them into their current practices and teaching contexts. Teachers should guide students to choose the ideal exam for them depending on the individual’s needs, motivation and learning style.



Alderson, J. C. and Wall, D. (1993). Does washback exist? Applied Linguistics, 14(2), 115-129.

Papakammenou, I. (2016). A Washback Study of the Teaching Practices Used in EFL Exam Preparation Classes in Greece. In D. Tsagari (Eds.), Classroom-based Assessment in L2 Contexts (pp. 118-137). Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Tsagari, D. (2012). “FCE Exam Preparation Discourses: Insights from an Ethnographic Study.” Research Notes 47, 36–48.

Ur, P. (1996). A Course in Language Teaching: Practice and Theory. Cambridge: CUP


*Dr Irini - Renika Papakammenou

Foreign Language School Owner

BA English Literature with English Language


PhD in Linguistics (Testing and Assessment)








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