Online vs. Traditional Proficiency Tests: Speaking

speaking oteReady?

Manuela looked at her watch. Twenty minutes to go. She knew exactly what she would have to do. The English exam’s Speaking module was something she’d been preparing for since last September, but she still felt worried. It was probably the most difficult part of the exam. It made her feel like an actress standing on a stage with a whole audience watching her, waiting for her to make a mistake. There would be another candidate, just like her, and they would go in through the door together and sit down in front of two examiners. And right now, two candidates were being examined behind that closed door. With no sign of the other candidate.

Speaking of which…

A well-dressed lady then came up the stairs; Manuela heard her footsteps first, and then caught a profile view of her as she turned on the landing towards her. Her face came into view and the rest of her body gradually appeared as she got closer.

“That must be her!” Manuela said to herself. The woman looked like quite a serious person, probably about ten years older. “She’s going to be really good at English, much better than me. I bet she speaks English at work every day. I bet she’s even lived in London… or New York…” Manuela’s knees started to tremble, and her legs felt like jelly. The woman carried on walking confidently towards her, and looked momentarily at Manuela. “She already thinks I’m not as good as she is. She can see I’m younger than her. She can’t be bothered to be friendly to me.” Manuela then thought how the other woman was going to make her look silly in front of the examiners. “She’ll probably try to dominate the conversation, not let me speak at all, and she’ll laugh at the mistakes I’ll make….”

The door opens

Two students came out of the interview room, and they looked relieved that they’d survived the experience. Manuela and the woman were called inside just a few moments later. Two examiners – apparently native English speakers – sat behind a desk, asked them both to sit down and hand over the papers.

How are you feeling right now?

If you’ve ever been in this situation, you probably know how Manuela was feeling. Exams are stressful enough as it is, and a face-to-face interview is a tough challenge. Many years ago, it was the only real way of finding out how well people could speak another language. But the Oxford Test of English does something different. Because it’s an online English-language proficiency test, you do the Speaking test online too. You don’t have to go into a small room with another student and sit opposite two examiners, one of whom controls the interview, while the other observes and takes notes. Instead, you’ll sit down at a computer, put on the headset, and speak directly to the microphone.

Take it easy, and speak English

Most people speak English better when they’re feeling comfortable, rather than if they’re feeling tense. In the Oxford Test of English, everything you say is recorded and marked afterwards, so you can relax: nobody is watching or listening to you in real-time. And because you’re speaking on your own, you don’t need to think about how well the other students are doing.

So what will I have to do?

You’ll find that all the tasks you have to do are very familiar and based on real life. The Speaking test has four parts, which mean that you get a variety of things to do, and all of them are fairly quick. All of the questions are timed, so you can see on the screen how much time you have left to answer each question. That means you don’t need to worry about whether the examiner thinks you haven’t said enough – or said too much!

Get off to a good start

First of all, in Part 1 you’ll be asked your name, and where you come from, and then after that there are six more questions which are just the sort of things you have practised many times in your English classes, for example why you’re learning English, or what you like to do in your free time. These very familiar tasks mean that when you get to Part 2, you’ve already answered typical classroom eight questions, and you’re ready to do something a bit more specific.

Sounds familiar

In Part 2, you have to leave a couple of voicemail messages, for example inviting a friend to come with you to a sports centre. What could be more familiar than leaving an audio message? So there are two tasks: the first with written instructions, and in the second question you have to respond to an audio message. You have a short time to think about how you’re going to answer too. These tasks are both set at a B1 level.

How do you see it?

Next comes Part 3, a B2-level task, where you have to compare and contrast two colour photographs. Once again, this very familiar to most students of English. And because you’re working alone, you don’t need to think about how anyone else is describing the pictures or how good their language is.

The Grand Finale

Finally, in Part 4, you have to answer six questions which are related to the topic area of the photographs you’ve just been comparing. These go from B1 through to B2, and you have to give an immediate response. The Test gives you 60 seconds to answer each one, but you don’t need to worry if you don’t use all of that time. And by the time you have got this far, you’ve already been speaking for several minutes, so you’ll be able to show off your best spoken English!

Designed to test you effectively

The Speaking module of the Oxford Test of English has been designed to test your ability to communicate by speaking English, in a way which is effective, accurate and reliable, while at the same time giving you the best experience possible. Every effort has been made to create a test whose content looks, sounds and feels familiar to you, and by replacing the face-to-face interview with a variety of online speaking tasks, it should help everyone to feel less tense and able to speak English more confidently.

Social distancing in a Speaking test

Another advantage of the Oxford Test of English’s approach to Speaking is that because you don’t have a face-to-face interview in a small room involving three other people: two examiners and the other test taker. You’ll be speaking to the computer, while sitting at a safe social distance from the other test takers, and you can keep your mask on the whole time.

Find out more

Why not take a few minutes now to have a look at the Speaking module of the Oxford Test of English? You can find a demo on our website This is free of charge, and don’t worry, you don’t need to give any personal details. Try it out, and compare it with a traditional face-to-face interview exam.

For more advice on how to ace the speaking part of your exam, check out our blog post 12 Top Speaking Tips for the Oxford Test of English.


Simon Ferdinand is Head of Market Development for ELT Assessment at Oxford University Press, where he is in charge of launching the Oxford Test of English worldwide. His career spans 26 years in the field of English Language Teaching, first as a teacher of English and French at a language school in Madrid, then as a sales rep and product manager with Oxford University Press working on English File and exams material.

Simon speaks six languages fluently and he is also the author of ‘Cómo negociar en inglés’ (How to Negotiate in English) which was published in Madrid in 2006 and has sold 27,000 copies.

Author: Oxford University Press ELT

The official global blog for Oxford University Press English Language Teaching. Bringing teachers and learners top quality resources, tools, hints and tips, news, ideas, insights and discussions to help people around the world to learn English.

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