The speaking section of OET takes around 20 minutes and consists of two role plays. These are specific to the profession of the candidate, so the situations will be similar to those you might encounter at work. The interlocutor (the person playing the role of the patient, relative or carer) doesn’t assess your performance – the test is recorded and sent to OET, where it’s marked by at least two members of the assessment team.
Before the test begins, the interlocutor will ask a few questions about your work and background. As this part isn’t assessed, it’s a good opportunity to get used to the interlocutor’s voice and practise speaking English, so that you’ll feel more comfortable when the role plays start.
For each role play, you’re given a card that tells you about the situation, your role and the task you have to complete (more about this later). You have three minutes to study the card and make notes, and you can refer to the card and your notes during the role play. During the preparation time, you can also ask the interlocutor about anything that isn’t clear.
The role plays last around five minutes each. You have to start and direct the conversation, and you should try to complete as many of the task elements as you can – but remember that completing the task is not one of the assessment criteria, so don’t worry if you don’t manage to do them all. If possible, you should bring the conversation to a natural end, but if you go over the five minutes, the interlocutor will let you know and finish the role play. Again, don’t worry if this happens – the examiners just need to hear enough to be able to assess you, and you won’t lose marks for not finishing within the time limit.
Your speaking is assessed using nine criteria split into two areas: Linguistic and Clinical Communication. The four linguistic areas of Intelligibility, Fluency, Appropriateness and Resources of Grammar and Expression, and five clinical communication criteria.
Here’s a quick guide to what the examiners are looking for in each of these areas.
- – Intelligibility
This is a measure of how easy it is to understand your speech, and includes pronunciation of sounds, stress (the emphasis you give to sounds within a word and words within a phrase or sentence) and intonation (how your voice rises and falls – the “music” of speaking). The examiners will also consider the impact of your accent on your intelligibility. This doesn’t mean you should try to lose your accent, but you should pay attention to anything about the way you speak that might make it harder to understand you.
- – Fluency
This means speaking naturally and at a normal speed, without lots of pauses and fillers (non-verbal sounds like um and ah or words such as like and you know). The best way to increase your fluency is – unsurprisingly – practice. The more you speak English, whether it’s in work or social situations, the more comfortable you will feel when you’re tested. If you can stand it, it’s also a good idea to record yourself from time to time so you can hear how you sound and work on your problem areas.
- – Appropriateness of Language
This criterion assesses how well you choose your language to fit the situation of the role play. Remember that the purpose of language is communication, and to achieve this you need to use language that expresses what you mean without confusing the person you’re speaking to. This means balancing technical terms with language a non-professional can understand (this is often called lay language). You also need to consider how urgent the situation is and the mood of the patient. The information on the role card will help you to predict these things.
- – Resources of Grammar and Expression
This refers to the range of grammar and vocabulary that you use and how accurately you use it. It’s important to balance accuracy with fluency: if you concentrate too hard on eliminating mistakes, your speech will be slow and unnatural, but if you focus only on fluency, you are likely to make lots of avoidable errors. This is another area where listening to recordings of yourself can help. Make a note of your most common mistakes and work on reducing them each time you practise.
Clinical Communication Criteria:
- – Relationship Building
The first criterion is about how you create an atmosphere that encourages communication. This includes how you greet the patient, how you introduce and discuss sensitive topics and how you show sympathy and empathy towards the patient. You can practise all of these things as you prepare for your speaking test and start building a bank of language that you can use in a range of situations.
- – Understanding and Incorporating the Patient’s Perspective
This criterion is about listening as much as it is about speaking: by listening carefully to the patient – not only to the words they say but also to how they speak – you can learn a lot about how they are feeling and use this knowledge to inform your explanations and advice.
- – Providing Structure
It’s important to remember that as the medical professional, you are in charge of the consultation, and this includes controlling its structure. To do this, you need to make clear to the patient what you are discussing and the result you hope to achieve. You should use signposting language to introduce topics and give summaries of what you’ve talked about.
- – Information Gathering
Very frequently, the speaking task will require you to ask the patient about their condition, medication and other topics. This means asking clear questions, clarifying what the patient says to you and summarising any long statements. You also need to listen actively and allow the patient time to give you the necessary information.
- – Information Giving
Another key part of every role play is explaining and giving advice. There is an approximate structure you can use to do this: find out what the patient already knows and use this to plan your explanations; use language the patient can understand and leave pauses for them to ask questions; check that they have understood you (not by asking them directly, but by getting them to summarise what you’ve said); and at the end of your explanation, make sure that you’ve given all the necessary information and ask if there is anything else the patient needs to know.
- – Remember that the situations in the speaking role plays are similar to those you encounter every day at work. When you’re interacting with a patient in real life, you can practise the language and communication skills that you’ve worked on in preparation for the exam, and you can also use your everyday experience and your observation of colleagues to help you develop these same skills.
- – Use your preparation time wisely: the card will tell you where the consultation takes place and what your role is – this information will help you to decide on what kind of language is appropriate to the situation. The task will give you clues about how the patient may behave: for example, if you’re asked to persuade them, it’s likely that they will resist your advice, and if you have to reassure them, they will probably be worried or anxious.
- – The verbs in the task are key to structuring the consultation and deciding on the language you will use. It’s a good idea to list the most common verbs that occur in speaking practice tests and write down a few phrases that you can use for each function: for instance, if the verb is persuade, you might use “It would be very helpful if you could …” or “Would you be willing to …”. You can then add specific language that applies to the situation in the role play. If you build a language bank like this and review it frequently, you will find that these phrases come to you much more naturally when you practise.
- – If you find that you struggle to recall language during the consultation, you can try writing a few of these sentence beginnings when you make your notes during the preparation time before each role play. You can then refer to the notes as you’re speaking.
- – Some people get nervous and have difficulty starting the consultation. If you’re one of these people, try writing down the very first sentence you’re going to say when the role play starts – typically your greeting to the patient. Having this in front of you can raise your confidence and improve your performance.