Why I Love Being a Cambridge Speaking Examiner

 | Teaching House Nomads Blog

If you’ve been working in ESL for any time at all, you’re likely to have come across the Cambridge English suite of exams. They run from Young Learner levels (Starters, Movers and Flyers, which cover pre-A1, A1 and A2 levels on the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) scale up through adult exams (Key (KET), Preliminary (PET), First (FCE), Advanced (CAE) and Proficiency (CPE), which cover levels A2 to C2), and are recognized in universities and workplaces worldwide. There are also, nowadays, in addition to the classic exams, ones that are geared towards teenage students (KET for Schools, PET for Schools and First for Schools).

You might find that your school focuses on Trinity, IELTS or TOEFL exams. However, in the five years that I’ve been teaching in Italy, in five different private language schools and three state-run ones, far and away the most requested exams have been those of the main suite of Cambridge. In Italy, at least, Cambridge ESOL is big business, and both schools and students are keen to get involved.

The Cambridge suite consists of four basic elements which are tested at each level: reading, writing, listening and speaking. The higher levels have extra papers as well, focusing on language manipulation, but what I’d like to talk about today is the speaking element – and, specifically, what to expect if you’re asked to become a Cambridge Speaking Examiner (SE).

Cambridge SEs are trained up in regional centers, usually hosted in a local school which has Cambridge Examining Center status. Often, you’ll find that if you’re working in such a school, they’ll be keen to put you forward for (and sponsor you to do) SE training, as it means that they’ll have another examiner at their disposal at busy exam times.

Students of one of our teachers posing next to the royals
Kate and Wills are our examiners? Oh.Emm.Gee!

When the head of your school asks you if you want to become an SE, you might ask yourself why you would want to, really. You’re already teaching all the hours that god sends, right? Extra workload right at the busiest time of the year, just before the summer holidays? Who needs it! Well, there are a number of good reasons.

Firstly, it’s a great little money earner. This summer, for instance, I’ve done somewhere around 60 hours of examining, and have put aside enough money to pay my rent for the whole summer, as well as that awkward first month of term in the next academic year, when you’re working but haven’t yet been paid. So now I’m free to enjoy my summer in Sicily, rather than heading back to the UK to do summer school (the most common option for ESOL teachers at this time of year). I mean, summer school’s fun ‘n’ all, but if it’s a choice between chaperoning randy teenagers through a UK summer or sitting on a beach through a Sicilian one, I know which I’d rather go for.

Secondly — and importantly in the long run — it gives you a deeper understanding of what’s required of your students when they go into the exam room. Which makes you a better teacher, as you know how to help them produce their best under pressure.

Finally, it looks great on your resume, and makes you more employable. So, really, the question should be: why wouldn’t you want to do this?

Lovely student of one of our English teachers
Why become an SE? Because you could get to meet a cheeky face like this one!

OK, so it’s decided: you’re going to accept your school’s offer to train you up. Yay! Now what? Well, first of all you need to check that you fit the requirements. If you fit the bill, the next step is to apply, get an examiner number, and attend training sessions.

Every SE attends an initial training session for each level, as well as yearly follow-ups, to ensure that marking is consistent across the board by all examiners, for all students. The usual drill is that you start at the bottom with the Young Learners suite and add more levels in consequent years as you gain more experience. Every session is similar, however: you will attend, along with other examiners, and work through the training material with your Team Leader. You’ll then watch videos of students taking exams and mark them, first together as a group, discussing why each student should get the marks you’re giving them, then individually.

Cambridge also has an online training system, called PSN. After each face-to-face training session, you will have to mark at least one exam, or section of an exam, via PSN, depending on which level you were training for. Your marks are submitted via the system and viewed by your Team Leader to check that they’re in line with the Cambridge standard.

Once you’ve been trained up and your marking has been recorded as satisfactory, your exam center coordinators will send you out to do exams. And this is where the hard work / fun really starts. The thing about administering the same exams day-after-day to hundreds of different students is that you’ll hear the most brilliant faux-pas (how does one make that phrase plural, by the way?), turns of phrase, and general chicanery.

In my years of examining, I’ve either experienced first-hand or heard of a good few that will go down in the annals of time as absolute classics: the student who told the examiner there was a blue sheep in a photo (pronunciation fail – she meant ship); the Fastest Speller in the West, who didn’t pause for breath before launching into his introductions (My-name-is-Giovanni-that’s-G-I-O-V-A-N-N-I-and-my-surname-is-Studente-that’s-S-T-U-D-E-N-T-E – name, of course, changed to protect the innocent); the student who told the examiner that there was a boy holding his cock in a photo (another pronunciation fail – should have been Coke). Ah yes. Classics of the genre.

Sheep vs. ship, classic pronunciation mishaps
Oh, okay, so in this picture you really can see a blue sheep

Then there are the students whom you can’t help but fall in love with a little bit. The ones whose personalities shine through. The ones who just *get* it.

Examiner: Tell us about what you do after school.

Student: From Monday to Friday I do homework after school. I don’t want to, but my mother says I must (cheeky wink at examiner).

Or …

Examiner: What don’t you like about shopping?

Student: I don’t like when I have to pay!

Or the ones who are far more interesting and engaging than the limits of the script and timing of the exam give them scope for, and who you’d love to just carry on chatting to because you know the conversation would be brilliant if they were given free rein.

From Cambridge’s point of view, the students are just names and numbers on a list. However, we, as examiners and teachers, know that they all have stories to tell. And if we’re lucky, we might just get to hear them in the course of our job. Which, for me, makes all the hard work — the schlepping heavy materials from pillar to post, the sitting in stifling-hot exam rooms with no air-con for hours on end, the monotony of reading the same scripts over and over again — more than worth it. The wonderful thing about working as a Cambridge Speaking Examiner is the beautiful unpredictability of the human element.

This is my job, and I love it.

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