CPE Speaking Exam Basics

The Speaking exam is one of the four exams that you will do when you take the Cambridge Certificate of Proficiency in English (CPE) exam. Below you'll learn some essential information about the Speaking exam and the different parts of it.

How many parts in the exam

Cambridge say that there are 3 different parts in the Speaking exam. However, it is more like 4 in my opinion. The reason why is that in each what you have to do is different. So in the rest of the article I'll talk of 4 different parts.< When you do the Speaking exam, you'll do them all together, one after the other.

How long the Speaking exam takes

It takes around 18 minutes to do the Speaking exam.

When you do the exam

There is no set rule for when you do the Speaking exam. Often you will do the Speaking part of the exam on a different day (one or two days before) to when you do the rest of the CPE exam (the Reading/Use of English, Writing and the Listening parts of the exam are all done together). However, you could do it on the same day as you do the other parts. If this is the case, it will be after you do the other parts.

Differences to the CAE Speaking Exam

If you haven't done or studied for the Cambridge Certificate in Advanced English (FCE) exam before, you can ignore this part and start reading the next one. But if you have, I recommend that you read it.

Aside from the obvious (you need to be able to speak better in English - use more advanced and varied English vocabulary and grammatical structures etc... - in the CPE than in the CAE to do well), the CPE Speaking exam is quite different to the CAE one. This is in terms of both the format of the exam (the things you are asked to do) and the types of things that you will be asked to talk about.

Like with the CAE and the FCE exam, you are expected to talk both individually and together with the other candidate(s) during the exam. While the beginning of the exam and the end of the exam are identical in format to the CAE and FCE exam (at the start you are asked some questions individually and at the end you are asked some questions either individually or together), the things you have to do between are different (but more about that later).

Another thing that you will find different to the CAE exam is the nature of the things you will be asked to talk about. There is one task where you have to do something which is professional in nature (e.g. decide which image would be best to use in a magazine article or what to include in a campaign for health awareness).

In addition, some of the questions are quite abstract/philosophical (e.g. Is happiness important in life?, Is it necessary to work in a team to achieve things? etc...). Although you may have not thought much about these topics before, you should be able to have something to say about them from personal experience.

The format of the exam

You will do the exam with another candidate (with either somebody you know or a stranger). Occasionally, you may have to do the exam with another two candidates (this only happens if there is an odd number (e.g. 13, 15, 17 etc...) of people doing the speaking exam on the day you do it).

When you arrive to do the exam, you can tell the Cambridge supervisors who you would like to do the exam with. If you don’t know any of the other people doing the exam, the Cambridge supervisors will select the person you will do the exam with for you.

The parts

As I said above, although Cambridge say there are 3 parts to the Speaking exam, for me there are 4 distinct parts to it. In some of these parts you'll have to speak alone (individually), with the other candidate(s) or do both.

Part 1

In the first part of the exam (which takes 2 minutes) both you and the other candidate will be asked both your name and to answer one or two questions about yourself (e.g. “Where you are from?”, “What do you do?”, “Who's the most important person in your life?” etc...) You answer these individually.

Part 2

In the second part you have to speak together with the other candidate(s) about some images. In this part, you have to do two distinct tasks.

The examiner will start by giving you and your partner a sheet with a number of different images (normally four or five photos or pictures) on to look at. They will tell you to look at two of them and answer a question where you have to compare the two (e.g. “How are the people feeling in both?”, “How important is accuracy in these situations?”). You have a minute to answer the question together.

After the minute has finished, the examiner will then tell you to look at all the images and explain a situation to you (e.g. “Imagine you work for a magazine and you are writing an article on the importance of technology for modern life. Here are some situations about technology which you are going to write about in the article.”).

They will then ask you to do two things. The first is to talk about and compare all the images on the sheet they have given you around a specific question (e.g. “Talk about and compare the importance which the situations depicted in each of the photos have on our lives.”).

The second is to do a specific thing at the end (e.g. “Decide which of these situations you should focus your article on.” or maybe “Think of an additional situation which you could also write about in the article.”).

You will then have 3 minutes (4 minutes for groups of 3) to do what they have asked.

Part 3

In the third part, both you and your partner are going to speak individually on a question for 2 minutes. The first candidate is given by the examiner a piece of paper with a question written on it (e.g. “What things make a job satisfying?” or “What is important for having a good life?”). This is what the candidate has to talk by themselves for 2 minutes. Under the question on the piece of paper there are three things which the candidate can talk about when speaking about the question (but you don’t have to talk about them in your answer if you don’t want to).

Example of a question you could be given:

What things make a job satisfying?


You will be given around 10 to 15 seconds to think about what you will say before you will be asked to start.

After the first candidate has spoken for two minutes, the examiner will then ask the other candidate a question related to what the other candidate has just spoken about (e.g. “Is it important to enjoy doing the job that you do?”). This candidate has to speak individually for around 35 to 40 seconds on the question they’ve been asked. Then the examiner will then ask the candidate who spoke for two minutes to speak individually again for around 15 seconds on what their partner has just said (by saying “Do you agree?” or something similar). Then the turn is over.

The examiner will then give the other candidate a question (of course different) for them to talk about individually and the same process is repeated as above.

Part 4

After this, you will then do the last part of the exam. During this part you will both be asked questions connected to the two topics which both you and the other candidate spoke about in part 3. This part lasts about 4 to 5 minutes and you will speak both individually and together at times (depending on to whom the speaking examiner directs the questions at).

If the other candidate has been asked by the examiner a question to answer individually, it is no problem (and I recommend you do this) after the other candidate has finished speaking about the question to comment on their answer or the question, or to ask your partner why they think what they have said. But, if they are directly asked a question, don't interrupt them while they are answering it.

After this, the Speaking exam is over.

You can ask the the examiner questions

If you are confused about or didn't hear a question, you can ask the interlocutor (the examiner who you speak to and asks the questions) to repeat a question they asked. But don't do this too many times, because it may be seen as an inability to understand instructions and you will lose points.

I would personally recommend that you repeat the question you think they said to you in order for them to confirm if it is the question (e.g. “Did you ask me to say in what situations I think that money is important?”) instead of just asking them to simply repeat it. It will come across better.

Watch people doing the Speaking exam

To help you know what you have to do, watch the below video which shows two candidates doing the CPE Speaking exam:

CPE Speaking Exam Video

How your score is evaluated

When you are speaking in the exam there are two people evaluating you. There is an interlocutor (the person who you speak to and asks the questions) and an assessor (who will be sat behind the interlocutor). They will both evaluate how you do the exam (based on your fluency, range of vocabulary, doing the tasks, pronunciation, interaction etc...) and each will give you a mark at the end of the exam. Both of these are then combined and this is your mark for the Speaking exam.

The percentage of the final mark it gives

The Speaking exam contributes 20% to your final score for the CPE exam.

What score you need to pass

For you to pass the CPE Speaking exam, your combined score from the examiners needs to be 60% or over of the possible points they could give you.

Remember, you can still fail this part of the exam (get less than 60% (equivalent to 200 points on Cambridge's 'Cambridge English Scale Score' marking system which you'll see on your results)) and still pass the CPE exam (as long as you do well on the other parts of the exam and your average score for all of the exams is 200 points or over).

You don't receive a mark for each part of the Speaking exam, only one mark for the whole exam.