So, remember that time I self-righteously proclaimed that I wasn’t worried about my PTE score? Yeah…I’m eating my words right now.
I excitedly opened my PTE result document on Monday expecting to feel self-satisfied and proud, and instead, I ended up feeling nothing but horror and heart palpitations! Although I achieved top scores for the reading, writing and listening sections, I FAILED the PTE speaking section by a lot; 43 out of 90, to be exact. Just to reiterate: I failed a speaking test in my first language. How did this happen?
First off let me just say this: The Pearson Test of English (like all English proficiency tests) is challenging and I have an immense amount of respect for the people who keep at it. I knew going in that it was important to understand the format of the exam as much as the content, but I didn’t know just how much. Mark my words: a native speaker of English CAN and WILL fail the PTE if they do not prepare properly. That being said, I have pinpointed several reasons for which I may have failed the PTE Speaking section, although I am still awaiting confirmation from Pearson regarding whether it was a technical error.
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PTE Speaking Tips – Speak up
At the start of the test, a Pearson representative informed all of us that because we would be writing the test in close proximity to one another, we must keep our voices down so as not to distract others. This resulted in me cowering in my corner and whispering out of the side of my mouth into the microphone because I was afraid I was going to get in trouble for unleashing my booming voice upon my fellow test-takers. However, when I think back on it I realize that nobody else taking the PTE let a fear of distracting others undermine their resolve to be as loud and clear as possible, and they certainly didn’t get into any trouble for speaking at this volume.
It’s important to understand that the PTE online test is assessed entirely by a computer. This means that a human being is NOT sitting there listening to your audio files and realizing that you are whispering like a terrified mouse because you are a polite Canadian who doesn’t want to throw anybody off! With this in mind, it’s your responsibility to speak as clearly as you need to in order to best demonstrate your language skill and oral fluency. If you are being too loud, somebody will come in and let you know. DO NOT be afraid to be a little selfish when you’re paying 330 AUD to be there!
Along the same lines; at the beginning of the PTE test, you must speak into the microphone and listen to yourself to make sure the microphone is working. When I did this, I noticed there was a bit of background noise interfering with the sound quality of my recording, but I figured it wasn’t that big of a deal and I didn’t raise my hand and notify anyone about it. It’s very possible that this issue (in conjunction with all that whispering) is a large part of why I failed the PTE speaking section. If you think something is wrong, let someone know.
PTE Speaking Tips – Don’t be fazed
Ok, I’ll admit it. Sitting in a small, enclosed cubicle and listening to nine other terrified people talk at their computers and click furiously on their keyboards is not the most relaxing way I’ve ever spent a Friday afternoon. Neither is staring blankly at your own screen as an unforgiving clock counts down and you struggle to think of what to say. It’s not an easy or natural setting in the least, but there are some ways you can make the experience it a little easier on yourself:
First off, I would highly recommend doing some breathing exercises before you begin the test. One way to do this is to close your eyes for a minute and become aware of your breath and try to slow it down until it’s slow, deep and even. It must be noted that the “hyperventilate as your sweaty fingers click to the next page before you’re even ready to deal with it” method probably didn’t do me any favours.
DO NOT drink coffee, tea, soft drinks etc. anytime before beginning the test if caffeine has any sort of stimulating effect on you. I literally chugged some delicious Melbourne espresso moments before I entered the testing centre, and about 5 minutes into the PTE Speaking section I became a terrifyingly scattered and hyper version of myself that I like to refer to as “Caffeine Kaia”. Needless to say, my concentration was quite difficult to maintain and I found it very challenging to focus on the test information or stay on track when I was speaking about each topic.
The Pearson Academic representatives will tell you to pretend you are on a busy tram talking to a friend in order to make you feel better about the fact that there will be loud voices all around you. I’m not sure this is the best way to conceptualize the situation. On a busy tram with your friend, you are not in a stressful, high-stakes situation where your entire academic future or residency depends on how well you are able to communicate. Also, the computer doesn’t tell you how nice you look today or nod knowingly at you as you delve into the complexities of a bar graph.
If I could re-do the PTE speaking section, I would pretend that I was in a busy public place recording a brief overview of a topic for a friend who hadn’t been present in class that day. I would just think about the basic points my friend missed and outline them as concisely as possible without trying to over-explain, keeping in mind that because they were not present to ask me for clarification, I would need to be as clear as possible on the first try. In short, don’t pretend the computer is a person that is having a conversation with you; see it as the tool that it is and use it that way.
PTE Speaking Tips – Be organized
Anyone who knows me knows that I am probably the least organized person who has ever roamed the earth. Worse, I’m one of those procrastinator types who spent most of my university days pulling caffeine-fueled all-nighters the day before the big term project was due. If you are one of my kind, let me warn you right now: the PTE format will not be kind to you. Instead of taking notes in the 7-10 second countdown you get before you are recorded, I was busy staring out the window at the breathtaking Melbourne skyline! You don’t get a lot of time, but there is certainly enough to jot down some quick notes about what you are seeing or hearing in order to organize your thoughts while you speak.
My inner procrastinator told me I would be able to assess and analyze the information in the moment and this was a spectacular miscalculation. What happened instead was that I ended up giving information in the wrong order and coming back to things I had already said to add further detail. The result was most likely a disjointed mess of information instead of a methodical explanation of a relatively simple topic. The best advice I can give to anyone doing PTE training before the test is to practice pinpointing important information and organizing it in a simple way in sequential order.
I’m still not 100% sure why I failed the PTE speaking test, but I do suspect that it may have been a combination of all the things I’ve listed above. I hope it helps at least one person to know that the Pearson Academic test is challenging for native speakers too and that I got to learn this lesson the hard way! And hey, whoever you are- make sure prepare yourself sufficiently (like with an expert preparation course, for example)!!!
EDIT: I failed the PTE speaking test because of “human error” caused by loud breathing and ‘plosives’, which interfered with the microphone. I wrote another blog article with details about this and how I finally got a PTE 90.
Check out the video where Jay and I discuss the experience of taking the PTE right after we sat the test! The best part is definitely at the end when I said how embarrassing it would be to fail! Please note that our “PTE results video” is based on my scores from the SECOND time I took the PTE. You all know how my first attempt went! 😉