Shopping for Cambridge Oral Exams

“I’m going to give you each a photograph. I’d like you to take turns to describe your photo to your partner, then find similarities and differences.” Or words to that effect.

Exam classes are notoriously hard to make interesting, truly useful, learner-centred and so on, so I thought that for this week’s post, I’d tackle this aspect of ELT. I’ve chosen to use images from the Shopping and shops set, as they often seem to appear in the examiners’ kit. The ideas are variations of old favourites, too ‘favourite’ for me to know whose ideas they were originally, so I apologise for not crediting.

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.

Choosing the images

As I said, I’m using Shopping here, but there are many others that would do, including Working week. As you look through the photos, you may see some you really like, but be careful – mentally brainstorm the vocabulary for what you can see; are your students going to struggle too hard to come up with the words? Can they see a sufficient number of things they can describe? Look at this picture. I really like it, but had to discard it – can you see why? Try brainstorming it yourself.

by @sandymillin

The next stage of choosing is to cover each side of the images and decide if one side is easier to describe than the other (you’ll be chopping the images in half – I use Paint). Have a look at this photo. My initial reaction was Oh yes! Love this! So British!

by @Amandalanguage

But let’s cut it in half. The student getting the lefthand side might not have too many problems (flowers, boxes, blue plastic, house, windows, trees….)

On the left...

But what about the student with the righthand side? How can (s)he show range of vocabulary?

...and on the right

brussels sprouts, parsnips, turnips, brick wall, broccoli of some kind, metal post, something like dirty carrots…….. Perhaps not. They’d be ok with onions and vegetables, but the panic button would probably be hit.

First idea: Matching (needs three photos – or six if you think pairs can cheat by looking over the shoulders of neighbouring pairs)

Create two mosaics using the halves of three photos (three left sides, three right sides in a different order). Try to ensure the difficulty level is similar. I used Paint to cut, stored on flickr and then used the mosaic maker to create the mosaics. You can print and laminate sets (ie pairs) or just keep the digital version.

By @pysproblem81


By @pysproblem81


Give half the class the left mosaic and half the class the right mosaic. Put students in pairs and ask them to brainstorm vocabulary for each image. Remind them to work quietly so the other half of the class can’t overhear/cheat.


Put a ‘left’ with a ‘right’. Tell students it’s important that they do NOT show each other their mosaics until after they have worked with all three photos. One student in each pair chooses a photo to describe to their partner for their partner to guess which half to match it with. They should describe the picture in as much detail as possible while their partner listens silently. (The silence is important at this stage). When they have finished, they swap roles with the other student choosing one of the remaining images to describe. This time, allow the listener to ask questions. They do not compare their photos yet but ask them if they felt different, being able to ask questions or not, and if so, how so.

After a show of hands ‘Who thinks they’ve matched the halves?’, ask them to work with the third image, but instead of describing, they should ask and answer as many questions as possible to work out what the complete picture looks like eg I can see some oranges on the right – is it a place selling fruit? Are there any bananas in your part of the picture? Are they any people buying fruit? Etc.

When they’ve run out of questions and have worked together for two or three minutes, students show each other the mosaics.


Ask students to talk about where they think they photos were taken and why, what time of year they think it is, what any mystery objects in the photos might be etc. Remind them that if they have no idea, it doesn’t matter – saying ‘ I don’t think it was taken in Mexico because….’ is better than saying ‘I don’t know’.

As a nearly-final awareness activity, ask them to the three different ways of working with the pictures (1 describe/listen silently 2 describe/ask a few questions 3 ask and answer questions as a dialogue). Tell them to consider which way was best for showing different structures, vocabulary, communication strategies etc, which way made them feel more supported or more vulnerable etc.

Then really finally, brainstorm the language they used, the language they felt they needed but didn’t have and discuss it as a class, focusing on phrases like ‘In the background…’, ‘I’m not sure what it is, but it looks like/could be etc… and reminding them that there’s more to one of these photo tests than ‘In my picture I can see…’.

Second idea: Picture dictation (Two photos, or four if you think neighbouring pairs can see each other’s photos).

By @chiasuan

Select two photos as before (again avoiding photos with obscure vocab) and make two copies of each, cutting one in half either literally or using Paint, as I have.

Stick the half you want to keep on plain white paper, ranged left or right as appropriate. You can also get students to choose their own pictures from eltpics and prepare this at home, in which case they need only choose one and prepare it. It takes less than five minutes. (Though it’s always wise to have some of your own as back-up in case ‘the dog ate my homework’.)

Let’s call your photos A and B. In each pair, one student has a complete photo A and a half photo B. The other student has a complete photo B and a half photo A. Ask them to look at their half photos, and think of three or four questions they’d like to ask their partner about the missing content. Here are some more half pictures and links to the complete versions (at the end of the paragraph) – see if you can imagine what’s missing before you look, though, and note down three or four questions you’d want to ask a partner. (here and here)

By @dfogarty (above) and @eannegrenoble (below)

When they are ready, they take turns describing the missing bit of their partner’s half picture so that it can be drawn. It’s a good idea to ban questions from the listener at the start then allow them after a few minutes, and afterwards discuss the difference, as with the previous idea. I’d also suggest a final language focus stage as well, so the student has a language reference to take home, rather than just a drawing of debatable quality.


Next week… a guest post!


3 thoughts on “Shopping for Cambridge Oral Exams

  1. Fiona,
    Good job! I’m glad you stuck with the post, even though it took three attempts. It was worth the wait. The detailed post and photos make others able to emulate this lesson.

    Love this blog. I continue to vote for it for Best Group blog, each day until Tuesday.


  2. Pingback: What does your table say about you? | take a photo and….

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