Discourse markers are used all the time by native English speakers. If a candidate can express their ability to correctly use discourse markers in the B2 First speaking exam, this will certainly impress the examiner, and if you impress the examiner that means higher marks!
What are discourse markers?
Discourse markers are words or phrases that speakers use to organize their thoughts and communicate more effectively. Sometimes they let the listener know what is coming next, sometimes they allow speakers to collect their thoughts before saying something, and sometimes they have no meaning at all.
Why are they important?
Discourse markers are not only important because they make you sound natural when speaking, but they are also particularly important in the B2 First speaking exam as twenty percent of your mark is based on discourse management.
The discourse management marking criteria, which you can find on the Cambridge English website, highlights three items that examiners should use to judge whether the candidate should get top marks. The third item states “Uses a range of cohesive devices and discourse markers“.
Now you know that the examiner is going to be actively listening to see if you use discourse markers. This makes it something that all candidates should practice and be prepared to use in the speaking exam. The good news is that using discourse markers is actually really easy. In fact many English learners will already be using some discourse markers without even realising.
10 discourse markers to use in the exam
What I mean is
This discourse marker is used to give to explain something. Let’s take a look at an example of how this could be used in part 4 of the speaking exam:
Examiner: “What are the effects of tourism on the environment?”
Candidate: “I think the effects are quite bad. What I mean is, tourism usually means lots of people travelling by plane or car and this can be very damaging to the environment.”
“Right” can be used to end a conversation and move on to something else. This is a great discourse marker to use in part 3 of the speaking exam where candidates will need to discuss various points.
For example, let’s take a look at a practice exam question for part 3 of the speaking about going to the gym.
Let’s say the candidates are talking about equipment, they can end that conversation and move on to the next point by saying “right, what about support?” or “right, let’s move on to classes”.
Well is probably one of the most common discourse markers used when speaking in English. It is by far the easiest discourse marker to use in the b2 first exam because you can put it at the beginning of any sentence and it means absolutely nothing!
Using “well” in the speaking exam will not only make you sound more natural, but it can also give you extra time to think about your answer. You can say it quickly if you know what you want to say, or you can extend it to show that you are thinking, “Weeellllllll, I would probably say…”
Native speakers use well automatically in general speech and it is so natural that they are not even conscious most of the time that they are even saying it.
Anyway is a great discourse marker to use if the conversation has gone slightly off-topic and you want to bring it back.
You will probably have the perfect opportunity to use this in part 3 of the speaking exam where you will be asked a decision making question which you will need to discuss with your partner. If you find that you have gone off-topic slightly or are not really making any decision then you can say something like “Anyway, we need to make a decision” or “Anyway, shall we narrow it down to these two?”
Actually is used to express a different opinion to someone else or a differing opinion to what the person asking the question might expect. So if you think your answer is something that is not very common or unexpected then you can use “actually” before giving your answer to express this.
Let’s take a look at an example:
Examiner: “How do you like to relax during the weekend?”
Candidate: “Actually, I don’t like relaxing during the weekends. I’m quite an active person and I see the weekend as my opportunity to do lots of activities, play sports and visit different places. So for me, the weekends are a time to keep busy, I can always relax during the week after work.”
Basically can be used by candidates in the speaking exam if you want to quite summarize your opinion.
It is a great discourse marker to use in part 4 of the speaking exam where you will be asked your opinion on slightly more complex topics. You can either summarize your opinion before going into more detail, or you can give a summary after you have explained your opinion in more detail.
Check out this example below:
Examiner: Do you think it is a good idea to run a business with a family member?
Candidate: Basically, I think it’s a very bad idea. Family should always be separate from your work life. When you run a business with a family member you can sometimes have too much confidence with them to express yourself. This can lead to lots of conflict and you could even end up ruining your entire relationship.
So in this example, the candidate gave a quick summary (it’s a bad idea) and then continued to explain their opinion in more detail. They could have also put the summary at the end of their answer where it acts as a conclusion (see below). Both ways are perfectly acceptable.
Candidate: Family should always be separate from your work life. When you run a business with a family member you can sometimes have too much confidence with them to express yourself. This can lead to lots of conflict and you could even end up ruining your entire relationship. Basically, I think it’s a very bad idea.
To be honest
We use “to be honest” usually at the beginning of speech or sometimes at the end. It is used to emphasise that you are giving your honest opinion.
Candidates can use “to be honest” when answering questions that require their personal opinion, and not fact-based answers. This is why it will most commonly be used in parts 3 and 4 of the speaking exam.
For example, if the examiner asked you where you grew up and your answer is “to be honest, I grew up in Paris” it sounds very strange as you are giving facts in your answer and not an opinion. However, if the examiner asks you if you like to go to the cinema then you will be giving your opinion.
So in this situation, it is perfectly acceptable to say “To be honest, I prefer to watch films at home nowadays. The cinema is so expensive and with services like Netflix, I can watch so many different films now at home.”
“You know” is another discourse marker that doesn’t really mean anything. It is used in a similar way to “well”. You can add it to the beginning of your answer to give you a bit more time to think.
It is a perfectly acceptable discourse marker to use in the exam, but you should avoid using to too frequently.
Another discourse marker that native speakers use all the time is “so”, and also like some of the other discourse markers it doesn’t really mean anything. You can just add it to the beginning of your answer to make you sound more natural or to give you a little extra time to think.
Let’s take a look at an example question for part 2 of the speaking exam where candidates are asked to speak about two images.
Let’s take a look at part of what a candidate’s answer could be using the discourse marker “so”
Candidate: “…So, I think the people in the second picture are just enjoying some quiet and relaxing time on the beach, having a couple of drinks and laying in the sun…”
In other words
“In other words” can be used at the end of a detailed answer to give an overall summary. If you feel like you might be talking too much or giving too much detail in your answer you can quickly end your answer by saying “in other words” and then a brief summary of your opinion.
Here is an example from part 1 of the speaking exam:
Examiner: “Do you like reading?”
Candidate: “I tend to find reading very difficult. I don’t know why, but ever since I was a child I always tried to avoid reading. At school, I would just pretend that I had read a book and write a review, when in reality I just watched the film. In other words, no, I don’t like ready”
How to practice using discourse markers
The best way to practice using discourse markers is to consciously try and use them when speaking in English. The more you use them, the more natural it will become and you will start saying ones like “well”, “actually” and “so” without even thinking about it.
If you have a teacher or language partner you can spend some time answering questions and checking off the different discourse markers you use in your answer.
“What are my final thoughts? Well, discourse markers are going to make you sound much more natural when speaking in English, right. Basically, there is no reason why you shouldn’t use them. Actually, using them will not only make you sound more natural but will also get you higher markers in the exam. In other words, they can mean the difference between passing and failing! To be honest, there is no excuse for candidates not using them. What I mean is that they are so easy to use that there is no reason why candidates shouldn’t be using them, you know. So, as long as candidates practice using them, they will have no problems using them on the exam day. Anyway, that’s enough about discourse markers for now.”