Guidance for teachers preparing candidates for Part 3 of the Speaking paper of the Cambridge Preliminary Exam.

The task

In Part 3 of the Speaking test the candidates are each in turn given a colour photograph and asked to talk about it for up to one minute. All photographs relate to the same topic. The topic of the photographs is clearly stated by the examiner, for example: ‘I’m going to give each of you a photograph of people having a meal.' Candidates are expected to give only a simple description of what they can see in the photograph. This will include some description of people, objects, actions and place. The test takes three minutes in total, with one minute given to talk about the photograph.

The following five tips will help improve students' performance:

1. Teach students paraphrasing strategies

There is no need for the student to describe everything in the photo.There may be items in the photo for which the candidate does not know the word. This should not worry them as they are not expected to know all the words. Students can either ignore them and concentrate on what they do know, or they may attempt  to paraphrase. Ask students to look at a photo you choose and find an object for which they do not know or recall the word. They should try to explain what it is in their own words. For example, if you showed them the photo of a kitchen available to download at the bottom of this page, they may not know the words for the following items: kettle, frying pan, apron. They could then say:

I don’t know (don’t remember) the word for this, but …

  • it is something you use to boil water / we use it to boil water. 
  • it is something you use to cook chips or fry eggs / we can use it to cook chips or fry eggs.
  • it is something you wear when you cook, so your clothes don’t get dirty / you can wear it when you wash up, so you don’t get wet.

Candidates should be made aware of the fact that they will be given credit for using the language they know to make themselves understood and they won’t be penalised for not knowing or not remembering a word. Make a point of giving them practice with photographs that contain unknown items of vocabulary to get them used to paraphrasing or ignoring items.

2. Train them to use a variety of language

Students do well in this part if they are relaxed and feel confident that there will be enough in the photograph for them to describe. However, if the photograph contains many objects they may be tempted to fill the minute with an enumeration, i.e. ‘I can see … and I can see …’  Students need to be reminded that this is their opportunity to show the examiner that they can use a variety of language. But which language? Here are some examples of language they can try to use: 

Adjectives: colour, size, shape, quality, possessive (his, her, its, their), quantitative (some, many, much, a few, a lot, all, etc)


Adverbs: manner (quickly, carefully, etc), degree (very, too, rather)


Comparisons: (regular and irregular)


Connectives: and, but, or, because, so that


Prepositions: to, on, inside, next to, at, during, by, with, like



  • Simple present to describe appearance, for example: The kitchen looks small. The woman is tall and slim. She has long brown hair. There is a large window.
  • Present continuous to describe the activities you can see: The man and the woman are standing, and the children are sitting. The woman is making some food, and the children are eating.
  • 'May' or 'I think'  to speculate when you are not sure: The girl is very young. She may be six years old / I think she is six years old. The children are at home, so maybe it’s Sunday / I think it’s Sunday. The woman is smiling, so I think she’s happy.  

Pair work: Give a copy of the photograph to each pair and ask them to choose one or two categories from the list above and produce five utterances/sentences.

3. Show students how to organise their description: from the general to the particular

Candidates have no time to think about how they are going to structure their description (no 'thinking time' is given), so they have to decide what they will say as they go along. However, it is a good idea to train students to start by describing the general scene before moving on to talk about particular details. Make it clear that although there is no right or wrong way to order the description, it should not be completely random, and that by following a certain order they can ensure that they do not repeat themselves or run out of things to say.

Group work: Ask your students to decide in pairs or groups what they would say first about this photograph. Is it better to start by describing each person in detail? Or is it better to describe the scene first?

Next you could give them a suggested order and ask them to group their sentences under these headings:

a. A general statement about the photo
b. Describe the setting / room
c. The people: activities
d. The people: detailed description
e. An opinion about the photograph / a general statement

Finally, give the example below, which they should feel free to agree or disagree with (giving reasons).

a. Start with a general statement

This photograph shows a family having lunch in the kitchen.


b. Describe the setting / room

The kitchen is rather small. There is a table with plates and glasses on it and a big fridge. There’s a large window and you can see the garden through it.  

c. The people: activities

There are two children, I think they are brother and sister, and a man and a woman who are the parents. The children are sitting at the table and eating a meal – it looks like some steak and salad. Their parents are standing. I think they are preparing some food. The mother has a salad bowl in her hand. She is smiling and she looks happy. I am not sure what the father is doing. He’s got a piece of bread in his hand. Perhaps he is making a sandwich for the children. Maybe the parents are going to eat later.


d. The people: detailed description

The woman is slim and has long brown hair. She is wearing white trousers and a green top. She is wearing an apron because she is working in the kitchen. The man is fair and has a beard. He is wearing a blue jumper.The boy is older than his sister. He may be about 12 years old and the girl is about six.


e. An opinion about the photograph / a general statement

I like this photograph because it shows a family at home. 

Students can time themselves saying all of this, and they will find that it takes them longer than one minute. The examiner will interrupt them when their minute is up.Teachers need to stress that a bit of organisation is good, as then they can then be confident that they have more to say.  

4. Train your students not to waste time

Students should not stop to think of what they want to say next: they will have only a minute, so any time not used to produce language is time wasted. There is no ‘added time’, as in football! If they do stop, they should fill that space with language, if possible, e.g. ‘Now, what else can I say about this photo?', ‘Now, what else can I say about the people in this photo?’

Candidates should not waste time using expressions such as ‘in the top right-hand corner’. It is enough to use ‘on the right’ or ‘on the left’. Remind students they can point at parts of the picture as they describe it, e.g. ‘This building’s very tall, but this one’s much shorter.’

5. Show your students what to do if they run out of ideas

  • They can refer to the absence of things, as long as it is relevant:
I can see forks on the table but I can’t see any knives.
I can see some plants in the garden but there aren’t any flowers.
  • They can speculate using ‘may’, or ‘I think’:

The man looks tired. Maybe he has too much work.
The sun is shining. It may be lunch time.
The children are at home and not at school. It may be Sunday.


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Cambridge English: Preliminary (PET)