In most ICAO examination systems the comprehension stage consists of three parts: repeating the messages, asking questions to find out more information and giving advice to the speaker.
Most candidates I have had the opportunity to run the examination with find comprehension stage most difficult and definitely most stressful. Thus, it seems they make more mistakes here than in course of other parts of the examination. And that’s irrespective of how experienced pilots they are or their role in aviation: whether they are private or professional pilots, performing flights in their home country or flying internationally.
REPEATING THE MESSAGE
The candidates develop various methods: they try to focus on the key words and recreate the original message or they just charge right ahead trying to repeat it as close to to the original as possible. Both strategies are equally effective if they are applied correctly. But… here are don’ts which I have arrived at on the basis of the candidates' performance observation:
- don’t try to create the statement in your mind before you start speaking. The message you have just heard is stored just in your short-term memory, it has not been structured to the long-term one. So time is your enemy here. If you don’t start speaking immediately, you will instantly start forgetting and run high risk of failing to deliver the whole message which usually consists of two or sometimes three sentences.
- don’t build the story around the messages. I have had the candidates who use the whole storytelling strategy here by saying how dangerous the situation might be, what they would do if they were in the speaker’s situation, what might have caused the situation and what the situation might result in. Of course, they often failed to realize the task which simply is: 'repeat the message'. Again, just as I wrote previously ICAO English is not a test of your professional knowledge and competence (in fact you don’t have to be a pilot to take the exam) so neither the interlocutor nor the rater will attempt to evaluate your professional skills. I wouldn’t dare…
- don’t transfer your flying experience onto the message. What I mean here is that sometimes I have the impression that the candidates say the message that they are familiar with rather than the one that is actually played to them. So listen carefully and don’t just copy what you usually hear in the cockpit here because the message may vary in details.
- don’t let the stress overcome or even overwhelm you. Many candidates fail to ask for the repetition of the message, remember, if you want to hear it again you must ask! The examiner is not entitled to play it just because you remain silent, if the time dedicated to one recording/answer expires the examiner will play the next one. So don’t make gestures, eye movements, etc. Say: 'repeat please'. The examination is recorded and your request for the repetition must be there.
- don’t give up or get discouraged when you fail to repeat the first message. It often happens that the candidates lose determination and simply resign from focusing and concentrating. There are no fixed answer-keys here for the rater in the type you have to repeat 9 messages out of 10 to get ICAO Level 4. No, it’s the overall comprehension impression here. So even if you don’t understand one or two messages, remain confident and let it even raise your determination.
Bear in mind: you need to ask the questions to find out more information. So when you hear the message: ’We have the passenger who is suffering from severe headache and he is in panic'
- don’t say: ’Can you give him some painkiller?' because even if it carries a question mark at the end, it’s actually polite request to take action. In this case ask:
Do you have any medical personnel on board? Is the passenger travelling alone? Do you need medical assistance on arrival? Do you need to be diverted to the alternative? What is the passenger’s condition at the moment? Can the cabin crew assist the passenger effectively?
- don’t attempt to use sophisticated grammar structures unless you aspire for Level 6. At Level 4 you don’t need to use advanced grammar, at Level 5 you need to attempt to use it. It’s communication efficiency and effectiveness that matter. Remember that asking questions properly is one of the most sophisticated issues in English grammar given the richness of English tenses. Use Present and Past Simple questions and 'will' for the future:
Did the passenger drink alcohol? Do you need medical assistance now? Will the passenger be able to get off the plane on his own?
- don’t give advice instead of asking questions! This already happened at so many examination sessions I ran… There has to be some regularity to this mistake. I reckon that you know the procedures and the situations so well that you instinctively know what to do in the circumstances given… no need to ask questions. Thus, reacting on the spur of the moment you instantly give advice rather than ask questions. Anyway, you do need to ask questions. Just keep them simple and take advantage of the language you are perfectly familiar with.
- again, don’t attempt to use sophisticated grammar constructions, stick to basic imperative statements:
Climb to … Descend immediately. Give the passenger some oxygen now.
I believe this stage is the easiest for the pilots. Because it probably resembles natural communication in the cockpit.