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Advice about how to prepare for a CLEAR ICAO English Assessment from Aviation English Asia.

Article written by Michael Egerton

In this article I’m going to provide guidance about how to best prepare for the CLEAR ICAO Assessment in Hong Kong.  CLEAR is an ICAO Language Proficiency test designed for commercial pilots. The CLEAR Testing Toolkit was created with great intentions by our friends Henry and Dennis, who we have great respect for.  In the middle East CLEAR has been effectively implemented by our friend and ally Daniel.  However, in Hong Kong the CLEAR Assessment is conducted by a reseller under license and the results are inconsistent to say the least.

In this article I will answer the following questions.

  1. What is the format of the CLEAR ICAO English Assessment?
  2. What do I need to do to prepare?

needtoknowNEED TO KNOW: Airlines in Hong Kong have used a number of "ICAO" English tests since 2008.  The standards and quality of the tests has varied which has led to complications.  

As a learner of English applying to an airline or cadet pilot programme in Hong Kong the main reason you are reading this now will surely be because you want to pass an ICAO test - which is of course a natural thing to do.

But before we proceed, the important thing we want you to realise is that ICAO English tests are just tests that can only measure your performance on the date of the test, and there may be 

(1) a gap between what the test assesses a candidate's ability to do and what the airline/flight school wants candidates to be able to do, and
(2) inconsistency in standards - not only between tests but also between "assessors" using the same test, and
(3) a massive gap between the skillset of the assessors and the ICAO 9835 minimum requirements.

Therefore whatever results you get, they should be "taken with a pinch of salt". 

What is the format of the CLEAR ICAO Assessment?

The CLEAR Assessment has three main parts, which we have analysed in detail below.  The analysis includes the scenario, test tasks, tips, language skills involved, and considerations.  We want to provide you with the best information about the test so that proficient candidates can pass first time.

Regardless of whether you are a commercial pilot or an ab-initio cadet candidate with zero hours, you will need to perform the same tasks and be assessed at the same standards during the test.  Linguistic experts from Aviation English Asia Ltd believe that this causes candidates to neglect urgently needed communicative language skills, and instead focus on language skills which are inappropriate at this time.

Part 1: Radiotelephony role play

This is a test of voice only communication with a screen preventing eye contact between you and the assessor.  There are typically two scenarios representing two phases of flight.

  • Departure followed by en-route (this means startup, pushback, taxi, take-off, climb and cruise)
  • En-route followed by arrival (cruise, approach, landing, taxi, disembarkation) 

toptipIf you are not yet familiar with radio communications during different phases of flight, there are three specific courses which you should consider attending - ICAO Aviation English for Cadet Entry Pilots, Basic Aeronautical Knowledge Certificate Programme and Radiotelephony 101.  All courses are conducted by genuine operational (pilots from major Hong Kong-based airlines flying Boeing 777-300ER and Boeing 747-8F) and suitably qualified language experts.  

ICAO Aviation English for Cadet Entry Pilots Basic Aeronautical Knowledge Radiotelephony101

Part 1a: Flight information

Before each scenario the assessor will give you the following information which you can look at for exactly 45 seconds.

  • flight number (typically Ocean123)
  • aircraft type (A320)
  • origin airport
  • destination airport
  • aeronautical chart of the departure airfield (for departure scenarios)
  • topographical chart (a large map showing airways, airfields, landmarks as the flight progresses en-route)
  • arrival airfield (navigation and landing aids, traffic pattern, airfield)

If you are a commercial pilot you will already be familiar with the above, but if you have limited flying experience or have never even looked at aeronautical charts before, you might be feeling that this is actually quite intimidating.  Aviation English Asia Ltd understand your feeling, so to give you an idea of how to read basic features of aeronautical charts we recommend this Aeronautical Chart Users Guide which is available free of charge.  For more practical activities using this type of material we recommend that you join the ICAO Aviation English for Cadet Entry Pilots or Basic Aeronautical Knowledge Certificate Programme courses.

Radio Navigation Aids Radio Navigation Aids Radio Navigation Aids


* The ICAO Aviation English for Cadet Entry Pilots course includes units from both Radiotelephony 101 and Basic Aeronautical Knowledge in addition to a very well-regarded language development course, so which you choose depends on the balance of language / knowledge that our expert teachers think is most suitable for you.

Part 1b: Listening to an ATIS or VOLMET 


After you have digested the information above the assessor will play a recording of either an ATIS (read our guide to listening comprehension of ATIS broadcasts) or a VOLMET (VOLMET broadcasts are similar to ATIS broadcasts but cover a wider region, eg Hong Kong, Macau, Taipei, Guangzhou).

You should listen carefully to the ATIS / VOLMET recording as it may give clues as to what will occur during the roleplay activity.  For example if there is a NOTAM about birds in the vicinity it is highly likely that you may encounter an engine failure or a bird stuck in the landing gear mechanism. Similarly, if there is a report of construction work north of taxiway echo you can predict that there will some kind of construction vehicle, foreign object debris or tool in a location that it shouldn't be.  

Example ATIS


WIND 060 DEG 010 KT
QNH 1021 HPA

The range of vocabulary required is predictable and is adequately covered on Aviation English Asia Ltd courses.

CLEAR ICAO Assessment ATIS top tipTOP TIP: Practice listening to ATIS and VOLMET broadcasts on Aviation English Radio during your free time.  Our student radio station, Aviation English Radio is a free resource on to provide high-quality listening material to learners of Aviation English.  CLEAR ATIS Listening Comprehension

We have specifically recorded and selected interesting (and sometimes challenging) recordings from various towers around the world.  

In addition to the high-frequency vocabulary you should also improve your listening comprehension of numbers and letters.  Listen in your free time, and don't think about it too much because that's how native speakers of English listen to radio. Once you are familiar with the format of information in an ATIS you can practice your note taking strategy.  Try to use pilot shorthand, or write in clear handwriting.  Aviation English Asia Ltd teachers can show you how if you are not sure. 

Try to remember the information in the ATIS/VOLMET because at the end of each role play scenario the assessor may ask you some questions about time, runways in use, weather information, and any Notice to Airmen.  

Part 1c: Roleplay

This part of the test is supposed to assess your ability to use plain English in non-routine situations.  This includes

  • comprehension of transmissions by ATC
  • making clear transmission of information in plain English
  • Switch between phraseology and plain English
  • Manage the interaction with the ATC
  • Use functional language to repair a miscommunication

cautionEven though you need to readback instructions from the ATC using standard phraseology, you are not assessed on the accuracy of either your readback or your use of standard phraseology.  This creates a problem which exemplifies the worst of both worlds - candidates are assessed on "utterances" in plain English made in between standard phraseology (which you may have little or no experience of).  It is highly likely that ab initio candidates will hesitate during this transition as they are focusing on using correct phraseology not on using English.  

Similarly, experienced pilots are not assessed on their comprehension of clearances (which is critical to their work and the source of many problems in Asia), but on basic structures and high frequency vocabulary which are rarely a problem.  

The roleplay activity will then begin. The assessor will play the role of Air Traffic Controller and begin reading from a script which to some degree matches your actions up to this point.  If the assessor asks a question, such as "Have you pushed back yet?" or "Can you see the 747 passing behind you?" you should respond in plain English or standard phraseology depending on which is appropriate.  However, as the test is not supposed to assess you on your use of standard phraseology it is better to use plain English.

Let's look at some examples of what responses could be made to the above questions. 

Prompt Response in standard phraseology Response in plain English
Ocean123, have you pushed back yet? Affirm, Ocean123. Yes, we have. Ocean123
Ocean123, can you see the 747 passing behind you? Negative, Ocean123 No, not yet. Which direction is she coming from? Ocean123


CONSIDER: What do you think an assessor could assess about your language proficiency from the responses given above?

CLEAR ATC Roleplay

At some point during the roleplay you may see a picture, which is a visual prompt for you to explain an unusual situation, such as a bucket on a taxiway.  Don't wait for the assessor to prompt you - when you hear a chime and see a flashing symbol, that indicates that you need to pass your message.  Sometimes the intended meaning of symbols might not be obvious, for example ice accumulation on the wings.  At that point, jump out of the roleplay and just ask the assessor what it is supposed to mean.  

This article teaches you some structures that you can use to report non-routine situations to the Air Traffic Controller in the roleplay activity.   

The assessor may also ask you a question about your message

Prompt Response in standard phraseology Response in plain English
Ocean123, confirm you have a failure on engine number 1? Negative, engine number 2 has failed, I say again engine number 2 has failed, Ocean123. Incorrect, it is engine number 2 which has failed, Ocean123
Ocean123, your message was garbled, say again. Request immediate descent due ice accumulation, Ocean123 Request immediate descent due to ice accumulation, Ocean123

Part 1d: Briefing cabin crew

If you have the en-route scenario you may also be asked to brief cabin crew in plain English about a non-routine situation.

Airlines typically have their own Standard Operating Procedures for this but you may want to try practicing the following two formats.  To enhance the effectiveness of the briefing, the briefing should be short and to the point.

N Nature of problem Depressurisation
I Intentions Diverting to Macau
T Time available 20 mins until required to be seated
S Special instructions Attend to passengers injured during emergency descent
R Repeat back Ask message recipient to repeat briefing back
S Situation What is the Situation; give a brief description of the unusual or emergency situation being faced.  
T Time How much Time is available to complete the actions.  
A Actions What Actions the person giving the briefing shall be doing. What Actions should the person receiving the briefing take.  
R Repeat Request a Repeat back of the key points from the briefing. Summarise the situation, repeat what actions they are expected to take, and ask any questions.

As a commercial pilot you will be familiar with the above scenarios, but as an ab initio it may be a few years before you are dealing with depressurisation, and whatever SOP you try to learn will most likely be out of date by the time the airline teach you how to do it their way.

Example of a NITS briefing -

CONSIDER: What do you think an assessor could assess about your language proficiency from the activity above?

CLEAR ICAO Assessment ATIS top tipIn order to avoid giving you clues about the audio the assessor will not provide any feedback or answers about the role play activity, but at the end of 1c the assessor will ask you some questions about the ATIS/VOLMET you heard at the start of the test.  You may have forgotten the information, so make sure that you can read your own handwriting.

The roleplay activity will then repeat with the next scenario, so you perform two roleplays in total.

Part 2: Monitor and report

Headset How to prepare for the CLEAR ICAO English Test in Hong Kong -

This is listening comprehension of non-routine situations during flight.  The activity takes about 7-10 minutes and involves listening to a 5 minute piece of audio between several aircraft and several air traffic control stations.

The situations occur in the following phases of flight:

  • departure
  • en-route
  • arrival

At the end of the 5 minute recording the assessor will not ask you any specific questions about the recording.  Instead the assessor will ask you to report ONLY the non-routine situations which were included.  The task is intended to assess your ability to listen and distinguish routine and non-routine situations in an evolving context. For example an aircraft initially in a routine situation may later be in a non-routine situation.  This means that you will need to process information and prioritise which factors are relevant.  You should take notes as you listen - in bullet point form.  At the end of the recording the assessor will ask you to make a report in as much detail as possible.

If you are familiar with wide range of non-routine situations from the ICAO Aviation English for Cadet Entry Pilots course this will be relatively easy, as non-routine situations and associated vocabulary are classified under the AEROSTA Framework.  

cautionMany candidates have difficulty with listening comprehension for at least one of several reasons.  In this article Advice for Candidates Scoring ICAO Level 3 in Comprehension we classified the main reasons as 

  1. Lack of familiarity with radiotelephony / standard phraseology
  2. Lack of aviation-related vocabulary - aileron, backtrack, laminar flow
  3. Lack of proficiency in identifying non-technical vocabulary - which significantly changes the meaning of a sentence
  4. Lack of proficiency in identify the grammatical structure of a sentence - which significantly changes the meaning of a sentence
  5. Lack of proficiency in identifying sounds - leading to confusion of "similar" sounding words

But the good news is that in CLEAR the recordings are not usually affected by 

  1. interference
  2. low volume
  3. strong unusual accents
  4. high rate of words per minute
  5. a lot of slang or other idiomatic speech

This is a good thing, so don't waste time listening to poor quality audio with lots of distortion - practice listening to interesting audio in a class with Aviation English Asia.  We can give you proper feedback and guide you to improve your listening comprehension in the most effective way.

What language skills are required? 

  • Receptive skills - hearing utterances, recognising vocabulary, prioritising relevant information, linking past and present events
  • Productive skills - reporting, verbs, tenses, prepositions, articles etc (classified as Basic and Complex structures in the AEROSTA Framework),
  • Proficiency - infrequent difficulties with pronunciation, appropriate vocabulary, fluency

CLEAR ICAO Assessment ATIS top tipReporting involves giving information to another person - to perform well in a CLEAR ICAO English Assessment you need to be able to describe these kind of situation clearly in plain English.  With professional training from Aviation English Asia you will be able to understand a wide range of unexpected situations that can occur in flight, organise your thoughts and report them clearly and without hesitation. You will also be able to reinforce your aviation knowledge.  

This is one format that you can use to structure your answer.  But don't limit your report to just one structure - learn other structures for clear, concise communication with Aviation English Asia Ltd.

Ocean123 had a problem with engine number 1 just after take off therefore he requested to return immediately.
Ocean456 was stuck on runway 27 due to a locked brake so the ATCO told Ocean 123 to go around.


For more practice of reporting information, this article provides some strategy for this - Describing unusual situations in ICAO English tests.

CONSIDER: What do you think an assessor could assess about your language proficiency from the activity above?

Part 3: Describe and discuss a photo

There are two speaking tasks in part 3 - describing a photo, and discussing aviation-related topics connected to the photo.  The tasks should take about 8 minutes in total.

You are encouraged to speak at length in as much detail as possible.  This is so that the assessor has enough utterances to assess you on.

What language skills are required? 

  • Productive skills - speaking at length about work-related topics, basic and complex structures, appropriate vocabulary
  • Receptive skills - managing a dialogue with the assessor but not listening comprehension itself
  • Proficiency - infrequent difficulties with pronunciation, appropriate vocabulary, fluency.

How to prepare

cautionIn practice there are very few images used in the CLEAR Assessment in Hong Kong and all images are now freely available on the internet and have been widely circulated by candidates since CLEAR was first used in Hong Kong.  Picture description is no longer the communicative function of "giving a visual impression" as stipulated in ICAO Document 9835, but a task of scripting, rehearsing and presenting a photograph using stock phrases.  Aviation English Asia recommends not focusing on just images that you know are in the test, but also develop language to give a visual impression of a wide range of scenarios.  If you are one of those candidates who want to just focus on the images you know to be in the test, at least learn why the incidents happened and develop the language to explain it clearly in English. 

Here are some images from previous versions of the CLEAR Assessment.  We have provided some model answers just to show you how different a native speaker is from the convoluted "speeches" that candidates often rehearse.

CLEAR Assessment photo description

Model answer: "This is the right wing tip of a Boeing 747-400 and an Embraer 135 twin-engined business jet with severe damage to the T-tail.  In the background there are five vans and in the foreground here are several investigators wearing flourescent high-visibility jackets.  There are some clouds in the sky." 

Possible discussion questions: 

  1. What are the causes of incidents like this?
  2. How can collisions on taxiways be prevented?
  3. Give some examples of how ambiguity in airport signage can cause incidents.

CLEAR Assessment photo description

Model answer: "This is a photograph of G-BRYZ by the famous aviation photographer Stewart Andrew.  It clearly shows a British Airways CitiExpress twin-engined propeller powered aircraft on the ramp. The Airport Fire Service are attending to an oil leak on the port side of the aircraft which was spotted as the passengers were disembarking and the aircraft was quickly evacuated.  The L1 door is open and fire fighters are holding a fire hose.  There is some liquid, or perhaps oil on the ground below the propeller."

Possible discussion questions: 

  1. What are the causes of incidents like this?
  2. How can engine fire be prevented?
  3. What are the effects of toxic fumes on humans?

aircraft and volcano

Model answer: "There is a light aircraft flying close to the rim of an erupting volcano.  There is a lot of magma, and in the background some fumes and volcanic ash."

Possible discussion questions: 

  1. What are the causes of volcanic eruptions?
  2. How can volcanic eruptions be detected?
  3. What are the effects of volcanic ash on engines?

CONSIDER: What do you think an assessor could assess about your language proficiency from the tasks given above?

The truth is, the answer to a question is not that important, it’s how well you answer it. It’s your pronunciation, use of correct grammatical structure, range of vocabulary, fluency and lack of hesitation and appropriateness of your answers too. The test is supposed to be dynamic and the assessor is supposed to ask questions based on your responses so you will need to respond appropriately too.  

CLEAR ICAO Assessment ATIS top tipWe have written several articles about describing photos previously, but instead of talking about the picture itself, lets develop language to talk about the reasons behind the incidents pictured above.  You can read the lesson here. 





What do I need to do next to prepare for the CLEAR Assessment 

Aviation English Asia Ltd has created some excellent free resources to help candidates prepare for the ICAO English test but most candidates will need professional help and feedback to prepare for the test.  Therefore we recommend that you join one of our courses.  

Aviation English Asia Ltd has helped hundreds of students succeed in an aviation career, and is the only genuine provider of Aviation English in Hong Kong.  Classes are available in daytime and evenings, and we can help you improve your English whether you are an experienced pilot or a candidate for a cadet pilot programme, with custom courses designed specifically for your needs.  If you are an airline of airport employee in Hong Kong you may also be eligible for reimbursement of course fees.

Aviation English Asia Ltd's ICAO Aviation English courses are pre-approved as reimbursable under the HKSAR government Maritime and Aviation Training Fund (MATF) Professional Training and Examination Refund Scheme. Hong Kong residents who are in full-time employment in the aviation sector with an organisation / company in Hong Kong are eligible for a reimbursement of up to $18,000.  (MATF Course code: AC047)

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For more information about Aviation English Asia’s courses please visit  When you are ready to improve your English email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or call +852 81799295.

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