16 IELTS Speaking Tips approved by Examiners:
- 24 Hour English Warm-Up
Have you ever gone into English class after a few days without speaking English? How do you normally feel in the first 10 minutes? It takes most students 10-15 minutes to ‘warm-up’ and perform to the best of their ability. Just like an athlete warming up before a sporting event, it takes time for you to get back to your correct level. If you don’t warm up before your speaking test, it will be over before you are really ready to show the examiner how good you are.
For these reasons you should speak, write, read and listen to only English for 24 hours before your test. Your family and friends might think you are crazy, but it will really make a huge difference to your score.
- Speak a Little English Every Day
It is better to practice a little every day than speak your native language all week and then go to English class once or twice a week. ‘But I have nobody to practice with!’ I understand that you might have very few native speakers to practice with in your local area, but the internet is full of people willing to talk
- Don’t Be Afraid to Ask the Examiner Questions If You Don’t Understand
I have lots of students who think that the examiner is the only person allowed to ask questions in the speaking test. It is meant to be a normal conversation between two people, so if you don’t understand what they mean, just ask them.
You can’t ask them to explain a whole sentence, but you can ask them to explain what one particular word means. Just say ‘I’m sorry, could explain what X means?’
You can also ask them to repeat the question if you didn’t quite understand what was said. Just say ‘I’m sorry I didn’t quite get that, could you repeat the question please?’
You should not however abuse this rule and ask the examiner to explain every word and repeat every question. This is not allowed and will probably make the examiner a little angry. Just ask for help when you really need it.
- Give Full Answers
‘Yes’ and ‘No’ are not satisfactory answers. Remember this is a test and you have to show the examiner how good your English is. If you give very short answers, there is no way the examiner can know how good you are.
You should try to extend your answers with explanations and examples.
Let’s look at good and bad examples for this question: ‘What are the causes of traffic jams in your city?’
Bad answer: ‘The causes of traffic jams are narrow roads and overpopulation.’
This answer is too short and has given the examiner the minimum amount of information possible.
Good answer: ‘The causes of congestion are narrow roads and overpopulation. This is because our roads were designed a long time ago when the population of the city was much lower. For example, the road near my house was built in the 1960s when the population was about a third what it is today.’
This student has not only answered the question, but also explained what they mean and given an example to further support their answer.
- Learn What Types of Questions to Expect
You should never memorise answers, this is a very bad ideas because the IELTS examiners are trained to spot these and are very good at spotting them. If you give the examiner memorised answers you are likely to get 0 in your test.
Despite this there are certain question types (not topics) that always appear and we can study and learn the functional language used to answer them.
Here is a list of the comment question types:
- giving examples;
- giving opinions;
- contrasting view points;
- commenting on someone else’s opinion;
- talking about cause and effect;
- talking about hypothetical situations;
- talking about the past and future.
- Learn How Native English Speakers Talk
English teachers tend to speak to their students in a very unnatural way. They speak very slowly and emphatically. I discovered this when my students came out for coffee with a few of the teachers and they couldn’t believe how differently we sounded when we talked to each other outside class. ‘Why don’t you teach us that?’ they all said.
If your teacher speaks to you in a very slow and unnatural way they are not teaching you how real English speakers actually sound. Go on YouTube and listen to how two native speakers actually sound. They use pronunciation features such as linking words, sentence stress and weak sounds. This makes it more difficult to understand, but it is something you will have to get used to if you want to score high in both the speaking and listening test.
- Are You Better at Grammar or Fluency?
Grammar is a set of rules that explains how words are used in a sentence. Fluency refers to your ability to speak easily and smoothly. These two are linked because students who focus on getting the grammar correct tend to be not so fluent, because they spend more time thinking about the rules than actually speaking at a natural speed. At the other end of the scale are those students who speak very fluently, but make lots of grammar mistakes.
In my experience, most students are either good at one or the other; however, there are always exceptions.
What you should do is record yourself speaking and then listen back. Did you make lots of grammar mistakes or did you speak very slowly and unnaturally?
If you made lots of grammar mistakes, focus on fixing these first.
If you are speaking at a slow pace and stopping a lot to think about grammar, try to forget about the rules of the language and just focus on speaking fluently. You will see a big improvement, if you practice regularly.
- Don’t Worry About Past Exam Questions
One of the first questions I get asked by students when I start a new IELTS course is ‘What are the common questions?’ or ‘Where can I find past exam questions?’ The questions on the IELTS exam paper are very rarely repeated and it is extremely unlikely that you will be asked the same questions that appeared in past tests. You are therefore wasting your time.
Another point I should make is that the past exam questions are very boring. If this is the only thing you do to practice, you are likely to get bored very quickly. Instead you should talk about what you are passionate about. If you love football, talk about that; if you love fashion, talk about that. Talking about your passion will help you improve because you will actually enjoy talking about it and we tend to learn more when we having a good time.
- Thinking Time is allowed
Lots of students complain that they can’t think of any good ideas in the speaking test. Part 1 of the speaking test is about you, so you shouldn’t really need any time to answer questions about yourself. In part 2 you will be given time to prepare your answer, so again don’t worry too much about this. Part 3 however, is the part students tend to fear the most because the questions are more ‘challenging’ and it can take a few moments to think of a good answer.
This is totally natural and it is something you probably do all the time in your own native language.
The crucial thing is to let the examiner know you need a few moments to think by saying something like:
- ‘That’s a tricky question; let me think for a moment.’
- ‘That’s an interesting question, let me think about that.’
- ‘It’s very hard to say for sure, but I would guess….’,
- ‘It’s difficult to say, I believe….’
- ‘I don’t really know for sure, but I believe….’
The important thing is to only use this technique when you absolutely have to. If you begin every sentence like this, the examiner will think you have memorized answers and fail you.
- Correct Your Mistakes
People make mistakes when they speak all the time, especially when they are nervous in an exam. The examiner understands this and it is fine to correct any mistakes you make. Some students don’t like to do this because they think it is making it clear to the examiner that you made a mistake. Don’t worry; the examiner always knows when you have made a mistake and correcting them shows the examiner that you really do know your grammar.
When you make a small mistake, simply say sorry and repeat the sentence correctly.
- Never Learn Scripted Answers
I know I have already said this, but it is such a big mistake it is worth saying more than once.
If a teacher tells you to memorise answers, that teacher does not know what he or she is talking about and you should find a new teacher. Also, if you read a text book or website that advises you to learn some scripted answers, throw that book in the bin and never go back to that website.
Learning scripts is the best way to get a band 0.
Instead you should focus on developing your speaking skills, so that you will be able to respond to any situation in the exam and life in general.
- Keep it Simple
The biggest mistake students make is trying to show off how great their grammar and vocabulary is. By this I mean trying to use advanced words and grammatical structures that they don’t know how to use correctly.
For vocabulary this means including words that might sound very complicated, but using them inappropriately. If you use a word incorrectly, you will lose marks. Therefore it would have been better if you used a simple word you understood than the long complicated word.
I tell my students to follow the 100% rule- If you are not 100% sure about a word, don’t use it in the IELTS test. By 100% I mean that you understand the:
- how it can be used correctly in sentence
- Synonyms and antonyms.
If you don’t know these things, use a simpler word.
The same goes for grammar. It is much better to use simple structures and get the sentence correct, than trying to use very complicated structures and making mistakes. Even if you make a small mistake that sentence is counted as not being ‘error-free’ and this costs you valuable marks.
There is also lots of confusion about what a simple sentence is and what a complex sentence is. The truth is that ‘complex’ sentences are not actually complex at all. Also, have a look at my sample answers for task 1 and task 2. You will see that it is possible to write a very good essay using simple language that is easy to understand.
- Any Answer is better than No Answer at All
A student of mine recently got 8 in reading, writing and listening, but only scored 5 in the speaking test. Why? She didn’t answer a number of the questions, because she wasn’t sure about the answers.
I teach mostly students from Asia and many of them tend to not attempt an answer in class, unless they are sure about the answer. This is natural in a classroom environment, but not acceptable in the IELTS speaking test. You have to attempt to give an answer. Don’t worry if you have no idea how to answer the question, please just try to give some kind of answer. If you say nothing, the examiner will be forced to give you a low score for that particular question.
A bad attempted answer is much better than no answer at all.
- There’s Nothing Wrong with Your Accent
Lots of students think that the best way to get high marks in the IELTS speaking test is to simply adopt a British or American accent. This is a really bad way to think about pronunciation because good pronunciation is not about what accent you have, but how easy you are to understand.
English is a truly global language and is spoken in thousands of different accents. In fact, the accent in the UK changes about every 20 km.
- Finish Strongly
Speaking in a foreign language can be exhausting. Most students have never had to speak for longer than a few minutes at a time and by the time they get to part 3 of the test, they are really tired and this affects their answers.
You should therefore practice talking for extended periods of time. You should be able to have a normal conversation with another person for at least 30 minutes. Remember that you will be doing most of the talking in the IELTS speaking test, so 30 minutes of normal conversation is about the same amount of words spoken as 15 minutes in the test.
You should also make an effort to really extend your answers in part 3. Part 3 is the most important part and tired students often give very short answers and hope the test will finish soon. Don’t be one of these students.
- Control Your Nerves
Nervous students tend to make more mistakes, have poor pronunciation and speak very quietly.
Get to bed early the night before your test and make sure you have a good meal and drink plenty of water on the day of the test.
Make sure you get to the exam centre early. If you are late you will be even more nervous.
Understand that the examiner wants you to do well. Believe me it is far easier and a more pleasurable experience for the examiner to listen to a good student than one that we can’t understand.
Remember to speak clearly. Don’t shout at the examiner, but also make sure they can clearly understand what you are saying.
Finally, know that by reading this article you have demonstrated that you are prepared to work hard and you are therefore ahead of most people who do the test and you should therefore have confidence in yourself. Well done!
By Christopher Pell
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