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Coherence in IELTS speaking – some approaches

This lesson is about developing a speaking skill that is sometimes ignored – coherence. You should note that your speaking is not scored on Fluency – but Fluency and Coherence. Below, you will find some suggestions about how you can improve your coherence in IELTS speaking. My emphasis here is not on words (although they matter), but on approaches – thinking about what you need to do in each task and how you can approach that task.

What is coherence?

Coherence can be various things.

1.  There is a very definite connection between coherence and understanding. If someone understands what your meaning is, then you are being coherent.

2. A related idea is just to think about who you are talking to and what they asked.  How can you say something to them clearly that answers their question? There is a connection between clarity and coherence.

3. Coherence is also partly about linking your speech together. This can mean using linking words. The most common in speech are and but and because!!

4. Coherence is also about linking ideas together – just like in a paragraph or essay. This means organising what you say so that your answer is “a whole“. All the bits within it fit together. This should be familiar from writing. The difference in speaking is that the structure is looser.

If you are a visual person, look at the picture below. It shows different things (cogs) working together to produce a something – an understood idea. This is what you are trying to do in the test. Your speech should link together and produce an answer that illustrates your ideas so that the examiner understands:

coherence illustrated

How thinking about coherence can work for you in each part of the test

The ideas below are simply suggested starting points – not rules! Everyone has their own style of speaking and different questions need different approaches. The idea is really to show you that:

thinking about coherence can improve your performance

different parts of the test may need different approaches

Part 1 – the chat – ARE or AR

Part 1 is not really an interview – it’s an informal chat with simple get to know you type questions. Here, I suggest you want to concentrate on giving clear and simple answers that are sometimes more extended. Two things to avoid are:

trying to say too much – the examiner has a lot of questions to ask (about 12 in 4 minutes – so make life easy for them)

giving over-short answers – you want to show that you can give politely extended answers as you would in real life

Here is a possible outline to make answers more coherent:

A – answer the question directly

R – give a reason why

(E) – when necessary explain that reason or perhaps give an example

This should be a familiar technique  from paragraph writing when you make a point and explain it with reasons.

Practice tips

Learn to answer questions directly – i.e. say immediately what you think in the first sentence of your reply. That makes it clear to the examiner that you can deal with basic questions. And note it’s perfectly ok to say “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure” – just say why. (ARE)

In your head, hear the question “Why?”- even if the examiner doesn’t say it. If you do that, you then have an immediate way of saying the next thing – “This is because…”. This is coherent.

In your head, think “Example”. This too gives you something else to say that will link in with what you  have just said. Coherence again.

Part 2 – the long turn – IN – ADD – ADD – ADD – OUT

Part 2 is you telling the examiner about a person, a thing or an experience. Note that it is always something personal to you. Here, I really suggest that you concentrate on using the question booklet to help you organise your answer. If you follow the points in order, your answer automatically has structure – that’s good for coherence. You want to avoid:

losing track of what you are saying – easy to happen when you talk for a longer time

leaving out detail – do this and your answer may be too short and your vocabulary is also likely to be weak

Here is a possible outline to make answers more coherent:

IN – tell the examiner what you’re going to say (think of it like an essay introduction – that’s the IN)

A – answer each point in the question booklet directly. Let the examiner know what you are talking about

D D – detail is a natural way of expanding your answer in a coherent way. You start with a general point and then add in particular points. It’s DD because you want detail and detail!

OUT – this is a type of conclusion – just like an essay too. There are different ways to do this. One of the best is to return to the main question in your introduction. For every IN there must be an OUT!

Practice tips

Don’t just practise complete long turns. You can learn more sometimes from just talking about one point for around 20/30 seconds. This way you are more likely to focus on the key detail.

Say your answer. Record it. Write it down. Look at what you said. Think about more detail to add in. See if you can break it into paragraphs. Paragraphs are an idea explained. If you can find paragraphs, then your answer is probably coherent. Then repeat until you have something you are happy with.

Part 3 – the interview/discussion – AREA or QUOTE

Part 3 is where you discuss the topic in part 2. It is quite like an interview in that here the examiner asks you slightly harder thinking type questions. This is the part where you probably need to concentrate on making what you say make sense – another part of coherence. What you want to avoid are answers that:

do not answer the question or are too brief

do not make sense/are “incoherent” as they contain unrelated ideas

Below I outline two possible approaches. One is for when you know what you want to say immediately – the easy question – and the other is when you need to give yourself some thinking time.

A – answer the question briefly and normally with a thinking phase such as “For me..”

R – give the reason why you think that

E – expand with an explanation or example

A – answer again. This time your answer should be slightly better expressed  than your first answer as you have been thinking about the question for 30 seconds or so while you have been speaking. [You can try this in part one too but it’s not normally necessary]

When you get a tougher question, you may want thinking time.

QU – repeat the question to give yourself some thinking time. There are different ways to do this, as you will see in this  lesson on thinking time .

O – outline the different options – i.e. say what some possible answers might be. This is still coherent as it will link to the question. You don’t need to commit to an answer.

T – say which option you think might be the best answer. Again, you don’t need to be too exact here. IELTS is a speaking test not an IQ test. All you need to do is make sure that what you say you think links to the question.

Eexplain why you might choose that answer.

If that sounds complex, look at this example.It may be short but is a workable answer that is quite coherent.

Qu: How do you think public transport will change in the future?

An: I’m not sure how public  transport will change in the future (QU). It’s not something I’ve thought about before. I guess it may become slightly cheaper and more popular. I suppose there might also be new forms of transport like flying taxis! (O). But on balance I think I’d say that more people will use public transport than they do today (T) because it’s getting more and more expensive to run a car (E).

The general idea is that I arrive at an answer by the end of what I say using QUOTE and that all the parts link together.

 Find out about using linking words


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6 Responses to Coherence in IELTS speaking – some approaches

  1. Vahid November 6, 2014 at 1:31 pm #

    It is great!!!!
    Dominic, in this lesson you have presented an excellent plan for all parts of IELTS speaking using a different method (the first letter of words).
    I suggest writing a lesson for IELTS writing tasks in the same way.

    Best wishes

    • Dominic Cole November 6, 2014 at 1:44 pm #

      Yes – the writing will come too. I already have quite a lot on this anyway. One of my very oldest lessons is about a PEE model for paragraphs The ideas there are in fact very similar to what you see here and I do think that writing can help speaking and vice versa.

      Incidentally, I have added a search box to the footer. If you can’t find something, it may be here somewhere! There is much more to this site than is sometimes apparent.

  2. Alex November 7, 2014 at 3:32 am #

    “QU – repeat the question to give yourself some thinking time. There are different way to do this, see here.”

    Perhaps there should be “different ways” and a link where to see it.

    Thank you for your excellent lessons.

    • Dominic Cole November 7, 2014 at 8:08 am #

      Thank for pointing out the mistake – now corrected. I’ve also added the link to the lesson on thinking time to the logical place! Please do let me know when you find similar problems – I really do need an editor.

  3. Sravya September 29, 2016 at 11:33 am #

    Really nice article on IELTS

  4. Gracie March 28, 2017 at 4:26 pm #

    Hi Dominic
    I am not really sure about the last part of AREA, is it is akin to the conclusion when you restate the reason and/or example in different way by paraphasing the words? Can you give me a sample answer for this type of approach in speaking task 3? Thank you a lot!

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