Each part of the IELTS speaking test needs slightly different skills. This is a quick start guide to the first part of IELTS speaking. I talk you through the format of the exam, then I suggest some key speaking skills and ways to prepare for this part of the test. You will also find a short sample IELTS speaking part 1 video – it should show you how good communication skills matter here.
What you can expect – the format
Time: around 4 minutes
Number of questions: around 12 (about 3 different topics)
Topics: simple questions about your personal background (home/work/education etc) and likes and dislikes
Understand the task – making small talk
This is the easy part of the test. All you need to do is make “small talk”. This is the type of conversation we have when we meet someone new and want to find out whether they are our sort of person.
Sample IELTS speaking part 1 video – understand how it works
The idea is to help you see how this part of the exam reflects a natural life situation and one of the best ways to prepare for it is to practise natural English. It isn’t all about exam skills and it helps to work on your general communication skills. I talk more about this further down.
This is a video with a difference. First of all you see me making small talk with a colleague, Mandy. Then I put her through her paces doing IELTS speaking part 1. You should see that both conversations are very similar – the one real difference is that the examiner in the exam does not respond to what you say and has a list of prepared questions.
Learn from Mandy
Mandy knows nothing about IELTS (she’s American!). She is, though, a great communicator and you can learn from her communication skills:
- Some of Mandy’s answers are really quite brief. That’s okay. Simple questions can have simple answers.
- Sometimes Mandy expands on her answer because she has more things to say. The idea is to wait for the “good” questions and say more about them. You should also see that her answers got slightly longer as she went on.Completely natural. Warm up slowly.
- Her English is simple. She does use a few more complex words/phrases: “If we’re talking about my extended family” “friends and siblings” and “I attribute my love..”. But she also uses simple phrases. “It’s a really fun city to live in. There’s a lot going on. There’s a lot of nightlife. A lot of bars. A lot of food from all over the world.”
- Little words can make all the difference: “I live in an apartment right on Miami Beach.” “I’d say it was my bedroom.” “I think Miami’s kind of stayed the same”
- She answers questions directly. You don’t really need too many speaking strategies here. Just listen and respond: “What do you see when you look out of the window?” “Beautiful blue beach, white sand etc”
Exam skill – relax into the test
It can be very hard to “relax” But one way to do it to keep things simple. Few, if any, of the questions should cause you problems. If you get an easy question which has a simple answer. Give the simple answer. Feel good about yourself. The questions will get much harder later.
Key communication skill – don’t give only very short answers
If someone asks you if you come from a large or small family, it is rude just to say “I come from a small family” – in any language. The idea is that you should generally extend your answers by giving a little bit more information.
Key communication skill – don’t give long and boring answers
Some candidates misunderstand what they have to do in IELTS speaking part 1 and try and give long answers using lots of complex words to show off their language. Try not to do this:
- the examiner has 12 questions to ask – that means around 20 seconds a question – speak to long and you make the examiner’s life hard. Don’t do that.
- the test gets harder as you go through it, you want to relax into the test by doing simple things well – this will make you more confident for the harder parts to come
- the most impressive answers to many of these questions may be quite short and use fairly simple language
Key communication skill – make some eye contact
This one is not part of language. It does help though to establish a relationship with the examiner at the start of the test. It is also true that almost all the most confident speakers use some eye contact. If you don’t, then it may mean that you lack confidence. This is one part of the test where everyone should feel confident.
It may be that the examiner doesn’t look at you much or may appear “rude”. Don’t let this put you off. Different examiners have different styles and it may be they are concentrating on your language. It’s not always the kind looking, smiley examiners who give high scores.
Preparing for IELTS speaking part 1
There are a variety of ways that you can prepare. Here are a few suggestions:
In the end, you learn to talk by talking. This is the most natural form of talk possible – chat. So try and find every chance you can to speak English. The video should show you that every talk is an excellent preparation for IELTS speaking part 1.
Got no one to talk to? That can be a problem for some people. The simple suggestion is to talk to your goldfish or talk to yourself. It may sound mad, but that too can work.
One obvious thing to do is look at some practice questions. Don’t get obsessed by them though. The idea is that the sort of questions you will be asked are simple everyday questions. It can be a serious mistake to “over-prepare” and learn answers.The examiner will be able to tell – and won’t be impressed – and you won’t relax into the exam. It’s much more stressful to try and “remember” an answer than listen to a question and answer it.
Practise your communication skills
The skills you need here are natural language skills – skills that you have in your own language. One thing to think about is how you would answer this type of question in your own language – that’s the sort of answer you should give in IELTS.
It is probably a mistake to “translate” answers from one language to another, but it can still help to think about how you would answer these questions in your own language.
Listen to other people
Listening helps speaking. The idea is that you should listen to how other people answer this sort of question. If you do that, you can “borrow” some of their language. This can mean words: “right on” or can involve phrases: “If we’re talking about…”
Keep a vocabulary notebook – organise it
You don’t need too many words in this part of the test, but you still want to use the best language you can. Writing words down is an excellent way of learning them. The suggestion here is that you organise that notebook into sections: ie “this page are my words to talk about my family”.
It can really help to know how you sound when you speak. So you can record yourself talking. This can work particularly well for pronunciation (25% of the score): if you can’t understand what you say, then examiner won’t!
Get more detail about part 1 speaking
You’ll find a lot more detailed advice about part 1 speaking here