Top Tips for IELTS

How to improve fluency in IELTS speaking

This is a review lesson on different ways you can improve fluency in IELTS speaking. To see what you already know try my quick quiz on fluency and then read on about the topics you need help with.

Fluency and IELTS speaking

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Understand what fluency is

It is quite hard to define what fluency is. Here is a quick outline:

speak for an extended period of time

keep speaking without too much hesitation and to pause for effect

use repetition for effect

1.Speed – not too fast, not too slow

The main idea here is that because English is a second language for you you’ll need to speak it at a slightly different pace than you speak your native language. You’ll just need a bit more time to find a way to express your ideas. If that means you may speak more slowly than seems natural to you, don’t worry as fluency is not the same as speaking quickly. It’s quite possible to be perfectly fluent and still speak at a slowish but steady pace.

Practice idea – record yourself and count the words

One way to work on your speed of speech is to record yourself and practise speaking about different things for the same amount of time. The general idea is that you adopt a good speed of speech that works for you – whatever the topic. Here’s the suggestion:

speak about a familiar subject  – record yourself speaking for 30 seconds and count the words

speak about an unfamiliar topic – again record yourself speaking for 30 seconds and count the words

Your goal is to get approximately the same number of words each time. Keep on recording yourself until you get there. This may mean slowing down when you speak about things you know about and slightly more quickly about unknown topics.

Note, however, that it is quite natural to speak a little more slowly when you are speaking about a less familiar topic.

Be careful of imitating native speakers too closely

Native speakers can be good models  but this is one case where they can upset you – they may well speak more quickly than you can simply because they don’t face your problems. Be prepared to adopt your own pace of speech.

Find your natural pace of speech. Don’t try and speak too quickly and be prepared to speak more slowly sometimes

2. Translation – speak directly in English

“Translation” can be a major problem for anyone who doesn’t live in an English speaking environment. If you aren’t used to speaking English regularly then you may pause much too often as you look for the right word and perhaps think too much about how to say it. This is very bad for fluency.

Just speak more – and speak more regularly

The solution here is to make yourself a speaking plan and just practise speaking for a certain amount of time each day – even if it does mean speaking to yourself and recording yourself. It can help to vary the way you practise and not always to concentrate on quality. When you do this sometimes don’t worry about “sense” just make sure you are used to speaking in English for a longer period of time. Quantity matters too and if you’re always thinking about quality you may never speak enough.

Try my 1-2-3, 3-2-1 exercise

This is a great exercise for fluency. You start off just talking about a topic for 1 minute – or even 30 seconds. Then you speak again for a longer period to time – perhaps one and a half minutes. Then try a longer period of time. Each time you’re speaking about the same thing and it should be easier to speak more as you already have the ideas in your head.

Learn vocabulary better – record, learn and use some ready made language

Sometimes the problem can be the way you learn vocabulary – especially if you adopt a word by word translation approach as you write it down. If you do that then each time you see the word, you go back to your own language – that’s bad for fluency. It can really help fluency to learn to use ready made language – by writing down and learning words together either in collocations or long phrases. See these examples of opinion vocabulary:

The way I see it is

If you ask me

From my point of view

Using these phrases give you the building blocks to speak more fluently – and that is how much of language is learnt and used by really fluent speakers.

 

To speak more fluently it helps to practise speaking and it also helps to learn chunks of language and not to try and translate everything

3. Vocabulary – balance vocabulary and fluency

This is perhaps the biggest problem for many people – they pause a lot because they can’t find the right word to express their ideas. If you do pause like this then you will lose points for fluency. The difficulty is that if you use “incorrect” words or repeat words too much then you may lose points for vocabulary. The trick is to try and find a balance where you keep speaking (better fluency) and still vary your words (vocabulary).

Relax and don’t try and say things perfectly

One thing to accept is that speaking is not the same as writing. It is a real-time activity and you won’t find the perfect way of saying something every time – even in your own language. Accept that it’s enough to get your main ideas across.

Use straightforward vocabulary – think precise words not great idioms

One way to get this done is use simpler language. This is what happens in speech – we tend to use far fewer and far less complex words than when we write – we only use at best half the words we know. Some of the best vocabulary to use when you speak is relatively simple but precise. You get credit for this too. To see how this can work look at the type of vocabulary I use here when talking about shopping

That’s a really hard question to answer because there are so many different shops. But I guess the new shopping malls are where most people go and they are more popular nowadays than the old markets. That’s probably because there are more facilities there and they’re just warmer and nicer places to be – outside can be cold in winter!

This is how speaking works – we don’t use lots of complex words and the best words are often fairly simple topic words.  It’s a good model for you to follow.

Think functional phrases too

Another way you can help yourself here is to see that you can also get credit for using more functional words and phrases – they’re part of vocabulary too. The benefit of using them is that they can sometimes help you keep speaking and actually improve your fluency. Some examples of phrases like this can be found in my lesson on pausing and speaking fluently  where the idea is rather than stop speaking when you don’t know what to say and you use a ready made phrase such as:

What I’m trying to say is..

Practice idea

One way to practise these skills is to combine reading and speaking. You read something and find some words and phrases you want to use. You note them down and then try and summarise what you’ve read by using those words.

You don’t need that many words to speak fluently. Concentrate on learning the words that are most likely to help you. These are typically topic words and functional phrases

4. Grammar – make some mistakes !!

This is a similar idea. This time what may happen is that you speak too slowly and pause too much in a effort to find the right grammatical structure. Again you will get penalised for fluency if you pause like this.

Make a mistake and move on

One solution is just to make the mistake and keep on speaking. Why? Firstly, there’s a chance that the examiner doesn’t hear the mistake – I can tell you from experience that a number of mistakes that are easily seen in writing will go unnoticed in speech even by experienced examiners. Secondly, you’re able to make more mistakes in speaking than writing. Some mistakes will be ignored as “slips” when you speak. This is especially the case if you get a piece of grammar wrong once and then right another time.

Correct yourself quickly and move on

The other solution is to correct yourself quickly and move on. This is a good thing to do as you may even get rewarded for showing that you do know the correct grammar. The way to do this is to say something like

I advised him play the piano. I advised him to play the piano

I don’t often go to zoo. Sorry what I meant was “I don’t often go to the zoo”

There aren’t any people which. Sorry I got that a little wrong I mean to say “There aren’t any people who”

In the first example you simply repeat the correct version and in the second and thirds examples you say you got it wrong and then give the correct version. I suggest that you only really try this technique if you can quickly and easily correct your mistake.

Correct mistakes that you can easily put right

One skill you want to practise is correcting some mistakes and not others. The tip is to correct the mistakes that you can put right quickly and easily. If it’s a complex correction, you may lose the thread of what you were trying to say if you go back and try and correct it all. In that case, it may be better to simply say:

Let me start again

Practice idea – record yourself and make  checklist of your speaking mistakes

This is one time when it can help to record yourself. You record yourself speaking and then listen to hear what mistakes you make when speaking. The idea is that you make a checklist of the mistakes you can recognise and try and correct those as you speak.

Don’t try and correct all your mistakes – correct mistakes you can put right easily

5. Ideas – don’t try and show off too much

Another reason why fluency may suffer is that you pause a lot to try and find good ideas to show off  and impress the examiner. This is just to misunderstand the IELTS process – it’s a test of language and not ideas – all the examiner is listening for is how well you can use the language – not how much you know.

Solution – talk about what you know – don’t try to impress too much

My best suggestion here is just to talk about what you know – you have those ideas in your head already and you shouldn’t need to stop and look for words to express them. If you lie or try and impress with clever ideas then you normally need to stop and think more about what to say. Any benefit in better vocabulary will probably be lost in worse fluency.

This may mean that sometimes you say you don’t know the answer to the question – no problem! It may also mean that you extend your answer slightly to talk about what you can talk about – again not a problem. Look at this example to see how it can work. You should see that the answer is fluent and still uses reasonable vocabulary:

What sorts of hats are popular in your country

I don’t know what to say here. I really don’t know what type of hats people wear most in my country. In fact I’m not sure that there is any typical hat. For my generation shoes tend to be more important than hats and lots of teens want to buy the newest set of trainers from Adidas for instance.

Practice – learn and practise different ways to extend your answer

There are lots of different ways to say more. I show you many of them in this lesson on extending answers. One way to use that lesson is to take a practice question and see how many different ways you can answer it – using the same or similar ideas. If you have a variety of different ways to tackle a question, then your fluency should improve automatically. You’re not relying on having ideas rather you’re relying on having different ways to talk bout what you know.

There is no content mark in speaking and so concentrate on talking about what you do know – that way you’re much more likely to keep speaking

6. Pause – don’t try and speak without stopping

Sometimes fluency goes wrong because people try to speak without stopping or pausing. Typically what happens here is that you speak for a few seconds and then run out of energy and need to stop – perhaps in the wrong place – and you may lose the rhythm of what you were saying. The key idea here is to understand that we can pause when we speak – you just need to pause in the right places and for the right reasons.

Solution – speak in sentences and pause in the right places

One way to learn to pause is to try and speak more in sentences. Say a complete idea. Pause a little. Then say the next idea. Pause a little. Then carry on again. Look at this example from one of my sample answers for part 2 on talking about a favourite room. I have shown where I pause by dividing it into sentences.

I share the house with a number of students and so there isn’t much privacy.

It’s nice to have other people about and I wouldn’t want to live by myself.

But there are times when I want to be in a quiet place and concentrate on my work and that’s when I tend to go up to my room and study.

If I’m in the mood for company I’ll go back downstairs to the communal living room and watch tv with one of my housemates.

There’s almost always someone around.

So I think get the best of both worlds.

You should see that I don’t try and say too much all at once and I give myself lots of little breaks. It’s much easier to stay fluent this way.

Practice – record yourself and speak it again – this time with pauses

A lot of language learning about repetition. One way to do this that is about repetition but is also interesting enough to do a few times is to do a sound scripting exerciseHere a possible activity is

do a long turn speaking

write down the transcript

mark the pauses

say it again – this time with pauses

This is good focused fluency practice as you already have the words – all you’re trying to do is say them more fluently.

Learn when to pause. Pause between sentences/ideas and not in the middle of them

7. Link ideas – use simple linkers to structure what you say

This is a similar idea. You keep your speaking simple and learn how to join things together by using the most common linkers. A possible mistake is to try and make a complex argument with more difficult links. Each time you do that you need more time to think about the grammar and the logical connections – that’s bad for fluency.

Use and but because and so 

Look at this example and see how often I use simple linking phrases and how I express a fairly complex thought by primarily using and/but/because/so.

Do you think the internet is a positive influence on society?

Yes for me it is a positive influence? I say that because it helps people to communicate in so many different ways. And it has also changed the way we can connect with each other. Before we had the net it was really difficult to stay in contact with people who we didn’t see every day but now that’s a piece of cake – really very easy to do. Anyone can log onto their Facebook page and post an update or they can also use Skype or FaceTime to have a video chat. So all in all I have to say the net is a positive force even though there may be some downsides to it as well.

Practice idea – think writing

This is one time it can help to compare and contrast different skills. One idea is to look at one your essays and find a paragraph in it and try and summarise the ideas by only using the simplest linkers. This can work in at leat two different ways:

  1. It can help you revise your writing skills. If you have written a good paragraph it should be fairly easy to find the main ideas and to see how they link together. If you can’t, then you may have a writing problem.
  2. It can help your speaking fluency to see that you can develop ideas in speaking in the same sort of way that is familiar from writing. You say the main point and then just support it by adding explanations but this time using the simplest connectors.
Linking your ideas together is key. The simple words work best here. Don’t waste energy on making complex connections

8. Structure your answer – start off simply then build up

This is another connected idea. To achieve fluency it can help to structure your answer a little and not try and do everything all at once. If you leap into the answer too quickly you can become confused and have to stop and correct yourself too much – that is bad for fluency as you’ll find yourself pausing a lot for thought.

Start simply and state general ideas first

The big advice is to start off simply and the build your answer from there. That should sound familiar from writing – it’s the same sort of idea as using topic sentences. You help your fluency by starting off with a general idea that is easy to state and then when that is clear you move onto the more complex bit of explaining it with some detail.

How you do this will depend slightly on the question you have and the part of the test but in each case the principle is the same – the general point comes first. Sometimes – as in part 1 – it’s a quick direct answer to the question that you develop later as you extend your answer.

Do you like where you live?

Yes I do in fact. I like it because it’s a very attractive village with lots of  amenities as well. There’s plenty to do there and I certainly never get bored. For example…

Sometimes – as in part 2 – you start off by just saying what you’re going to talk about perhaps using the points on the cue card to structure your answer.

The person I’m going to tell you about is my mother-in-law….

I’ve known her for around about 10 years now. We first met

She has several qualities that make me look up to her. The first is …

So you should see that there are several reasons why I admire her. I guess the principal one is..

Sometimes – as in part 3 – where you get a harder thinking question you don’t give a direct answer immediately but talk about the question itself and only then give the details of your answer. You’re still doing the same thing but in a different way. Starting simply.

I’m not entirely sure what to say here – it really isn’t something that I’ve thought about before. I suppose I’d say that people in their 30s are more likely to get married. The reason I say that is..

It helps to learn to structure your answers – start with the easy things and then move onto the more complex things when you are ready 

9. Repetition – don’t be afraid of repeating yourself a bit

If you repeat yourself too much your fluency score will suffer but that doesn’t mean you can’t repeat yourself at all. Indeed when we speak – expertly in our native language – we do repeat ourselves a bit. This is one place where speaking and writing differ. It can certainly help your speaking in English if you learn how to make this work for you.

Learn to borrow words – don’t always try and say something new

One way you can help yourself speak more fluently is to borrow words you have just said and then explain them a bit. This makes it easier for you as a speaker to keep speaking (fluency) and it also makes it easier for the examiner as a listener to follow what you’re saying (coherence). It’s a win win!! Look at this example to see how it can work. This is good repetition:

What is the transport like where you live?

The transport system isn’t too bad at all. There are all sorts of ways to get around. One way is to take a bus and the bus service is fairly reliable. You can also take the train of course but they run much less regularly and so aren’t so convenient. Taxis are convenient but just too expensive.

You should see that there is a lot of repetition here but it’s helpful repetition as you always have something to say and/or the words to use. It shouldn’t count against you as by doing this you’re helping the coherence of what you say

Also learn to speak in circles

Speaking in circles is another coherence idea that can work for fluency. This time you adopt one simple technique for structuring longer answers. You end your answer by coming back to the way you started it – you repeat yourself. This works for fluency as it always give you one more thing to say. And it’s not a problem to do this as your repetition is for effect – emphasising your main point.

You can repeat yourself and stay fluent. You just need to learn how and when to repeat

10. Use fillers – you can say um and er

One other way you can help your fluency is to fill the silence with the sounds of English. These are the filler sounds of um and er.

You may think that this is “bad English”. In fact most native speakers use these sounds and you shouldn’t be afraid of imitating them. All you need to do is not make those sounds too much.

11. Answer simple questions simply – build your confidence

This idea is quite different and relates to the rhythm of the IELTS speaking test. The idea is that the test starts off with some quite simple questions (part 1), moves onto a harder task where you need to speak for longer (part 2) and then a more challenging set of questions where you need to think and speak at the same time (part 3).

Here’s my experience. I have done a lot of examining – not IELTS but very similar tests. One thing I notice is that the people who do their best don’t try and do too much too soon. If they get a simple question they’re prepared to give it a simple answer – they save their energy for the trickier questions ahead and build up the complexity of their answers.

Speaking fluently doesn’t mean always giving long answers – if you want to still have mental energy for the harder questions at the end, give shorter answers at the start

 

   

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