Top Tips for IELTS

Improve your IELTS speaking skills – 10 tips

The aim of this lesson is to give you different practice activities for the speaking test. While most of the activities are based on IELTS speaking questions, the idea is to improve your skills and not just practise answering questions. The reason for this is that practice tests are not enough by themselves; if you want to get better, you need to improve how you speak and that means thinking about speaking as a skill.

1. Record yourself and then write down your answer

This is something everyone should try. It is almost certainly a bad idea to write your answer first and then speak it. This is because we speak and write in very different ways and it is a mistake to try and train yourself to speak in the way you write. But you can learn a lot from recording what you say and then writing that down word for word. Things you can learn are:

  • Do you say enough? Do you give very short answers? In parts 1 and 3, you should say at least a couple of sentences in answer to every question.
  • Is what you say organised? Can you see a structure to your answer? Is it possible to put in sentences and paragraph breaks? Do you have some organisation language like “The first point is..”
  • Do you speak too slowly or too quickly? Try counting the words in your part 2 answer. Most of my answers as a native speaker are about 240 words long. You should probably aim for around 200 or so. Less than that and you are speaking too slowly, but if you have more than that, it may be that you are speaking too quickly.
  • How long are your pauses? You can pause, but your pauses should generally come between sentences/paragraphs and they shouldn’t be more than 2/3 of seconds
  • Did you answer the question?
  • Is your pronunciation okay? If you can’t immediately understand what you say, the examiner won’t either!
  • Are there some words you repeat a lot? You probably shouldn’t worry too much about content words such as “television” – native speakers will repeat those a lot when speaking. Rather you should look at more functional words/phrases such as “I think”. It’s very easy to repeat these a lot and it is also quite simple to train yourself to use more variety.
This is an exercise I use a lot in my own classroom and I find that most everyone has a telephone that records and the quality on that is just fine.

2. Do it first in your own language

This is perhaps an unusual piece of advice. In the speaking, you should aim to be thinking and speaking in English as much as possible and not translating from your language to English. It can, however,  sometimes help to practise the long turn part 2 in your own language first:

  • some people struggle to speak in their own language for 2 minutes: they prefer short/concise answers and not longer more discussion type answers. So before you try it in English, make sure you can do it in your first language.
  • it helps you understand how long 2 minutes is and how much you need to say to fill that time
  • if you record and listen to yourself in your first language, you will probably find yourself using quite a lot of “structure” language such as “As I mentioned before”. This is a lot of the language you need for part 2.

3. Don’t practise the whole part 2, do it bit by bit

Some people find part 2 frightening because they are worried they can’t speak for 2 minutes. Relax. You don’t have to. It’s much easier than that, you need to speak for

  • 20 seconds
  • 20 seconds
  • 20 seconds
  • I minute
This is because there are always 4 points for you to talk about on the cue card. You want to try practising talking about the first 3 points on the cue card for about 20 seconds each (the who, where, what type questions). Make sure you don’t say “last year”, but you extend that a little (see describing a wedding for an example). Then all you need to do is talk for 1 minute on the longer question at the end that is almost always about explaining something.

4. Practise by describing photographs

In the exam of course you don’t get any photograph to help you. It would probably be easier if you did because when you have a photograph, you can see what you need to talk about. The idea is here that if you learn to see pictures as you are speaking, you find more things to say. I suggest:

  • find a picture about an IELTS topic e.g. a picture of a wedding – describe what you see
  • then try talking about the same topic without the picture
  • in the exam itself, all you need to do is imagine a picture in your head
What I strongly suggest is that you look at your own photographs, as what you will need to speak about are your own memories.

5. Read then speak

It helps to practise reading and speaking together because reading gives you words and sometimes ideas. This idea is a very simple one. When you read a passage in English, you should then try and summarise what it says speaking. The ways this works is:

  • to summarise a reading text, you are going to need to use some of the words used in it
  • if you say the word aloud, you have learnt that word better and are more likely to us fit for yourself in the future
  • if the text is longer, you should find yourself having to list the different points it contains. This should help the coherence of your speaking as you will need to use language like “Firstly…then… next …”etc
Two extremely good sources for this type of reading is 6 minute English and my favourite Words in the News. It sometimes helps to choose 5 words from the text you are reading that you want to use when you speak.

6. Improve your memory – write your life history

Parts 1 and 2 of the speaking test are personal questions about who you are (part 1) and what you have done (part 2). One reason why some candidates have problems is not the language, but that they can’t think of things to say. The solution is simple – refresh your memory about important events in your life before the test.

The idea is not so much to practise exam questions (it’s hard to predict those), but to practise speaking about your memories of people, events, places and things. Do that and the exam should be simpler as you have memories you can use. Write down some personal memories and then try speaking about them. Some ideas here are:

  • think of important/interesting people in your life: Ask yourself: When did you meet them? How long have you known them? Why are they important/interesting? Can you remember something you did together? What about a conversation you had with them?
  • think of important events in your life: Ask yourself: What it was? Where did it happen? Who were you with at the time? What else was happening in your life then? What one thing stands out in your memory about it? How well do you remember it?
  • think of places you have been to:  Ask yourself: Where it was? How did you get there? In what detail can you describe the place? Can you describe the general area it is in? Would you want to go back there?
  • think of your possessions: Ask yourself: How long have you owned it? Where did you get it? Is it special or something normal? How often do you use it? Do you associate with someone else?

7. Practise saying “I don’t know”

Another reason why some candidates go wrong in the exam is that they feel they have to give a complete answer to very question and they think of IELTS as some academic test. It isn’t. It’s simply a test of your language. In parts 1 and 3, you may well be asked questions that you have very little to say about. That’s not a problem, there’s always another question coming. The big mistake is to try and give a full answer when you have nothing to say. What happens is that your language becomes confused and so do you, with the result that things get and worse and worse.

All you need to do is say you don’t know and explain why and then wait for the next question. This may take a little practice. You want to build a set of phrases such as:

Q. What colour is your favourite room and why did you choose that colour?

A. I’m not sure what to say about that. It’s not a question I’ve ever thought about before. I suppose yellow is just my favourite colour and so I painted my room yellow?

You can find some useful language for this on vocabulary for harder questions and if you are looking for some harder questions, take a look at this list of difficult job interview questions.

8. Talk to a mirror

This is another strange sounding piece of advice, but it can be very practical – especially if you don’t have a speaking partner. The idea is that when you practise speaking, you should sit in front of a mirror and speak to yourself. It can work because:

  • eye contact is extremely important in all parts of the test. As a former speaking examiner for other exams, I can promise you that examiners are influenced by candidates who make eye contact  – even though they may not be aware of this. Typically, the candidate who makes good eye contact gets a more generous mark because they seem to be communicating better as body language is around 70% of all communication.
  • the other point is that, for most people, sitting and looking at themselves in a mirror is an uncomfortable experience. After that, the exam will seem easy!

9. Write your own questions

This is another activity that I suggest everyone should try at least once. You should of course practise with “real” exam questions too, but there is a lot to be learnt from writing the questions first and then trying to answer them. The way it works is that if you write the question yourself,:

  • you are more likely to try and answer it properly and give a full answer because you understand what the question is asking – good practice
  • you learn to add details to your answers by thinking of more question words. So when you answer the question “Are you a student or do you have a job?”, you are more likely to say “I’m a student at Wuhan University and I have been studying there for the last 3 years” – adding information by thinking of the question “How long” even though you weren’t asked it.
All you need to do this is look at general IELTS topics from my speaking page and making up your own questions.

10. Improve your coherence and fluency – easy as 1-2-3 0r 3-2-1

This is another of my favourite classroom speaking activities. Ideally, you need one or two more people to practise this with, but you can do it by yourself. The idea is that you don’t just practise speaking for 2 minutes. Rather, you start off by speaking for 3 minutes about that topic, then you do the same thing for 2 minutes, then for 1 minute. In the perfect world, you would also speak to a different person each time.

How does it work? The first time your answer is probably slightly incoherent and lacks fluency. The next time you speak though, you know what you want to say and, if you have listened to someone else speak, you now have more ideas. The result is that when you speak, you answer becomes more fluent and coherent. Then when you do it for 1 minute, your answer needs to become even more coherent because you now have lots of things to say but not very much time to say it.

I should add that this activity works best if you have different people to speak to. It works because each time you speak to someone different, it becomes a different conversation – even if you are talking about the same thing.

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33 Responses to Improve your IELTS speaking skills – 10 tips

  1. Mahmoud September 23, 2011 at 1:59 pm #

    Thank you very much Dominic
    Very useful information
    In my first IELTS attempt: the cue card was about a new law in my country that made a significant change.
    Apart that I do not have a country, there wasn’t any law that i could think about
    I spent my two minutes hesitating and trying to say anything about anything
    my score eventually dropped
    I could easily mentioned that there isn’t any new law and drag the examiner to another subject.
    Thanks again

    • Karsen November 3, 2011 at 7:56 pm #

      Stay with this guys, you\’re helping a lot of peolpe.

  2. Anonymous September 23, 2011 at 3:37 pm #

    thank you sir

  3. Kay September 24, 2011 at 8:11 am #

    TODAY’s IELTS Task2 question in China mainland:
    the best way is a country prepares for the future to invest more resources in its young people. how true is it you think? what is the best way to spend resources to help young people?

  4. smn September 26, 2011 at 4:04 pm #

    thnx sir

  5. smn September 26, 2011 at 4:05 pm #

    thnx sir..it provides us more information i think its 2 much useful 4 ol students

  6. Bhavna September 27, 2011 at 10:49 am #

    I totally agree with the 3 2 1 approach.
    Its like thinking on your feet and bringing succinctness to the speech and thus making an impact.

    Quoting:
    “It is with words as with sunbeams.
    The more they are condensed,the deeper they burn.”
    -Robert Southey

    Regards,
    Bhavna

  7. Anonymous September 29, 2011 at 4:18 pm #

    I appreciate you so much!
    This 10 tips is just what I need for today’s practice!

  8. Vika September 29, 2011 at 4:19 pm #

    I appreciate you so much!
    This 10 tips is just what I need for today’s practice!

  9. Radmila September 30, 2011 at 3:39 pm #

    Thanks a lot Dominic. But I have a problem with the link 6 minute English, every time I open it the same thing happens- msn.com . Why can it be so?

  10. ana October 2, 2011 at 5:10 pm #

    thank you dominic. was very helpful.

  11. Anonymous October 3, 2011 at 7:18 pm #

    its very good and helpful tips thanks

  12. jijeesh m v October 20, 2011 at 7:00 pm #

    thanks for your suggestion and i try to practise it. i need more about writing task. could you guide me to improve it

  13. abhi October 21, 2011 at 12:08 pm #

    thank u very much sir…
    The information which was provided by you was very helpful too me, especially tips on writing & speaking.

    I’m very much happy with my overall score(7.5).
    Thanks a lot……..

  14. mary October 21, 2011 at 10:51 pm #

    Hi dear Dominic, i am writing this to express my gratitude to you, your website is the Best, Great Help for students like me from Developing countries, i got my IELTS report and my overall band is 6.5 ,I owe you alot for getting this mark. Wish you all the Happiness.
    Yours Sincerely
    Mary from iran

  15. Finance Executive Search November 1, 2011 at 6:15 am #

    Thanks for those tips on Employment Services. I am also satisfy for your information really it is very helpful and I like it.

  16. ROSE November 21, 2011 at 6:47 pm #

    Useful Tips,

    Thank you so much

  17. Rose November 21, 2011 at 7:00 pm #

    Thank you for these useful tips

  18. Javad November 30, 2011 at 2:31 am #

    Hi,
    Could you please help me as I sat three time on general Ielts in the last 3 months and still couldnt get 7 in writing. This is my result:
    first time:
    L:8.5
    R:8
    W:6
    S:7.5

    Second time:
    L:7
    R:8
    W:6.5
    S:7

    Third time:
    L:8.5
    R:7
    W:6
    S:7.5

    I’m really frustrated. I read all of your website and your advice. I dont know what’s wrong with me. One problem I noticed is time. I couldnt find time to check my writing.
    i’M LOOKING FORWARD TO HEARING FROM YOU. i HAVE ANOTHER TEST IN TWO WEEKS.

    tHANKS

    • Dominic Cole December 3, 2011 at 10:39 pm #

      First point is that this is not an unusual situation. It can take months for your band score to change – the differences between the bands are quite large. That said, though, your scores seem to show that there does seem to be a problem with your writing as opposed to the level of general English. Typically, your speaking and writing scores should be close.

      This is only a guess but I suspect that the problem might be with accuracy of grammar. It could be that the examiner(s) are finding mistakes in your writing that they do not hear with your speaking because you are a fluent speaker. This is relatively common. If I’m right, the first step is to understand which mistakes you make and then find a strategy for correcting them. One way to do this in the exam is not to leave the checking until the end but to check your writing as you go. That is almost always more effective. If you leave it to the end, you either don’t have time or can’t find mistaks.

      That diagnosis is just a guess though and you really need to get a teacher to analyse your writing to give you a more informed opinion.

  19. alam March 7, 2012 at 7:28 pm #

    thanks for these useful tecniques

  20. Andres July 9, 2012 at 3:34 pm #

    Hi Dominic, first of all thanks so much for sharing these obviously very valuable tips with us. A top IELTS score can be a decisive door opener, work and study wise, so it is indeed very important to get all its requirements well. In my case, I still struggle with the Speaking part. After getting about 7.5+ in the other bands (practice tests only, taking the real one in 4 weeks), my Speaking results are still not on par (I’d reckon 6-7). What single advice would you give, in other words, which is the most relevant tip of those above, in order for me to raise that score to 7.5+. Thank you very much!!

    • Dominic Cole July 10, 2012 at 2:34 am #

      Impossible really to give a reasoned answer without hearing you speak. I’d suggest though that the easiest band score to change would be Fluency and Coherence if you are scoring under par in speaking. Typically, pronunciation, grammar and vocab take quite a while to improve.

  21. Andres July 9, 2012 at 3:47 pm #

    I’d have to add, my vocabulary is quite less varied in Speaking as it is in Writing; grammar is of similar level in both. I tend to say things and almost immediately think ‘oh I should have said it better like this: blahblahblah, etc’ with resulting trite or repetitive phrases scattered in my speech. That happens even with topics with which I feel most comfortable (personal life story, subjects I know from own work, study, etc).

    I know I have the vocabulary, it just doesn’t show up in speech when I need it. What can I do to make the pass from brain to speech *automatic* and not get so stuck with the same too usual words and phrases?

    Thanks a lot again.

    • Dominic Cole July 10, 2012 at 2:31 am #

      This is quite normal – even for native speakers. We use a far smaller range of vocabulary when we speak – if only because it is a real-time activity and we do not have time to pick and choose evry word with care. it is as important to keep the flow of conversation going as it is to choose the perfect word.

      Another feature of spoken language is that it is quite normal to repeat yourself when you speak – in contrast to writing where you try and say soemthing once and very well. Indeed, skilled public speakers will very frequently repeat themselves – changing some of the language as they do so. Part of the reason for doing this is to allow their listeners more time to process what they are saying.

      Practical suggestion? There is a way of organising spoken answers where you:

      1. Address the question – giving yourself more time to think about what to say and how to say
      2. Give a simple outline answer to let the listener know what you want to say.
      3. Go into a little detail about reasons and/or examples of why you think that – as you do this, you should find more and more words “appearing” in your mind. Partly because the best spoken words are normally detail words, rather than fancy academic words. Also, the longer you speak about a topic, the more connections your mind makes and the more likely it is that you’ll find good words.

      4. By this stage, you may have been talking for some time and some of what you have said may have been not fully coherent. Don’t worry. This is where you go back to your initial answer and restate (ie repeat it), this time round though you should have more words in your head and your answer should be fully coherent.

      Note: this is just one suggestion and can work well for longer answers. If you have a shorter answer, just give it shortly and clearly and move on. Some people get into trouble by trying to say too much.

      Note: relax slightly about vocab (I’m repeating myslef here see), it is only 25% of your score together with grammar and there is a danger that if you focus too hard on it, you may lose out on fluency.

  22. sukhwinder August 2, 2012 at 9:27 pm #

    Well sir ,I am doing ielts and my exam is on 25th Aug .i m very good in speaking and writing but I m weak in listening and Reading .pls tell me a one best way to improve both things

    • Dominic Cole August 3, 2012 at 9:47 am #

      Hmmm. Most of my best tips are already here on the site. All i can really do is suggest that you have a look through them. The one point I’d emphasise is that it’s as important to read the question carefully as it is to read the text. Many, many mistakes are made by not reading the question properly

      • Aubrey August 4, 2012 at 9:45 am #

        Hi sir, i would just like to say I admire you for being so helpful, taking time on posting educational materials to help your reader better understand ielts, to help them get their aimed band scores. I’ve been reading all your tweets and I find it really useful :)) I, however, Sir have taken the ielts 5 times now ( i’ve just recently viewed and studied your blog :)) ) but I’ve been patiently studyin, reading materials about ielts I don’t know what’s wrong :( sometimes when i’m at my lowest ( every 13th day after taking the ielts exams ) I questioned myself like, am i stupid or something i even go extreme like questioning God if he’s punishing me because he knows how badly i wanted this.. & taking it 5 times in a row can be really frustrating isn’t it well it really does for me ( God help me!! ) I really don’t know what to do anymore i don’t know if i should just stop taking it, because it’s obviously not for me even though i terribly need it :( i really don’t know what i know is i really don’t know how to make an essay & i have a pretty bad english :( i’m such a loser :( wasting a lot of money :( i can’t get 6.5 in reading & both 7 in writing & speaking :( in all my attempts i’ve never achieved to pass any of those components, & the disturbing part is in my 4th attempt i got 6.5 in both writing& speaking, so i thought that maybe in my 5th attempt i will finally get 7 but to my surprise i got 5.5 lower than my previous scores .Anyway Sir, thank you and for for this. Sir what do you think i should do? Do you think i should stop taking? Do you think i should get english classes? I’m sorry to put you in this situation, its okay if you’re not comforable with my questions & prefer not to comment :) i know its too much..hehe :) but u really are my inspiration so that’s why i’m opening up to you and seek your advice :) have a good day Sir :)

        • Dominic Cole August 4, 2012 at 1:01 pm #

          No not stupid!! Try taking a bit of a break from IELTS is my best suggestion. It’s easy to get obsessed by the test – it means so much.

          If you haven’t got your score 5 times in a row that means there is almost certainly a problem with your general English – not the IELTS bit.

          I don’t mean don’t do any IELTS at all – I just mean focus more on your general English – for that you may need the help of a teacher.

  23. JIA October 4, 2012 at 6:29 am #

    Yes; these are good suggestions for getting a great score in IELTS exams. thanks for giving techniques to the speaking module.

  24. yesodha October 17, 2013 at 3:49 pm #

    hello sir,
    I have just read your tips, they are really very inspiring…
    I have taken ilets 4 times and in all the attempts I lose only in speaking and moreover my scores are not too low . all the time I get 6.5 in speaking ,writing 6.5/7, reading and listening 8. I m in need of 7 band in all 4 sections.so plz give me some tips to improve my scores in all the skills mainly in speaking .

  25. sophya December 24, 2013 at 9:18 pm #

    very useful suggestions and tips. thanks a million. now i believe speaking better is as easy as a pie.
    ترجمه آنلاین

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