Top Tips for IELTS

Thinking time in IELTS speaking

In IELTS speaking rule number 1 is to speak. In practice what this means is that you only have a limited amount of thinking time and you cannot wait 10 seconds before you start to answer the question. Indeed, a 4/5 second pause is almost certain to be noted by the examiner. What you need to do is to start speaking almost immediately. How can you do do that?

Form not content

One basic point to make is that the examiner is much less interested in what you say than how you say it. This means that you don’t need to worry too much about giving the most intelligent answer possible, just the most coherent answer possible. This, I suggest, is a mistake candidates frequently make: they try to be too intelligent and give smart answers. It’s a natural thing to try and do, it is how most exams work – IELTS doesn’t, it just a test of your language.

Thinking time in IELTS speaking

The next point is that in parts 1 and 3 you may not get any thinking time, but that doesn’t mean you have to start by answering the question. It means something else: you need to start communicating immediately. This is a super important point so let me give you an example to show what I mean:

“How do you think computers have changed the world?”

This is not a straightforward question, it’s a question you need a little time to think about. Obviously, the world is now a different place from 20 years ago, but it’s quite hard to give a clear answer. One reason for that is computers now affect our lives in so many areas: work, education, leisure. Now have a listen to this brief example:

 This is an extreme example – I give myself 14 seconds to think. That may be a little too much but I hope you see the point.

Talk about the question

Do you see the point? I haven’t really answered the question yet, but I am talking about the question. While I am doing that, my mind is working and I am deciding what to say. I have given myself lots of  thinking time, but I am talking at the same time: there is nothing for the examiner to complain about provided I do go on to answer the question of course!

The more you speak – the more you speak

This is a slightly different point. From my experience silence is contagious – i.e. if you stay silent and think, then it becomes even harder to talk. In contrast, if you start by speaking – even when you don’t know what you want to say – then words and ideas appear as if by magic in your brain.

Use the skill but don’t overuse it – keep it for hard questions – be direct with simple questions

This is a good skill but there is a danger of using it too much. You may sound silly if you use it in part 1 when they ask about your job for instance. If you get a simple question – give a clear and simple answer.

Learning the skill

Think about your own language

There is a definite skill involved here. The good news, however, is that it is a natural speaking skill that many people will use in their own languages: it’s not something specific to English. Very probably you will do something similar in your language and so the first step is to try and use English in the same way you use your own language.

Repeat the question

One more precise technique you may want to consider is repeating the question – something that is perfectly natural. In a second language it is perhaps less natural, so let me show you 3 different methods:

“If you could change your job or profession, what would you do?”

Method One – pick out key words

“My job? Change it? What would I do?”

This is simple to do. All you need is to pick out and repeat key words from the question. This is natural English, but not very impressive.
Method Two – repeat the question

“If I could change my job what would I do?”

For this you need to listen well. It is more impressive to the examiner, but there is a danger you don’t get the question right.
Method three – reformulate the question

“So you’re asking what I would I do if I could change my job..”

This is the best, but most complex approach. To make it work you need to be able to make indirect questions. One key point is to make certain you get the word order right.
Direct question: “What would you do?” ⇒ indirect question: “ You’re asking what I would do….”

See another lesson on this topic

Vocabulary to help you with pausing in IELTS speaking

How to answer a hard question in IELTS speaking

Watch a very old video

I made this a long time ago when this site was very different. The production values in it are poor but the advice good enough:


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13 Responses to Thinking time in IELTS speaking

  1. Hieu Phan December 17, 2009 at 9:48 am #

    Thanks again for sharing the invaluable tips! For the method 3, it looks like a way to confirm that test takers understood the question, right?

    What will happen if the test taker got the question wrongly? Will the examiner explain more?

    • Dominic Cole December 17, 2009 at 7:30 pm #

      No, sadly the examiner will quite possibly not help you if you start talking about the wrong thing. I would say, however, that it is not a disaster if you talk about the wrong topic once. The test is graded over 14 minutes or so. One mistake does not destroy everything else you have done – examiners look at the whole performance.

      Another comment is that you should not talk and talk and just wait for the examiner to stop you. They may not. If you see that advice elsewhere, ignore it. The examiners have many questions to choose from and there is always another question they can ask you. So if you get a question you don’t know how to answer, don’t try to give a long, extended answer. Rather give a shortish answer saying “I’m not quite sure, but perhaps……”. Then wait for the next question which hopefully you can answer.

      Finally, the speaking test gets harder in part 3. You can expect some tough questions there. It’s sensible to practise how to answer that sort of question.

  2. Anonymous March 24, 2012 at 8:46 pm #

    thanks very much for sharing, useful advice. I am going to use your video with one of my classes next week.. Best wishes

  3. kosh June 6, 2012 at 8:02 am #

    Definitely a good advice.i am waiting for my next speaking test

  4. Tekchand February 17, 2013 at 7:36 pm #

    Its useful to alls learner.

  5. David March 1, 2013 at 1:47 am #

    “So you’re asking what I would I do, if I could my job..”

    This should be:

    “So you’re asking what I would do, if I could change my job.”

    • Dominic Cole March 1, 2013 at 3:39 pm #

      Thank you. Correction noted and made

      • Alex November 7, 2014 at 4:48 pm #

        Not really. The typo is still there (see “Method three – reformulate the question”).

        • Dominic Cole November 7, 2014 at 5:09 pm #

          Really? There may be a typo elsewhere but that was changed. Please let me know what you’re seeing.

  6. Alex November 8, 2014 at 9:26 am #

    That’s how it looks now for me:

    • Dominic Cole November 8, 2014 at 9:48 am #

      I think that’s that how I want it to look. The mistake was that I originally mistyped and left out the word “change”.

      • Alex November 8, 2014 at 11:19 am #

        Oh, sorry, now I see. My point was that there’s a superfluous “I” after “would” in the sentence “So you’re asking what I would I do if I could change my job..”

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