This lesson is an overview of the speaking test and looks at two ways of understanding it. One idea is that there is/should be a sense of progression throughout the test. The other is that IELTS speaking is not necessarily a “special” skill, but (perhaps with the exception of part 2) reflects real life spoken communication and one of the best ways of approaching the test is to try to use “natural” speaking skills as opposed to learn particular exam skills. Indeed, many of the strongest candidates do just this.
Overview – understand the rhythm of the test
IELTS, like many other speaking tests, has a particular rhythm. What I mean by this is that each part of the test is different and tests your speaking in a slightly different way. The candidates who are most likely to succeed are those that understand that rhythm and adapt their speaking as the test goes on. This means that they may approach each part of the test differently. In outline, the rhythm is this:
- lots of short simple questions to make sure that you can communicate about basic social topics
- an extended talk on a social topic and your views/memories on it
- an interview with tougher questions to test how well you can think and speak at the same time
The real life situation – you’re meeting someone for the first time
This is the introduction part of the test and one way to think of it is that you are meeting someone for the first time in real life. What happens is that they ask you some questions about you to see what sort of a person you are. Are you their sort of person? Typically in real life is:
- You don’t give very short yes/no type answers – that’s rude. What you do is add some detail so that they understand a little more about you.
- You don’t give long answers either. That’s plain boring (and slightly anti-social) and no one likes a bore. So you don’t try to tell everything you know – that may come later in the relationship
- If you don’t have very much to say – you don’t say very much. You wait for a question where you have something to say
Points to note
This is probably the point in the test when you are most tense. It’s also the easiest part of all IELTS. All that is happening is that you are being asked some simple questions about yourself. So
- RELAX – get a simple question with a simple answer – give the simple answer. Now is not the time to try and show off with learned language. There’s plenty of time for that later. Rather, feel pleased that you have one question “done” – one down 17 to go!
- Practise answering the questions (they are very predictable), but please do not learn answers. Trying to remember a learned answer does you no good – it will make you more tense and the examiner is unlikely to be impressed.
- Remember eye contact matters in all parts of the test. In this part, you want to make as much eye contact as you feel comfortable with – there is a real benefit if you can look at the examiner as a friend you are talking to.
- Don’t relax too much. First impressions count and the examiner is probably going to give you a “ballpark” score in part 1 – this means that when you do get a “good” question for you, then you need to show the examiner what you can do.
The real life situation – you’re telling a story to a friend
This is the least natural part of the test and perhaps the one that has least contact with real life. There is one possible way to think of it – if you are a story-teller. You are with a friend and describing something that happened to you. The unusual part is that you need to talk for 2 minutes – longer than you would do in life. However, thinking of it like this can help you in the exam because:
- the questions are always framed in terms of you – the task is to talk about what you know about – just as you would with a friend
- this is not really a formal speech/presentation task where the examiner wants prepared language
Points to note
Fluency and coherence, pronunciation, grammar and vocab are measured throughout the test.
- In this part, however, the key skills is almost certainly fluency and coherence. Try thinking of it as a story that maks sense and is interesting/relevant and you won’t go far wrong.
- It really helps to maintain a comfortable level of eye contact here. The more you look away and/or look at your notes, the less natural your language is likely to become. Don’t speak at the examiner, speaker to him/her.
Real life situation – the interview
This is the tough part of the test. The situation is that the examiner asks you questions that should make you think. In part 1, you should need no thinking time, in part 2 you get a minute to prepare yourself. Here you need to think on your feet – just like in an interview. The good news is this: you have been warming up for about 10 minutes before you get here by practising your speaking skills in parts 1 and 2. A few general interview skills that can help you in this part are:
- good interviewees normally don’t rush into an answer – they will often discuss the question first before giving their answer. This gives you time to think and make your answer coherent.
- good interviewees will tend to summarise their answer when it is more complex/longer
- good interviewees are unafraid of saying they don’t the answer – they will normally say why they don’t know, but they won’t tie themselves in knots by talking about something they have no idea about.
Points to note
- At this stage, it really helps to remember that this is a language test and not an intelligence test. What you need to do is give a coherent answer in good English.
- Listening to and focussing on the question are really important in this part. The question often gives you key words and structures – such as tenses. The question can help you form an answer.