Top Tips for IELTS

How to answer a hard topic in IELTS speaking

A common question is what you should do if you get a hard question in speaking – one you know little about. Here is some advice and an example to show you how it can work. To understand this advice, you really need to understand how the speaking is scored. Put simply all these count equally:

  • Pronunciation
  • Grammar
  • Fluency and coherence
  • Vocabulary

What you should immediately see is that there is no score for “content” – life is possible.

What NOT to do

Do not panic: confident speakers speak better! Remember that there are very few marks for the “content” of what you say. Yes, you may lose out slightly on vocabulary but you can still show off your general speaking skills such as being coherent and having good pronunciation. All is not lost if you keep a clear head

Do not talk about something completely different: Please don’t try and change the topic completely. Examiners really hate this. You need to learn the skill of talking around a topic – something I explain more below

Do not stop speaking too soon: Quality matters but so does quantity. It’s a serious mistake to “give up” and only speak for a minute or so because you think you have nothing to say. There is always a way to say more.

Ways to survive!

Limit your losses and concentrate on what you can do: This may sound negative but I think it can help just to accept that this isn’t going to be perfect AND then think about how to save yourself. Remember that this is just one part of the test and there are many more questions to come. Here you may lose out on vocabulary but there are still plenty of other things to get right. I suggest you should think about staying coherent and fluent in particular.

Don’t worry too much about topic vocabulary: The words about the topic are normally a small proportion of the words you use in your answer. You can still use a wide range of opinion vocabulary and standard speaking phrases/idiom. These can impress an examiner as much as precise topic language.

Have a plan: Not everyone is happy doing this but it really can help to have a speaking plan. I mean by this having a way that you normally answer a part 2 question. The idea is that you approach each topic in much the same way. In this way you can take the stress out of the situation: you know how you are going to speak, you just need to find the words!

Use the cue card as a plan: Much the safest plan is to follow the questions on the cue card and use them as your plan. You have very limited thinking time and so why waste it re-inventing the wheel? You don’t need to decide what topics to include – it’s already been done for you.

Think about the thing you can speak most about – not what words you want to use: The best thing you can do in your one minute is to make sure you have chosen something you can keep talking about (fluency). Don’t worry if your notes are only 3 words. If you choose the right idea, then the words will follow. In my example below, I started with 2 words and just followed the card through.

Use the cue card questions and think detail: The cue card doesn’t just ask you to talk about a topic, it suggests details you should add in. Very often, these added questions ask about when and where you saw/experienced something. Don’t be afraid to add detail about the time and the place. If you do this, you are talking around the topic – that’s ok.

Allow yourself some repetition – just say what you are doing: We do repeat ourselves speaking – naturally. If you get a hard topic, you are likely to repeat yourself a little more because your brain is working harder trying to work out what to say. All you need to do is to tell the examiner that this is what you’re doing. Curiously, this can even improve your score!

You can lie a little too!: This is a language test and that is all. It can help to add in a few imaginary details – things that could be true. This can help you produce more language than if you keep to your real life which may be less interesting than you want.

See it work in practice

Here is a possibly very nasty cue card. My answer isn’t perfect but it’s quite adequate. There are lots of things for an alert examiner to like even though I avoid almost all art appreciation vocabulary. Have a listen if you like and then read the transcript and my notes. This is what I am talking about. A statue I did once see.



Now read the transcript and my notes

This is a tough topic for me as I’m not really that much into art. I spend most of my free time watching sport or reading about science! In fact I guess the last time I went to an art gallery or museum was when I was in primary school.

I can tell you about the statue in the main square of my home town though. I don’t know if it counts as great art but it is a work of art I’m pretty familiar with. It’s a statue of Mihai Viteazul or Michael the Brave. He was one of the most important political and military leaders in Romania in the 16th century and helped unite the country – he’s one of those figures every Romanian schoolchild learn about.

Anyway there’s this giant staue of him in the central square of Craiova. He’s on horseback. The statue used to be right in front of the main building but it got moved a few years ago when there square was redeveloped and a fountain was put in its place instead. The people in the town weren’t at all happy about that.

When did I last see it? Well I used to see it everyday when I was a kid as I had to walk past it on my walk into school. The school I went to was only about a minute’s walk away. But I haven’t seen it for a long time since I moved away from Craiova several years ago to come and work in Bucharest. I can still picture it in my head though as it was a very clear memory for me from childhood and I suppose that the statue was a bit of symbol for me of my home town.

Did I like it? To be honest, I’m not sure that I ever thought about that when I was young and I certainly don’t know enough to say if it was a great piece of art or not. As I said before though it was – or is – important to me because it represents my home town.



Topic vocabulary: there is almost none here about art – statue/art gallery and that’s it. That’s not good, but there is a good range of other vocabulary that helps out a bit. This is partly spoken idiom that you can use for almost any topic and other vocabulary not related to art. Don’t worry if this language looks simple. Simple can be good when we speak.

Coherence and linking

This is a highly fluent answer and I stay coherent. Notice how I do the simple things well. When I get to a new point, I show the examiner that I am moving on. You can do this in any topic – no matter what you know.

Choosing what to say – my thinking time

I sat and I thought for a minute. My notes were “Mihai Viteazul”. I chose this because I thought I would have plenty to say about the place and time – two points on the card – I lived there for around 7 years. There are works of art I know much better but the time and the place were harder to talk about. This is an example of how to use your time.

Structure/plan using the cue card

If you look at any of my other sample answers, they nearly all follow the same approach as here. It’s not the only model but it is perhaps the safest one:

  • Brief intro about the topic
  • Fairly short answers about each question on the cue card.

You can see this by looking at the paragraphs in the transcript. I say a little about each point and then move on. I don’t allow myself to become stuck.

Staying on topic and learning to talk around the topic

I say very little about the statue – I don’t really describe it all. It is hard for anyone to talk about art. Instead, I concentrate on the where and when questions and add in detail about those. Look at the paragraph about when I last saw it. I mention the statue in almost every sentence but I add in detail about my imaginary life in Craiova. This is an example of how you can stay on topic and talk about what you do know.

Being honest and lying

Note how I tell the examiner that this is difficult for me. You can do this if you are happy about it. The only danger is that it makes you more nervous. The benefit of doing this is that it allows me to say more! I am now able to talk about what I don’t know – that is both my introduction and the conclusion. It helps.

I do lie too. I did once live in Craiova and Romania. I have no idea if I got the facts right about Mihai Viteazul and I’m not sure either if I’m right about the statue. No matter.




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5 Responses to How to answer a hard topic in IELTS speaking

  1. kamran October 21, 2014 at 10:25 pm #

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  2. Muskaan Khan October 30, 2014 at 7:39 am #

    I am really impressed with the amount of knowledge this website imparts to IELTS takers.

    • Anonymous November 2, 2014 at 3:25 am #

      Yes muskaan i agree with u

  3. shubham April 10, 2015 at 9:45 pm #

    This nice you make me fearless and help me how to speak in cue card but i have a topic which i feel very difficult. Talk about an experience which was just a waste of time. Can you please give some idea relted to this topic

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