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FEAR – a strategy to help with harder questions in IELTS speaking

What do you do when you get  harder questions in IELTS speaking? The last thing you should do is panic. Rather you want to give a natural answer that allows you to talk about what you do know while talking about the question. It can even happen that some of your best language will come when you get a harder question.

My 4-point FEAR strategy could help you here and is based on these ideas:

keep speaking – IELTS is a test of speaking – remember to use good language

don’t rush in – build your answer as you go

talk about what you do know and then relate it to the question

your answer must stay on topic but it can expand the question in a way that you can’t do in writing

F is for focus on the question

Addressing the question is a good place to start as it gives you a little time to think. It also helps as it helps you stay on topic – it’s very easy to go too far off topic when you get a tricky question. The examiner will be very hard on you if she thinks that your answer is a “prepared” one – so you do need to make sure what you say is relevant.


How do you do this? A simple strategy is to borrow some of the words from the question.

E is for explain why the question is hard

Here you let the examiner know why the question is hard for you. Don’t worry doing about that – we all get hard questions from time to time, it’s how you deal with them that counts. Explaining why the question is hard for you is intelligent because it allows you to expand your answer.

A is for analyse what you do know

This is where you expand your answer and where most of the language comes. The main idea is to focus on what you do know and relate it to the question – even if it doesn’t provide a direct answer. This is where you really shouldn’t be afraid to use your personal experience.

To see how this can work look at the example below. The person speaking doesn’t know whether marriage is becoming more or less popular but is able to talk about his friends’ attitudes to marriage and why it is NOT important to them.

R is for repeat the main idea

This can be a key stage. One danger is that if you just keep talking you get too far from the question. Here is where you come back to it and restate the main point.

It can really help to use a linking phrase here to show the examiner what you are doing. But I don’t recommend “in conclusion”, try instead something like:

So I guess I’d say that

So to answer your question

I’m not sure if this answers your question but

Example – marriage in your country

Look at this question and sample answer. Even though you may not have an answer to the question, it doesn’t mean that you can’t discuss it intelligently by talking about what you know.

Is marriage becoming less popular in your country?

I’m afraid I don’t really know whether marriage less popular or not. So I don’t have any immediate answer.

Perhaps it’s because I’m too young and it’s not something that I’ve thought about before. None of my friends is married or even engaged for that matter. We’re more concerned with finding jobs and getting on in our careers.

What I can say I suppose is this. Where I come from young people aren’t really concerned about marriage. A lot of people are in steady relationships and quite a few are living together and even buying houses or renting with their partners. That’s often just because it’s the only way they can find somewhere affordable to live.I think it may also be true that this is quite a recent phenomenon – I do know that my parents generation had to get married before they could live together. Times have changed a bit in that respect. Back then you had to get married if you wanted to live with someone.

So to come back to your question, I can only talk about my own experience – young people of my generation aren’t that keen on getting married. That might be a bit different to the past.

Notes – structure

See that each “section” opens with an explaining phrase showing the examiner what you are doing:

I’m afraid I don’t know

Perhaps it’s because

What I can say I suppose is this

So to come back to your question

It can help to stage your answer like this as these phrases help organise your thoughts and keep you on track. There’s a big danger that you get too far from the question if you just keep talking.

Notes – language

There is lots of language for the examiner to like here. While some of it is marriage language, you should also see that a lot of it is more general or relates to other topics. The only way you can get to these words is to keep speaking and use FEAR to conquer the fear of harder questions.


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3 Responses to FEAR – a strategy to help with harder questions in IELTS speaking

  1. Jon August 31, 2016 at 10:13 am #

    The answer you have given seems to be quite length, especially for part three.It took me around one minute and fifteen seconds to repeat that same answer using good fluency. For someone not so fluent in English, the length of this answer could extend to two minutes.

    • Dominic Cole August 31, 2016 at 10:56 am #

      Yes it is a longish answer but more advanced candidates would be expected to give more extended answers in this part of the test. If you are less fluent your answer would naturally be shorter.

      One point to note though is that the answer is “organised” by taking a fairly structured approach. This involves some repetition which does extend the answer, but that repetition is there to clarify ideas and show how they relate to the question. These come in the “conclusion” part and help the coherence. If you fail to do that there is a real danger that you become incoherent.

      I’d also add that if you are prepared to take a more structured approach to speaking – and not everyone likes it – then you may find yourself naturally giving more extended answers. With practice you move naturally from one phase to the next – the stages allow you to take a breath and move on. You can also use more of what I call “structural language” (e.g. I’m afraid I don’t have an immediate answer..”) – language that you don’t need to think about as it is ready formed.

  2. Abu Alam September 1, 2016 at 1:35 am #

    This is a well organised answer,but in the exam ,the examiner actually does not give much time.They rather go to next question.

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