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Making notes on cue cards in long turn speaking

This is a quick lesson with an idea for making notes on cue cards in long turn speaking. The typical advice is to make notes or just make notes of words. I don’t believe that that is very helpful and sometimes not practical. One possible suggestion is to make very few notes and just try and see a picture. If you are a visual thinker (and I try this in class lots), it works brilliantly. But not every one is visual, some people prefer notes/words. This lesson suggests different ideas for making those notes. The starting point is to understand how the cue card is written.

Key advice in this lesson

  • understand the cue card
  • don’t just think of vocabulary in your preparation time: ideas work too
  • don’t just stick to the questions on the cue card

Understanding the cue card

The first step is to understand how the cue card is structured. It comes in 3 parts. Look at this typical example:

Talk about a work of art you have seen. You should say

  • what the work of art was
  • where you saw it
  • when you saw it

And say whether you enjoyed that work of art

Part 1 – the topic

This part simply tells you what is the topic you need to talk about. Points to note include that:

  • the topic will always be a general topic – the sort of thing every should be expected to talk about
  • the topic is always personal – something YOU have seen

Talk about a work of art you have seen

Part 2 – the detail

This part is different. You are asked to add details about the main topic. These details are answers to what/where/when/who questions. Points to note include:

  1. the details you are asked to add are descriptions, not explanations – it is possible to make the task harder than it really is by thinking why
  2. you can details to the questions on the card: in fact it is good advice to do this
  • what the work of art was
  • where you saw it
  • when you saw it 
Remember to add details to the questions on the cue card – otherwise you won’t say enough
Don’t expect any why questions here – you need to add your own detail questions

Part 3 – the explanation

This part is different again. Here you are asked to add an explanation and the question is almost always a how, if or why question. Points to note include

  1. it is sometimes easier to say more about this part – explanations tend to be longer than simple descriptions
  2. there may be more to say, but explanations are harder to give normally than descriptions – your brain has to do more work

And say whether you enjoyed that work of art


Making notes – focus

When you make notes, I believe it helps to focus on what notes you make. If you just try to make notes generally, you make no notes at all or get notes you can’t use. You should also remember that you only have one minute. This means that the notes you make are limited.

vocabulary notes

A standard piece of advice is to make notes of words. This is not always very practical. It is difficult to think of words under pressure and the words you get may not always help you speak. In this case, you could try:






In my experience, you are only likely to get to around 5 words. The words above could work as they belong together – they help you talk about the topic. I should add that very often only 2/3 words get produced and that those words aren’t useful. If that happens to you, I’d suggest that you want to try something different.

If you only get 4/5 words that may not help you speak better – think of other ways to make notes

detail notes – ask yourself questions

The idea here is quite different. You are not thinking of words, you are thinking of ideas. Often this can help you to say more. One way to make this work is to add questions to the cue card. Very often the trick is to think precisely or exactly. It is only to easy to say

“It was last year”. (almost no language)

If you say exactly, you might get:

“I can’t quite remember when, but I think it was sometime in the middle of last year. I went there with a friend on a weekend because we had nothing else to do and felt like going out”. (lots more language and some good spoken structures. This part of the test is not all about topic language).

This is a technique that may take time to learn, but can work well. Here are the notes I might make . You should see that I am really just adding questions.

what the work of art was + artist + what type

where it was  + where exactly 

when you saw it + when exactly + who with + why go

I’d add here an important point. IELTS speaking is unusual: there is no task response criterion. It is not like writing, you can add things into the question provided you still answer the question. This is quite natural – this is the way we speak in life. Do not feel you just have to speak about what is on the cue card. It is a test of communication, not knowledge. 

Adding your own questions gives you more to say

reason/thinking notes

This is another type of note again. The most interesting part of the cue card is the final question. There should be most to say about that. It is also the hardest part of the speaking – so you could make notes on that. This though can be very hard to do in practice in one minute. You are likely to get a few words, normally adjectives:



Does this help? It can do. If you take this approach though, what you are doing most is spending your time thinking about what to say. The words you write down are ideas that you need to expand. This can be a very intelligent approach.

An example of adding detail

A note on this recording. This is a recording of my speaking in real time using notes. Without notes I may have spoken differently.You should note that I repeat words quite a lot – wholly natural – this is what we do when we speak. I do use some “art” vocabulary, but not that much. I am actually fascinated by art and read a lot of art history, but even so I would not use very much specific art vocabulary in my normal conversation. If I don’t, you shouldn’t expect to either. I also hesitate quite a bit too and use “erm”. Again quite natural – fluency does not mean speaking non-stop and it can help to learn to “rem” a little. It is what we do to fill spaces when we speak.

fighting temeraire


Right, I’m going to talk to you about one of my favourite works of art. The piece of art I am thinking about is called the Fighting Temeraire (I identify the topic) by William Turner. Erm. Turner is an artist of the 18th century and one of the great figures of British art (I ask myself the question who painted the picture and what do I know about him – not on the cue card).I suppose. Erm. When did I see this? (I use the cue card to organise my talk). It’s difficult. I can’t quite remember when because it is such a long time ago. I think it may even have been 20 years ago.(I ask myself the question exactly when – this gives me more to say) I was taken by my wife to see some art and at that time I wasn’t that particularly interested in art and I thought I was going to be bored (I ask myself the question why I wen there – not on the cue card). In fact, quite the opposite happened and I was very, very interested by what I saw. The painting hangs in the National Gallery. The National Gallery is one of the great galleries, not just of London but in the world (I ask myself the question what else do i know about the National Gallery – not on the cue card) and it contains great masterpieces of almost every era of art and also from all over the world and you’ll find painting and sculptures there from artists such as Rembrandt, Gaugin and Picasso – almost anyone you care to mention. It’s a fantastic place and well worth a visit. Did I enjoy the Fighting Temeraire? (I get back to the cue card to organise my talk) Very definitely. It made a huge impression on me and I think that the reason why it made an impression on me was its use of colour. You look at it and think wow that just looks really special.


You will see in bold how I use the cue card and notes to organise what I say. The idea is that I lot of what I say is not on the cue card.

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4 Responses to Making notes on cue cards in long turn speaking

  1. Sanket September 15, 2013 at 4:34 am #

    Hi Dominic,

    Is it so that we get good score without covering all the task response?

    Or do we need to see all the times in cue card while speaking whether the given points are covered or not?

  2. sheetal chauhan October 4, 2013 at 1:52 pm #

    love this most ,very useful

  3. Kevin April 19, 2014 at 5:42 pm #

    hello mam, my exam is going tomorrow.. can u please tell me something about cue card..
    i am so nervous.

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