Top Tips for IELTS

Tenses in IELTS speaking

Tenses in IELTS speaking can cause problems. What tenses should you use ? How can you use a better range of tenses? These are two key questions I look at in this lesson.

The key advice is:

  1. follow the tense in the question
  2. learn how to vary your tenses as you expand your answer.
  3. understand how some questions allow you to use more verb forms

tenses in IELTS speaking

How to choose the right tense

In a way the answer to this is quite simple. You listen to the question, note what tense it uses and use the same tense in your answer. This is the technique I suggest in my lesson on reflective listening. So generally if you hear a present tense in the question, you use a present tense in the answer:

What is your favourite room?

My favourite room is ….

A problem with experience questions

Not all questions are the same though. A fairly common question type is when you are asked about your experiences:

Which countries have you visited?

As before, you are probably going to want to start your answer with the same tense (here the present perfect/have tense)

I’ve only been to Japan.

The problem is that you need to extend your answer a bit by saying a bit more and the next thing you say may use another tense entirely. One logical way to say is “when”:

I’ve only been to Japan – I visited it last year with my friends on a trip organised by our school.

You should see that now you have changed the tense into the past as you’re talking about an event in the past in a specific time  and not talking generally any more.

Using more tenses as you say more – think about the past and future too – even in present questions

The basic advice above is a good start – it’ll help you avoid some common mistakes and use accurate tenses. If you’re aiming higher though you want to use varied tenses too. This is something that the examiner will be listening out for. How do you do that?

step 1 – Extend your answer

As you answer questions (especially in part 1) you should try to extend your answers – say a little bit more than the question asks. Sometimes you will just extend the answer by giving a reason and say “because”.

weak answer – too short

Which is your favourite room?

The room I like most is the kitchen.

much stronger answer – extended

Which is your favourite room?

The room I like most tis the kitchen. I like it because I love cooking and it’s where I feel most at home.


Step 2 – Use more tenses as you extend your answer

Sometimes though you can use more tenses as you say more. Here is a simple example. The speaker doesn’t just use the present simple but also uses the present continuous and this shows a much better range of grammar.

a simple example

Do you live in a house or a flat?

I live in house actually. Though that’s just for now. I’m living in rented accommodation while I prepare for the test.

This can work really quite often when you are asked about “now”. You just have to ask yourself “is it always? = present simple or is it temporary? = present continuous”.

a more advanced example

Sometimes it’s also possible to include past or even future tenses in a “present”  question. Look at this example. I extend the answer by thinking “when?” and adding detail about the past too.

Which room do you like most?

The room I like most where I live now is the kitchen. But that’s just rented accommodation – I haven’t been living there long . In my home my favourite room was definitely my bedroom. 

Do you see what I’ve done here? I’ve talked about the past too and my experience even though the question didn’t ask it. This is one thing you can do to say more. The benefit is that it allows you to show more tenses to the examiner. Don’t do this every time but it is one technique you can use.

If you want some more general advice on giving extended answers, this lesson may help

Different strategies for extended answers in speaking

Questions that ask for your opinion give your more choices

Some IELTS speaking questions – normally in part 3 – will give you more choices because they ask for your opinion or to speculate in some way. Here it’s not the tenses you want to concentrate on, it’s the modal verbs (may/might etc). Here is one can where you may consider not following the words of the question:

no variety will………….. will

How do think this will change in the future?

I don’t know but I think that what will happen is that

variety will …………….might

I’m not sure exactly but one thing that might happen is ….

This is a relatively complex area of language – too much for here- but I do have a previous lesson it you can check out:

Modal verbs in speaking and writing

Other lessons you may find helpful

How to vary your tenses in part 1 speaking: this lesson goes into more detail about how to vary your tenses and has several examples to show you how to do it

How to use the present perfectthis is a tricky tense – you won’t waste time in learning how to use it well. This lesson focuses on its use.


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4 Responses to Tenses in IELTS speaking

  1. Rupali Oberoi September 15, 2016 at 7:29 pm #

    Thank you sir.. I don’t speak fluent English. I have a problem that where to use ‘can or could’ and ‘would have or would have been’ and so on. Please help me. My ielts exam is on Oct 1, 2016

    • Dominic Cole September 15, 2016 at 7:41 pm #


      I’ll see what I can do. No promises though.

  2. Lan September 16, 2016 at 1:50 am #

    Thanks for your post! I find it really helpful and easy to understand.

  3. Leena Balodi September 21, 2016 at 4:37 am #

    All your posts are really helpful . Thank you. ?

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