The idea in this lesson is to show you ways to vary tenses in part 1 speaking. You’ll find examples of how you can do this and how to learn the skill below.
Why it’s a good idea to vary tenses
Your grammar score is based on two things – accuracy and range. You want to avoid making mistakes (that’s accuracy) and you also want to use different structures (that’s range).
You don’t want to spend too much time thinking of complex structures. We don’t actually use complex structures that much when we speak and you also need to be thinking of the words to use and what you want to say. So it makes senses to use relatively simple grammar but just to vary the grammar you use. Often the easiest way to do this is just to change your tenses bit.
Start off simply – follow the tense of the question
If you’re just starting out with IELTS I suggest you begin by following the tense of the question. It’s quite easy to do. You just listen for the tense of the question and when you start your answer you use the same tense. This is almost always safe. So a present simple answer to a present simple question:
Where do you live?
I live in an apartment in a suburb of Panama City.
Also start by answering the question directly – add detail later
Another tip is to make sure you answer the question directly. This is a connected idea. It really helps to start your answer with a direct response to the question. You can still add detail later. It’s easy to confuse yourself – and the examiner – if you try and get clever and start with a related idea.
See how you can do this here – I add a new tense when I add detail.
What is your favourite room?
I suppose the room I like best is my bedroom in my house back in Panama City – it’s my own private area. Though actually I’m currently living in Cambridge studying for IELTS and sad to say I don’t really like my homestay house at all.
Use different tenses to show different meaning – you can keep some answers simple
It’s not enough to use different tenses. You want to make sure that the tenses you use add meaning to what you say. Remember that you’ll get lots of questions and sometimes it may be better to give a simple answer if you have nothing much to add.
Here are a few ways you can vary your tenses. It’s not meant to be a complete list. The idea is to show you some ways how you can change tenses as you add detail.
Present continuous not present simple – for now
We use this to show that the activity is temporary in some way and may change. You are focussing on “now” and not a permanent state. So you choose to start your answer with an -ing form and not the present simple:
Where do you work?
I’m working as a dentist in Panama City right now but I hope to get a job in the US once I’ve passed IELTS.
Present perfect and not present simple – for a change
We use this to show that the present activity is connected to the past in some way or to show that you are talking about an experience. This is often useful when something has changed.
What do you study?
I’ve been studying accountancy for about 3 months now. I used to be a clerk in a law firm but it didn’t really give me any job satisfaction.
An emphatic do/did – to make a point strongly
We use do/did with a present/past to show that we are emphasising a point. We often use this when what we say is surprising in some way.
Do you like your home town?
Yes. I do like it really quite a lot. Some people say it’s quiet and boring but actually I love its atmosphere and the people – it’s a remarkably friendly place.
A future and not a present – to talk about plans
Sometimes you’ll get a question where you have more to say about your plans than what you actually do. Why not use a future? If you do though, make sure that you still answer the question and say what you do now.
What is your job?
I’m an engineer right now but I’m going to be an airplane pilot. But first of all I need to get all the qualifications – it’s quite a long process and at the moment I’m concentrating on improving my English as that’s the language of the skies!
A past and not a present – to talk about the past
And sometimes you may have more to say about your past than what is happening now. As with the future make sure that you also mention the present. You still want to answer the question directly and to show the examiner that you can use different tenses.
Do you often take exercise?
Not right now as I simply don’t have the time. But I used to be very active and would make sure I did at least 6 hours of exercise a week – I mostly went running in the local park.
Learning the skill -ask yourself questions
One way to learn this skill is to look at some sample questions and simply think of different ways to answer them. You can do this by asking yourself additional questions. So if you hear the question
Where do you live?
You ask yourself these questions too
Where did I live?
Where will I live?
All you need to do then is to see if you can join the different answers up with a word like but. You’ll need to practise quite a lot but you should soon find that you will automatically start asking yourself those questions in your head when you get IELTS questions and – hey presto – you’ll start using more varied tenses.
More connected lessons
If this lesson interests you, then you could try
Tenses in IELTS speaking: this introductory lesson on the same topic
How to extend answers in IELTS speaking: this shows you the related skill of learning to say more about the question
Use questions to say more in IELTS speaking: this lesson has more detail about the skill of asking yourself questions to help your speaking