6 Tips for Acing the IELTS Speaking Test (and 10 Myths Debunked)
The IELTS speaking test is a formal interview with an examiner, not just any ordinary conversation.
The whole test is recorded, but you shouldn’t worry about this because the recording is used to assess the examiner, not you. This part of the test lasts for 11 to 14 minutes, and it has three parts:
- In part 1 you answer questions about familiar topics (your family life, work or study and interests).
- In part 2 you get one minute to prepare a topic and then you have one to two minutes to speak about it. The examiner will not interrupt you, but will ask you a few questions when you have finished talking.
- In part 3 you have a discussion with the examiner on more abstract ideas related to your speech in part 2.
Here are some top tips to help you perform well in your IELTS speaking test, as well as some myths you may have heard about the exam that you should be wary of.
- Tips for the IELTS Speaking Test
- Myths About the IELTS Speaking Test
- 1. The speaking test is the easiest part of the exam.
- 2. You need to have a native-like accent to get a high score.
- 3. Don’t use complex grammatical structures if you’re not sure they are correct.
- 4. If you don’t know the answer to a question, you cannot get a high score.
- 5. Always take notes while preparing for part 2.
- 6. If you’re very good at grammar, you’ll do well.
- 7. If you don’t hesitate when speaking, you’ll make a good impression.
- 8. You should answer questions even if you don’t understand them.
- 9. You don’t need to cover all the parts of the task in part 2.
- 10. If you run out of ideas in part 3, you should repeat ideas from part 2.
Tips for the IELTS Speaking Test
1. Remain calm
The more anxious and uncomfortable you are, the more difficult it’ll be to keep up your fluency and maintain coherence. You have to keep your mind under control. Tell yourself, “I can do this.”
Just remember, the examiner means to help you. They may feel a bit “robotic” at times, but that’s due to the scripted nature of the test and the fact that the examiner is focused on administering the test, reading the questions and giving instructions.
In the final part of the test, the examiner will take a more conversational approach when discussing less familiar and more abstract topics. Again, just relax, smile and do your best to speak to the examiner as if you’re really having an interesting conversation with someone.
2. Know what’s coming
Are you taking IELTS for the first time? Do you honestly know how the Speaking test is structured?
Knowing how to take the test is half the battle. Once you know what to expect, you’ll answer questions faster and more easily. Here are some simple questions you should really know the answers to:
- How long is the speaking test?
- How many parts or sections are there?
- What does each part consist of?
- What areas of my language are assessed?
- Who grades my performance – the examiner or somebody else?
If you weren’t able to answer all of these questions, read the test format info page from the British Council’s TakeIELTS site and locate the correct information.
3. Just answer the question!
At the start of the test, just give the information that’s needed rather than expanding too much on your answers. Wait until you hear questions about your home, work, school life and so on before giving more extended answers. Even then, provide relevant answers and avoid rambling.
It should be fairly obvious, but make every effort to answer the question. Don’t refuse or “give up” on the question.
Instead of: I don’t know… I can’t answer that question.
Try saying: Hmm, that’s a tricky question. Let me think about that… yeah, I guess I would say that…
Then do your best to answer the question! Filler phrases such as the example above are useful for giving yourself some thinking time and could get you out of a jam.
4. Remember that the examiner’s lips are sealed
It’s important to understand that the examiner reads from a script, and she can say very little beyond what’s written in her test booklet.
There are sometimes confusing issues that arise regarding some of the questions that refer to “your home.” Candidates often don’t know whether they’re supposed to talk about their home country or the place where they’re living at the time of the exam (many IELTS test-takers are living outside their home country).
Rather than trying to clarify the “home” issue with the examiner, just indicate which “home” you would like to speak about and use appropriate language to do so. For example:
Instead of: Should I talk about my home country or Boston?
Try saying: Well, I’d like to talk about Boston, because I’m really starting to feel like this is my second home… or Well, I’m only here in Boston for a short time, so I’ll talk about my hometown in [country].
It should go without saying that you shouldn’t try to engage the examiner in conversation before or after the exam.
5. Get in the habit of answering the question “why?”
If you’ve ever taken the IELTS exam before, you may have noticed that the examiner will respond to simple answers by asking, “why?”
This is because she needs you to say more so she can accurately evaluate your language. However, if the examiner feels like she has to coax information out of you continually by asking “why” all the time, you could be marked down for lack of fluency.
According to the IELTS Speaking Band Descriptors, in order to achieve a Band 6 the candidate must be “willing to speak at length.” Even Band 5 describes a speaker who “usually maintains a flow of speech.”
On the other hand, don’t be overly alarmed if the examiner asks you “why” a few times – it’s their job to keep you talking.
6. Implement key phrases strategically
If you’re familiar with the format of the IELTS Speaking test and the types of questions asked, then you can start planning. Think about what you can say in various situations that may arise during the test.
You might get caught off-guard by a random question about sunshine, pets or trees in your country. If you’re not sure what to say, use a phrase like, “Hmm, that’s an interesting question…” to buy yourself some thinking time.
If you didn’t understand what the examiner said, or didn’t hear them properly, you can try saying “Can you repeat the question, please?” or “What does . . . mean?”
Other key phrases that may come in handy include:
- In my opinion…
- I believe (that)…
- To me,…
- On the other hand…
- Having said that…
Here is an example of a Band 7 IELTS Speaking interview to give you an idea of what the test will look like:
Myths About the IELTS Speaking Test
1. The speaking test is the easiest part of the exam.
This part may look easy because the examiners are friendly. In the other parts of the exam, you are on your own.
However, the examiner has to follow very strict rules so that all the candidates get the same treatment to ensure fairness. They evaluate all the candidates based on the same criteria.
The truth: All four sub-tests have the same level of difficulty, but you may find one part of the exam easier than others depending on your language skills.
2. You need to have a native-like accent to get a high score.
Your accent is not an evaluation criterion. Pronunciation is assessed, but you are not expected to have a native accent. When evaluating pronunciation, examiners pay attention to the candidates’ pronunciation of individual sounds, word stress and intonation.
You can make sure your pronunciation is good by checking every new word’s pronunciation when you learn it. Online dictionaries have this feature.
The truth: Your accent is not evaluated, just your pronunciation.
3. Don’t use complex grammatical structures if you’re not sure they are correct.
It’s actually best to attempt complex grammatical structures and make a few mistakes, rather than to just use very simple sentences.
For example, a candidate who just uses short and simple sentences will get a lower score than a candidate who is trying to use a conditional clause, even if they make some mistakes.
Here are some examples of complex grammatical structures:
- Conditional clauses: If I had the chance to study a new subject, it would probably be astronomy.
- Time clauses: As soon as I take my IELTS exam, I’ll move to Australia.
- Reported speech: My friend said she would help me study for this exam.
- Modal verbs: She might have arrived by now.
The truth: It’s better to use complex grammatical structures with a few mistakes than to only use short, simple sentences.
4. If you don’t know the answer to a question, you cannot get a high score.
Your knowledge of certain topics is not tested on this exam. The examiners are more interested in how you say things than what you say.
Remember that there’s no right or wrong answer. If, for example, you are asked “How do teenagers have fun in your country?” and you have no idea what to say, you can explain why you don’t know. You could say:
“I’m not sure I can answer the question accurately, as I’m not a teenager anymore, but I could tell you about how I used to have fun when I was teenager. I expect this has changed a lot because…”
The truth: If you don’t know the answer to a question, explain why you don’t know. There is no “right” or “wrong” answer.
5. Always take notes while preparing for part 2.
You only have one minute to prepare. If you spend that time writing, you may waste valuable thinking time.
Every topic card has a few ideas that you should use, so you need to organize your speech around these ideas. Spend that minute thinking about brief answers to each sub-question.
Once you have a brief answer in your head, you’ll be able to develop it while you speak, by giving examples and talking about how those answers relate to you.
The truth: You might want to take some notes, but since you only have one minute, it could be better just to think about the topic in part 2.
6. If you’re very good at grammar, you’ll do well.
Grammar is just one of the four evaluation criteria used to give you a score in the speaking test. The others are fluency and coherence, lexical resource (vocabulary range) and pronunciation.
All of them are equally important. So if you are very good at grammar, one fourth of your final score will definitely be high. But if you want an overall high score, you need to also prove you have a wide vocabulary range.
You’ll also need to score high in pronunciation and be fluent and coherent.
The truth: There are four evaluation criteria on the speaking test: (1) grammatical range and accuracy, (2) fluency and coherence, (3) lexical resource and (4) pronunciation.
7. If you don’t hesitate when speaking, you’ll make a good impression.
Fluency is important, but so is coherence (being logical, making sense). Trying to avoid hesitation is a good tip, but you also need to keep your answer logical and organized.
If you keep talking and talking without making much sense, you are fluent, but you are not coherent.
Remember, though, that some hesitations are normal. You are not supposed to speak without breathing or thinking. Try using some of these filler phrases to make your hesitations sound more natural:
- To put it differently…
- What do you call it…wait a second…I have it right there.
- You see…
The truth: Fluency (talking smoothly without hesitations) on its own will not make a good impression. You also need to speak coherently (logically, organized).
8. You should answer questions even if you don’t understand them.
If you don’t understand a question, it’s okay to ask the examiner to repeat the question or to ask it in a different way. You could use some of the phrases below to do this:
- I’m not quite sure I understand what you mean. Can you repeat the question, please?
- I don’t think I know what you mean. Do you mind repeating the question, please?
It’s best to clarify the question before answering it. You don’t lose points if you do this a few times, but if you ask the examiner to repeat every single question, they may think you have a problem with understanding spoken English, so you get a lower score.
The truth: If you don’t understand a question, you should ask for clarification.
9. You don’t need to cover all the parts of the task in part 2.
Your topic card in part 2 will have a main topic and around four questions on it. You actually have to speak about all of the questions, and spend an approximately equal amount of time on each of them.
If you have four questions on the topic card, you should spend around 30 seconds on each of them, speaking for a total of two minutes. After practicing giving several such short presentations, you will start to have a feel of how long 30 seconds are, and when you should move on to the next point.
The truth: You need to answer all of the questions in part 2, spending an equal amount of time on each question.
10. If you run out of ideas in part 3, you should repeat ideas from part 2.
Part 3 tests your ability to take the topic from part 2 further away from you, to speak more abstractly about areas of general interest.
You should prove you are able to describe things in detail, compare and contrast ideas, generalize and draw conclusions. So repeating your ideas from part 2 will probably not answer the questions in part 3.
Here are some example phrases you could use in this part of the test (and other parts):
- As far as I’m concerned…
- What I think is this:
- I strongly believe that…
- From where I stand,
Comparing and contrasting:
- On the one hand…, on the other hand…
- The bottom line is…
- In a nutshell,
- All in all,
- To sum up,
The truth: Part 3 wants you to discuss more abstract issues with the examiner, so repeating your ideas from part 2 likely won’t answer the question.
Once you understand what’s expected of you in the IELTS speaking exam, this part will seem much clearer. You can now practice more effectively for the big day!