Learning English

IELTS Speaking: Tips for Success

Of the four modules of IELTS, the Speaking module can be the most difficult to prepare for. As we will see below (Part 1, Part 2, & Part 3), each section of the speaking test has slightly different requirements and expectations.

With a bit of preparation and practice, however, it is quite easy to get the high score you need for your university or visa application. Below are the most important tips I offer my students, plus a few sample questions and answers to help you understand what a successful, high-scoring answer looks like.

But first, let’s review a few important things about the IELTS Speaking Test.

The IELTS “Band Score” System

It is important to remember that your score is not calculated using “points”. Instead, the Examiner selects a number that best matches your skill level.

A top score of 9 means that you are “fluent” when speaking in normal social situations, while a score of 7 or 8 means that you can speak “acceptably” in a university or professional setting. For training courses, a score of 5.5/6 can be sufficient.

More information about the scoring system is available here.

It’s also good to remember that your score is calculated according to 4 criteria:

  • Pronunciation — your ability to make sounds that an average English speaker can understand (this includes things like intonation and stress but NOT accent; you can’t get a higher score by sounding like a British person)
  • Lexical Resource — your ability to accurately use a variety of words (simple as well as complex), and to communicate successfully in situations where you can’t remember (or don’t know) a particular word or phrase
  • Grammatical Range & Accuracy — your ability to form sentences with multiple parts (clauses) using appropriate verb tenses, pronouns, etc.
  • Fluency and Coherence — your general ability to speak easily and to be understood easily (without long pauses or confusing links between ideas)

Notice that these criteria do not include “interestingness” or “truthfulness”. You do not need to tell an amazing story, and you should not treat the test like a police interrogation. Just treat the test like a polite and friendly conversation.

Sample Answer

To understand what a top score (Band 9) sounds like, watch the video below:

A sample answer (band 9 score) of all 3 parts of the IELTS Speaking Test.

Now let’s look at each of the parts of the speaking test in detail.

Part 1 Topics and Questions

In the first part of the test, you will be given questions about two or three “small talk” topics. These topics usually fit into one of four categories:

  • People — your friends, family members, people you study/work with, etc.
  • Places — your hometown, your native country, your school/company, etc.
  • Preferences — your favorite type of music/food/books/movies, etc.
  • Routines — your job or studies, your habits or hobbies, etc.

For each topic, the Examiner may ask you two or three questions, such as:

  • “How often do you listen to music?”
  • “Has your taste in music changed over the years?”
  • “Is there a musical instrument you would like to learn to play?”

These questions are generally quite simple, but it is important to listen carefully for the verb tense or grammatical structure in each question, because the Examiner usually changes these language elements in small but important ways in order to check your ability to make the same changes in grammar.

For instance, you may notice in the three questions that the idea of “time” (and the grammar used to talk about time) is different in each. The questions shift from “do you” to “has your” to “would you like to”. To receive a high score, it’s important to show the Examiner that you can shift correctly between these grammatical structures.

For more tips and topic examples, have a look here.

Part 2 Topics and Questions

In the second part of the exam, you will be tested on your ability to speak in detail and at length (1–2 minutes) about a single topic. Like in Part 1, this topic will also be simple:

  • Describe a famous or well-known person you like or admire.
  • Describe a shop near where you live that you sometimes visit.
  • Describe a special gift or present you gave to someone.
  • Describe an interest or hobby that you enjoy.
  • Describe a time when you helped someone.

Notice that these topics are also about simple things — people, places, things, activities and events in the past. You will be given one such topic on a sheet paper and 1 minute to prepare your answer and take notes. On the sheet of paper there are always four points that you should address in your answer.

For example:

Describe a famous or well-known person you like or admire.You should say:- who this person is
- what this person has done
- why this person is famous or well-known
and explain why you admire this person.

You may notice that the format of these questions is a little strange: there are no question marks, and the the fourth question is separated from the list. It’s not clear why the makers of IELTS do this (perhaps they want to test your reading skills).

In any case, it’s important to remember that these four questions are not optional, and your score may be reduced if you forget to address one of them in your response. That’s why it is important to take notes during your 1-minute preparation period, and make sure that you write down at least one idea for each point. (In the example above, the four points are who, what, why he/she is famous and why you admire.)

Part 3 Topics and Questions

The final part of the speaking test is always related to the second part, and in contrast to the first part. Instead of “small talk” topics, you will engage in some “big talk”. The topics in this part are more abstract and philosophical.

For example, if you were asked about Famous People in Part 2, then the questions in Part 3 might be:

  • “What types of people become famous in your country?”
  • “What about in previous generations? Were these kinds of people also famous in the past?”
  • “What about in the future? Do you think that these sorts of people will continue to become in your country in the future?”

After two or three such questions, the Examiner will introduce a related but slightly more abstract topic (“Let’s talk about celebrity culture…” ) and ask a few more questions like:

  • “Famous people are often used in advertisements. Can you give me some examples of that?”
  • “Do you think advertisements featuring celebrities can have a negative effect on young people?”
  • “How might celebrities be used to influence public opinion?”

Let’s look at another sample answer, featuring a high-scoring candidate from Malaysia:

Sample Answer (Band 9 Score): Talking about famous people and celebrity culture

You may notice a similar pattern to Part 1, where each question looks at the topic from a slightly different position — from the present to the past to the future. The question may also ask you to make comparisons between different groups of people (“What about boys? How about girls?”) or talk about the topic in the passive voice (“How might they be used…?”).

More sample topics and questions are available here.

Tips and Tricks for Success

  1. Don’t waste your time “memorizing” answers: IELTS Examiners are trained to detect whether you are speaking “naturally” or simply repeating words from memory. If they suspect that you are trying to cheat in this way, they will change the topic.
  2. Don’t treat the test like a “conversation”: The purpose of the IELTS is to test your conversational English, but it’s not a *real* conversation. This is important to remember, because most people have a natural instinct to give a short answer to a short question (“How are you?” — “I’m fine, thank you”) in order to be polite. But short answers will not get you a high score. Push yourself to give long answers with reasons and examples.
  3. Don’t restrict yourself to giving only “true” answers: The IELTS Speaking Test is not a conversation, but it is also not a police interview. The Examiner will not call your family to check if you gave a truthful answer to the question of “Describe a gift you gave to your mother.” The important things are your grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, and fluency — not the accuracy of the information.
  4. Avoid hesitations and long pauses: One of the most difficult aspects of the IELTS Speaking Test is that you need to be able to talk about topics that you may have no interest in or opinions about. However a short answer like “I don’t know” will not increase your score, because it doesn’t demonstrate your language skills. A better strategy is to start by talking about general opinions: “I think most people believe that celebrities have a negative effect on young people.” Expand it with reasons (because, due to the fact that), examples (for instance, such as) and comparisons (however, on the other hand). Then, if the question requires you to express an opinion, you can insert it at the end: “In my opinion, I think both sides of the debate make strong points.”

Useful IELTS Vocabulary

The purpose of the IELTS is to assess your ability to communicate in English in ordinary situations at work, at university, or in daily life. This means that there is no “special” vocabulary you need to use.

If you wish to get a high score, however, it is important to show that you can use a variety of words (including concrete words like “sister” and abstract phrases like “sibling rivalry”) and that you can use the words correctly.

Two good lists of vocabulary to study are the Oxford 3000 (a list of the 3,000 most common and important words in English) and the Academic Word List (which is also very useful if you’re planning to take the Academic version of the IELTS test).

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writer. teacher. curious creature. @ soenglish.me

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Matt Lemanski

Matt Lemanski

writer. teacher. curious creature. @ soenglish.me

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