Teaching IELTS Speaking: Tips and Tricks

By John Kenmuir

Recently, IELTS has become one of the major language tests worldwide. As a result, markets have appeared, both virtually and in the physical world, to cope with demand. Websites that post sample Speaking questions and IELTS training centres have grown exponentially. These centres may or may not have knowledge of or experience with the exam, but too often they don’t.

The centres tell the candidates what they want to hear, so that students won’t go elsewhere.

Approximating Answers

For many candidates, rote memorization is the standard teaching methodology; students will naturally attempt to memorize words and phrases (often from dictionaries) and use them in the IELTS exams. A candidate might get away with this strategy in Part 1, where the answers are short. In Part 2, however, the student must speak continuously for 2 minutes. If the sentences seem like they are unconnected, the band score won’t be very good. Examiners are not allowed to speak in Part 2, so candidates might believe they’ve gotten away with it; they haven’t.

In Part 3, using memorized phrases is not possible and instructors should warn candidates it is a bad strategy. So how should an instructor teach the Speaking module? Let’s look at Parts 1, 2 and 3 one at a time.

A Closer Look

Part 1 is similar to small talk, like talking to a friend, colleague or family member. This is the easiest part but still requires practice. Answers should be two to three sentences long. Examiners must ask questions on 2 to 3 topics, in 4 to 5 minutes, and long answers would hinder them. Answers also shouldn’t be to short; one sentence answers would provide very little evidence of the candidate’s ability, and might seem like the candidate is deliberately saying very little. A modified game based on the TV show “Jeopardy”, requiring short, quick answers, would be a good way to practice for Part 1.

The examiner will tell the candidate in Part 2 when to begin and the candidate must talk for up to two minutes. Before beginning, the candidate has one minute to make notes; this is the most crucial factor of Part 2, because students may not know how to take notes effectively; I often tell students to use abbreviations. Mind-mapping is even better. It is easier and quicker to draw a mind-map and refer to it while talking than to read and write sentences. Students should practice mind-mapping, as it is probably unfamiliar to them. Practicing monologues and timing/recording themselves will also build their confidence.

Part 3 is where the examiner can test whether candidates are using memorized language. The candidate is allowed to talk more freely and the examiner may alter the questions and language level. The examiner’s main duty is to record as much sampling of the candidate’s speech as possible, to support the awarded band score. Three questions are provided, which must be read exactly as they are written. However, the examiner may pose questions based on the candidate’s responses; it is impossible to predict what these questions will be, which is why memorized responses are useless here. Examiners will often use questions that challenge a candidate’s ability, especially if they suspect memorized responses are being used.

Be Direct

As an examiner, I have witnessed candidates providing indirect answers to questions; these answers may or may not have been memorized answers that approximate being on-topic, but they could also be a result of L1 interference (such as with the Chinese cultural concept of losing face). Candidates should be willing to use direct and specific language, and to voice their opinions. In addition to having strong grammar and vocabulary, they should be well read on possible topics and aware of popular opinions on these topics. Knowing what others believe can help them to form their own opinions.

Unfortunately, at times, topics are assigned that are emotionally difficult for candidates; or the candidate may be unfamiliar with the topic. If a candidate doesn’t answer a question, the examiner may move on to the next question (if this happens too often, though, it will negatively affect the band score). Topics, however, can’t be changed once they have been assigned (these are the IELTS rules; breaking them can result in an examiner being fired). If the topic is extremely upsetting, for example, the candidate is asked to talk about a grandparent who has recently passed away, the candidate may be able to talk about a past experience involving the grandparent. It will depend on how that topic question is worded; examiners will usually point to the question or topic if the candidate starts to go off-topic.

I Don’t Know

If a candidate doesn’t know anything about a topic, they must still talk about it. Obviously this is difficult, since the candidate might not have the required vocabulary and most likely wouldn’t have an opinion. They are allowed to paraphrase the words they don’t know. Candidates would also probably subconsciously assume that anything they say must be true and accurate. However, the IELTS test isn’t a measure of the candidate’s knowledge, only their ability to communicate. The best strategy in this instance is to lie. Be creative and make something up. The examiner may not agree with them but their job is to evaluate the candidate’s language ability, not their ideas. Some examiners may ask questions that seem to challenge a candidate’s ideas or facts, but this is only done to elicit further speech samples. Whatever information the candidates present, it is only the language they use that is under review.

Before I Go

IELTS is one of the dominant international language tests and will be for the near future. Lots of training resources are available, some of it well developed and some less so. As educators, it’s important to provide accurate and effective training to the candidates who sit this test, and there are no easy shortcuts. However, understanding the test’s purpose and methodology will help to maximize the candidates’ results.

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