Intro to the IELTS speaking paper

The speaking paper of the IELTS exam is a face-to-face, interactive test of your ability to engage in a conversation using natural English.  It takes place on a different day to the rest of the exam, and takes between 11 and 14 minutes.  It will only be you and the examiner in the room, but all tests are recorded for moderation purposes and also in case you request a re-mark of your exam.  There will be a short introductions and ID check, followed by three parts.

Part one: personal question and answer

The first part is a series of questions that the examiner will ask about YOU.  These are familiar, everyday questions about your life, habits, likes and dislikes, life experiences and so on.  This will take about four minutes and is meant to imitate a natural conversation between two people who are getting to know each other.  There are no right or wrong answers, but there are definitely right and wrong ways to answer!  The most important thing is to give full, extended answers.  The examiner is looking for you to demonstrate your speaking ability, so giving short yes/no answers doesn’t give them much to go on. 

The right way to answer:

Examiner: Do you have any brothers or sister?
Student: No, I’m only child.  But I’ve got some cousins that I spent a lot of time with when I was growing up.  I like being an only child though, you get spoilt by your parents!

The wrong way to answer:

Examiner: Do you have any brothers or sister?
Student: No.
Examiner: Okay…do you like being an only child?
Student: Yes.

A good way to think about the speaking paper is two people meeting for the first time at a party.  Part one is the small talk – you are politely getting to know bit about each other.  If you meet someone and they just give one-word answers to you questions, you will probably make your excuses and go find someone else to talk to!

Part two: long turn

If part one is small talk at a party, then part two is an anecdote.  You’ve got to know the other person a bit and now you are going to tell them a longer story or description about something that happened in your life or your experience.  In this part of the exam, you’ll be given a topic card which look something like this:

The cards always follow the same format.  You have to describe a place, person, thing or an experience in your life.  You have to provide factual details about it – these will be asked in the form of content questions words: what, where, when, who, how.  You’ll be asked to explain some aspect of the experience, often to explain why you particularly remember or enjoyed this experience.  Finally, the examiner will ask a couple of questions in response to what you have told them.

You have to speak uninterrupted for two minutes, which feels like a long time when you are in the exam.  You also have one minute to prepare before you speak, so run through the answers to the question on the card, and you can even write some notes on the card.

It can feel quite unnatural to speak on your own in this way, so you need to practice as much as you can before the exam.  Try lots of different topic examples, and time yourself.  If you answer the questions on the card and expand a little on the topic, you should be able to fill the two minutes without too much difficulty.  If you really have no experience that fits with the topic card, you can make something up – the examiner will never know!

Part three: abstract discussion

It’s getting later, and the party has begun to get more animated.  Rather than talking about yourselves and your experiences, you and the other guests are starting to talk about weightier matters – society, politics, education, technology – the big issues in the world!  You are getting each other’s opinions, agreeing and disagreeing, analysing topics and assessing advantages and disadvantages.  It’s time for an abstract discussion.

The broad topic of speaking part two is carried over into part three.  So, if you have to ‘describe a sport you would like to learn’ you might now be asked about the importance of sport in national culture and identity, or the benefits of a healthy, active lifestyle, or whether you think top footballers get paid too much.  Part three takes 4-5 minutes and examiner may interact with you naturally, ask you to go into more detail and ask follow-up questions.  Like the rest of the speaking test, the more you expand on your answers, the better.  In this case, that means supporting your opinions with evidence, examples and corroborating arguments.  Unlike in part two, there is no time to prepare so you have to think on your feet and be imaginative.

Follow our blog for specific tips and strategies on the IELTS speaking and other papers.

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