Many test takers find this section of the IELTS difficult not because of the English, but rather because of the situation; namely, they get nervous having to have a conversation with a live interviewer. Overcoming the face-to-face context of this section of the test is their main obstacle to a successful score.
One way to succeed in this section is to be prepared. Knowing what to expect and how to approach this section will help test takers overcome the fear of having to speak to a real person (as opposed to speaking into a microphone and a computer program).
The other way to succeed is to practice. Ideally, you will have opportunities to speak with a native English speaker before your test. But even if you do not have this opportunity, there are many ways in which you can practice:
- Record yourself. Many people don’t like to hear their own voice on a recording. However, this is the best way for you to understand your weaknesses and strengths. When you play back the recording, listen for areas that might not be clear, or ideas that lead away from the topic, or whether you answered the question or not. You do not need a native English speaker to tell you that what you are saying is not on target according to what you were asked.
- Speak to the mirror: watch yourself speaking in English. This might seem silly at first, but remember that the interviewer is looking at you and will see the same thing you see in the mirror. If you can become comfortable speaking in English with yourself, there is no reason you should be uncomfortable with a stranger.
- Find the transcript to a movie or show you like. Choose one character and read out his/her lines in the movie. React to the other characters, and express the emotion(s) of your character. Do short parts, then longer ones, then a whole script if you can.
- Find online friends to practice with. There are communities online where people can get together to practice their English. Or, if it is available, join an English club in your neighbourhood. This will get you speaking and also help you get over your shyness, if that is an issue for you.
- Read out loud. Find a newspaper or magazine article you like. Read it out loud. Make sure you mark the points of stress, questions, etc. This is even more effective with novels, where emotion and effect are part of the writing. In this way you will be killing two birds with one stone: improving your reading and your speaking at the same time.
Now let’s look at the Speaking test and what is involved in terms of structure, question types, basic requirements, and how to deliver your answers.
- How are you?: This section of the test is a personal get-to-know-you type of conversation. It consists of informal questions about you, the test taker. Think of it as meeting a new acquaintance (even though you’ll have to show identification at the start, and the interviewer will be recording the conversation).
- Take control: The more you speak, the less the interviewer will interrupt you. In other words, speak as much as possible for each answer you give; stay on topic, answer the question asked, but speak more. The Speaking test is limited in terms of length. The interviewer will ask fewer questions if time for the section is running out because you are speaking. Be careful: do not go off topic. If the question was about your favourite hobby, don’t get to the point where you’re talking about your best friend’s dog’s hair colour.
- Key question word: In order to make sure you are answering on target, pay close attention to the question word used (what’s your favourite…? Who…? When…? Name a time that ….; etc. Make sure you address that question word quickly. After that you can go slightly off topic, but still make sure the interviewer recognizes that you understood and answered the question.
- Keep calm: It’s understandable that you will come into the testing room nervous. Think of part 1 of the test as your opportunity to make mistakes, find your tongue, and prepare for parts 2 & 3. This does not suggest that you don’t have to concentrate and prepare for this part of the test; on the contrary, this is where you make your first impression and you want it to be a good one. However, it is also the first section and mistakes can be made up for in the rest of the test. The main point of all this is that you should remain calm, don’t panic, let things go, and move on to the next parts.
- Focus: This is probably the most important part of the Speaking test. It is a chance for you to show sustained speaking ability in regard to a central topic. You will be given a card with a task. This will include a general question along with detailed questions regarding the topic. You will be given 1 minute to prepare your answer. Use the full minute. You are required to speak for 1–2 minutes. Practice and time yourself to speak to around 1.5 minutes. This takes practice. You need to get a “feel” for the 1.5-minute time span.
- Speak!: Silence is not a good sign for the graders in this part of the test. As far as the graders are concerned, quiet time is time you spend struggling with the English. Try to keep your mouth moving at all times, though remain on topic.
- This is a mini essay: Think of this part of the test as a mini essay: it should have an introduction, a body, and a conclusion/closing. Use the minute of prep time to think of how you will approach the answer. Be prepared to start speaking right away when told to do so. You should begin speaking within the first 2–4 seconds after the interviewer gives you the go-ahead to speak. Go right to the central question, then lead to your details quickly. Spend the most time on the last part of the task. Make sure the interviewer is aware when you are coming to a close. If he/she tells you to speak more, then you have not said enough. Continue on the last part of the task.
- Timing: The task will consist of the general question, detailed questions, and a general opinion question (e.g., why do like doing this activity?). You should have answered the general topic and detailed questions within the first 30–45 seconds of the speaking time. Spend the next 45 seconds to one minute on the last part, the opinion question.
- Prepping: What should you do in the minute of preparation time? You should outline your “essay”. If you want to take notes on the paper given to you, do not write full sentences. Write only key words. If you are nervous during this part of the test and have a difficult time beginning, then write out your first sentence. This way you at least start speaking right away and make a better impression. If you are not the visual type (learn, plan, etc., with your eyes) then don’t write anything. Plan the essay in your head and be ready to speak. This is not recommended for most test takers. Know yourself and what works for you.
- Um… er… ahh…: Be prepared to speak about any topic. In your practice leading up to the test, do not practice only easy questions for which you have many ideas. Be prepared to speak about topics that you have never thought about. For example, you may be asked to describe your favorite painting by a famous artist, where you saw it, why/how did you come across it, and why is it your favorite? Some of you have never been to a museum. Others are math specialists who don’t love art, or any other reason not to have much experience with art or artists. Will the interviewer give you a new question? NO! You will have to deal with this one. Be ready to speak for 1–2 minutes on any topic.
- Make the topic your own: Did the last note scare you? Don’t worry, there is a way out of this dilemma. Remember that this test is not about you personally; it is not about your experiences, about your intelligence, or about your taste and style. It is about your ability to communicate well in English. If you are given a card with a topic you are not confident you can answer, change its focus. Begin your speech with an explanation regarding the topic, saying that you do not have enough knowledge/experience with it, but that you understood the question (THIS IS KEY!). Once the interviewer understands that you at least understood the question, you can then shift focus to a related topic. For example, if you don’t know what to say about paintings, say so; then say what you think about a famous movie by a famous director, or a famous photograph by an anonymous photographer. Then go on and answer the detail questions about it. This way, you are still dealing with a visual art, it’s just not a painting. Regardless, speak for over 1 minute.
- The truth is relative here: Even if you have never been to a museum, and you love numbers and equations and have no idea about art, most of you have heard of the Mona Lisa, painted by Leonardo da Vinci and displayed at the Louvre in Paris. Keep in mind that the interviewers do not care who you are or what you know or don’t know. They care about your ability to communicate clearly in English. That is their job. In this case, lie. Talk about the one painting you do know and make it seem as though you’ve seen it a hundred times and you love it. Just be convincing about it.
- Same story: This section will ask questions loosely related to the topic in section 2. If you had a difficult time with the topic in section 2, be prepared for difficult questions in section 3. Keep the last note in mind: 1) don’t be afraid to say you don’t know something; 2) the truth is relative.
- Sort of an interview: Don’t be fooled by the name of this section. It is supposed to be a conversation, though in most cases the interviewer will not say much, so it is up to you to carry the heavy load of the speaking. That being said, this allows you to control the conversation by moving your answers in directions you are more comfortable with. Include as many details in your answer to give the interviewer something to catch for a follow-up question. Nevertheless, always address the question directly to demonstrate that you understood the question. Then, if you don’t have much to say about the topic, shift it to something related and hope that the interviewer will ask follow-up questions about your topic.
- I’m sorry, what?: If you didn’t get the question, ask the interviewer to repeat it. “I’m sorry, I couldn’t hear the question. Could you please repeat it?” It is better to ask for a repetition than to try to answer a question you didn’t hear/understand.
- Speak!: Try to start speaking within the first 2–4 seconds after the question is asked. This will show your fluency ability and help improve your score. Furthermore, the more you speak, the less time the interviewer has to ask other questions. Stay on topic, but extend the answer as long as you can
- Language: As with the essay in the Writing section, your score will be based on several language issues: vocabulary usage and variety, grammar structures, structure of the spoken “essay”, etc.
- Other points: Fluency is a big component of your score. How well do construct your sentences and overall answer? How much translating do you do in your head before the words come out of your mouth? How close to the main point of the questions are your answers? This takes practice.
- Things not to worry about: Your accent is not going to go away. Your pronunciation can improve. An accent is OK. Bad pronunciation that makes it difficult to understand what you are saying is not.
- Shyness: It’s easy to tell you to relax and not be nervous. However, we understand that shyness is not something that you can hide for 15 minutes, or ignore. Just remember that the interviewer is only there to do a job. He/she is not judging you as a person; they are interested only in your language capability. Do your best to fight the shyness for the interview, then go on with your life. Again, the best way to prepare for this is to speak with strangers in English, preferably with native speakers.