Improve your IELTS speaking skills – 10 tips
The aim of this lesson is to give you different practice activities for the speaking test. While most of the activities are based on IELTS speaking questions, the idea is to improve your skills and not just practise answering questions. The reason for this is that practice tests are not enough by themselves; if you want to get better, you need to improve how you speak and that means thinking about speaking as a skill.
1. Record yourself and then write down your answer
This is something everyone should try. It is almost certainly a bad idea to write your answer first and then speak it. This is because we speak and write in very different ways and it is a mistake to try and train yourself to speak in the way you write. But you can learn a lot from recording what you say and then writing that down word for word. Things you can learn are:
• Do you say enough? Do you give very short answers? In parts 1 and 3, you should say at least a couple of sentences in answer to every question.
• Is what you say organised? Can you see a structure to your answer? Is it possible to put in sentences and paragraph breaks? Do you have some organisation language like “The first point is..”
• Do you speak too slowly or too quickly? Try counting the words in your part 2 answer. Most of my answers as a native speaker are about 240 words long. You should probably aim for around 200 or so. Less than that and you are speaking too slowly, but if you have more than that, it may be that you are speaking too quickly.
• How long are your pauses? You can pause, but your pauses should generally come between sentences/paragraphs and they shouldn’t be more than 2/3 of seconds
• Did you answer the question?
• Is your pronunciation okay? If you can’t immediately understand what you say, the examiner won’t either!
• Are there some words you repeat a lot? You probably shouldn’t worry too much about content words such as “television” – native speakers will repeat those a lot when speaking. Rather you should look at more functional words/phrases such as “I think”. It’s very easy to repeat these a lot and it is also quite simple to train yourself to use more variety.
This is an exercise I use a lot in my own classroom and I find that most everyone has a telephone that records and the quality on that is just fine.
2. Do it first in your own language
This is perhaps an unusual piece of advice. In the speaking, you should aim to be thinking and speaking in English as much as possible and not translating from your language to English. It can, however, sometimes help to practise the long turn part 2 in your own language first:
• some people struggle to speak in their own language for 2 minutes: they prefer short/concise answers and not longer more discussion type answers. So before you try it in English, make sure you can do it in your first language.
• it helps you understand how long 2 minutes is and how much you need to say to fill that time
• if you record and listen to yourself in your first language, you will probably find yourself using quite a lot of “structure” language such as “As I mentioned before”. This is a lot of the language you need for part 2.
3. Don’t practise the whole part 2, do it bit by bit
Some people find part 2 frightening because they are worried they can’t speak for 2 minutes. Relax. You don’t have to. It’s much easier than that, you need to speak for
• 20 seconds
• 20 seconds
• 20 seconds
• I minute
This is because there are always 4 points for you to talk about on the cue card. You want to try practising talking about the first 3 points on the cue card for about 20 seconds each (the who, where, what type questions). Make sure you don’t say “last year”, but you extend that a little (see describing a wedding for an example). Then all you need to do is talk for 1 minute on the longer question at the end that is almost always about explaining something.
4. Practise by describing photographs
In the exam of course you don’t get any photograph to help you. It would probably be easier if you did because when you have a photograph, you can see what you need to talk about. The idea is here that if you learn to see pictures as you are speaking, you find more things to say. I suggest:
• find a picture about an IELTS topic e.g. a picture of a wedding – describe what you see
• then try talking about the same topic without the picture
• in the exam itself, all you need to do is imagine a picture in your head
What I strongly suggest is that you look at your own photographs, as what you will need to speak about are your own memories.
5. Read then speak
It helps to practise reading and speaking together because reading gives you words and sometimes ideas. This idea is a very simple one. When you read a passage in English, you should then try and summarise what it says speaking. The ways this works is:
• to summarise a reading text, you are going to need to use some of the words used in it
• if you say the word aloud, you have learnt that word better and are more likely to us fit for yourself in the future
• if the text is longer, you should find yourself having to list the different points it contains. This should help the coherence of your speaking as you will need to use language like “Firstly…then… next …”etc
Two extremely good sources for this type of reading is 6 minute English and my favourite Words in the News. It sometimes helps to choose 5 words from the text you are reading that you want to use when you speak.
6. Improve your memory – write your life history
Parts 1 and 2 of the speaking test are personal questions about who you are (part 1) and what you have done (part 2). One reason why some candidates have problems is not the language, but that they can’t think of things to say. The solution is simple – refresh your memory about important events in your life before the test.
The idea is not so much to practise exam questions (it’s hard to predict those), but to practise speaking about your memories of people, events, places and things. Do that and the exam should be simpler as you have memories you can use. Write down some personal memories and then try speaking about them. Some ideas here are:
• think of important/interesting people in your life: Ask yourself: When did you meet them? How long have you known them? Why are they important/interesting? Can you remember something you did together? What about a conversation you had with them?
• think of important events in your life: Ask yourself: What it was? Where did it happen? Who were you with at the time? What else was happening in your life then? What one thing stands out in your memory about it? How well do you remember it?
• think of places you have been to: Ask yourself: Where it was? How did you get there? In what detail can you describe the place? Can you describe the general area it is in? Would you want to go back there?
• think of your possessions: Ask yourself: How long have you owned it? Where did you get it? Is it special or something normal? How often do you use it? Do you associate with someone else?
7. Practise saying “I don’t know”
Another reason why some candidates go wrong in the exam is that they feel they have to give a complete answer to very question and they think of IELTS as some academic test. It isn’t. It’s simply a test of your language. In parts 1 and 3, you may well be asked questions that you have very little to say about. That’s not a problem, there’s always another question coming. The big mistake is to try and give a full answer when you have nothing to say. What happens is that your language becomes confused and so do you, with the result that things get and worse and worse.
All you need to do is say you don’t know and explain why and then wait for the next question. This may take a little practice. You want to build a set of phrases such as:
Q. What colour is your favourite room and why did you choose that colour?
A. I’m not sure what to say about that. It’s not a question I’ve ever thought about before. I suppose yellow is just my favourite colour and so I painted my room yellow?
You can find some useful language for this on vocabulary for harder questions and if you are looking for some harder questions, take a look at this list of difficult job interview questions.
8. Talk to a mirror
This is another strange sounding piece of advice, but it can be very practical – especially if you don’t have a speaking partner. The idea is that when you practise speaking, you should sit in front of a mirror and speak to yourself. It can work because:
• eye contact is extremely important in all parts of the test. As a former speaking examiner for other exams, I can promise you that examiners are influenced by candidates who make eye contact - even though they may not be aware of this. Typically, the candidate who makes good eye contact gets a more generous mark because they seem to be communicating better as body language is around 70% of all communication.
• the other point is that, for most people, sitting and looking at themselves in a mirror is an uncomfortable experience. After that, the exam will seem easy!
9. Write your own questions
This is another activity that I suggest everyone should try at least once. You should of course practise with “real” exam questions too, but there is a lot to be learnt from writing the questions first and then trying to answer them. The way it works is that if you write the question yourself,:
• you are more likely to try and answer it properly and give a full answer because you understand what the question is asking – good practice
• you learn to add details to your answers by thinking of more question words. So when you answer the question “Are you a student or do you have a job?”, you are more likely to say “I’m a student at Wuhan University and I have been studying there for the last 3 years” – adding information by thinking of the question “How long” even though you weren’t asked it.
10. Improve your coherence and fluency – easy as 1-2-3 0r 3-2-1
This is another of my favourite classroom speaking activities. Ideally, you need one or two more people to practise this with, but you can do it by yourself. The idea is that you don’t just practise speaking for 2 minutes. Rather, you start off by speaking for 3 minutes about that topic, then you do the same thing for 2 minutes, then for 1 minute. In the perfect world, you would also speak to a different person each time.
How does it work? The first time your answer is probably slightly incoherent and lacks fluency. The next time you speak though, you know what you want to say and, if you have listened to someone else speak, you now have more ideas. The result is that when you speak, you answer becomes more fluent and coherent. Then when you do it for 1 minute, your answer needs to become even more coherent because you now have lots of things to say but not very much time to say it.
I should add that this activity works best if you have different people to speak to. It works because each time you speak to someone different, it becomes a different conversation – even if you are talking about the same thing.