By Chris Pell

27 April 2015 - 11:59

'It is always better to attempt an answer than simply say nothing.' Photo (c) Mat Wright
'It is always better to attempt an answer than simply say nothing.' Photo ©

Mat Wright

Should you use big words in the IELTS speaking test? Chris Pell, winner of the British Council’s Teaching English blog award for his post helping IELTS students with pronunciation, gives us his advice in the second part of his list of dos and don'ts for the IELTS speaking test. Read part one for the dos.

Don’t memorise answers

Lots of people think that the best way to do well in the speaking test is to remember scripted answers and simply use these in the test. This is a bad idea because memorised answers are very obvious and examiners are trained to spot them. You will not only lose marks, the examiners may also ask you more difficult questions to test your English and establish your real level.

Don't worry about the examiner’s opinion

I was surprised when some students told me that you can only do well on the speaking test if the examiner agrees with your opinion. Nothing could be further from the truth. Examiners are not concerned with your opinion; they just want you to demonstrate your speaking ability. Focus on giving a fluent answer that responds to the question and is grammatically correct.

Don't insert lots of ‘big’ words

A common misconception is that you must have very long, ‘complicated’ words in every sentence to get a high score on the test. If you listen to how native speakers talk, this just doesn't happen, unless you are at a conference of university professors. You should try to show the examiner that you have a wide-ranging vocabulary, but you should not try to use words you don’t fully understand. If you try to use ‘complicated’ words you don’t fully understand, it is very likely that you will make mistakes and lose marks.

I tell my students to use the 100-per-cent rule: if you are not 100-per-cent sure about the meaning and form of a word, don’t use it.

Don't show off your grammar

This point is connected to the previous one. Many candidates feel that they need to show the examiner how amazing their grammar is in order to get a high mark. Again, the danger here is trying to use grammar you are not 100-per-cent sure about and then losing control of the sentence. There is no point in using the future perfect continuous tense if it is not appropriate to do so. Think about the tense you need to use when practising, and familiarise yourself with functional language for giving opinions, contrasting views, emphasising, and so on.

Don't say nothing

This seems like an obvious piece of advice but you would be surprised by how many students prefer to say nothing rather than attempt to give an answer. It is always better to attempt an answer than simply say nothing. Many students feel this way, perhaps because their old teacher told them to say nothing or criticised them if they didn't know the answer. In the IELTS speaking test, you are not expected to give a perfect response to a question or to be an expert in many different areas. The main thing is to demonstrate your speaking ability. If you don’t know the answer, it is always acceptable to say something like ‘I don’t have much knowledge of this subject, but I think…’ or ‘I'm not really sure, but if I had to say….’, and attempt an answer.

Don't prioritise grammar over fluency

In the exam, you get separate marks for grammatical accuracy and fluency. Most students I've taught in Asia worry more about their grammar than their fluency, and the latter skill suffers as a result. When I have taught European students, it is generally the opposite way round. Ask a teacher or native speaker to give you advice about your grammar or fluency needs. You can then focus on improving one or the other.

Don't worry about your accent

I work at a well-known school with ‘British’ in the title, and lots of students come to me at the end of the first class and ask how they can get a British accent like me. This always makes me smile because I actually have an Irish accent and I ask them which British accent they would like to learn. Many students are overly concerned with sounding more ‘British’ or more ‘American’, whatever this actually means. In fact, accent is not important in the speaking test as long as it does not impede your ability to communicate.

Don't get too nervous

Getting nervous is a natural reaction to a test, but nerves can often bring someone’s score down in a few different ways. Some people have a tendency to speak at a very low volume when they are nervous and this will reduce the examiner’s ability to understand you. Others mumble when they are nervous and this is obviously a bad idea in a speaking test. The key is to prepare properly and then you will feel more confident.

Don't be late

Make sure you give yourself lots of time to get to the examination centre and find out where your speaking test will be. By getting there early you will be able to get comfortable in your surroundings and concentrate solely on the exam. Don’t be afraid to ask the staff any questions you might have; they are there to help.

Don't rely on the examiner

Some students think the speaking examiner will prompt you if you are talking too much or too little, or not speaking loudly enough, or if you are not sticking to the question asked. In fact, the examiner has no duty to do any of these things and she or he will allow you to make mistakes and not tell you. Take control of your own speaking and don’t look to the examiner for cues or help.

Sign up today for the British Council's free online course Understanding IELTS: Techniques for English Language Tests, beginning 11 May 2015.

Find more tips and advice from Chris Pell and visit our IELTS website for more information about the IELTS test.

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