By Chris Pell

21 April 2015 - 16:44

'Find something you are really interested in and practise speaking, using this topic.' Photo (c) Mat Wright
'Find something you are really interested in and practise speaking, using this topic.' Photo ©

Mat Wright

Is it OK to correct yourself 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 first part of his list of dos and don’ts for the IELTS speaking test.

Do warm up

What would happen if a footballer decided to play a game without running or stretching first? They would probably have a terrible game and maybe even injure themselves. Speaking a foreign language is no different. I advise all of my students to warm up for the IELTS test by speaking nothing but English for at least 24 hours before the test. This has a huge influence on your ability to naturally communicate in English. Tell your friends and family that you can only speak in English, and try to read and listen to English the day before the exam. Get to the testing centre early and engage the other candidates and staff in conversation. By the time your speaking test comes around, you will be ready.

Do practise at home

Speaking is a skill and just like any other skill it requires many hours of practice. Lots of my students complain that they don’t have anyone to practise English with, but these days there are lots of ways to practise online. There are thousands of students who want to practise their speaking; you just have to know where to find them. Google HangoutsiTalkiVerblingBussuu and the British Council's dedicated Facebook page are just a few places you can find speaking partners. There are also many IELTS groups on Facebook. Just type ‘IELTS’ into the search box and you will find hundreds of groups. The TakeIELTS Official Facebook page is also a great place to find speaking tips and advice.

For a more detailed guide on how to prepare for the IELTS test at home, see these 25 online tools for learning a language at home.

Do ask the examiner

Many students don’t know that you can occasionally ask the examiner to repeat the question if you didn’t understand it, or to ask them to explain what one word means. It is not a listening test. If you listen to native English speakers, you'll notice that they do this all the time. The important thing is not to ask the examiner to repeat every question or to explain every word.

Do extend your answers

It is not a good idea to give very short answers in the IELTS test and you should try to extend your answers. Three ways to extend your answers are: 1) explaining why 2) giving examples and 3) giving concessions (showing the opposite side of the argument).

Here's an example to the question What can people do to reduce global warming?

I believe the best way to combat climate change is to reduce carbon emissions. Carbon dioxide is the main reason the planet is getting hotter, because it is a greenhouse gas and prevents the sun's radiation from leaving our atmosphere. For example, it has been shown that there is a link between the increased use of fossil fuels and rising global temperatures. However, some doubt this and think global warming is a natural cycle and not a man-made problem.

As you can see, this candidate has fully explained her point and provided both a relevant example and a concession.

For a more detailed guide on how to extend your answers, see this guide for IELTS speaking part 3.

Do master functional language

It is a very bad idea to memorise scripted answers, but you should be aware of the various types of functional language that might come up in the IELTS speaking test. You should be able to use the language of:

  • giving opinions
  • giving examples
  • contrasting views
  • evaluating someone else’s opinion
  • talking about cause and effect
  • talking about hypothetical situations.

You will be expected to talk about the past, present and future, so make sure you know the various forms for doing this.

For a more detailed guide on functional language, see this article on common questions in speaking part 3.

Do use natural spoken English

If you listen carefully to native speakers of English, you'll notice some important differences in the way they speak compared to learners of English. Native speakers use connected speech, weak sounds, intonation and sentence stress that many non-native speakers find difficult or 'unnatural'. Ask a teacher or research online how these pronunciation features influence your speech. Listen to recordings of native speakers of English (for example, on YouTube) and try to imitate their use of connected speech or intonation by pausing the recording and repeating what you hear. With enough practice, you will start to sound more like a native speaker.

Do consider grammar vs fluency

To do well in the speaking test you will be expected to be both grammatically accurate and fluent. Often, students worry too much about their grammar and this stops them speaking at a natural pace, thus reducing their score for fluency.

A good thing to do is record yourself. Record yourself once and just focus on being grammatically accurate. When you listen back, you might hear how unnaturally slow your speech is. Next, record yourself and try not to worry about making any grammar mistakes, just try to speak at the same speed you do in your native language.

By doing this, you not only practise your fluency, but also identify common grammar mistakes and then fix them, making you even more fluent. Even native speakers make small grammar mistakes when speaking, so don’t worry too much about them and use them as stepping stones to success.

Do find your passion

Students often obsess over past exam questions and practise these over and over. The problem with this is students often get bored and speak without any passion about these topics. A better way is to find something you are really interested in and practise speaking, using this topic. If you love football, listen to the commentators during matches or listen to a podcast about the weekend’s matches. If you are into fashion, watch some fashion shows on TV or YouTube. You can practise talking about these things with a friend, record yourself or find other like-minded people online and chat to them.

Do take time to think

If you are asked a question you are not sure about, don’t be afraid to take a moment to think about it. This is totally natural and something native English speakers do more than you think. The important thing is to tell the examiner you are doing this by using phrases such as the following:

  • That’s a difficult question. Let me think for a second...
  • That’s a very interesting question. Let me think for a moment...
  • It’s very difficult to know exactly, but perhaps...
  • It’s difficult to say. I think…
  • I don’t really know for sure, but I would say….

But make sure you don’t start every question with one of these phrases. The examiner will spot this and your mark will suffer if the examiner thinks you have prepared scripted answers.

Do correct yourself

Don’t be afraid to correct any mistakes in the exam. This shows the examiner that you are aware of the mistake and know your grammar. Some students don’t like doing this because they think it alerts the examiner to your mistake leading to a lower score. The opposite is true. In fact, if you think about it, you probably correct mistakes in your own language all the time.

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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