Last month, I had the unique opportunity to have a chat with a room full of IELTS examiners, and the conversation soon turned to one of their pet peeves: common test-taker errors in the Speaking exam. Knowing that this was something most of my students initially struggled with, I asked them what they wished test-takers would stop doing, and this is what I found…hardly surprising, as I have always cautioned my students against doing such things!

Here is what you must AVOID if you want a good band score:

 

EXCESSIVE FORMALITY
Your register (level of formality or informality) is extremely important throughout the speaking and writing exams. But after having written several essays, it isn’t uncommon for many test-takers to suddenly find their speaking styles emulate their writing styles.

Here’s an example of what I mean:
Question from Part 1: What did you study at university?
Answer: Firstly, I studied Economics and in addition to that I studied psychology. Secondly, I found it very interesting and now I want to study International Financial Markets. Thirdly, that is why I’ve applied to several international universities for my Master’s degree. In conclusion, studying Economics at university was one of the best decisions of my life.

See something…odd?
Firstly, in addition, secondly, thirdly, in conclusion…is this an essay?
NO! You’re just having a chat. Spoken language is largely informal, so these transitions are out of place here. You must use informal transitions when you speak. Save the formal language for your written tasks!
This isn’t unique to English – think about your native languages. Do you ever say the local equivalent of ‘in conclusion’ when you finish talking about something in your native tongue? Of course not!

 

STARTING YOUR ANSWERS INCORRECTLY
This is something most test-takers struggle to do.
How do I begin my answers?
Should I say the question back to the examiner?
Should I rephrase/paraphrase the question?

Of course, it is good manners to greet the examiner cheerfully when you enter the room and to thank him/her when you leave…but many test-takers seem to think of their answers as speeches, and will often say things like “Thank you for the question” when they begin answering (or when they finish answering).

Worse, many often say such things to start off their answers, particularly in Task 2:
“Let me tell you about a time when I helped someone…”
“Today I am going to tell you about an old thing my family has had for a long time…”
“My speech is going to be about my favourite historical event…”
“Allow me to tell you about a thing that I purchased but haven’t used…”
“This speech is going to be about an intelligent person that I know…”

Why is this wrong?
Your speaking test is a CONVERSATION between you and the examiner. In a conversation with friends and family in your native language, do you ever find yourself thanking them every time you say something? Of course not – which brings me to the last point…

THINKING OF YOUR ANSWER AS A REHEARSED SPEECH TO BE DELIVERED
I can’t stress this point enough. It is SO important to retain that communicative aspect with your examiner. They don’t want robotic, rehearsed, memorised answers. They want to have a DISCUSSION with you – about your life, your work, your interests, your hopes, your goals, your dreams, and other things about YOU. So when you enter that room, remember that you’re talking to a human being who’d like to find out more about you, your life and your culture.

Most test-takers are either shy or unwilling to share their true opinions about topics. But you shouldn’t be afraid of sharing your opinion! Examiners would be SO glad if you did that because it is something VERY FEW test-takers ever do.

Don’t worry, you are NOT graded on your personal opinions and whether the examiner agrees with your opinion or not. You are free to say exactly how you feel about things. Hate art? Say it! Dislike sports? Tell them you do!

Me, personally? Ask me a question about sports and I’ll be honest in that I can’t remember the last time I did something remotely sports-like.  Although I did recently join a gym, so there’s that – wish me luck!

This is how people naturally use language and this is what you should try to do, too. That’s what gets you a band 9 for speaking – NOT the rehearsed speeches you often see on YouTube by “IELTS coaches” who couldn’t get a 6.5 to save their lives.

Just as long as you don’t inadvertently become too passionate and use curse words or slang, you’ll be perfectly fine. They are NOT there to judge your thoughts, ideas or knowledge – their only job is to evaluate your use of the English language.

For more help with Part 2 of the Speaking test, read this: Using the ‘Past-Present-Future’ strategy in IELTS Speaking Part Two

Best of luck! Make sure to post any burning questions you might have in the comments section – I’m here to help!

 

3 thoughts on “Three things you should AVOID on the IELTS Speaking exam

  1. Good article. I have a question. Why is the sentence “Today I am going to talk to you about…” is a bad start? wouldn’t that serve the purpose of the intro about what we are talking about?
    Another thing about examiners (not at all trying to be mean. just my experience), I took the exam thrice so far. I can tell you this for sure by my experience and others experience at the center, some speaking examiners come in with an attitude. Again its just my opinion from my experience. not everyone wants to discuss.

    1. Thanks for the insightful comment, Purnima 🙂
      The purpose of the IELTS Speaking exam is to test your conversational skills in an informal manner. You are not required to give a speech, as formal spoken language is not tested on the exam. If you say “Today I’m going to tell you about…” it sounds like you’re about to give a speech of some sort to an audience, which is not what test-takers do on the exam. Think about it: when do you hear phrases like “Today I shall tell you about…” or “Today I will speak about…”? Usually in speeches or debates, none of which are done on the IELTS.

      Regarding the introduction: While I do advise my students to have a general introduction before they begin answering their part 2 question, “Today I will tell you about…” is not an introduction, it’s just telling the audience that you’re about to start talking about something particularly important. In speaking, the introduction will be about the general topic of the cue card that you’ve been given.

      You’re not alone. Quite a few of my students have said the same thing, but in their descriptions, the examiners did not seem to be particularly rude, just kind of cold and unresponsive. They have to be impartial at all times and some examiners would rather be absolutely blank with no emotion on their faces whatsoever, and risk appearing cold and distant, rather than be cheery and warm and perhaps mistakenly, in some way or the other, end up helping a student (which would pose a grave risk to their jobs). Of course, it IS definitely likely that some examiners really do possess a negative attitude, which could understandably throw off a test-taker, but those kinds are highly unlikely to last at their jobs and most importantly, their behaviour or attitude does not affect your scores in any way as your answers are recorded and marked. If an examiner (speaking and writing) gives a high mark or a low mark without the right sort of justification for it, they are sent in for re-training and cannot actively mark any new candidates.

What do you think?