Recently, I decided I needed to figure out how possible it really is to get an IELTS 9 in speaking.
I’m the co-founder of E2Language, which provides students with online test preparation for their high stakes English tests.
I took the IELTS Academic test today. I woke up at 6.30 a.m. I made sure I ate a big breakfast. I had two coffees. I jumped on the train and walked up the street. I had my passport in my pocket. I was ready to go.
I had also been studying for months, which is odd, because I’m a native English speaker, and an English teacher, and a graduate of a masters in applied linguistics. I’m probably the last person who needs to study for his IELTS exam. To put it humbly, it was a bit like Messi training for a friendly soccer match in the park.
Despite that, in order to write unbelievable teaching materials for IELTS, nothing beats taking the test yourself. That’s why I took it. I wanted to understand what truly results in an IELTS 9 for speaking. There must be a magic trick, I thought!
And there is… I’ve found it. But before I tell you the magic trick — which is in fact ‘scientific’ and ‘linguistic’ — first let me tell you about my experience taking the speaking test…
Before the speaking test
I only had to wait an hour after the first three sections of the test before my speaking test was up. I went outside and got some fresh air and had another coffee. My pulse was racing (from caffeine and nerves!).
I was aware of the speaking section, and I had learned some helpful ‘tricks’ and ‘tips’ from books and Youtube videos but nothing truly helpful – no one had thought truly deeply about it. I knew, for instance, that I had to ‘elaborate’ on my answers and speak more than I usually do. I knew that it’s not really ‘a conversation’; it’s more of me talking and the examiner listening. I knew that I had to speak using complex grammar and less common vocabulary. I knew that all of this could help me get an IELTS 9. But that’s about all I knew and I didn’t really understand how. I had some idea that I wanted to impress the examiner, but I didn’t really know how that would be possible. I mean, he or she was going to give me a Task Card and ask me to talk about ‘bicycles’ or ‘festivals’, right? I mean, how are you supposed to show off your language skills with mundane topics you think so little about?
I went up to the registration room, showed my passport and took my seat. Surrounding me were people shivering with fear. I felt sorry for them. I’ve learned other languages and sometimes you’re ‘on’ and sometimes you’re not… It depends what side of the bed you woke up on. It also depends on how good your grammar is and how large your vocabulary is – and how easily it comes to you. It also depends on psychological factors like how confident you are as a person, or whether you’re naturally talkative, or not.
A number of examiners came through and called out obscure names, a person stood up and then they both left. Finally, my name was called. I greeted a short curly haired woman and we walked down a corridor into a classroom. There was a table set up with a stopwatch and a recorder as well as some documents.
My examiner was Vicky, a friendly looking woman with with a lovely smile that showed crooked teeth. I liked her, which helped. I felt like I wanted to talk to her. She seemed nice.
The first thing Vicky asked me was whether I was a student or I worked. I responded that “I’m an English teacher”, and she smiled.
I quickly realised that what I had learned and what I teach about IELTS Speaking I wasn’t actually doing. ‘Elaborate!’ I thought to myself. So I went on… ‘Oh, I might tell you a little bit more about that”, I said… and I did go on.
A few more questions came and went. I could see that Vicky liked me. She was interested in me as a person for even though IELTS is big mechanical test, Vicky is still a human being.
The Long Turn
“I’m now going to give you a topic to talk about and you should talk about this topic for 1-2 minutes,” she said, and continued, “here’s a piece of paper for you to prepare.”
I read the topic and went blank. It said:
|Talk about a time you were recently angry.|
I can’t even remember the final statement.
I sat for 45 seconds and didn’t move. I was lost for words. But I wasn’t lost for words because I didn’t have them – remember, I’m a native English speaker! I was lost for words because the most recent time I was angry was a very personal experience. And Vicky, as lovely as she was, was a complete stranger and I did not want to tell her my personal experiences and my thoughts and emotions, yet it was the only thing that I could think of. My mind kept returning to it. I was completely stuck.
I wrote a single word and then crossed it out.
‘I’m going to have to lie…’ I thought to myself.
“Okay,” said Vicky smiling away. “You can start speaking now.”
I spoke and I lied. I used a recent situation where I had been, let’s say, ‘annoyed’, which is not quite angry. But I used that little story and I told an elaborate story that was not at all true. I built a house of cards on top of it. I explained the situation. I said where and when it was. I talked about how I had resolved it. And while I was lying, it dawned upon me that it doesn’t actually matter. You are not being rated on your character. And you have to tell a story. Stories are often fictional.
Keep in mind that: ‘It’s not real life; it’s a test. It’s not a lie; it’s an exaggeration.’
IELTS speaking is much more than a test of your English language skills because there is a social and psychological component to it; you’re not talking to a computer as you are in the PTE Academic. Had I have been speaking to a computer I would have poured my heart out to it and told it everything.
Because you can’t separate language from its content, and content from the language you must be allowed to lie because it is the only fair way that you can say something about a topic that you have no story about.
Vicky stopped me mid-way through my elaborate story. I was shocked. Was she going to judge me? Could she tell that I had just made that story up?
She neither judged nor cared. She just wanted to hear good language being used and I gave her that.
From here, I could see that Vicky was impressed. I had told a good story. I had used intricate vocabulary and fancy grammatical structures. My sentences were flowery and engaging – and very importantly, on topic (even though the topic was make-believe!).
From her IELTS documents she asked me some interesting questions, such as “Do you think that anger affects us physically?”
‘Exaggerate’, I thought to myself and said something like, “Undoubtedly. The scientific literature now fully supports the fact that anger impacts upon the human body. I mean, when you’re angry you can feel it. And this is happening hormonally. Adrenalin is being excreted and your body is priming itself to run. The effect on your heart is particularly profound.”
The combination of the coffee, the hyperbole and the setting was now getting me fired up. I listened like a thief and answered each of her questions politely, intelligently and with a lot of fabrications. I drew upon magazine articles I had read years before and made them sound profound. I drew upon ideas I had had when I was a teenager and made them seem philosophical.
I used vocabulary that I rarely use… And this brings me to the (scientific/linguistic) magic trick.
The (scientific/linguistic) magic trick
There are two ways to talk about the Task Card – in the concrete and in the abstract. Let me compare what would achieve an IELTS 6 (concrete) and what would achieve an IELTS 9 (abstract).
|Talk about a time you were recently angry.|
Concrete answer – IELTS 6
Train. People. Seat. Old man. Young person. Old man standing. Young person sitting. Old man angry. Me angry. Young person unaware. Old man leave. Young person stay.
These words are what are called ‘concrete nouns’. They are real things. They are things that you can touch. They are things you can see. And they are common words. You sound like everyone else. You are not using less common, more complex vocabulary. If you want to stand out above the rest – above the average (IELTS 9 level) – then you need to use less common, more infrequent language – language that the examiner rarely hears.
Abstract answer – IELTS 9
Train. People. Seat. Old man. Young person. Youth. Impoliteness. Social structures. Ageism. Recklessness. Assumptions. Changing values. Possible resolutions. Mediation. Governmental awareness programs.
These words are called ‘abstract nouns’. They are un-real things. They are things that you cannot touch. They are things that you cannot see. And they are uncommon words. You sound different to everyone else. You put yourself above everyone else. You talk about things that no one else talks about. You extend yourself beyond what’s normal, what’s average. You talk about abstract ideas.
In order to access abstract ideas you need abstract words and abstract words are rare. Vicky wanted me to use words that explained concepts that are interesting and unfamiliar to her. She did not want to hear the same old same old. I can’t imagine how boring it would be to be an IELTS examiner, sitting there every day listening to someone talk about ‘anger’ in mundane ways.
The critical point is: if you want to impress the examiner – which is what you have to do to score a 9 – then you need to speak about abstract concepts. When you speak about abstract concepts you use vocabulary reserved for abstract concepts. As long as you can glue it all together with some simple and some complex grammar then you can rest assured that when you open up your results you will see an IELTS 9 and not an upside down IELTS 9.
Check out our IELTS speaking simulation for more information about how to achieve an IELTS 9:
Written by Jay Merlo.