Let’s talk about IELTS Speaking. More specifically, it’s time we focus on those common IELTS speaking mistakes.
This article addresses each section of the Speaking test and shares the most common IELTS speaking mistakes test-takers “trip up” on during each part.
Common IELTS Speaking Mistakes #1
Part 1: Answers are too short.
In this part of the test it’s important to elaborate! Provide enough information to make the interaction feel “conversational”.
You should try to aim for a 2-3 sentence answer.
Here’s an example:
“Where did you grow up?”
Bad Response: “A small city in Nigeria.”
Good Response: “I grew up in a small city in Nigeria. It’s about 2 hours from the capital city. The surrounding area is known to be very beautiful. But I moved away when I was only 4 years old. So… honestly, I don’t remember it clearly.”
Now, let’s talk about these responses.
Remember, during this portion of the test the examiner needs to evaluate the quality of your spoken English! Therefore, it’s important that we give them something to evaluate!
Of course you need to stay on topic and answer their question directly, but, don’t be afraid to also add details to your responses.
Watch this speaking simulation for Part 1:
Common IELTS Speaking Mistake #2
Part 2: Not elaborating enough.
In any of the three parts, giving responses that are too short is one of the most common IELTS speaking mistakes.
It can be quite hard to speak for such an extended amount of time!
Especially in PART 2 where you are required to speak continually for two minutes. (Note: IELTS time specifications are important!)
It helps to try and tell a story with a beginning, middle and end. This will help you produce a lengthier response while still giving a “well-organized” and clear answer.
For more help with Part 2 watch this webinar:
Common IELTS Speaking Mistake #3
Part 3: Silence … is not golden?
This section of the Speaking test can be intimidating. It requires you to think critically and give your opinion.
Remember, it is important to not only give your opinion but also explain your reasoning. You may want to give an example or even explain by using a story from your own personal experience.
You want to avoid false starts during any part of the Speaking test.
So, if necessary, you may need to think about your answer. In particular, when you are asked to give these opinion type responses in Part 3, you may feel the urge to pause.
But rather than thinking silently or mumbling, “Uhhhhh..”, try to save yourself time.
While you think start by saying, “That’s a good question…” or, “Wow, I really haven’t thought of about that before… ”
For more tips on Part 3 check out this short Lesson video:
3 Most Common IELTS Mistakes Recap
Overall here’s what to remember:
In general, avoid pauses and false starts. If you make a mistake, keep going. The examiner wants to see that you can have a conversation and express yourself without issues. Mistakes are okay – just keep talking!
You need to remember that there are no “right” or “wrong” answers. You are not being judged on the opinions you give! So try to relax and keep all your responses as conversational as possible.
Some of the most straightforward advice we can give you is to stick to what you know and use on a daily basis. This way you will avoid long pauses and eliminate stressing yourself out.
Again, it comes down to how well you can communicate fluently. It’s not about speaking absolutely perfectly. You just need to make sense.
So, to fine-tune your presentation skills practice with this webinar:
Another great way to improve is by recording yourself as you answer different questions. This way you’ll be able to critique your own mistakes and better notice subtleties that may make your speech a little harder to comprehend.
Remember, these common IELTS speaking mistakes are easily avoidable. With the right amount of revision and practice, you’ll be well on your way!
This article on IELTS speaking preparation explores the 3 parts of the IELTS speaking section and provides a list of IELTS topics along with useful tips for test day!
The speaking section of the IELTS test is included in both the general and academic IELTS. It lasts for less than 15 minutes and includes 3 parts which will be examined in more detail:
Part 1: Interview
Part 2: Presentation
Part 3: Discussion
Interview (IELTS speaking preparation)
In part 1, the examiner will ask you some simple questions about yourself, such as:
What did you study?
What do you do for work?
What’s your hometown like?
What kind of food do you like?
Do you enjoy going to the movies?
As you can see from these examples, these questions are pretty easy to answer. The trick is, not to give answers that are too short.
For example, if the examiner asks you what kind of food you like, try to elaborate. Rather than just saying: “I like all kinds of food”, you can say something like: “I have eclectic taste in food. I enjoy trying foods from different countries and experiencing their flavours. I especially like Greek, Italian and Thai food”.
Presentation (IELTS speaking preparation)
In part 2, you will be given a task card that looks something like this:
As you can see from the example, the topic will always be related to a personal experience you have had. You will have 1 minute to note down ideas and then you will be given 2 minutes to speak continuously on the topic.
Discussion (IELTS speaking preparation)
Part 3 is a discussion.
Here, the examiner will ask you some more questions related to the topic of part 2. But these questions will be more abstract and related to your opinion rather than your experience.
For example, based on the topic above, some discussion questions could be:
In your opinion, are national celebrations an important part of a country’s identity?
Are any traditional celebrations in your country disappearing? Why do you think that is?
Do you think these days that celebrations in your country are over-commercialised or have lost their original meaning?
IELTS speaking topics
There are common themes in IELTS speaking topics, though the specifics of each question vary.
See a list of common themes below!
The examiner is looking for four things:
#1 Fluency and coherence: Your ability to speak fluently without hesitation, repetition or loss of ideas
#2 Lexical resource: The range and accuracy of your vocabulary
#3 Grammatical range and accuracy: Your ability to speak using accurate complex and simple sentences without serious grammatical errors
#4 Pronunciation: Your ability to be understood when you speak
IELTS Speaking Test Tips
Below are some useful tips for test-day preparation:
Tip #1 Develop your answers by giving examples. This means using personal experiences or knowledge to add more information to your answers and keep your speech fluid.
Tip #2 Give your opinion. This will show the examiner that you can think in English and express yourself on a variety of topics.
Tip #3 Keep your speech fluent. Try to stick to things you know so you don’t get stuck. This will also show the examiner that you can speak at length without too much hesitation.
Tip #4 Ask for clarification. This is not a listening test. If you don’t hear a question, or don’t understand it, it is totally acceptable to ask the examiner to repeat or explain the question. This means you will be able to answer it properly.
Tip #5 Although you need to be prepared, try not to repeat memorized answers. You will come across as robotic and unnatural. The examiner will also know and will change the questions.
Tip #6 Practice, practice, practice! Role play at home with a friend or family member. Let them be the examiner and you practice answering questions about a variety of different topics. You can also record yourself and listen back to see where you can improve (fluency, vocabulary, etc.).
Tip #7 Read about general topics to broaden your general knowledge. This will help you generate ideas during the test and come up with examples from your own knowledge and experience.
This will have the widening your vocabulary for reading, as well as giving you knowledge that you can then use to generate ideas for your essay. So, read a blog or social media article per day, or watch at least one Ted talk or documentary daily on the topics listed above.
Learn how to Ace the IELTS with further preparation tips and strategies.
Check out the E2 IELTSYouTube Channel, with loads of methods and strategies including this one on IELTS speaking preparation!
For more formal test preparation, professional IELTS coaching from experts will help you apply the essay formula to different essay questions. Feedback is another important aspect of preparing for the IELTS writing task.
Learning IELTS online with E2language will provide you with effective methods, practice essays and expert feedback to feel confident and prepared to write your IELTS essay.
Note to ESL learners: This article about the IELTS speaking test contains a lot of complex vocabulary words. Some of them are written more than once. Many of these words are underlined, and this means that you can place your mouse/cursor over a word to see its definition. Try to check a definition only when a word stops you from understanding the whole sentence you are reading.
A few months ago, I had the privilege of teaching English at the College of Language and Culture Studies (CLCS) in the beautiful and remote country of Bhutan. While I was there, I also had the opportunity to teach an IELTS speaking workshop for the college’s English lecturers. The experience was incredible, and – as is the usually the way with intercultural opportunities – I learned a heck of a lot more from my students and colleagues than they did from me.
In general, the Bhutanese are friendly, inclusive and community-focused people who place great importance on cultivating relationships. Having previously spent time in Bhutan, I knew this but did not think it would have any bearing on the workshop I had been tasked with: teaching IELTS-specific speaking strategies to my colleagues. I couldn’t have been more wrong!
The IELTS Speaking Test Workshop
On the day of my workshop, I began with a quick summary of each section of the speaking test, starting with the “introduction/interview” component. In the first part of the speaking test, the IELTS examiner will “get to know you” by asking several questions about you. In addition, they will briefly interview you about one topic relating to your life (e.g. “What is your hometown like?” “How many people live there?” etc.) To get a sense of everyone’s level for this task, I broke my colleagues into pairs and assigned each person the role of interviewer or interviewee. It was up to the interviewer to ask the interviewee about themselves in the same way an IELTS examiner would on the real test.
Let me just preface this by saying that the introduction/interview part of the speaking test is supposed to take four or five minutes in total. My Bhutanese interviewees lasted less than two minutes. As the room fell silent around me while my timer was still obediently ticking down the minutes, I felt a wave of panic. Had my colleagues misunderstood the exercise? Had I poorly explained the time limit and made it seem like it was optional? I was dazed for a moment, but then someone spoke up: “Madame, we Bhutanese are not so used to talking about ourselves like this”.
The statement hit me like a ton of bricks, as did the realization that I had completely ignored a fundamental piece of Bhutanese culture; the Bhutanese almost never talk about themselves. You want to talk about the road conditions, the weather or your wife’s delicious cooking? You got it. But if you ask a Bhutanese person how their life is going, they usually re-direct the conversation away from themselves.
Why? Because the Bhutanese are careful not to be too proud, boastful or arrogant, and talking excessively about yourself can be seen as a demonstration of such traits. In a country that is built on modesty, public-service and collectivism, how could I possibly expect my colleagues to abandon their cultural values so easily?
It was at that moment that I understood just how much easier it is to succeed on the IELTS speaking test when you come from a culture that values individualism. With individualism comes a sort of forced extraversion in which people are encouraged talk openly and often, using themselves as the reference point for the world around them.
Generally, individualism and extraversion are part and parcel of Western culture. But here is the thing: IELTS takers very rarely come from a Western context. As a matter of fact, a substantial proportion of test-takers come from traditionally collectivist cultures such as India, Bangladesh and the Philippines.
Having said that, here is the other thing: English is not just a language. It’s the representation of a culture, one in which individualism and extraversion are both valued and encouraged. It is imperative for us to teach this concept to IELTS hopefuls before they take the test. If IELTS tutors aren’t aware of a test-taker’s cultural background and its inevitable differences to our own, we will fail our students time and time again.
The road is often difficult and frustrating for newcomers to Western countries, and everything begins with an arbitrary English proficiency exam that is riddled with hidden cultural assumptions. It’s our responsibility to explain these assumptions, just as much as we teach the fundamentals of language proficiency.
What do collectivists need to know about the IELTS speaking test?
IELTS Speaking Part 1
If you come from a culture that places emphasis on community harmony, it’s important to know that you will not be judged for talking about yourself on the IELTS speaking test. IELTS assesses your English proficiency based how well you can express yourself when speaking about a topic that relates to you. It’s crucial to practice talking about your personal experiences, background, goals and so forth so that you aren’t going to run out of things to say to your interviewer! Five minutes is a long time when you have nothing to say.
IELTS Speaking Part 2
If you come from a storytelling culture, you probably need to practice keeping your sentences short and concise. In part 2 of the speaking test, you have two minutes to read a topic on a card and make notes. You must then speak about the topic consistently for 1-2 minutes. In my workshop, I thought this task would be no problem for my colleagues because Bhutan is a nation built on storytelling; in fact it’s not uncommon for someone to spend hours presenting a single point in a workplace meeting! However, I quickly realized that this style of expression does not necessarily translate well to the IELTS criteria.
In Dzongkha (Bhutan’s national language), you almost always express one idea many different ways and, in addition, you must constantly communicate your respect if you are talking to someone with (any!) authority. In fact, a request that is not prefaced by at least five minutes of polite conversation could be considered quite disrespectful. Although I really enjoyed receiving class assignments from my students that began with the salutation “Dearest most respected and appreciated Madame”, I also had to explain to them that English is a language of “getting to the point”.
This applies when it comes to your IELTS presentation too; you must speak in an organized fashion that includes an introductory sentence, key points and a concluding sentence, and you must be careful not to dwell too much on a single point, as you have only 2 minutes to cover every point written on your card.
IELTS Speaking Part 3
If you come from a culture that traditionally “lives in the moment”, you may need to work on developing your abstract side. Western culture places a lot of importance on what we consider to be “critical thinking, in which individuals consider abstract ideas from different perspectives. Part 3 of the IELTS speaking test employs this concept and requires test-takers to discuss several abstract questions about the topic they presented in part 2. For example, if the topic was “Describe a friend from childhood”, you might be asked “What does friendship mean to you?” or “What does it mean to be a good friend”?
In Bhutan, most people live gloriously in the moment. The future is rarely discussed, and pre-made plans almost never work out because more important things come up at the last minute. This mentality creates a context of concreteness where everyday conversations revolve a lot around what is happening “right now” in the physical world.
Thus, some of my colleagues had difficulty discussing abstract ideas like the “meaning” of friendship at length– and often chose to give concrete examples from their daily lives instead (i.e. “For me, a good friend is someone who calls me every day”). While this approach is certainly not “wrong”, it usually doesn’t take long to describe the concrete aspects of an idea, and therefore many people will run out things to say long before their time is up.
In order to succeed in Part 3, it’s important to practice speaking about intangible ideas like emotions, thoughts and values. For example: “For me, a good friend is someone who displays loyalty to me and listens to me when nobody else will”.
For more IELTS speaking test tips, check out the video Jay made after he recently took IELTS himself!
Overall, I want to emphasize that just because test-takers will benefit from learning the cultural assumptions of the IELTS speaking test, it doesn’t mean that one approach to communication is “better” than another; one is not “right” and the other “wrong”. Rather, it’s important to recognize that there are significant differences in how we use language to communicate based on the cultural norms we have adopted.
The IELTS speaking test was created by native English speakers with the intention of measuring “English proficiency”, and it would seem that Western cultural values are integral to this definition of proficiency. Thus, IELTS caters well to extraverted individualists, and I think it’s important for test-takers to know this in order to succeed.
But don’t worry, you don’t have to magically transform into something you’re not. You just need to adopt some strategies to help you meet the test requirements. That’s where we can help you out! Sign up to an E2Language IELTS preparation course and let us show you how to maximize your IELTS speaking success on the first try.
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.
Explain the situation.
Say where and when it was.
Talk about whether or not it was resolved and if so how.
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.
Explain the situation.
Say where and when it was.
Talk about whether or not it was resolved and if so how.
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:
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