Updated Jan. 21, 2011

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Communicating - the 'key' to the Speaking test

There is really no one 'key' or secret to the IELTS Speaking test, but if I had to choose one thing, I would say it is this: In the Speaking test, don't think that you are 'performing'; think that you are communicating with another human being. Don't think of the IELTS examiner as an 'examining god' or as an 'examining machine' but think he or she is another human being, just like you and on the same level as you, even if he or she is 70 years old. If you have this attitude, you will actually speak better. Not only that, you'll feel less nervous.

In fact, the IELTS Handbook actually describes the Speaking test as " ... assessing whether candidates can communicate effectively in English." Why didn't they just describe the test as " ... assessing how well candidates can speak English"? The reason is that 'communicating' and 'speaking' are not exactly the same. Speaking is a tool or method for the purpose of communicating. You can teach a parrot to speak a few phrases of English (maybe a good parrot could get a Band 2!) and someone who doesn't really understand a word of English could answer every question in the IELTS test by speaking memorized passages of Shakespeare in perfect English as their answers. However, when we communicate, we exchange meaning with another person and our answers to questions are closely related to the questions. If the other person doesn't understand the meaning we are trying to express, we try again to get the meaning across by perhaps changing the words we use or giving an example. Or, when we are explaining something complex, we especially try to speak in a logical way and might add examples or say, 'In other words, ...' when we feel that our language might not be clear enough. 

Of course, when we communicate, we don't always wait for the other person to say they don't understand we look at them to see their reaction to what we say and to see if they understand. This is especially important in Part 2 of the Speaking test because the examiner will not ask you to repeat something he or she doesn't understand or hear clearly in Part 2 they are not supposed to interrupt you at all. Many candidates stare at the task card all the time when they do their Part 2 monologue and that is a sign of poor communication. Other candidates stare into space as they talk, (possibly because they are recalling sentences that have prepared) and this is the same because they can't see whether the examiner is following what they are saying.

Some IELTS books tell you to look into the examiner's eyes all the time during the test. Yes, Westerners do look into each other's eyes more than Asian people when they talk and young Asians do tend to have the cultural habit of averting eye contact when they talk to older people or people they feel are their superiors. But even Westerners don't stare into the other person's eyes all the time! When I first started as an examiner, a few very attractive girls stared into my eyes all the time and I sometimes thought, "Wow! She's falling in love with me!" To be honest with you, this probably did affect my judgment sometimes  if I had to decide whether to go up or down when my calculation of her score was say, 5.5, I probably went up more often than I should have for some of these girls. (Examiners are supposed to go down. Also, It is possible that examiners have to report all the 4 sub-scores now but when I was an examiner a few years ago, we only had to report the final score.) [When I was an examiner, in 2001-3, there were no 0.5 scores in speaking, just whole numbers, such as 4, 5, 6 etc.] But you girls should be careful of using this as a method to try to get a better score from male examiners because I also remember sometimes feeling insulted when girls stared into my eyes like that; I thought they were trying to get a higher score by pretending to find me a fascinating person. It was only later, when I read the books that suggested candidates should maintain eye-contact all the time, that I realized the true reason why they did this. Just be natural! 

Another aspect of communication is that we correct our language if we make a serious mistake that could or does result in a misunderstanding. But in the IELTS test, for grammar or pronunciation errors that would not usually cause misunderstanding, you should not correct yourself more than a couple of times. Too much self-correction could result in a loss of fluency (loss of continuity) and actually make it harder to follow you.

And when we try to communicate but don't know or can't recall the exact word we want to say, we still try to convey our meaning by 'paraphrasing' i.e., explaining the meaning of the word we can't think of. Some candidates just give up immediately when they run across this problem but that is poor communication and it reveals an attitude of performing rather than communicating. This, and several other small aspects of communication are written into the examiner's grading criteria. Yes, it's not a bad idea to be aware of these small things but by simply having the attitude that you are communicating, these small aspects of communication will come more naturally to you and you won't need to specifically remember every small thing you should do. This includes eye-contact and the way you sit in your chair.

I'll write more about communication (as well as other topics) in later blogs. Hope it doesn't bore you!


Too many Part 2 topics!

Some students have asked me if there is any way to narrow down the number of possible Part 2/3 topics. The answer is, no, I don't think there is much that I can do to make this choice smaller. (I used to think that Part 2 topics are 'retired' after 12 months of use but it seems that some topics that are still being used have been in use for more than 12 months.) I believe that the test managers in China are approaching the point of having a largely unpredictable Part 2/3 topic. But it is not 100% unpredictable IF you do the test on a day when they are introducing new topics, my estimate is that you have about a 50% chance of getting a new topic and a 50% chance of getting one of the many topics I've listed on this website. But since there are so many topics on my website, the situation requires a suitable way to handle this information. That is, you might need to rethink how you study.

Before I continue, I want to say that I don't know what method the test managers in China are using now for handling the Part 2 topics. Everything seems to have changed after the first test of May this year. Before that, the set of only 15 Part 2 topics was known. They used to change 5 of the topics every 4 months but after a few tests, it was possible to work out what these new topics were and even deduce which 5 topics had been taken out of the test. But now, I don't even know if the examiners still have a total of 15 topics to choose from it could be a lot smaller but this smaller set of topics might be changed very frequently, i.e., for each morning or afternoon of examining. Why do I say this? Well, it's already obvious that for every test, (or almost every test), one new topic is introduced before each half day of the test. (I'm not sure if they take out the new topic from the morning session when they introduce a new topic for the afternoon session on Sunday but it seems likely.) But the reason I suspect a smaller set of choices is the pattern of what candidates report on the internet after each test. About half of the people report a new Part 2 topic but of the others, it seems that one or two of the topics in my list is used a lot more than they would be used if the examiner had 15 topics to choose from. For example, last week very many people reported getting the topic, "Describe a character from a story you heard (or read) in your childhood" How does this information help you? I don't know. It seems likely but not certain that an old topic that was used in the last test won't be used a lot in the next few tests but you can't even assume this with certainty.

I do seem to see a pattern where the examiners are using the more difficult Part 2 topics more often than the easier ones. By 'difficult' I mean topics which many candidates find difficult to answer or can answer fairly easily but often with grammatical (or other) errors. Or, the examiners might be choosing Part 2 topics whose Part 3 questions are known to cause problems or errors in candidates. Even if the examiners are not doing this, common sense tells you that you should give priority to preparing for those known topics that seem the most difficult for you. (One problem here is that many of you don't know when you are making grammatical errors.) One such topic is #5, 'Describe what you would do if you received a very large sum of money.' You might think that this is an easy topic because it is so open-ended you could possibly talk for ten minutes about all the possibilities of what you would do. Yes, it is relatively easy to answer but a large percentage of candidates would make grammatical errors when answering this topic. You should give priority to preparing for the more difficult or error-inducing topics. 

Now that there are so many topics to study or prepare for, my suggestion is that you change the way you study. Instead of writing many answers for many topics and trying to memorize these answers, you should try to find more global methods of study. For example, let's look at the topics that require mostly past tense sentences in your Part 2 monologue. (Past tense topics are the most frequently used topics.) If you know that your (spoken) past tense is a little weak, spend some studying and practicing spoken past tense sentences. For example, do you always say 'id' when you pronounce the 'ed' of past tense regular verbs that originally ended in 'd' or 't' such as 'wanted, started, lasted, tasted, located, decided, funded, sounded etc.'? Do you know when to pronounce the 'ed' of other past tense regular verbs as 'd' and when to pronounce it as 't'? Do you know the correct pronunciation of the past tense of all the common irregular verbs? This way, you'll be better prepared for any past tense topic. 

Even if or when the number of Part 2 topics reaches 100, you can still study them by thinking for 1 minute and then speaking for two minutes on each topic. (That would only be a total of 300 minutes, i.e., 5 hours.) It's useful to make a tape recording of what you say in those two minutes. You can listen to the recording and, even though you are not an expert, you will be able to recognize places where you made mistakes or found it difficult to continue speaking. Then concentrate on fixing these weaknesses. If you give yourself only two weeks to prepare for the test, you won't be able to cover all the topics on this website but if you give yourself 2 months or more, you should be able to do it.

The "Three-Minute Training Exercise"

It's very important that you prepare yourself, as much as possible, not just for specific Part 2 topics but for any new Part 2 topic. What are some other ways to do this? Well, all Part 2 topics start with a minute of thinking time. This is not much time to think about a topic that you have just been given. The problem is not so much that you can't brainstorm lots of ideas for the topic; the problem is brainstorming lots of ideas in one minute. But I'm quite sure that, like anything, the more you practice, the better you'll become and this includes the skill of brainstorming in 1 minute. What you should do is go through the topics in my list and practice doing them by strictly giving yourself only 1 minute to brainstorm and then timing yourself as you speak so that you speak for 2 minutes exactly. As you speak, also note when the 1 minute has passed because, in the real test, you must speak for at least 1 minute but no more than 2 minutes. Don't give yourself 2, 5 or 10 minutes of brainstorming time; train yourself to do it in 1 minute. Later, you can spend more time preparing a better answer, using your dictionary etc. But first use each topic in my list as a 3-minute training exercise. Actually, this is not perfect because you have probably read many or all of the topics already so they will not be 100% new to you, as in a real test (if you get a new topic). Therefore, you should also practice this 3-minute activity by opening an IELTS book that has several Part 2 topics that you have not read before and practicing with them. But start by doing this 3-minute exercise with the topics in my list.

Try to speak naturally, as if you were telling a story in an informal setting. Don't speak as if you were reading a written story - this will reveal to the examiner that your answer was prepared beforehand. This is another reason, in addition to the fact that it is time-consuming, not to write and especially not to memorize, word-for-word, a prepared answer for Part 2. Yes, think of and write down some sentences and notes but not a complete script.


As for Part 3, there are even more questions than for Part 2. First, read all the questions and just quickly imagine what you would say. Then, give priority to those questions that you think you would find most difficult if you were asked them and try to think of good answers for them. After you've prepared for the most difficult questions, go back to the list of questions and prepare as many as you can by first just speaking aloud what you would say. This way, you will further discover which questions are easier and which are troublesome. 

You should also try to find patterns in the questions. For example, questions about future change, comparison questions, and opinion questions are very common. The comparison questions often ask you to compare: a) men and women (boys and girls); b) old and young people; c) city and country; and d) today and before

Also, don't forget that Part 3 questions are mostly general questions. The examiner should tell you this at the beginning of Part 3 but many examiners don't emphasize it clearly enough. For example, you might get the Part 2 topic asking you to talk about a sports event (e.g., a football match) that you have seen. At the beginning of Part 3, the examiner should say: "We've been talking about a sports event that you watched and now I'd like to ask you a few more general questions related to the topic of sport." The word "general" should be emphasized, that is, spoken with stress in order to contrast it with the idea that your Part 2 topic was specifically about one particular event that you have seen. Then, in Part 3, you might get a question such as, "Do young men and women play the same kinds of sports in China?" It is a mistake to give an answer such as this: "Well, different people like different sports and there are so many sports to choose from now. A lot of people in China like table tennis. But there are also many people who are not very interested in any sport at all. As for me, I prefer basketball." The contents of that answer are not wrong but that answer is suitable for the question: "What sports do people in China play?" The original question was asking you to give some generalizations about young men and women (boys and girls) and sport, i.e., to make some general comparisons between the sports that boys play with those that girls play. A more suitable answer would be: "Not really, although there are some sports such as badminton and table tennis that both boys and girls like to play. In general, young men prefer the more physical sports such as basketball and football but girls prefer non-contact sports such as badminton and volleyball. In the sports that boys prefer, the players sometimes come into rather violent physical contact with their opponents but girls don't like that. Actually, girls are generally a lot less interested in sport than boys only a few girls in China play competitive sport. Most of them prefer to exercise by doing activities such as aerobics, working out in the gym, swimming, yoga or similar gentle, non-competitive physical activities." (That is a Band 8/9 answer.) 

I'm working on writing some notes that will help you better answer some of the known Speaking test questions. These are not answers for you to memorize but rather some suggestions and advice. I hope to post this on this website soon.