June 8, 2009
A General Description of Part 3
1) The Examiner's Aims in Part 3:
2) Part 3 is like a discussion (or a series of short 'pieces of discussion')
3) The Nature of the Part 3 Questions
1) The Examiner's Aims in Part 3
"Vocabulary" here includes "commonly used phrases and expressions". The vocabulary that you use in Part 3 should be a little more formal than in Part 1, where you speak about everyday things in your life and in Part 2, which is also connected with your life in some way. But your language should not be as formal as in the Writing test. In other words, you should try to speak vocabulary that is suitable for an educated person when speaking, not the vocabulary of quite formal written materials. (You need to recognize which words in "IELTS Vocabulary" books are more suitable for writing than speaking – some of the words in those books are not very suitable for spoken English.)
Showing coherence skills in Part 3 is especially important. One of the main reasons why Part 3 often has questions involving complex issues is to give you the opportunity to show your coherence skills. After you read what is written below, you'll see why it is so important to give answers in Part 3 that are longer than Part 1 answers. If your answers are short, you will be including fewer points in your answers and fewer points means fewer opportunities to show coherence skills. (As stated below, most of your Part 3 answers should be longer because they include "discussion-style" language such as the balancing of two or more contrasting points.)
The coherence skills that the examiner is looking at are basically the skills of speaking in a way that is easily understandable, i.e., easy to follow, when you are speaking in depth about several interrelated (complex) issues. At the same time, a rather long Part 3 answer should have a "wholeness" quality i.e., a quality of being unified. This "wholeness" quality is the feeling that everything you say is related to the original question, even when you give a lot of extra details and comments.
More specifically, the examiner is looking at your ability to express in words the logic of the interconnection between several ideas (several statements). Your language should be like this: Statement A + logical connection to Statement B + logical connection to Statement C + . . . . Usually, the logical connection words are at the beginning of the next statement, (followed by a comma in writing). The "statements" are usually separate sentences but you can make more than one separate statement made within one long sentence.
Some examples of words used to show logical connections are: "Therefore, ..."; "So, ..."; "As a result, ..."; "On the other hand, ..."; "Although X, ... Y" (don't use "but" with "although"); "In contrast to that, ..."; In other words, ..."; "As well as that, ..."; "For example, ..."; "As I mentioned before, ..."; etc.
These examples are commonly used "set phrases" or words and you should show the examiner that you have some knowledge of these. But you don't have to always or only use this kind of language to express logical connection, especially in speaking, which should be less formal than academic writing. For example, you might say Statement A (for example, the answer to the question, "What sorts of music do young people prefer to listen to?") and then you could follow that with the words, "But personally, ..." + Statement B (where Statement B probably has words such as "I prefer to listen to ...") Using the word, "But" is a less formal way to express the idea of, "In contrast to that, ..." and a certain amount of less formal language is good in a speaking test. In fact, you don't have to use the word, "But" – you could just begin with, "Personally, ...", which already includes the idea of "In contrast to that, ..." but using the word, "But" emphasizes the contrast even more clearly.
The logical connection words do not always have to be the beginning part of the next statement – they can sometimes be a complete sentence themselves. In spoken language, it's quite natural to sometimes speak like this: "I can give you some examples (of that)." This is a complete sentence that serves the purpose of connecting two statements. Notice that by using the words, "of that", you are helping the listener to keep track of (to follow) your logic because you specifically refer back, i.e., connect to what you previously said. It's not 100% necessary to use the words, "of that" but it helps the listener to see your connection.
To some extent, the examiner will try to take you to your limits of English, to see where you "break" or cannot answer. The point where you cannot answer (even when you understand the question) gives the examiner information about the upper limit of your speaking ability.
For example, the examiner might be quite sure that you are at least a Band 6.0 but he or she might not be sure whether you are good enough to get 6.5 or even 7.0. So they will test you with a few difficult questions and if you can answer those questions well, they will try even more difficult questions, in order to find your upper level. In other words, there is a good chance that the last one or two questions in Part 3 will be questions that you can't answer at all or questions that you give very poor answers to. Don't think that you "failed the test" if this happens because this happens to many candidates, even those at the Band 7 or 8 level.
However, not every test is like that because sometimes the examiner is quite sure what your upper limit is after just a few questions in Part 3, so he or she has no need to take you to your "breaking point".
If you do get questions that seem to be testing you to your limit, you should not feel scared or lose confidence. Instead, you should feel lucky (!) that the examiner is giving you an opportunity to move up half a Band point or even one whole Band point, and you should try your best.
Included in this idea of "taking you to your limit", is the difficulty of the language used in the questions. Although examiners usually try to simplify the questions in Part 3 so that you you can understand them the first time the examiner asks those questions, sometimes the examiner does not worry too much about doing this. Sometimes examiners deliberately ask questions using rather complex grammar or vocabulary in order to gain information about your knowledge of grammar and vocabulary – if your answer demonstrates that you understood the question, then that gives the examiner some information about your English level, although that is your listening comprehension level, not your speaking level.
More than testing your listening comprehension, the examiner usually uses rather difficult language in a question as a way of encouraging you to (try to) speak at that level of language in your answer. If all the questions in Part 3 were asked in quite simple English, then it would be quite natural for you to feel it is unsuitable to answer using language that is at a higher level than the language of the questions. In other words, the examiner is trying to encourage you to use your highest level of language by asking questions in quite high-level language.
Another reason why an examiner sometimes doesn't worry about simplifying a question using difficult language is that the examiner is testing your ability to seek clarification about the question, if you need to. Your ability to seek clarification about a question is itself an important communication skill in a discussion situation, a skill that requires knowledge of some particular language.
2) Part 3 is like a discussion (or a series of short 'pieces of discussion')
Part 3 is different because the examiner will (try to) speak to you as if the two of you were having a discussion. So, when Part 3 begins, you should tell yourself, "It's time now to have a discussion!", that is, you should be willing to discuss things, not simply answer questions as in Part 1.
It is important to understand that, even though the examiner's contribution to the discussion consists of questions only, your answer to a question should be more than the basic answer (and the reason for your answer, if suitable). In "polite" discussions, very often a person asks a question as a means of introducing or bringing up a topic for discussion. In other words, you should treat the questions in Part 3 as "invitations to talk about the topic of the question in general", after you first address the question itself. That is, answer the question (or say something about the question if you don't know or can't answer it) and then say something more about the topic of that question. This is how people talk when they discuss something. You should speak more detail than simply answering the basic question but you normally should answer the basic question first.
The main way that the examiner makes Part 3 feel like a discussion is by following some of your answers with a question that is based on the answer you just gave. In this way, the questions are connected, as in a discussion.
The second way that Part 3 is similar to a discussion is the fact that all of the topics and questions are somehow related to the Part 2 topic. This gives a feeling of continuity to the Speaking test from Part 2 to the end of the test.
However, the discussion will seem to "change direction" at times in Part 3 – it will not be one continuous discussion about one idea for the full 5 minutes. There will be two main topics or "areas of discussion" in Part 3, so when the examiner introduces the second topic, this will be one major change of direction in the discussion and within these two topics, there might be more than one different sub-topic that is discussed.
Not only that, it will not be a real, mutual discussion between you and the examiner because the examiner is not supposed to say what he or she thinks about a certain question. For example, if the examiner asks you to give an opinion, you cannot follow your answer by asking the examiner, "What's your opinion?" So, you should speak as if in a discussion with a person who is asking lots of questions but not giving his or her own ideas – this situation does happen sometimes when two people are discussing things.
One reason for having a discussion format in the Speaking test is to simulate the kinds of discussions that you will encounter in the classroom at university overseas.
More information on this is given in the section called, "How to Speak in Part 3".
3) The Nature of the Questions in Part 3
It is suitable to add information about "you" when you answer a question about people in general but it is only suitable after you have first answered the question about people in general. For example, you might get a question such as this: "Do boys and girls in China (generally) play the same kinds of sports?" Definitely don't begin your answer with "I" but, instead, talk about boys and girls in general. Then, if you think it's suitable you can add a comment about you or your girlfriend or your boyfriend – this should be a comment or extra information, not your main answer.
As mentioned above, Part 3 is mostly about people and life in general in your country (and, to a lesser extent, about people and life in the whole world). So, Part 3 is about society in general. In addition to that, many Part 3 questions are about certain frequently used sub-topics of the general topic of "society". Two very commonly used sub-topics are child development, including child psychology and change in society. The more you can think about and read about these topics, the more you will increase your knowledge and your vocabulary and expand your ideas.
You should not just speak a list of words. That shows your vocabulary but that is all it shows. You should also include comments about the various items in your "list" and try to interconnect some of the items, for example, by comparing them or by making a comment that covers all of the items in your "list". However, if you compare two of the items in your list, your comparison should just sound like a comment because the basic question was simply asking you to list a few items; the question was not, "Please compare A and B". In other words, don't make most of your answer a comparison between A and B; just make part of your answer such a comparison.
In Part 3 of the Speaking test, if you get a similar question, you don't have to address "the other side" if your answer stating your opinion and why you have that opinion is already quite full of detail. But it's always a good idea to keep these "other sides" in mind and, if you feel you can't say much about why you have your opinion, you can mention the other side and say something about that. This is the way people talk when they "discuss" a topic.
I suggest you try to at least make a summarized statement about the opposing opinions but don't spend too much time on them if the question is about your opinion, (which it usually is). On the other hand, if the question is about the variety of opinions that people have about a certain issue, then of course you should speak about the different and opposing opinions and possibly include your own opinion as a comment or extra detail in your answer.
Another similar question is, "What's the government doing about that problem?" Those candidates who are well-read and who follow the news closely on that question are rewarded for their knowledge because they have information that they can give. (The IELTS people think university students, even science students, should have some general knowledge about social questions.) Even if you don't know, you should try to say something about the topic in general (in relation to the government) or make guesses about what the government is doing, or develop your answer into saying what you think the government could or should do.
Some suggestions on how to speak for "speculation" questions are also included in the section, "Language Functions and Question Types".