Updated  Sept. 3, 2008

How To Speak in Part 2 (Page 5) 

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How to Best Use Your 1 Minute of Thinking Time

Summary: This is brainstorming time. 

  1. Mentally note the verb tense for each point on the card. 
  2. Check your first idea to see if it really is the best idea. 
  3. Divide the paper into four parts and write a key word or two to address each of the four points. Then write a few key words (at least one) to represent extra details. 
  4. Don't write full sentences. Spend most of the time imagining as many ideas (details) as possible.


Different people have different styles of thinking so you should consider the points below to be just suggestions for you to try, to see if they are effective for you. The best way to discover and refine your own method of handling the thinking time is to do several Part 2 questions under strict exam conditions during your study at home. See: How to Study for Part 2.

There are three main things to do in your thinking time: a) Read the topic,  b) Decide on what you will speak about and, c) Think of the points you will say.

Of course, the third thing should be what takes up most of your 1-minute of preparation time.

a) Reading the Card (Suggested time usage: 5 to 15 seconds)

First, read the whole topic quickly to get an understanding of the topic as a whole.

Then, go back and pay attention to the details in the first line, followed by the details in the other lines. Every detail is important! The whole process of reading the card should be done in just a few seconds.

What should you pay attention to? Let's look at the 'Teacher' topic as an example. 


Describe a teacher who has greatly influenced you in your education.


       You should say:


                   where you met them

                                       what subject they taught

                                       what was special about them


                       and explain why this person influenced you so much.




  1. Notice that you are asked to give one and only one example, 'a teacher', not two or three teachers or speak in general about the kinds of teachers who have influenced you. This is typical of Part 2 topics.

  1. Notice that there is a key word, 'greatly'. Therefore, you should not talk about a teacher who only influenced you a little. Understand this: Influence and change go together; Every change has a cause (an influence) and every 'influence' results in a change; If there is no change, there is no influence; If there was a great influence, there was also a great change.

  1. Pay attention to any other words such as, 'in your education'. This means it is unsuitable to talk about a teacher who influenced you in your choice of career, in your choice of clothes or from whom you learned how to tell good jokes. 

  1. Very importantly, notice the verb tense. In the first line of the 'Teacher' example, the verb tense is the Present Perfect tense ('has influenced'), which is used to talk about a past experience. However, this tense is just used to talk about 'before now', without specifying when. 

This tense is used in the first line in order to introduce the topic, that is, to give you a general idea of the topic. The verb tense used in the "Describe" line is not as important as the verb tenses used in the other lines of the task card.

  1. Then, pay close attention to the verb tense (or the verb form) of the remaining four points on the card. When Part 2 is in the past tense, usually all the points on the card are also past tense, but this is not always the case! So pay attention to the tense of each point and remind yourself  what tense to use when you speak. 

We see that, in this example, every point is past tense. This is the tense you should use in your story when you answer these 4 points, not the Present Perfect tense.

See Grammar in Part 2 for more on this topic.

  1. If there is anything that you don't understand in the words on the card, you should ask the examiner for help. Sometimes it's not necessary to do this if you think you can make an 'intelligent guess' about the meaning. But if you seriously don't understand something written on the card, you should let the examiner know that you have a problem understanding the words.

Why do I say you 'should' do this? The reason is this: If you seriously misunderstand what the card asks you to say and, as a result, your answer does not fit the question, most examiners in China, most of the time, will assume that you are speaking a rehearsed, memorized answer. They will think that you had an answer prepared that seemed to be 'close enough' to fit this question and that you decided to speak this answer. If the examiner thinks that, you might lose a lot of points because examiners dislike obviously rehearsed answers. So, it's a dangerous situation if you seriously don't understand something on the task card. 

Even if you make an honest mistake in what you say in Part 2, as a result of a misunderstanding, many examiners often don't realize that it was an honest mistake they usually assume you spoke a memorized answer.

If you ask the examiner for help, do it in your 1 minute of thinking time, not when the examiner says, "Could you start speaking now, please." This is because the examiner has just written down the starting time for your two minutes of talking and if you ask a question at that time, he or she will have to make a note of the time again, which is troublesome and irritating for examiners. If you ask a question in your 1 minute of thinking time, most fair-minded examiners will give you a few extra seconds of thinking time, (but probably not quite as much as the time you use to ask the question and receive the answer.)

If you have to ask a question about the meaning of a word, it is much better to ask it this way, "Does ____ mean something like ____?" than to simply ask, "What does ____ mean?" Examiners are allowed to give you help but they are not supposed to give a 'dictionary definition'. Instead, they will give you an example or say "It's similar to _____". As well as that, if your guess is close to correct, the examiner will think your vocabulary is better than if you just ask, "What does ____ mean?"

  1. Quite often (but not always), the meaning of the first line (the "Describe ..." line) is repeated in the last line (the "and explain ..." line) but using different words. This can be useful if you don't understand a word in the last or the first line. If you don't understand something in either the first or last line and if different words are used in the first and last lines, try comparing those two lines to see if the meaning becomes clearer for you. 

For example, although the 'Teacher' example uses the word, 'influenced' in both the first and last line, the topic could have been written with the last line saying this: "and explain why this teacher had such a big effect on you". If you don't know the meaning of "influence" but you do know the meaning of "effect", this could help you understand what "influence" means.

  1. There are two words in this 'Teacher' example that might confuse you, two words that are often used in Part 2 topics.

Firstly, the word, "they" here means, "him or her", not 他们. English doesn't have a simple word to express, "him or her" and to use "him or her", especially to use it repeatedly, is cumbersome. That's why "they" is used this way.

Secondly, the word, "why" in the last line can usually also be interpreted to mean, "how". Explaining why something happened and explaining how something happened are more or less the same. For some people, it might be easier to think of the word, "why" and for other people, it might be easier to think of the word, "how".

Here's an example of "why" Miss Li, my Chinese teacher influenced me so much. 

"When I first met Miss Li, I had already decided that I wanted to be a journalist and, if possible, an author of novels and short stories. So, when I heard that Miss Li had previously worked as a journalist and had also written a successful book of short stories, I was absolutely thrilled! I could see that she had excellent writing skills but after I learned about her background I was really motivated to pay attention to everything she said and to try to copy her style of writing.

Here, you have explained the reason why you were so willing to allow Miss Li to influence you; you are explaining why you were allowing yourself  to be so susceptible to being influenced by her.

Now let's look at an example that explains more "how" Mr. Wang, my maths teacher, influenced me. That is, it explains how the process of change took place but in reality, it also explains, 'why'. 

"Before I had Mr. Wang as my maths teacher, I found maths quite difficult and, in fact, I didn't like it at all. So I couldn't believe it when I saw how enthusiastic Mr. Wang was about maths and how he actually loved it! After two years of having him as my maths teacher I, too, had grown to love it and I guess the main reason was because his enthusiasm was so contagious. As well as being so enthusiastic about his subject, he was also a great teacher because whenever I didn't understand something, he would sit with me and very patiently explain it, using easy-to-understand examples. The end result was that, after three years of studying maths with Mr. Wang, I was getting near 100% grades in every maths test and I had grown to really like maths, as well. Yes, I'm so glad I had him as my maths teacher. You know, if I had never met Mr. Wang, I really doubt that I'd be studying engineering right now."

b) Deciding on What to Talk about (Suggested time usage: 5 to 10 seconds)

After spending just a few seconds to remind yourself about the key words and the verb tenses, you have to now decide on what example you will talk about. As mentioned above, almost every Part 2 asks you to talk about one example of something, something from your life or that you know about.

Some candidates spend far too much time agonizing over what to talk about. If you do that, you won't have enough ideas to keep talking and you'll get a low score.

Probably the main reason why these candidates can't make a decision is that they can't think of a suitable true example from their lives. If this happens, just make up a story, i.e., a story that is not true! See: Do I Have to Tell the Truth?

If you consider the 'Teacher' example, which comes from the IELTS Handbook, you'll see that the writers of the Handbook are actually telling us that completely untrue, or greatly exaggerated stories are acceptable. Why do I say that? Because I think only a lucky minority of people can think of a teacher who has greatly influenced them. Most of us can only think of one or two teachers who influenced us a little, not greatly. 

However, although untrue examples are allowed, I think it is better, if possible, to choose a real example because you'll find it easier to talk about a real example from your life and you will speak more convincingly.

I suggest that you use the first idea, i.e., the first example that comes into you mind because this is usually the best. But don't automatically accept that as your example. First, spend just 2 or 3 seconds asking yourself if this really is the best example you could use. 

What makes an example a good one? The following are a few points about what makes an example a good one:

  1. A good example is something that you know about

If you choose an example that seems good at first but is a topic that you really don't know much about, then you'll find it difficult to keep talking. For instance, Part 2 topic #150 says, "Describe a (big) organization that you know about." The United Nations seems like a good choice but do you really know enough facts about the United Nations to keep talking fluently?

  1. A good example is something which you have enough vocabulary to talk about

This is similar to a) but not exactly the same. When you think of an example, ask yourself if you have enough vocabulary about that topic to keep talking fluently. If you know you have a good vocabulary in one particular area, for example, pop music or sport, look for opportunities to choose a topic (an example) from the area of pop music or sport.

  1. A good example is not too simple

Some people have the mistaken idea that a very simple example is easy to talk about. Yes, it's true that something simple is easy to talk about for a single question, such as in Part 1. But in Part 2, if it's too simple, it will be hard to think of many details and, as a result, it will be hard to speak continuously about for almost two minutes. A little complexity will give you extra things to talk about and explain.

  1. A good example involves your feelings, if possible

It is not always possible or suitable to choose an example that includes expressing your feelings but if you can, try to choose an example that does include some mention of your feelings because that will help you speak better. 

If you can get hold of the IELTS Specimen tests and listen to the Korean girl talking with great pride and emotion about how her President won the Nobel Peace Prize, you'll see how genuine emotion can make your story easier to talk about, and make it more interesting to the listener. (Her topic was, "A Recent News Event".) To speak with genuine emotion, the topic needs to be true but if you are a good actor or actress, you might be able to do the same with an untrue story. Right now, there is a topic, (#172), "A Famous Person". If you get that topic, try, if possible, to talk about someone who genuinely moves you, not simply a famous person who you have no feelings about.

  1. A good example has something different or unusual

If possible, try to make your story different to other people's answers. This will be much more interesting for the listener (the examiner) and it will help you get a better score. Examiners (and everyone, in fact), love to hear stories that are imaginative!

  1. A good example adds to the listener's knowledge

This might not be possible for all topics but if the examiner can learn something new about China, for example, he or she will then think it's a better story than one from which he or she learned nothing new.

I've listed several ways that can make an example to talk about a good one. There's no need to go through that complete list to check the first example that comes to your mind that would use far too much time. Instead, I suggest you plant the six ideas above into your brain and in the real test, just quickly check to see if the example you choose satisfies the first three points and perhaps 1 or 2 of the other points.

c) Thinking of what points to say (Suggested time usage: 35 - 50 seconds)

This step should use most of your 1-minute of thinking time. It is also the time when you need to make a few notes. But you should not write full sentences on your piece of paper because this will use up too much time.  And, if you use up too much time writing sentences, you won't have enough time to think of things to say. The idea is to just write key words that remind you of what to say.

Many people don't make any notes at all in the test and they are able to speak quite well. But with the stress of the situation, you might become nervous and end up forgetting some key points. So it is a good idea to write a few keywords. Not only that, writing a few keywords helps your mind to focus on those points and think of more details about them.

Obviously, as a bare minimum, there are four points on the cue card that you need to answer. You should also aim to say at least one extra piece of detail about each of those four points, which totals eight points to say. However, the more points or details you can say, the better. 

The last point, the "explain" point, should, in most cases, be answered in a little more detail than the other three and therefore you should try to think of at least two things to say for that point.

Let's look at the teacher example. Here are the four points:

                                       1) where you met them

                                       2) what subject they taught

                                       3) what was special about them

                                       4) explain why this person influenced you so much.

A good idea is to divide your piece of paper into four parts and first write in one word (or a very short combination of words) to answer the basic points. 

Below is an example of a piece of paper divided into four parts with some key words written in. These are the basic answers to the cue card points, without extra details. You will try to add extra points a few seconds after you write these key words. 

Let's say you are going to talk about Mr. Wang, your maths teacher in junior high school.


For Point 1, you don't need to actually say the exact place where you first met; "at school" is good enough. Notice that by saying you met him in your first year of junior high school you are also establishing when, which is important when using the past tense.

For Point 2, the subject, there's nothing much else to say except the basic answer, "maths".

For Point 3, what was special about Mr. Wang, you are lucky because you can immediately think of have six points to say about how he was special, three points about him as a maths teacher and three points about him as a person. As a teacher, he loved his subject and was very enthusiastic both about the subject and about teaching it. He was also very patient when he explained new concepts to the class and to you personally. As a person, he had a good sense of humour, he played ping pong with the class during breaks and even after school sometimes and everyone thought of him as a friend.

For Point 4, why/how he influenced you, you need to first focus on the idea of change because without change, there is no influence. You're going to say that after three years of studying with Mr. Wang, your attitude towards maths changed drastically from hating it to having great respect for it. This is because Mr. Wang pointed out to the class how powerful mathematics is as a tool for analyzing and explaining the physical world. You are not sure how this change took place and you can only say that Mr. Wang's enthusiasm and love for maths "rubbed off on you". (从他人的榜样中汲取)

Notice that there are many more points for # 3 and # 4 because, after all, the topic was describe a teacher.

After writing these basic ideas, try to imagine a few more details. If you have time, quickly add them to your piece of paper. If you don't have time (i.e., the examiner asks you to start talking), just keep the ideas in your head. 

For example, you might have time to add the three extra points that are shown below.

These points are: you had Mr. Wang for three years as your maths teacher; you hated maths and you found it hard before you met Mr. Wang; maybe the reason why Mr. Wang's positive attitudes rubbed off on you is because you really wanted to be a good student; and you're glad that he caused you to love maths now and that, if you had never met Mr. Wang, you doubt that you would be studying engineering right now.


Ask Yourself the 'Question Words'

If you can't think of many things to say during the 1 minute of thinking time or while you are talking, a good idea is to ask / say to yourself the key 'questions words' that are used in English. These words are, "How?", "When?", "Where?", "Why?", "Who?" and "What .... (+ a noun)?" These words are in addition to the four question words in the four key points that the card asks you to talk about. 

You don't even need to ask yourself anything more than these single words. Just say these words to yourself and see if any information come to your mind that is suitable to include in your story.

For example, maybe the card is like this:

                        "Describe a place near water that you enjoyed visiting.

                        You should say:

                                                    where you went

                                                    who you went there with

                                                    what you did there

                        and explain how you felt about that place."

Let's look at just one of the points here, 'where you went'. Maybe your answer to this is, "I went to the beach at Qingdao". That's your basic answer but it's too short. So, you ask yourself the one word, "How?" This will bring to mind the question, "How did you go there?" Then you can add the fact that you went to Qingdao by plane or the fact that you went to the beach from your hotel on foot. The question word, "When?" can be answered by adding the detail that you and your friends went there about 10 o'clock in the morning. Or, maybe you could think of "When?" as meaning what day or what time of the year and you can say that it was in the last week of July and it was very hot then. You can still ask yourself the question word, "Where?" even though you plan to say Qingdao because the question might come to your mind, "Where is Qingdao?" and you can say that it's on the coast of Shandong province, not too far from South Korea and a few hundred kilometers east of your hometown, Beijing. The question word, "Why?" can bring to mind the facts that you went to the beach to, a) cool off in the sea water, b) to lie in the sun, c) to play some ball games on the sand and, d) to look at the beautiful view of the wide, blue ocean. Or maybe you can think of saying why you chose to go a beach at Qingdao and not a beach at, say, Dalian or some other place that has beaches.

Do you see how easily extra ideas come to your mind once you simply ask these question words? If you do this, you should have no problems in quickly thinking of extra details to add to you story.

You are now ready to start telling your little story but, if you still have a few seconds remaining, you can think about your first sentence. If you don't have time, you can do this next step in about two or three seconds after the examiner asks you to start speaking.

Your aim is to create a first sentence that, a) jumps straight into the story, b) summarizes point #4 and, c) uses a relative pronoun to make the first sentence a complex sentence.

Here's an example of a good first sentence: "When I was in first year of junior high school, I met a teacher named Mr. Wang who completely changed my attitudes towards mathematics."

See here for more about how to begin talking in Part 2.


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