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Updated Dec. 12, 2013

How To Speak in Part 2 (Page 6)

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How to Begin Talking

Summary: A formal-sounding introduction is unnecessary. Instead, 'jump straight into the story'. A particularly strong first sentence includes a relative pronoun (such as 'which' or 'who') and a summary of your answer to the last line of the card.

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Many candidates are not sure how to begin talking in Part 2. As mentioned previously, it is not a good idea to begin with words such as, "I'd like to tell you about  ..." because that beginning doesn't seem suitable for a 'conversation situation', which is what the Speaking test represents. In other words, it is not necessary to give a formal-sounding introduction to your Part 2 'story'. 

Not only that, so many candidates begin by saying, "I'd like to tell you about  ..." that it's boring for examiners to hear. 

Although I say it's not a good idea to begin with those words, it's not really 'wrong' or a mistake. I just mean there are better ways to begin, ways that are more suitable and more interesting to hear.

So what is the best way to begin? In general, I suggest just 'jumping straight into the story', in a way that seems natural in a conversational situation. I think there is no one way to speak your first sentence for every Part 2 it depends on the type of topic question and I think there are some logical ways to begin these different 'types' of Part 2 topics.

For example, many Part 2 topics ask you to talk about an experience you have had. That is, you have to give a past tense answer. For these, the logical beginning is to mention the time of this experience in your first sentence. For example, if the topic is, "Describe some useful advice that you have received" a suitable way to 'jump into the story' is to begin by saying, "About three years ago I was discussing my future career with my parents and my father gave me some really useful advice. He said ..."

That's quite a good beginning, for the following reasons:

  1. You indicated the time of the experience. Whenever you use the past tense, the listener (or reader) must know when it happened. It is incorrect in English to use the past tense if the listener does not know that. This time can be rather general, for example, "One day, .." or "A long time ago ..." etc. but it must be known by the listener. 

[Many people make this past tense mistake because they use the past tense when they really mean to use the Present Perfect tense. For example, they say, "I traveled to several different countries" when they should add the "have" verb and say, "I've traveled to several different countries." If you are simply talking about your experience in life "before now", you use the Present Perfect tense (with the "have" verb) and you don't need to say more specifically when you did it. But if you say, "I traveled to several different countries", this is the Past tense and the listener needs to know when you did it.

But the Part 2 topics never (or rarely) ask you to use the Present Perfect tense in your answers, although the first line might introduce the topic by using the Present Perfect tense for example: "Describe some useful advice you have received." Part 2 doesn't ask you to use the Present Perfect tense when you answer the 4 points on the card because these points are specific details about this past experience and we always use the Past tense when speaking about specific points in the past.]

To repeat: A very good way to start almost any Past tense topic is to say when it happened in the very first words of the first sentence. You can begin your very first sentence like this - "About three years ago, .... + past tense", "When I was ten years old, .... + past tense", "A few years ago, ..... + past tense" , "When I was in primary school, ... + past tense", etc.

(See also the use of "Well", below.)

  1. It is also a good beginning because it indicates the situation (having a discussion with your parents) when you received the advice.

However, although that is a good beginning, it could be even better. A key idea for beginning your Part 2 story, whatever the topic, is to summarize the point of the last line on the task card in your first sentence

Here's an example: "About three years ago I was discussing my future career with my parents and my father gave me some advice, which was really useful because it saved me from making a big mistake in my choice of career. He said ..."

Summarizing the last point in your first sentence is a very useful thing to do because:

  1. This point is the key idea to your whole story. By mentioning this point at the very beginning you make the whole story much easier to follow. It helps to make your story strongly coherent.

  1. You use a complex sentence to say this, using the linking word (the relative pronoun), 'which'. When the examiner hears you say that, he or she will immediately think, "Maybe a 6 or more for grammar."

  1. If you don't manage your speaking time well and the examiner tells you to stop talking at two minutes, before you have spoken about the last point on the card, you will lose points for coherence. That is, you didn't complete the task and incompleteness = some lack of coherence. But if you mention the last point in your sentence and still don't have time to say any more about the last point later in your story, the examiner will think, "Well, you didn't say much about the last point but you did explain it in a summarized form in your first sentence" and you will not lose points for coherence.

In general, the models are these:

".... noun, relative pronoun + verb + key adjective + because ...."

or,

".... noun, relative pronoun + verb + because"

 

Some examples: 

"Last year I saw a type of dog called a Shar-pie, which was very interesting to me because I had never before seen a dog with so much loose skin." (Comma before "which".)

"It's a restaurant that / which I especially like because ... " (No comma before "which" or that")

[In the restaurant example, British English uses either, "which" or "that" but American English only uses "that". This is different to the dog example, in which only "which" can be used. In that example, the dog did the verb, (be interesting) but in the restaurant example, the restaurant does not do the verb, (like). When the grammar is like this restaurant example, the relative pronoun, "which" or "that", can be omitted, especially in spoken English. So that sentence could also be, "It's a restaurant I especially like because ... "]

"When I was in junior high school I had a maths teacher, Mr. Wang, who really influenced me a lot because he completely changed my attitude towards mathematics." Notice how much information is packed into that one sentence.

Of course, variations of these models are possible. For example: "... Mr. Wang, who really influenced me a lot by completely changing my attitude towards mathematics."

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[Note added Dec. 10, 2013. I am surprised to discover that I did not write the points below when I originally wrote this page. I have certainly written some of these points at other places on this website.]

Using the Word, 'Well' to Start Talking

If you listen to a native English speaker being interviewed or asked a question (for example, on TV), you might notice that they often say, "Well,.." before they begin to answer a question. I have seen interviews where the interviewee starts almost every answer that way! It is a very natural way to start talking.

So, it is very natural to use "Well" before any of the examples I have written in the previous five pages of notes about Part 2 such as, "Well, about three years ago, ...."; or, "Well, when I was in junior high school, .... ". In fact, those examples would be better if they began with, "Well, ..."

Saying the word "Well" serves two purposes. It firstly gives the person answering the question a very small amount of time to think of an answer and/or to put that answer into words when the answer is not simple and short. It's rarely used when an answer is simple and short. For especially difficult questions, you can say, "Well ... um..." The second purpose is that it tells the listener that what will follow the word, "Well" will be rather complex and/or long.

I suggest you use it a few times in the whole Speaking test but like any word or phrase, don't overuse it.

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The Mistake of Using "the" in the First Sentence

Recall that Part 2 always asks you to talk about one thing, one example that is connected to your life. The words, "a" or "an" mean, "one".

(Usually when the topic is a book, the question card asks you to talk about a book (one book), but there have been times when the question has asked you to talk about one type of book that you like reading. But this is not the usual case. The same is true for films and TV programs.)

A very common mistake that people make is to use the word, "the" in their first sentence when they should be using "a", "an" or "one". This might seem to be a small thing to you but to the examiner's ear, it is a small but significant grammatical error.

Here an example

Part 2 Question: Describe a book that you enjoyed reading.

First sentence in the Part 2 answer: Well, the book I enjoyed reading was called, "Gulliver's Travels".

Why is using "the" wrong here? Well, the usage of "the" is a little complex to explain, especially when it is used before a name such as "the Yellow River", but there are two main usages of this word. (Many languages don't have an equivalent word to "the" but you can think of it as similar in some ways to, "this" and "that".)

These two usages are

1) "The" is used before a noun when the listener or reader knows what noun the speaker or writer is referring to. For example, if there are four books on the table and, without first talking about the books, I ask you, "Please give me the book", then you will ask, "Which one?" But if we first talk about the books and I say, "My brother gave me that big book last year. It's really great. Please pass me the book", then you know which one.

2) "The" is used before a noun when there is only one of those nouns, so the listener or reader does not have to ask, "Which one?" Examples are: "the Earth"; "the moon"; "the sun"; "the sky"; "the ocean" (because all the world's oceans are really part of one big body of water); "the ground"; "the floor"; "the ceiling"; "the air"; "the environment"; or, "the X" when there is just one X in the room. For example, "Please give me the X".

[We also say, "I can play the piano" (or any musical instrument) because the idea is that all pianos are the same, therefore there is only one. This idea is also used with a few other nouns such as "I'm going to the bank" or, "I'm going to the toilet" (even when there might be three toilets in that place) because we think of all banks and all toilets as more or less the same. Other nouns used this way are: the post office; the radio; the newspaper (because originally one town or city just had only one radio station or one newspaper); and a few others.]

But this question is really asking you to talk about one book that you enjoyed reading and, most people have enjoyed reading more than one book! The question did not say, "Describe the book that you most enjoyed reading". It did not ask you to describe your favourite book. "Favourite" is not often used in Part 2, although it is used at times in Parts 1 & 3.

When we refer to superlatives, such as "the best", "the worst", "the biggest", "the most interesting" etc., then we do use "the" because there is only one.

So, the incorrect answer above would be correct if it was changed to, "Well, the book I've enjoyed reading the most was called, "Gulliver's Travels". Or, "Well, the book I've most enjoyed reading was called, "Gulliver's Travels". It would not be wrong to answer this Part 2 question by describing the book you have most enjoyed reading, out of all the books you have enjoyed reading, but the question did not say that you must choose the one you most enjoyed!

So what is the best way to begin? It's this

Well, one book I (especially) enjoyed reading was called, "Gulliver's Travels" because...

You can now use, "the book" after you have said that because the listener now knows which one.

After "because", summarize why you enjoyed it. This is the 4th point on the card, "... and explain why you enjoyed reading it".

That sentence could also be, Well, one book that I (especially) enjoyed reading was called, "Gulliver's Travels" because ...

Or it could be, Well, one book which I (especially) enjoyed reading was called, "Gulliver's Travels" ... In this example, "that" or "which" can be omitted. See the explanation above for the restaurant example.

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The Mistake of Using "It" in the First Sentence

A similar mistake to saying, "the book" in the first sentence is to say, "it". When people use, "it", the listener or reader either knows which one or there is only one and therefore they don't need to be told which one. For example, if I ask you to describe where you born, you can begin with "it" because there is only one place where people are born.

Here an example

Part 2 Question: Describe a book that you enjoyed reading.

First sentence in the Part 2 answer: Well, it was called, "Gulliver's Travels".

 

Similar to using "the", "it" in that first sentence has the meaning that there is only one. Only one what? After you use the correct first sentence, as shown above, then you can use, "it" at various times in your answer and it will be correct.

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The Mistake of Using, "talking about" in the First Sentence

Here an example of this mistake

Part 2 Question: Describe a book that you enjoyed reading.

First sentence in the Part 2 answer: Well, talking about a book that I enjoyed reading, one that I especially enjoyed was called, "Gulliver's Travels".

Using, "talking about" here is completely wrong. English speakers use, "talking about" in the following situation

Let's say you are having a conversation with someone or you are with a group of people and you sometimes listen to two other people speaking to each other. And let's say that this other person, not you, starts talking about a book. Or it could be two or three other people in a group talking about a book together, but not you you are listening only. So far in the conversation, you have not said anything about a book (or books) it was someone else who started talking about this topic. If you have something to add to the conversation, then you can begin talking by saying, "Talking about a book, ....". It means something like, "Now that you are talking about a book, let me add this to the conversation ....". This is usually not in response to a question, it's simply one example of the language that is used to insert yourself into a conversation, i.e., to join a conversation the two other people are having about a book or, if there are just two of you, to add your opinion, comment etc. to what the other person has just said. The key idea is that the topic of, "a book" was started by someone other than you, and they have not yet changed the subject to another topic.

If someone in the group, or the one other person who you are chatting with, asked you a direct question such as, "What's a book that you have enjoyed reading?", most English speakers would not begin an answer to that question with "Talking about ..." but would, instead simply focus on answering the question, since this situation is not the same as "inserting oneself" into a conversation in a group or giving your opinion or comment after another person had spoken to you about a book. However, it is possible that someone could start their answer to the question if the other person (or others) had already spoken about a book. But a question alone is not considered to be the same as "talking about" a topic.

It is not suitable to use, "Talking about ..." to begin an answer to a Part 1 or Part 3 question because the examiner doesn't talk about a topic in Part 1 like in a conversation, and in Part 3 they also try to minimize the amount of talking they do.

When you get the Part 2 card, the only other person with you, the examiner, had not been talking about a book. All he or she has said is, "I'd like you to describe a book you enjoyed reading". That's not, "talking about a book", it's just introducing a topic. So, it is incorrect to begin your Part 2 answer with the words, "Talking about ...".

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The Mistake of Using, "If I had to" in the First Sentence

Here an example of this mistake

Part 2 Question: Describe a book that you enjoyed reading.

First sentence in the Part 2 answer: Well, if I had to choose a book that I enjoyed reading, I would say one that I especially enjoyed was called, "Gulliver's Travels".

If you "had to choose"? There's no "if" in this Part 2 situation you do have to choose!

The structure, "If ...+ past tense + would +verb" is only used when talking about a hypothetical (= 假设的) situation, a situation that is not true now.

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The Mistake of Beginning Your Answer as if it were a Speech

A speech is rather formal, sometimes more formal than at other times, depending on the situation. Speeches are usually spoken to a (large) group of people and are often pre-written or memorized word-for-word, before they are spoken. As well as that, a speech is usually longer than just 1 to 2 minutes.

Here are some beginnings that sound more like a speech than an answer in an everyday conversation

Part 2 Question: Describe a book that you enjoyed reading.

First sentence in the Part 2 answer: Well, there are many books (that) I have enjoyed reading but one that comes to my mind was called, "Gulliver's Travels".

Is it really a big mistake to begin like that? Is it really an example of speech-like language? Not really. Someone could speak like that in an everyday conversation when another person asks, "What's one book that you've enjoyed reading?" But to me, there's something false, or 假的 about that sentence. For a start, it's normal or common for people to have many books that they have enjoyed reading, so telling me that fact seems like empty information. It could be suitable in some other situations (other topics) but it seems like a waste of words here. Similarly, "comes to my mind" is a waste of words when you could just say, Well, there are many books (that) I've enjoyed reading and one (of those) was called, "Gulliver's Travels".

[The expression, "one that comes to mind" means, "one that occurs to me" or, "one example that pops into my head right now", or even, "one that I remember". Is it really necessary to say that? It's not wrong but it just seems unnecessary. Besides, "comes to mind" (those three words only) is an expression and expressions are usually not changed with the addition of any extra words such as, "my". The meaning of the expression already is that it comes to your mind, so we don't need to say the word, "my".]

So it seems to be fake partly because Part 2 is just a 1.5 to 2 minute monologue, not a 5 or 10 minute monologue, and you should not try to fill up Part 2 with empty information, when you have so little time to talk. Such "empty information" might be acceptable in a speech to "show off" your linguistic skills even though such language does not communicate any real information, but not in Part 2 of the IELTS test. Actually, you should try not to speak "empty information" at any part of your Part 2 answer, not just at the beginning.

[Yes, there are some books, written for people who are Band 3.5 to 5.0, that suggest filling your Part 2 with empty language, or fluency fillers. That's better than sitting there silently but the examiner with think it is strange that you can speak empty language so well when you have almost no ideas or other vocabulary. In fact, most examiners will recognize your memorized sentences as memorized. This page is written for people who are a little better than that.]

But there is another reason, a very important reason, why I don't like that first sentence, even though it could possibly be suitable in some cases (with the word, "my" not used). The reason is this I have seen that exact same sentence (with another noun used instead of "books") on the internet and in textbooks written by some Chinese English teacher. Yes, that sentence would be OK if the examiner only heard it from one candidate. It's not really a "bad" first sentence, and certainly the English is correct. But if the examiner hears it from several (or many!) candidates, do you think he or she will be impressed? Not really!

Overall, that example, to me, sounds both partially speech-like and partially memorized (because I have seen it before), and the memorized content further strengthens the impression of it being speech-like.

 

A similar "speech-like" first sentence is this 

Part 2 Question: Describe a book that you enjoyed reading.

First sentence in the Part 2 answer: Well, there are many books that I have enjoyed reading but one that I would like to tell you about was called, "Gulliver's Travels".

You'd, "like to tell me about it"? That's the kind of language that people use when they give a speech. In the IELTS Speaking test, you MUST tell me about it!

When people give a speech, they usually choose what they will talk about, but in the IELTS test, the examiner is asking you (or telling you) what to talk about.

Similar unsuitable things to say are, "I want to tell you about ...", "I'm going to tell you about ...", "I will tell you about ...." (Here, the words, "talk about" could be used instead of, "tell you about".) For a 2-minute answer, it is unnecessary to tell me what you are going to or will talk about. Just start telling me about it now, without such an introductory announcement! On the other hand, people do often tell their audience what they will talk about when they are giving a speech that might be 5 or 15 or more minutes long.

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