(Updated Apr. 14, 2008)   

How to Best Use Your Speaking Test Preparation Time

My reply to the email below is suitable for someone who has several months to prepare for the IELTS test. Of course, the longer the time you spend on preparing for the test, the greater your progress will be. Many students in China really need to spend 6 months or more of almost full-time study in order to get an overall score of 6.5 or above.


Email to me

Hi Chris

this is XX a vistor of ur website

thanks a lot for helping us on the question that the ielts test used bfore

ur website is really cool, i like it very much

im a condicate in chengdu

i gonna take the ielts test in Dec this year

still i have some problem on my english speakin

Can u give me some advice on my english speakin

cuz there's still a lil bit more time for me to prepare

so im not sure what to prepare in these three month

again thanks a lot

Take it easy



My Reply


Good question. I’ve been intending to write something about this on my website so your email is timely.

I suggest a variety of different activities, as shown below. The time you spend on each activity should be in proportion to your speaking weaknesses.

1)    Find another Chinese person (or two) who are also studying English to be your speaking partner(s). A Chinese-speaking partner could benefit you almost as much as a native English speaker. [Realistically, finding a native English speaker is unlikely unless you are willing to pay someone ¥100 or more per hour, less if it’s someone such as a native English speaker studying Chinese. This kind of person might even be willing to have language exchange with you for free.]

You don’t have to become life-long friends with your study partner – just help each other at this time when you both need a study partner. The two of you should have approximately the same levels of spoken English and you should agree to try to speak English to each other as much as possible and speak Chinese as little as possible. 

What you should do together is this: Exchange interesting information in English. Don’t worry too much about grammatical correctness but, of course, try to be as grammatically correct as possible. Communicating your meaning is the most important thing for this activity.

What information should you exchange? Well, if you and your study partner don’t know each other very well, start with personal information about family, hometown, work or study, hobbies or interests etc. At first, just keep it mainly factual information – exchange ideas and opinions after you have become used to exchanging factual information.

It would be best to use some of the typical IELTS Speaking test questions for this first activity, starting with typical Part 1 questions but don't only use IELTS Speaking test questions. It would also be best to limit the length of your Part 2 ‘stories’ to 2 minutes because then you would be teaching yourself the correct timing for the real Speaking test. In addition, you would be practicing the summarizing skills that are necessary for Part 2.

Discussing the Part 3 questions with a partner is very useful because Part 3 is not just a question-answer exercise as in Part 1; it is supposed to be, in large part, discussion. It is much better to practice discussing a topic with another human being, rather than speaking Part 3 answers to your bedroom wall. The wall is not a very good discussion partner  – it will never give you any ideas, and it will never say, "What do you mean?" or "Why do you say that?". It's a boring way to practice speaking and it's hard to maintain that kind of practice for many hours. Speaking with another human being, on the other hand, will almost seem to be fun, rather than study.

If you get bored with IELTS questions, you could try some of the following ideas: 

i) Divide an easy & interesting English newspaper or magazine into two, one half for you the other half for your partner. Find a newspaper or magazine that doesn’t have too many new words for you, that is, only one or two new words per paragraph. The two of you then read short articles from the newspaper or magazine until you find something that you think would interest the other person. It could even be a short funny anecdote or a joke. Then you try to retell the story/article using mostly your own words. If you forget something, take a quick look at the article to remind you and then resume retelling the article in mostly your own words. Don't be overly concerned about grammatical accuracy communication is more important than grammatical accuracy for this activity. In other words, retell it to your friend with the primary aim of letting him or her understand your meaning; correct grammar is important but it should be your secondary aim. You should not try to memorize (背诵) the story/article word-for-word before you retell it – just memorize key ideas, key words and key expressions from the story or article and use these key pieces of information as part of your own sentences. Choose a short, easy to understand article, with only a few new words and limit yourself to reading the article two or three times before you retell it to your partner. Don’t spend a long time studying it before you retell it. Unlike Part 2 of the real Speaking test, if the listener does not understand what the speaker says, the listener should seek clarification this is an important communication skill itself. 

ii) If no newspaper or magazine seems suitable for you, for example, if all are too difficult to read fairly quickly, then you could buy some books that contain short, funny stories in simple English for learners of English. There are several of these books, small & cheap and many seem to come from Hong Kong originally. Alternatively, you might be able to find interesting and rather short articles in some textbooks, especially imported textbooks for English learners.

This first exercise would help develop all of your spoken English skills, but especially your fluency. It’s hard to increase fluency without this kind of practice. Don’t think it is a waste of time speaking to & listening to another Chinese person in English it is possible to make great progress with this activity! You will be thinking in English, making sentences in English and generally communicating in English.

Recommended Time: 20% to 60% of your Speaking test preparation time.

2)  You should also improve your grammatical accuracy and knowledge.  The best way that I know for you to improve your grammar for speaking is to use the Book/Recording set called ‘Side by Side’ (朗文国际英语教程). There are 4 books in this series and Book 4, if well studied, should take you to Band 7/8 grammar level. Most IELTS students would find Books 1 & 2 quite easy but you still should quickly revise your grammar by skimming though Books 1 & 2 before moving onto Book 3 and finally, Book 4. You definitely should use the recordings as you do the exercises in the books – you can’t learn to speak from only reading a book.  

     If you need explanations of grammar, consult the book called 'Collins Cobuild English Grammar'. (考林斯英语词语用法词典)

Recommended Time: 15% to 40% of your Speaking test preparation time, depending on your grammatical knowledge and overall speaking ability.

3)  You might also need to improve certain aspects of your pronunciation. The best way to do this is to mimic recordings of native speakers. One good source of such recordings is the Listening tests that are part of the Cambridge series of practice tests. (There are now 6 books in this series.) After you have used the Listening tests as listening tests, find some passages in the Listening tests that are suitable for mimicking. Use the pause button of your tape recorder and the transcripts of the Listening tests in order to listen & read and then mimic.

     I think everybody should do this exercise, some people much more than others.

     If you pronunciation is really poor, buy an English beginner’s tape & book set. A children’s pronunciation book/recording would be most suitable.

     Recommended Time: 5% to 20% of your Speaking test preparation time, depending on your pronunciation clarity and accuracy.

4)   The fourth activity is thinking about, writing and practicing (memorizing & reproducing) your own answers for some of the known or probable questions. These questions are found on this website. 

     Since there are so many possible questions, you should only write answers for some questions. For other questions, just practice speaking answers, preferably with your speaking partner (Activity 1). Sometimes you will say different answers when you try to answer the same question at different times. That's ok, in fact that's good it's not a good idea to only have one way to answer a question. 

     Although the activity of writing some answers to some questions is important, many Chinese students put too much emphasis on it, to the detriment of the other activities suggested on this page. In other words, don’t think that this activity should comprise 90% of your Speaking test preparation time. It should be no more than 30% of your Speaking test preparation time. 

     Whatever you do, do not memorize, like a poem, long passages of English. Instead, for this fourth activity, you should memorize the answers you write to about 70% completeness only memorize parts of any long material, concentrating on remembering the ideas, key words & key phrases. These ‘parts’could include whole short sentences, but not complete long sentences. This way, in the real test, if you are asked one of these questions that you have prepared for in this way, you will seem to be composing sentences in your head, and IELTS examiners like that they dislike hearing obviously memorized answers. 

     When you practice speaking the answers that you have prepared beforehand, it is very important that you speak in a natural, conversational way, not like a robot. In other words, act like you really are speaking to a person when you practice saying these answers out loud. One of the main ways that examiners can tell when answers are memorized is that candidates speak memorized answers in an unnatural, monotonic way. 

     To repeat, speaking your answers to a partner will help you speak more naturally and that activity should comprise much more of your time than this activity of first preparing answers on paper and then reproducing them.

Recommended Time: 10% to 30% of your Speaking test preparation time.

5)    The fifth activity, a favourite of the Band 3 & 4 level group, is to ‘recite’ model answers from IELTS preparation books. That is, learning to speak these answers by rote. This activity can be beneficial for people at the lower levels if they can learn some basic sentence patterns and basic vocabulary when doing this but many people try to memorize English that they do not really understand and this does not help them very much at all. Another problem is that many people at this level only do this activity without doing any of the other activities listed on this page. If you start your three months of study being a Band 4.0 (or 3.5) English speaker and if you only do this activity for three months, you will be lucky to get a 5.0 in the Speaking test I estimate that only a small number of Band 4.0 (& 3.5) level candidates do succeed in getting a 5.0 for Speaking after 3 months of only using this method.

I think at least reading model answers does have some merit for almost all IELTS students but it should be done in an intelligent way. Firstly, you should definitely only memorize any one of these answers to a maximum of about 50% don't try to remember them perfectly. (Just memorize ‘patches’ of English i.e., key new expressions and vocabulary.) One reason for this is that thousands of other students are using the same books as you and, if the examiner recognizes that one of your answers comes almost verbatim from a book, he or she might start thinking about giving you a really low score, even as low as Band 1 or 2, depending on how many of your answers in the whole test the examiner thinks were memorized verbatim from books. For only one or two answers that are recognized as memorized, the examiner might decide to just ignore your answer when evaluating your score, no matter how good the answer was. Alternatively, the examiner might immediately interrupt you when you are speaking an answer that seems to be completely memorized and ask you another question, often a question much harder than those he or she usually asks.

Obviously it is intelligent to only partially memorize those ‘patches’ of English in these model answers that you think are worth memorizing – don’t waste your time memorizing an answer that you could produce equally as well yourself, or almost as well.

If you do this activity, you should use a variety of model answer books. This would expose you to the different English styles, strengths and ideas of the different authors. In addition, the ‘patches’ of memorized English that you learn will be coming from different sources, which will allow you to combine the ‘patches’ of memorized English from different sources in a way that seems natural, resulting in answers that cannot easily be recognized as known model answers from books.

You should also try to recognize which answers are written by native English speakers and which are written by Chinese English speakers. Although most model answers written by Chinese English teachers are ‘quite good’ or ‘not bad’, some model answers written by Chinese people are only ‘ok’ and a few are poor quality. 

Books that come with recordings of native speakers reading the model answers are obviously better than books with no recordings because recordings allow you to mimic the way native speakers say these answers. Imported IELTS test/text books are best of all but they are sometimes expensive and hard to find. Not only that, few imported books have many complete model answers because westerners don’t like this style of learning as preparation for the Speaking test. (I.e., memorizing an answer, word for word.)

Overall, I think the best method is to read, aloud (not just in your head), a large number of model answers without attempting to memorize very much at all rather than trying to 100% memorize a smaller number of model answers. By doing this, you will naturally tend to remember those key words and expressions that are most frequently used simply as a result of reading them so often in different model answers. 

Of course, when you read aloud, speak in a natural, conversational way, not like a robot.

Recommended Time: 5% to 15% of your Speaking test preparation time, depending on your overall IELTS level. A Band 3 or 4 student should spend more time; a Band 7 student should spend just a little time on Activity 5.

6)  In order to get a score of 6 or above for grammar, you must clearly show the examiner that you know how to make complex sentences using a variety of linking words and phrases. (You also need to show other grammatical knowledge to get a 6 or above.) Therefore, you should focus some study time on complex sentences by doing exercises in textbooks for this topic, if you can find textbooks with these exercises. After you write these sentences, read them aloud a few times.

     Recommended Time: 5% to 15% of your Speaking test preparation time. This activity would be part of both your Speaking and your Writing test preparation.

7)  Similar to Activity 6, in order to get a 6 or above for coherence, you will need to clearly show the examiner that you can begin sentences with linking words and phrases that help the listener follow your ideas. You should study the correct meaning and usage of a wide variety of these linking words and phrases by using a good dictionary and you should practice making sentences, in writing, using these connective devices. After you write these sentences, read them aloud a few times.

     Recommended Time: 5% to 15% of your Speaking test preparation time. This activity would be part of both your Speaking and your Writing test preparation.

8)  You should include some specific vocabulary study in your Speaking test preparation, although vocabulary study, such as studying vocabulary books, would mainly be done as part of your Reading test preparation. As part of your vocabulary expansion, you should include the study of phrasal verbs, which are very often used in spoken English. Another good idea is to try to skim through all the Part 3 questions that are written on this website, beginning at Part 2 topic #1, not thinking about your answers but just looking for new words.

     Recommended Time: 5% to 15% of your Speaking test preparation time. 

9)    What other activities are there that you could use in your Speaking test preparation? As far as improving your speaking ability is concerned, I think watching Hollywood or similar imported movies is almost a waste of time for most students, perhaps except for Band 8 level people. The only exception to this would be those movies that are especially made for English learning. If you do use movies for your Speaking preparation, you should read the movie transcript as you watch and be able to stop the movie in order to mimic the speakers. Personally, in the case of many movies, I think you would waste too much time watching car chases and gun fights to learn much useful English for the IELTS test. On the other hand, a little movie watching would be a good activity, in moderation and if done intelligently, for your Listening test preparation. If a Hollywood movie really interests you, it’s a good activity, even if only done as a break from more serious study. Just don’t spend too many hours watching movies and don't expect to make great improvements to your English from this activity if you are a Band 4, 5 or 6 level English speaker right now. Radio and audio recordings are much better for your listening practice.

In contrast to watching movies, for your overall IELTS preparation, you should read as much as you can in order to increase your general knowledge, expand your ideas, increase your vocabulary and see what good writing in English looks like. Try to read articles & essays that are directly related to the topics that are frequently used in all four IELTS tests and try to find materials to read that are not too difficult for you. For example, only read articles that have a ‘comfortable number’ of new words per paragraph. Imported textbooks for English learners are good for this activity and the Internet is also excellent but you should try to find articles that are written for native English speaking high school or primary school students or learners of English. If you are near to a Band 7 in reading level, reading normal, adult-level materials such as the English language newspapers in China, and similar materials, might be suitable for you. When you read, try to read aloud sometimes, at other times read silently for speed or skim for information. Read what interests you if you read too many boring materials it will damage your interest in learning English.


Example of a 3-Month Study Plan to Prepare for the Speaking Test

This example of time allocation would suit the typical IELTS candidate who is at about Band 5.0 level at the beginning of his or her study. If you spend 6 months or more preparing for the test (which many students really need to do), the percentages for Activities 3, 5, 6, 7, & 8 should be decreased and the percentages for Activities 1, 2 & 4 increased.

Activity 1: Speaking with a partner (especially known test questions) 30% of Speaking test preparation time.

Activity 2: Using 'Side by Side'  20% of Speaking test preparation time.

Activity 3: Mimicking recordings of native English speakers  5% of Speaking test preparation time.

Activity 4: Writing & practicing answers  20% of Speaking test preparation time.

Activity 5: Studying model answers  5% of Speaking test preparation time.

Activity 6: Complex sentences  5% of Speaking test preparation time.

Activity 7: Connecting devices to begin sentences  5% of Speaking test preparation time.

Activity 8: Vocabulary study, including phrasal verbs 10% of Speaking test preparation time.