How to teach the IELTS speaking test

There are thousands of opportunities for in ESL to teach IELTS speaking to students around the world. Three million students take the test every year so if you are an IELTS teacher you are high in demand.

However, there are good ways to teach IELTS speaking to students and not so good ways.

I would like to outline below the key concepts of teaching the speaking part to the IELTS test.

 

The Teacher as Magician

 

If you work in a training centre, then you have my sympathies.

What usually happens is that the school hands over a new class of IELTS students to you. They then expect you to pull a rabbit out of a hat. Many of the students in the class will probably have a low level of General English. But the school convinces them you are some kind of genius who sprinkles magic dust around the class and every single student will get at least a Band 8 in the final IELTS test.

Why do the training centres do this?

Well, they want the students to stay in the building and not leave until they have handed over a chunk of change to the cashier. So they will say anything at all to ensure that the student doesn’t move one inch.

Now you have to perform some kind of miracle.

However, if you are a private tutor, then you don’t have this problem. You may be in the fortunate position to pick and choose who you teach.

Or maybe not.

Either way, you might be presented with the issue of raising the students General English level long before you can tackle anything to do with the finer points of the IELTS test.

The students’ level in General English must be of an acceptable level before attempting to do any IELTS exercises.

This is something the training centres ignore (because they only care about money) and the helicopter moms don’t understand.

As the IELTS teacher this puts you in a difficult position, but hey, welcome to the fun-packed world of ESL.

 

What is the IELTS speaking test?

 

Before we attempt to do anything at all, we need to know what the speaking test in IELTS is.

You can find all the relevant information on the British Council website here, but let’s take a look below.

  • The test is about 11-14 minutes in duration.
  • It usually takes place within one week of the paper test.
  • There are three parts:
      1. Introduction
      2. Long talk
      3. Discussion

 

What exactly takes place in each of these parts?

 

Introduction

In the introduction, the examiner asks the candidate some simple questions about their family, their hometown, school or work, friends, interests and some other basic personal information.

These questions should be easy for the student to answer. If they have difficulty with this part, then they are in trouble.

 

Long Talk

In this part, the examiner will give the student a topic card. On the card is a topic and the student must prepare a long talk between one and two minutes.

It is ideal if the candidate talks for two minutes.

 

Discussion

In the last part, the examiner will engage in conversation about a topic. The candidate is expected to provide answers and opinions on the topic and give reasons or examples.

This is regarded as the most difficult part of the IELTS speaking test.

 

What are the IELTS Test Criteria?

 

The British Council provides a full-length useful guide to the IELTS speaking criteria. You should read it and you can find it here.

But when telling the students it is probably overkill in terms of what they need to know.

Essentially, it breaks down to these main concepts:

 

Speak Fluently and Clearly

The examiner must be able to understand what the candidate is talking about so it would be a waste of the student’s time if they could not do this.

Use a Decent Range of Vocabulary

The candidate must be able to use a decent range of vocabulary. That also means being able to use all conjunctions well and to use a variety of English collocations.

Quite often the student mistakes this for the need for rarely used words. This is unnecessary.

 

Use a Decent Range of Grammar

The candidate must also be able to express themselves at a high level of English grammar. This means they should not use present simple or present continuous all the time and be able to use past tenses correctly. They should show that they can use future and perfect tenses. Things like conditionals used correctly will also help the student too.

 

Pronunciation

The candidate must be able to pronounce English words correctly too.

Students make the mistake of thinking they must lose their accent to do this. This is not true. They can still use their own native accent as long as they use clear pronunciation that the examiner can understand.

 

All of these parts are assessed equally so you need to ensure that the student is maintaining a good balance between all four parts. It is your job to look for any poor areas and help the student accordingly.

As long as the student follows these basic rules then they cannot go far wrong.

 

Some Useful Tips to Help Teach IELTS Speaking

 

It is no use just starting an IELTS speaking class and treating it like any other English-speaking class.

IELTS speaking classes are not conversation classes where you help the student practice speaking about a variety of subjects. The students have to talk about different topics under certain conditions.

They do the IELTS test to show off their English skills — show the examiner they can use English under all the criteria laid out by the British Council.

You need to help them reach this goal in your own classes.

I have laid out a few tips below to help you create better IELTS speaking classes.

Let’s dive in.

 

Avoid Using Textbooks

 

I hate using ESL textbooks in any English class but you should definitely avoid them in an IELTS speaking class.

The reason for this is that firstly IELTS textbooks are usually a load of garbage but mostly because it makes the entire class extremely passive.

It is too easy for the teacher to just tell the class to turn to page 35 and do exercise 4 while he stares out the window thinking about what to have for dinner. The students, in turn, do all the exercises on auto-pilot. No one is involved in the class, no one is connected.

Use textbooks as a basis for what you do in the class by all means but do not rely on them.

Make your own lesson plans and get the students to make eye contact with you and each other.

 

Do Lots of Pair Work

 

This is common sense really. The IELTS speaking test takes place between two people — the examiner and the candidate — so what better conditions in class than having pair work?

You have to create as realistic a setting as possible for the students.

If you are teaching a large class, this may present a small problem. But you should avoid too much class discussion or debates as that does not happen in the test.

Put all the students in pairs and get them to ask and answer questions related to the test and the topic at hand. Then each pair of students asks and answers questions in front of all the class as a kind of presentation.

The rest of the students can provide peer review and make comments. They also see what the pair was doing well and not so well.

The only time you might have a whole class activity is if you are practising presentations for part two. You can do this one student at a time in front of the class — the rest of the students doing peer review.

But for the most part — pair work all the time.

 

Make Them Listen

 

If you are using textbooks (and you really shouldn’t) then there is the risk that the students will just read the questions off the page.

This is not helpful to them at all.

The reason for this is that a common problem for IELTS speaking candidates is to answer the wrong question — or answer it incorrectly. Many candidates simply don’t listen to the question that the examiner asks. They only hear half the question — or one or two words — then think they know what it is and answer something completely different.

The students need to practice listening for the right information and the right keywords, so they know exactly what is being asked of them.

Put them in pairs and instead of just reading off the page of the textbook get the students to pay attention to each other and listen to each other. Or — shock horror — have eye contact with each other.

All of this is very useful for them as it creates a realistic environment for them to practice doing the IELTS speaking test.

 

Ban All the Repeated Words

 

In many IELTS classes, I did with Chinese students, I found that many of them used the same words to talk about things.

This was especially true when describing their hometowns. If the students were to be believed, I would think that every single town and city in China was beautiful and famous.

My hometown is called LiuXingTang. It is very beautiful and very famous.

Of course, this comes down to the cultural concept of face. The students don’t want to lose face so they tell me and the entire class that every town and city is both beautiful and famous.

But this is no good for them in the test.

I used to write the words beautiful and famous on the board and then tell all the students they could not use these words. They looked back at me all freaked out and terrified but it forced them to think of other words to describe their hometowns.

You should also do this.

No matter where you are in the world, you will find students repeating the same old words to talk about every subject under the sun.

Stop them from doing this and make them use other words. This will bode well for them in the IELTS test.

 

Ban the Catch-Phrases

 

And while we’re banning things, let’s ban all the commonly used catch-phrases too.

IELTS students often use certain phrases they have picked up from textbooks, off the internet or from their own teachers. The problem with this is that they often have a really cool phrase to use but with nothing of any substance to back it up.

One phrase I heard from Chinese students all the time was to broaden my horizons. I imagine they learnt this from school and it stuck.

It’s not that bad — but when you hear every single student use it in the same class, you know there’s something wrong.

So I would ask: Why do you want to study abroad?

And the same answer like a chorus: To broaden my horizons.

I imagined entire ships, filled full of students, all going to England, Canada, Australia or New Zealand, all arriving on the shore to have their horizons collectively broadened.

Another problem is that students use these phrases thinking it is some kind of magical get-out-of-jail-free card.

All I have to do is say this phrase and the examiner will give me a Band 7 – at least!

If you hear these kinds of phrases being thrown around in your own class, make a sin list and ban them. Give the students other useful phrases or ways of saying the same thing.

They will thank you for it on the day of their IELTS test.

 

Get the Students to Use Natural English

 

The students don’t need to speak English in great convoluted sentence structures using words that are rarely ever said out loud.

They just need to speak clearly and coherently.

They do need to avoid overly simplistic English.

So, for example, they might say:

I don’t like the rain because it makes me feel sad.

Instead, they could say:

I really can’t stand the rain. Sometimes my hometown has heavy showers, and it puts me in a bad mood.

 

As the teacher, you need to constantly push them to use more complex English language structures in their answers. It need not be highly advanced vocabulary just the kind of English that a native speaker might use.

Think collocations and using conjunctions as often as they can.

A broad range of vocabulary is good but not enough. They need better sentences and phrases. And you are there to give it to them.

 

Ways to Make the Students Speak in More Interesting Ways

 

In the IELTS speaking class, you will often hear very simple sentence structures or answers.

I like playing basketball because it is good fun.

I am good at English but poor at maths.

 

While it is good that students are using conjunctions, these are very simple phrases. Students often use these easy linear answers. You need to get them to move away from that and into newer territory.

I have selected a few methods below you can use in your classes to make students talk in different ways.

 

Tell Me a Story

 

Using personal accounts or anecdotes works well in the IELTS speaking test. The examiner loves it when students tell a story and it works in favour of the student as they may get higher marks for using past tenses correctly.

You can — and should — use the concept of story-telling in your classes.

So, for example, maybe one of the topics you are talking about is traffic in the city. You ask the question: What do you think of the traffic in your town/city?

And you get the same mundane answers:

There is too much traffic because there are too many cars.

I don’t like the traffic because it is bad for the environment.

But if the students have to consider the question and use a story or anecdote to answer it, you will start to see some really interesting responses.

One time I was on my way to school and I was on the bus. I have to take the bus to school every day and there is often a traffic jam. But this one time there was a really long traffic jam. It went on for miles. People on the bus were getting angry. One man complained to the driver, but he said there was nothing he could do about it. In the end, we had to get off the bus and walk. It was quicker than staying on the bus.

 

Now, of course, you will not get answers like that the first time but with practice and a lot of help from you, the students will start to produce much better answers than just talking about the traffic.

Try this — it really works. And the students find this exercise more fun than just talking about the subject.

 

Tell Me Something You Know

 

This is much like the story-telling exercise before but now talking about personal knowledge of things.

Many students are stricken with fear over this — not being able to talk about something because they have no knowledge of the subject.

While this may be true for many students it is not true for all of them. Most people have some knowledge of one subject or another.

I encountered a student, a young boy of around thirteen years, who had more than a passing interest in insects. He knew some fascinating details about insects and could talk at length about them.

He was pretty shy to talk on any other subject but by getting him to talk about bees, cockroaches and mosquitoes he gained a lot of confidence in his ability to speak English.

You can use this to get students to give more detailed answers too.

You ask the question: Are smartphones harmful to our health? And you get all the usual dull answers.

But now get students to use their knowledge about smartphones and you might hear different replies.

The students may recall things they read online — or heard on the news — about smartphones. Then use that as an answer.

 

Give Me Three Reasons Why

 

This is self-explanatory.

You raise a topic, ask a question, and the students have to provide three reasons in their response.

It forces them to talk.

Question: Are there too many shopping malls in cities these days?

And the answer:

I think there are too many shopping malls in our cities these days. Near where I live there are three large shopping malls all within walking distance of each other. There is no need to have that many for my community.

Many of the shops in the three malls are empty because there are not enough customers. The space is just wasted. It could be used for something for the local community.

Plus, many people shop online these days so they have no need for so many malls in their neighbourhood.

 

Three reasons. And an answer that would get top marks in the IELTS test.

Yes, it’s hard for the students at first but it makes them think on the spot and you can also make this into a fun game with larger classes.

 

Give Me Some Comparisons

 

Comparing two different things is a great way to talk about a topic in the IELTS speaking test.

The most common — and easiest — comparisons to make are between two different places or the past and the present.

Let’s say the topic is free-time interests. I’m sure you can already imagine the dull linear answers you would get to this kind of topic. But if you ask the students to compare two aspects about free-time interests now we see more interesting answers.

So the students might compare free-time activities between their own country and another. Or their hometown and another city.

Yes, there will be errors. When I spoke to Chinese students about this, they would talk about England playing basketball or celebrating Thanksgiving (basketball is not so popular in England and we don’t celebrate Thanksgiving). But that doesn’t matter. All you want to see is that the students are talking.

If the students compare free-time activities between the past and now, they can talk about things they do at the weekend and things their parents or grandparents did. It is easy and they can usually talk for some time about this.

 

Tell Me About the Future

 

Talking about the future might present some grammar issues. The students may have to use forms like modals — may, might, could — and future conditionals using if. But good practice for them so no problem.

Essentially, you just get the students to talk about a topic and how it affects the future or what changes it will go through in the future.

The topic could be public transport. An easy subject to talk about the future.

The students could then talk about what kind of public transport systems we may use in the future. Younger students love this as they get to use their imaginations. Expect to hear some wild ideas, but that’s all good. The wilder, the better. More things to talk about.

You can throw a spanner in the works by saying that the world runs out of oil. So what kind of public transport would we use with no oil?

More wild answers. One student told me we would all be riding horses.

Sounds legit.

Encourage wild and crazy answers. They lose no points for that in the IELTS test.

 

Can You Make a Recommendation?

 

The final exercise you can try is to ask the students to recommend something.

This could present some minor problems as the student may not have any real-life experience in relation to the topic. But assuming they do, it can give them more things to talk about.

Let’s say the topic is eating out. Most people have experience in doing this. So it should be easy for a student to recommend somewhere to eat — even if it is the nearest fast-food joint.

You might have to engineer the student in talking about it. Some guidance on how to describe the place they are recommending. If they are making a recommendation about a restaurant the most obvious thing to talk about is the food.

But you could encourage them to talk about the ambience, the atmosphere, the background music, the lighting, the decor, the waiting staff. The list goes on and on.

Even better is when you have one student recommending a place to eat and another disagreeing and giving reasons why it is a terrible place to eat.

But making a recommendation provides the student with more things to talk about in the IELTS speaking test.

 

Conclusion

 

I have not provided any useful phrases or really cool sentences to use in the IELTS speaking test. Open any IELTS textbook and you will find all of those things.

I suggest making a note of those keywords, phrases and sentences and using them in your own tailor-made lesson plans rather than basing every lesson on the lesson in some dreadful textbook.

Just be aware of what is involved in the speaking part of the IELTS test. Read as much as you can on the British Council website. You need to know everything about the IELTS test if you are teaching it.

Try to follow some of the ideas I suggested and you should see the students opening up and talking. Once they push past that barrier of not having anything to say they often come out with really great answers.

And let me know in the comments below how your classes turned out.

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