In the IELTS test, the examiner will ask you to compare people or things.
This could happen in Part One of the Speaking test but more likely in Part Three. The examiner will then expect you to make comparisons between the two things at length.
You may have to make comparisons between two objects, two places, periods of time or groups of people.
Students often know the language they need to use when making comparisons but they don’t know how to make the sentences flow together naturally. Often they try to compare two things or two people and end up just making lists of differences. This will not get you a good score in the test.
It is also worth remembering that just because the examiner asks you to compare two things; it does not mean that you cannot talk about the similarities between the two things too. If you talk about both the similarities and the differences it will help you to speak longer in the test. Thus making it easier for yourself.
Also, the examiner wants to hear you speak naturally, so if you talk about the similarities too you will sound much more natural. It will sound like you are speaking ‘real’ English and not from a recited script that you practised before the test.
Are you ready? Let’s get into it!
Similarities and Differences
Like I said before, you can talk about the similarities and differences. In fact, you should always do this in the test.
I think it is useful to talk about similarities and differences in any part of the test. For example, if the examiner asks you about your school, you could make a comment about going to high school in America if that is your plan.
You could say something like this:
The good thing about going to school is that I have lots of friends there. I imagine when I go to America I will also make a lot of friends at school there too. This is the same with all schools I guess.
But I think many of the subjects I will study in America will be different. More things about America for example. And maybe not as much homework which will be great.
I think you can see the words and phrases used to describe the similarity and difference between the speaker’s school and the school he will attend in America.
It is very simple.
But what the speaker does is add detail to support his main statements.
This makes the entire talk sound very natural. You need to aim for this.
You can make it sound more natural by talking about both the similarities and the differences.
When talking about the differences and similarities between two objects or people, first talk about the ‘big’ and most obvious things.
This is another thing that students often get wrong. Instead of talking about the big picture first, they immediately go into smaller details. This always sounds terrible as it just sounds like a rehearsed script. But even worse – it sounds like a list.
Students studying for the IELTS test often have this terrible habit of reciting things that sound like a big list of ideas. This sounds dull and makes your English sound awful.
So don’t do it!
To give you an idea of a bad comparison, it might sound something like this:
My father is tall but my mother is short.
My father is fat but my mother is thin.
My father wears glasses but my mother doesn’t wear glasses.
My father has a job but my mother doesn’t have a job.
I think you can see how terrible this would be in the IELTS test. Please avoid this kind of thing.
To remedy this all you have to do is talk about the big ideas first then remark on them. So, for example, you could say:
My father is a tall person. If ever we need someone to reach something high up in the house, we always ask my dad because it is easy for him to reach it. But my mum is pretty short. She can barely reach anything in the house if it is in a high place. So she always asks me or my dad to help her. We often laugh about this together.
This speaker gives more clarity by using a small anecdote about the father being tall. In this case, reaching for things that are high up in the house.
Then the speaker talks about the mother being too short and always asking for help.
The total word count for this is 71 words. That might mean a time frame of 30 seconds. This is much better than just saying My father is tall but my mother is short.
Once you talk about the bigger differences, you can then go into smaller detail. But talk about the big differences first. Try to think of ways to explain or describe the big differences too.
The speaker talks about his father having a job and his mother having no job.
You can extend this easily by talking about your father’s job, how busy he might be, how tired he might be at the end of the day. Then you can talk about what your mother does too.
It could be like this:
My father works. He has a job in a big company working as an engineer. He is very busy and often has to work overtime. Sometimes he has to work at the weekend too. So he feels tired a lot of the time.
My mum says she is just a housewife. But I think this is unfair. She also works hard taking care of us and making sure the house is comfortable.
So in my opinion, they both work hard. The only one who doesn’t work as hard is me!
This is much better. It goes into more detail about how his father’s job makes him feel. Then the speaker talks about his mother also working hard looking after everyone and the house. We can see there are differences — his father has a job, and his mother does not — but we can see similarities in that they both work hard.
What are the big things I should talk about?
If you are talking about places, you need to talk about these things first:
- the location
- the size
- the weather (if talking about two different countries or cities)
- the people
- the population
It might be two different places in the same town, for example two schools or two shopping malls. In which case you talk about:
- the location
- the size
- the prominent features
- the people (how old are the students in each school? What kind of people shop in each mall?)
- how many floors
- the design
If the examiner asks you to talk about two different periods of time, then you talk about the most prominent details, the things that we can easily see.
The same with groups of people — the main differences could be men/women, young/old, rich/poor. Talk about these big differences first. Then talk about the details.
If I say this, it is all very well but you need to see some examples in action.
So let’s take a look at things you can say in the test.
This is a very common question in the IELTS test. The examiner might ask you to talk about:
- two different cities
- the north and south of your country
- two different districts of your hometown
- two schools
- two shopping malls
- two places you like to go to relax
- two places where you spend a lot of time
Each time you have to think of the big differences and the main similarities. Then talk about these things while adding more detail and clarification to your answers.
Imagine the examiner asked me to talk about two cities in England. I might talk about the English cities of London and Bath.
I could say something like this:
Well, the first thing I should say is that London is a much bigger city than Bath. London has a huge underground system to get around the city but in Bath, there is only a bus service because the city is much smaller.
But both the cities have great shopping. Whatever shops you find in London you can find some shops that are practically the same in Bath. This is the same for restaurants and eating out too. Both cities have fantastic choices for fine dining.
When I first visited Bath, I was surprised by how much it resembles London. It looks the same in terms of the architecture. Bath is like a mini-version of London in many ways.
But a big difference is rush hour. London has serious traffic problems during certain times of the year whereas Bath doesn’t have such bad traffic. The people think it’s bad, but it’s nothing compared to London.
The differences the speaker talks about here are:
- the size of the two cities
- the public transport
- the traffic and rush hour
The similarities are:
- the architecture
But the speaker does all of this in a very natural way and the sentences all flow nicely together.
The word count is 155 words, so that is around one minute speaking time. This would be a great answer in part three of the speaking test.
Periods of Time
The examiner might ask questions about:
- two time periods
- you now and you as a child
- you now and the future (You are talking about possible differences and similarities using different verb tenses here)
- the past generally and now
- the future generally and now
And again I must emphasize the need to talk about the bigger picture first, then the smaller details.
Let’s imagine the examiner asks about the person now and the person as a child or when they were younger.
The answer could be something like this:
I’m still pretty much the same kind of person today as I was when I was younger. I hope that I am smarter than before and that I have learned a few things.
When I was younger, I think I would often overreact to certain things. Sometimes I would get angry about the way things went. I think because I felt I had no control over it. But now I have learned that I cannot control everything in life so I just let things go.
Also, when I was younger some things seemed so important to me. Simple things like comics I liked to read and cartoon shows. I thought these were essential to my life but now I see that they were just things that existed in my childhood. Now I prefer to read novels and I don’t watch cartoons any more.
I still look the same. I’m just taller and kind of bigger. My voice is different though.
I take school and my education a lot more seriously now though. I can see how important that is to my life now.
The differences in this talk:
- more intelligent—he hopes so anyway!
- his emotions and how he deals with them
- things that were important to him as a child—and now
- education and school and his feelings about these things
- his voice
- generally, the same person
- his appearance
But he provides a lot of detail in his answer and clarifies the differences. For example, he says that he was over-emotional as a young child. Then he goes into detail about this and gives an example.
He talks about the things he liked as a child — comics and cartoon shows. He doesn’t go into any more detail than this but it is enough to clarify his point — which is, what was important to him as a younger child.
The total word count is 182 words. That could be well over one minute of speaking time. The speaker does not go into any great detail here about the differences but adds enough colour in his answers.
Groups of People
The examiner might ask about:
- people from your hometown and the countryside
- people from your hometown and another town or city the same size
- old and young people in your town
- people of different generations and the lives they live, the things they do and their interests
Let’s look at an example:
Old people and young people don’t really talk to each other. We have nothing in common so what could we talk about?
I talk to my grandparents because they are my family. I say hello to some of my old neighbours but that is it. I don’t have long conversations with old people as such.
In my town, old people usually don’t work. They are retired and they like to just rest or do some activities they enjoy. They can go to this place in our neighbourhood. Like a big room. They call it a community centre and they can go there all day.
I think they talk together or watch TV together. They can play games they like or do some gentle sport like badminton.
But for younger people, we like to go to places that are more exciting. Me and my friends like to play football in the park. After that, we might go to each other’s houses and play computer games or watch a movie we all like.
Old people don’t like the same movies young people like at all. And we don’t like the movies they like either.
All my friends use a smartphone and we love to keep updated with each other using our favourite apps like Instagram. But I don’t think old people know how to use these apps. Plus, I don’t think they have much interest in these things anyway.
The differences in this talk are:
- retired/free time
The speaker doesn’t really talk about any similarities other than living in the same neighbourhood and family members.
But in this talk, the speaker goes into much detail about the big differences. He talks about what old people do in their free time and where they go.
Then he talks about what he and his friends do in their free time.
Most of the talk is about free-time activities — that is all he talks about. But he provides detail about what old people and young people do in their free time.
The word count for this talk is 241 words. That could easily be a minute and a half. And the examiner would be very happy with such an answer.
I hope this helps you in terms of what to do when talking about similarities and differences in the IELTS test.
It is not just a case of learning how to use certain English language and saying what the difference is between this thing and that thing.
It is more than that.
You need to clarify what those differences are and provide examples via story or just painting a clear picture that the examiner can see. Don’t just reel off a list of things — that is just lazy and dull.
The examiner wants more than that. Show him what the differences or similarities are by painting a picture for him
If you can do that, then you will do well in this part of the IELTS test.
Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.