A common aspect of the IELTS test is to describe people and things.
Often students do this in a very poor manner and end up just reciting or writing lists.
I think you know what I mean:
My dog is small
My dog is brown
My dog is cute
My dog likes to play
It just sounds terrible and the student is often panic-stricken as they try to think of more vocabulary to reel off.
They end up just saying or writing things that are too simple for the IELTS test. What they really need to come up with is more complex ideas.
I think one of the best ways to describe things or people is to tell stories. By doing this they link ideas together and make all the sentences have one coherent goal.
The examiner loves this.
Plus, they use more likely to use complex language and the examiner likes this too.
In the following guide, I want to show you how to teach this in a class. It will make your class more interesting plus the students can start to describe anything more fluently.
If the student has to describe anything at all, it is mostly in Part Two of the speaking test.
They will have to describe things in Part One and Three, but it is in Part Two where they are asked to describe something for an extended period of time.
What to Describe
The things they are asked to describe could be:
- a person
- an object
- an activity
So, a person could be anyone from a teacher, a friend or a family member to a neighbour to a classmate or a person from their past.
A common problem for IELTS students is that they try to think of different people to describe for different situations. This is unnecessary. They could describe one person for a variety of questions.
The student may also have to describe an object. This could be any object, from their smartphone to a book they have read to a city or a building.
Or they could describe an activity. An interest or a hobby or something they like to do in the evening or some kind of sport.
Remember to Check the Prompts
When asked to describe something the student will have some prompts. These prompts give the student some clues on what to say.
Who the person is
What the object is
How you know this person
How did you come to own this object
Why you like this person
Why you like this object
But often what the student does is just look at the main question or instruction at the top of the topic card.
Describe a neighbour you know
Describe an object you use every day
That’s when we hear or see the endless lists.
My neighbour is an old man.
He lives in a house on my street.
He has a dog.
He always smiles at me.
It’s dull and completely uninspiring.
That’s why I advocate telling stories.
Vocabulary is Not Everything
Many IELTS teachers resort to teaching their students vocabulary. While this is important it is not the be all and end all of helping students to describe their favourite teacher or a something they received on their birthday.
You need to help the student move away from language that is too simplistic and try to use more complex forms in English.
Yes, the student needs to describe shapes, colours, sizes and so on, but the examiner expects more than that.
Otherwise, the student is describing the mundane and banal.
My phone is rectangular in shape with a black cover and a silver frame. The screen has a picture of my dog on the front.
There is a button on the side to control the volume and another button to turn the screen on and off.
The examiner just falls asleep at these kinds of answers.
How to Describe a Person with Personal Stories
So let’s look at stories.
Let’s examine some ways to describe things or people by using interesting anecdotes.
One topic could be:
Describe a Favourite Teacher
A relatively easy topic to begin with but a good start. The student could say something like this:
There is a teacher in my school and his name is Michael. Everyone likes him and I like him too.
He is quite tall and has short dark hair.
He has a great sense of humour and it makes his classes very interesting.
One day, we were in class and Michael was showing us something about gravity. He went through all the theory of gravity and then we did a few experiments.
Michael reminded us that the denser the object is the faster it falls as gravity takes effect.
He said, “that’s why Jeremy’s head will fall faster than any object in the room”.
We all laughed. Michael always makes fun of Jeremy and it makes the whole class more fun.
Jeremy laughed too.
No, the story will not win any awards or get made into a TV series. Netflix will not run a show called The Funniest Teacher.
It is a simple story, but it effectively shows the humour that Michael the teacher uses in his class and lessons.
By telling the story the student can show the humour the teacher has rather than just saying “My teacher has a good sense of humour, therefore he is funny”.
The examiner would also be happy with this little anecdote.
Exercise 1: Describing People with Stories
Any time the student describes something they can turn it into a short story.
Try this as an exercise with your students now.
Get them to tell you a story about a teacher that is always happy or angry. Or a teacher that is strict or easy-going.
Don’t worry about them describing the teacher. Get the students to think about examples of the teacher being happy or angry.
Those examples come via stories.
After the students have their stories formed in their minds, get them to do presentations at the front of the class.
It may terrify some of them to do this but it will give them confidence.
Describing Character with Stories
There are ways to describe someone without actually using the words to describe their virtues or bad character.
For example, I could describe a neighbour like this:
We have a neighbour that lives next door to us.
He has a small dog, and it is always barking, night and day.
It was really hard for me to do my homework because the dog kept on barking.
Then one day, my mum ran out of patience. She went next door and said to the man that his dog was disturbing us.
The man just shook his head. “What do you want me to do about it? Dogs bark. That’s what they like to do. I can’t stop the dog barking. He doesn’t understand.”
What is the student describing here?
Well, of course, all three plays a part in the story but essentially the student is describing the neighbour and the fact that he is so stubborn and inconsiderate.
I hope you can start to see what I mean about using stories here.
Describing Objects with Stories
What if the topic was about an object?
No problem. There is a story in everything.
Maybe the topic card reads:
Describe an object you bought.
This is too easy. All the student has to do is tell the story of the day they bought the object.
But usually, they just describe the colour, the shape and the size.
Let’s imagine that the object is a school bag.
It could go something like this:
I needed a new school bag so my mother gave me some money to go and buy one.
There’s a shop near my home that sells bags so I went there.
Inside the store, they had many different bags. Bags for sport, for work, for casual use. They just had a massive selection.
A shop assistant came over to help me and asked me what I was looking for. I told her that I was looking for a casual bag for school.
She led me to a big shelf filled full of different kinds of bags. They had a lot of shoulder bags and I was glad about this as I prefer shoulder bags for school.
She picked one bag up and asked if I liked it. She said it was very popular and many students came in to buy this bag.
I immediately rejected it as I didn’t want to have the same bag as everyone else.
Then I saw this really cool-looking bag.
It was a shoulder bag, so that was good. But it had this great colour scheme of orange and black. The two colours seemed to look great together.
I chose this one.
Is this kind of story going to win any prizes?
I think not.
But is the examiner going to like this talk about buying a bag?
Yes, I think he will.
And what does the story describe here?
The shop? The shop assistant? The bags?
In fact, it uses all the above to help describe the bag the student chose in the end.
All these elements complement each other and help to complete the story description of the bag.
Exercise 2: Describe an Object with a Story
Try this as an exercise with your students.
Ask them to talk about going out to buy something they own.
Just to make the story of the day they made the actual purchase.
Again, make them stand at the front of the class and give presentations.
Describing the Details of an Object with Stories
This is all very well if the student is talking about the day they purchased an item. But what if they have to talk about the details of the object?
There is still a story there…
Let’s say that the student is talking about some headphones he owns.
The story could go something like this:
My headphones are so good that they have noise-cancelling.
I often forget this when I am outside.
One time I was on my way to school on the bus. I was listening to music with my headphones as I always do.
I was really getting into the music and listening to my favourite singer — Ricky Rocket.
I forgot that I was on the bus and I started to sing out loud to the song. I didn’t think I was singing that loud but when I looked around I saw a group of girls all laughing at me.
I couldn’t even hear my own voice. That’s how good my headphones are.
Is he really describing the technical details of the headphones?
No, of course not.
But these are the kind of talks that get high points in the IELTS test.
Exercise 3: Describe the Details of an Object with a Story
Try this exercise with your students.
Get them to describe a detail of an object they own.
An easy thing to talk about is the apps on a smartphone.
Ask your students to tell a story about using an app on their phone.
Describing Personal Interests with Stories
Then there is the last category of activities.
The student may be asked to describe an interest or past-time, then again maybe something they like to do at the weekend. Or it could be to describe a social event, like going out for dinner or a party.
Once again, let me remind you that there are hundreds of stories waiting in these topic areas.
Imagine the student is asked to describe an activity they regularly partake in.
They can introduce the activity then go into detail with one particular episode.
For example, the topic could be to describe a hobby.
Maybe the answer is something like this:
In my free time, I like to fly my drone around and take pictures and videos of the surrounding area.
You have to be very careful when flying the drone over certain areas as it could be dangerous.
One time I was flying my drone in a busy area of the city not far from my home. There are many high buildings there and at night time it’s a little hard to see clearly.
Plus, there are a lot of lights coming off the buildings advertising different things.
I was keeping an eye on my drone but I got distracted and lost sight of it for a moment.
I panicked for a minute because if the drone flew into something it could crash and maybe hurt someone.
Then just as I was getting really worried I caught sight of it again and I brought it back towards me.
In this description-story, the student highlights perfectly the dangers of flying a drone in the city centre.
There is not much else to this story. It describes the city centre a little, but that only serves to expose the dangers of drone flying at night in the city.
This would be a great answer — or part of an answer — in part two of the IELTS test.
Exercise 4: Describe a Personal Interest with Stories
As an exercise ask your students to tell a story about one of their interests or hobbies. If not that, then maybe something they like to do at the weekend.
The story could be about something funny or dangerous as in the story above.
Or it could be about any other emotion or feeling.
And of course… class presentations at the end.
For any other topic questions about an activity that happened in the past… Well, that is already a story in its own right.
To sum up, what I think is important is to encourage your students to think about stories.
If you look at many IELTS books or websites when trying to help the student describe things they usually just provide a list of vocabulary and some phrases to help the student describe things or people.
This is fine for lower level students, but for students that are ready to take the IELTS test soon, they need to be able to express themselves much more clearly than that. They need to describe things and people via the use of anecdotes and tales.
This is especially true in Part Two, but I think stories and little anecdotes can be very useful in any part of the IELTS speaking test.
If they do this in the test, then I am sure it will benefit them in terms of their overall score.
Let me know what you think in the comments below.