Preparing for a speaking test at advanced level

Alice, studying English in Hong Kong, writes:

I plan to take the IELTS test next year. My grammar and reading comprehension are OK, but the topics that appear in Writing Task 2 and Speaking Part 2 & Part 3 can be quite broad and the topic boundary is quite vague. My biggest problem with the writing Task 2 and the Speaking part 2 & 3 is that I don't have enough opinions or ideas or examples to talk about. One of the main reasons is that I am unfamiliar with the situation presented by the question.

Could you please give me some specific advice to solve my language problem?

Roger Woodham replies:

I shall concentrate on preparing for the speaking test in this answer.

Speaking Part 2

In Part 2 of the IELTS speaking test (and there are similar developments in Part 3 of the new CPE speaking test) there is a long turn where you have to speak for one or two minutes on a topic which is given to you printed on a card.

Nobody of course knows which topic they will be given to talk about but it should not be totally unfamiliar to you as it will involve your own personal experience. Even so, it is important to make full use of the one-minute preparation time to think your way into the topic and to sort out what you want to say. If your thoughts are organised, there is every chance that your presentation will also be organised.

If you are a good note-taker, you may find it useful to make some notes against the cues on the card in your one-minute preparation time. If you are not a good note-taker, do not attempt to make notes but simply focus on the cues to guide your thoughts. They should give you enough to talk about for one to two minutes. Try practising with these two examples, one with the aid of notes (if you find this useful) and one without:

Tell me about the people who live next door to you.

Tell me:

  • What sort of people they are

  • How long they have been living next door to you.

  • Whether you ever do anything together

Explain what makes them agreeable or disagreeable.

Tell me about your favourite song or piece of music.

Tell me:

  • What type of song or music it is and who sings or plays it

  • How often you listen to it or sing it

  • What sort of effect it has on you

Explain how it has influenced you in the past.

Did the headings themselves give you sufficient guidance for a two-minute presentation? Was it useful to make notes?


Speaking Part 3

Part three involves discussion of topics which develop from what you have been talking about in Part 2. Some of the questions you are asked may be quite demanding and require an ability to think on your feet.

In this section, you will be discussing possibilities and speculating, referring to your own thoughts, opinions and experiences, but also generalising.

To improve your general knowledge, watch or listen to English language news on TV ( + teletext ) or radio every day. Check out the BBC news websites, download and study articles that you are drawn to.

Again in Part 3, take time to organise your thoughts. Some hesitation is natural if related to putting your thoughts together. See how you get on with these examples which might introduce Part 3, following on from the Stage 2 examples:

Is it a good idea to be very close to your neighbours? What are the advantages/ disadvantages of such a close relationship?

Why is there sometimes wide variation in the type of music older and younger people like? What do you see as the main function of music in life?

Remember, if you are not sure about what is meant by the question, you can always ask the examiner to explain (parts of) it and thereby gain extra time in which to make your reply. But try to use Part 3 to show off your knowledge and demonstrate your ability to express an opinion and justify your ideas.