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IELTS Teacher e-newsletter – September 2020

How can I talk when I have nothing to say?

We’ve all been there. You’re at a party and trying to get to know people but you can’t think of anything to talk about. It’s normal, and an easy solution is just to ask questions and let someone else talk (there’s a good party tip for you!); but, this is not an option in an IELTS exam, and a lot of people, many of whom generally feel confident in the English language, think they’re not giving their best simply as a result of their mind going blank, and some of your students may feel this way. Tell them to relax, they’re not alone, and here are some tips to help your IELTS preparation students address these concerns:

Sometimes, a little is enough.

Your students should know by now that there are three parts to the IELTS speaking test. Parts one and three are interactions, meaning that the candidate is not the only one speaking. Remember that these parts of the test are supposed to feel like a natural conversation, so if someone asks you your name in real life, how do you answer? Do you give a long history of your family, or simply answer your name? There is nothing wrong with a simple answer to a simple question, and if the examiner wants elaboration, he or she may have the opportunity to ask. Candidates should not feel every utterance needs to be a monologue.

Nobody is checking facts.

Maybe they’ll be asked to speak for one to two minutes on a topic they have no idea about. Unfortunately, they can’t ask for a new question and they’re stuck with the one they have, so what do they do? One piece of advice is simply to imagine a made-up answer. Now, tell them not to get too silly with answers (obviously they didn’t go on holiday to the planet Mars), as an answer may seem irrelevant or garbled (a beach would be a more believable place to go on holiday). As long as the answer is communicated well and is relevant to the question, it’s fine. Tell them to remember this is not a police interrogation!

Similarly, they should not get too caught up on their true opinions. There should be no morally dubious topics in the exam, but something as simple as ‘do you prefer sweet food or savory food?’ can catch anyone for a moment. They should just pick one and go with it. Remember there is no wrong answer! They should just explain their choice with a little personal experience and some good vocabulary.

I can’t make a speech for exactly two minutes.

Nobody has to! Remember, the instructions are to speak for ‘one to two minutes’, meaning that if it finishes at one minute they can make that clear and move on. The examiner may ask a candidate to elaborate and may ask another question, but they should not worry – there is nothing wrong with this as long as they have covered all the points in the question adequately. Of course, it is unlikely that everything will be covered in just one minute (although not impossible), so they should ensure they have spoken about everything in the question points.

For timing, it is difficult to speak for such a specific length of time, so here is a piece of advice that may help: try separating the speech into three or four easy-to-manage parts. One two-minute monologue seems hard, but three forty-second points are not so hard. They might try to conclude in the last third/quarter if possible, in order to make the speech seem complete, but they should not worry if they get a little cut off in this. In the first or second section of the speech, it may help to give a little backstory if it’s relevant or possible. This will demonstrate ability to convey tenses and give an opportunity to segue backwards and forwards with some nice transitions. Anything they can do to show off their ability is a bonus.

I’m too nervous!

Sadly, there is no universal fix for this, but here is some advice that will hopefully help:

• The examiner has taken exams too! Once upon a time, the examiner was in a similar position taking an exam for one reason or another so they will understand how it feels. Candidates should understand that their examiner may not be able to communicate their empathy, and not feel that they are the enemy; the examiner is simply an observer.
• Practice builds confidence. This is easier said than done, especially for candidates with little access to native speakers to practice with, but this is not everything. Separate skills in English are not disconnected; reading is a great way to improve vocabulary and an intuitive understanding of structure; listening is very helpful with getting into a natural rhythm of speech; writing helps us structure our thoughts and analyze our own grammar. Also, pronunciation can be practiced with fun things like tongue-twisters or karaoke. Encourage your students to practice in a way that really engages their minds as it will help them learn more efficiently while having fun in the process. You should also encourage them to record themselves. They can listen to examples like the news or audio books and try to replicate those. Remind them that they will not be judged on their accent, but that doesn’t mean they can’t play around with it in practice!
• Sit up! This is not a job interview and they only have to demonstrate their ability, not impress the examiner, but one might be surprised how good posture can affect clarity of voice; and, of course a good night’s sleep is a good idea too, as tiredness can lead to mumbling.

Remind your students that many people worldwide have the same concerns about speaking in an IELTS exam. Maybe they’re taking it for a dream job, or to move to another country, or to get into a chosen university. Whatever their reason is, tell them to try not to think of the exam as an obstacle, but a chance to shine and the first step in realizing their dreams.



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