The International English Language Testing System, otherwise known as the IELTS is one of, if not the most popular English proficiency test out there. As such, it’s a common lesson among university and adult ESL learners who want to live, study, or work abroad.
The IELTS consists of four sections: reading, writing, listening and speaking. For the most part, learners can study and prepare for the IELTS with the aid of materials that can be purchased online or in bookstores. But the speaking section is a different story. Test takers need to be able to practice their speaking skills with someone. And that makes the speaking section more of a hot item for ESL classes.
The IELTS Speaking Test
The IELTS speaking test is an 11-14-minute examination of the proficiency level a speaker has when engaging in verbal interactions using English. Examiners assign performance with a band score that translates to the test taker’s proficiency level. That’s a technical description. To simplify it, we could say it measures how well a test-taker might be able to function in an English language environment. As such, we must understand, that the IELTS is not a pass or fail test. Neither is it a test in the traditional sense of the word. That’s because test-takers need to get specific band scores for specific purposes. It doesn’t mean they pass or fail when they do or don’t get the band score they want. Helping learners understand this can help them view the IELTS Speaking test differently.
Furthermore, the IELTS test measures more than just grammar. Many teachers tend to over-emphasize this point. The IELTS Speaking test, for example, measures fluency, vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation. Each point is given a weight of 25%. So, grammar is not the end all be all of teaching IELTS Speaking.
Part 1–Questions and Answers
Part 1 is a 4 to 5-minute question and answer time between the examiner and the test-taker. Here, they will be asked questions about themselves. Things such as their hometown, free time activities, work, studies, and more may come up. Any number of questions could pop up, so it would be impossible to go through these questions one by one in an IELTS Speaking training class.
The only way to prepare students for the test is for them to have a solid foundation in English before stepping into the IELTS class. Students and teachers must understand this point. The IELTS class is not the place to improve English. The IELTS class is where people learn strategies for successfully maneuvering the IELTS test. Therefore, if necessary, you may need to suggest the student enrolls in conversation classes as well or before an IELTS Speaking class. What’s more, there are no right or wrong answers to, “describe your hometown,” or “what you like to do in your free time.” That’s why we must help learners understand that from the very beginning, the introduction sets the tone for the remainder of the test.
The most important part of the IELTS is not the discussion or the long turn, but the introduction. This is because if a speaker cannot talk freely about things that are familiar to them, much more they will be unable to talk at length about things that are not familiar to them. The IELTS Speaking section is not about having the perfect vocabulary, perfect grammar, or perfect sounds. It’s about how well you can put it all together, communicate, and be understood. And it begins in Part 1! That’s why a solid foundation in English conversation classes prepares the way for IELTS Speaking training.
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Part 2–Long Turn
Part 2 is an opportunity for speakers to demonstrate their ability to speak for a prolonged period of time about a subject familiar to them. It’s a chance to improve their initial informal band score. I say informal because, after Part 1, the examiner already has a pretty good idea of the band score.
Test-takers may be asked to speak about something such as a book they’ve read recently. The caveat is that they’ll need to include answers to wh-questions. They have 1 minute to prepare to speak for 1-2 minutes. You can help prepare learners by providing them with note-taking strategies and drills that focus on keywords only. You can also help learners get a feel for the timing—all the while, providing feedback on grammar points, vocabulary use, pronunciation, and overall cohesion.
Just don’t dwell on individual issues only. Focus on whether the overall message the student is expressing is intelligible. Don’t be nit-picky about every single flaw in their speech—that’s not the point of the IELTS Speaking training class. Take note of the obvious and repetitive issues and try to get them ironed out. If you point out every single thing they do wrong, you’ll probably end up decreasing their confidence.
Part 3 is a 4 to 5-minute opportunity to polish and fine-tune the speaker’s informal band score. Here, they may be asked difficult questions they may be hard-pressed to answer. But that’s okay. What the examiner is looking for is how well the test-taker can manage it. For example, the interviewer may ask, “what effect do you think prolonged exposure to repeatedly stressing news in the media has on the emotional well-being of people?” That might be a pretty tough question to answer, even for a native speaker.
The people behind the IELTS know that. What they want to observe is how people respond to such questions. For example, does the speaker stutter and fumble through a discombobulated response inserting periodic attempts at perfect grammar with highfalutin vocabulary? Or, do they begin their answer with a friendly, “I think that’s a pretty good question, especially these days. Well, in my opinion, …”? Teaching IELTS students to be natural in their responses can help them tremendously.
5 Ways to Prepare Your IELTS Students for the Speaking Test
1. IELTS Tests Are Not Typically Pass or Fail Tests.
One of the biggest misunderstandings I have observed among students is the idea that they will ‘fail’ the ‘test.’ And why not—they have been ingrained with this concept since the time of early childhood education. When students go to school, they must have the ‘right’ answers or they will not ‘pass’ the quiz, test, or subject. They bring this tension with them to our classrooms.
Connotations associated with the word ‘test’ perhaps raise a red flag in learners that create instant cringing. What they do not realize is that these tests do not fail people. The ‘gauge’ people’s skills by scores, levels, or ratings but are not pass or fail. Teach students that these are not pass-fail tests and you will almost certainly help alleviate some of that tension they have.
2. There Are No Right or Wrong Answers, Only Answers.
Another way you can help reduce the stress of these proficiency tests is to get them to breathe when giving answers. You can help build confidence by reassuring them that there are no right or wrong answers—there are only answers.
For example, is there a correct answer to the request, ‘describe your hometown’? Does your favorite color have the correct answer? Does asking their opinion about billboard advertising in their city have a correct answer? Can a question about their family members have a correct or incorrect response? There is no answer key for these questions. proficiency tests examiners will not conduct research to determine if their favorite color is red or blue then mark them wrong for not saying the right color. By helping learners understand this concept, you can help them de-stress. That is also why students must understand the best way to prepare for conversation is to be comfortable with the conversation.
3. Conversation Skills Must Be Developed First.
The best foundation for an English proficiency test is to be proficient in the language. Test preparation classes are not the time to begin improving English. That should have already happened in regular ESL lessons. Sometimes students do not understand this point. This is your opportunity to explain that they need to have a certain level of English skill before venturing a test.
One way you can help is by getting them to realize the value of ESL conversation classes. Having the opportunity to talk about a variety of topics will go a long way in helping them gain confidence long before preparing for the test.
4. Test Preparation Classes Focus on Strategies, Not Improving English.
The IELTS test class cannot possibly incorporate every potential subject or perspective that might arise in a speaking test. The people behind these proficiency tests make sure they are not compromised. Therefore, the only way to prepare students is by teaching them what the speaking test entails, then practice, practice, practice.
We can explain that the idea of a speaking test preparation class is to equip them with strategies to successfully navigate the speaking part of the test. We can approach the conversation from the aspect that it could save them time, money, effort, and disappointment if they build their English skills first.
5. Teach IELTS Students to Speak to Examiners as Conversation Partners.
Students sometimes view the examiners as opponents to getting their goals. That may have some substance to it, but learners can gain more confidence by viewing them as conversation partners. True, sometimes the examiners are a little solemn and distracted but students can still try to enjoy the opportunity. They can imagine they are talking to a friend or striking up a friendly conversation with someone they just met on a plane. Your IELTS students will benefit from the change in perspective.
Sample IELTS Speaking Activity for Developing Candidates’ Lexical Resource and Skills in Paraphrasing
In the UAE, colleges, and universities generally require an IELTS band score of 5.0 or 5.5 for admission, and a large majority of IELTS candidates in the country are taking the test for this purpose. There are many resources online that can help your candidates achieve their target band scores. One such resource is the public version of the IELTS speaking rubric, which gives an idea of some of the criteria and descriptors used to establish band scores. With this awareness, you can develop lessons and activities closely calibrated to your candidates’ target band.
One criterion on the speaking rubric is a candidate’s lexical resource (i.e. vocabulary). At band 4.0 a candidate is “able to talk about familiar topics but can only convey a basic meaning on unfamiliar topics and makes frequent errors in word choice” and he or she “rarely attempts to paraphrase”. While paraphrasing generally means using different words to express an idea, in the IELTS speaking exam it is a candidate’s ability to effectively “talk around” gaps in their lexical resource.
At band 4.0, a candidate may suddenly pause as they struggle to recall a particular word. At band 5.0, however, a candidate “attempts to use paraphrase but with mixed success”. Your goal then is not only to bulk up your candidates’ vocabulary but also to develop their ability to paraphrase when they suddenly forget a word.
One game I like to use that allows candidates to practice target vocabulary and develop their ability to paraphrase under pressure at the same time is called TABOO! In a nutshell, the object of the game is to get your team to guess a word by describing it using different words—the textbook definition of paraphrasing, right? The catch is that certain words are taboo. These are words with a close semantic relationship with the target word and would thus be easy giveaways. For this reason, you cannot use them.
Here’s how to play:
Step 1: Create your set of TABOO cards. Each card presents a target word, usually in bold at the top, and between 2 to 4 taboo words. Create the set yourself or have your candidates develop their own and then choose the best.
Step 2: Break the class into two teams. The team that goes first sends someone up to the front of the class.
Step 3: Give that candidate one of the TABOO cards and set a time limit of a minute or a minute and a half. I often use an online countdown timer projected upon our whiteboard.
Step 4: The candidate describes the target word on the TABOO card, being careful not to use any of the taboo words. His or her teammates then must guess the word. Only spoken English can be used—no writing, no L1, and no body language. If someone guesses the word correctly, then that team gets a point.
Step 6: While the one team is trying to guess, the other team must sit quietly until time’s up. If time runs out and the first team does not guess the word correctly, then the other team has a chance to guess and gain a point for themselves.
Of course, the team with the most points wins! Not only have your candidates practiced the target words; they have also practiced thinking on their feet and coming up with other words to express the meaning of the target vocabulary. The hope is that if they forget a word in their speaking exam, they will be able to more deftly and smoothly talk around that missing lexical item.