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What if I don't know what to say in the speaking test?

Published on December 11, 2017

As an IELTS examiner and English-language instructor, I have been asked about what happens during an IELTS exam if a candidate doesn't know how to answer a question. Unfortunately this sometimes happens and it may leave the candidate feeling nervous and unsure.

Below are some things to keep in mind if you are wondering about being asked a question during the IELTS speaking test and you don't know what to say.


Firstly, there are a number of reasons why a candidate may not know how to respond to a question, including:

  • Feeling nervous
  • Not understanding the question or parts of the question
  • Not knowing anything (or very little) about the topic

Experts need not answer

Keep in mind that IELTS questions are designed in a way that will enable most people to answer them. The topics are varied and broad, and do not require specific knowledge or training in order to answer them.

Stay calm

If you do get a question that you don't know how to answer, stay calm, take a deep breath, and think.

There are a few phrases you can use to give yourself a quick moment to think, such as:

  • "That's an interesting question"
  • "Let me think about that for a moment"

Ask for rephrasing or clarification

Please don't be afraid to ask your examiner to repeat or clarify a question if you don't understand or are unsure how to answer.

Suggested phrases you can use include:

  • "I'm sorry, I don't understand the question"
  • "Can you explain the question, please?"

Please note: while it's ok to ask for clarification, don't ask for it for every question.

Don't be silent

Silence doesn't help show your language ability. By saying little (or nothing) the examiner may not have enough evidence of your speaking ability to effectively score you. My advice is always try your best to say something when you are asked a question.

Creativity is OK

If you are asked to talk about something that you know little about, try to come up with something that shows your speaking ability. If you have to add details that you have made up or altered, that's fine.

For example, if the question is about museums and you haven't been to a museum, try to think of some experience that you know about, or someone you know who likes museums. If the question is, "Tell me about a museum that is popular in your country", you could say:

  • "To be honest, I have never been to a museum, but I think my parents enjoy going to the museum in my city to see things about my country's history."

This may or may not be true, or you may be guessing about your parents' feelings. That's ok. You have made an effort show your language skills with your answer.

It's about ability, not opinion

The IELTS exam is not testing your opinion or the content of your answer. Rather, it is testing your language ability. Your examiner doesn't have to agree with what you say, and she doesn't care whether it's true. How well you express yourself, your opinions and ideas is what is most important.

Questions, questions, questions

The speaking exam includes three parts, so you have several opportunities to speak during the exam. If one question isn't answered as well as you like, try not to get distracted or stressed, as you will have other questions to answer and more opportunities to show your speaking abilities.

Don't be uninformed

It's a great idea before your exam to take some time to become familiar with the speaking descriptors used for the IELTS exam. In addition, make sure you look at sample exam questions and answers.

Taking time before your exam can go a long way to ensuring you are prepared for test day.

Try to stay focused, stay calm, and make every effort to answer the questions on your IELTS speaking exam.

Good luck!