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Worried about questions you can't answer on the Speaking test? You shouldn't!

Published on December 17, 2018

Worried about questions you can't answer on the Speaking test? You shouldn't!

“OH NO! I didn’t answer all the bullet points! I’m going to get a low score.” This is a common thing I hear from students in my IELTS classes. They’re stressed out because in Part 2 of the Speaking test, the two-minute long turn, they didn’t speak to every point. As you probably have seen, every Part 2 in the speaking test has three bullet points. Now, it is very important that you answer all three points in the General Training Writing Task 1, but not during the Speaking test. The Part 2 speaking points are just there to guide you. They are there to elicit a full answer from you. Two-minutes of talking is a lot, and these points are simply there to help.

Now of course, the speaking test isn’t just two minutes. It’s actually about fourteen minutes. So what about the rest of the test? Do you have to answer every question the examiner asks you? Will you lose marks if you don’t know the answer? What if the question is something you know nothing about? What if you don’t understand it? What if your brain just goes “blank” and you freeze - unable to speak? It’s these questions I hope to help you answer in this blog post. And to give you a simple answer for all of them - relax! Let’s have a look at some specifics.

The examiner uses a word I don’t know, and I can’t answer

The goal of the speaking test is to have you speak. We want you to say stuff. If you are quiet during the test, that is a problem. So, what can you do if you don’t understand the question? The examiner will not re-phrase the whole question, however, he/she can give you some help with single words. For example, maybe the question is “Do you wear a toque in the winter?”. Now maybe you don’t know the word ‘toque’, so all you have to do is ask about it. He/she should then give you a simple paraphrase of the troublesome word.

Examiner: Do you wear a toque in the winter?

Test-taker: Huh? Could you repeat that please?

Examiner: Do you wear a toque in the winter?

Test-taker: What does toque mean?

Examiner: A toque is a winter hat.

The examiner asks a difficult question, and I can’t answer right away.

This isn’t just an IELTS challenge. This happens often in everyday life. Someone will ask you a tough question, and suddenly you can’t say anything. Now, on the IELTS test this might be a problem. We don’t like it when the speaking test is too quiet. So, what to do? The best solution, from my point-of-view, is to use conversational fillers. Conversational fillers are phrases you can use that give you time to think. They allow you to keep speaking while your mind processes the question. If you ever listen to radio interviews or watch politicians speak on TV, they often use conversational fillers. Let’s have a look at some common ones below:

Examiner question: What would you do if there was an earthquake?

Possible Test-taker answers using conversational fillers:

  • If there was a natural disaster like an earthquake, I would do many many things. The first thing I would do in this situation is...
  • Hmmm, that is an excellent and important question. Let me think,...
  • Great question, I haven’t thought about something like this before…
  • If this happened, there are lots of things I would do. One thing I would do is…
  • Now that is a serious question. I can’t imagine an earthquake. However, if an earthquake did happen, I would have to do the right thing.
  • An earthquake? If an earthquake happened, it is important to respond in the best possible way. An earthquake is serious. So, let me say….

As you can see, the conversational fillers above don’t give you any real information. They dance around the question. Again, what they do is allow is for you to continue speaking while at the same time giving you time to think.

The examiner asks a question I know nothing about.

We want you to talk. You should always remember this about the speaking test. It is not a good idea for IELTS examiners to ask you a bunch of question you know nothing about. IELTS is a well developed test. Highly educated and professional language experts make the tests. These IELTS professionals try to only make questions that most people can answer. So, you will not hear unusual questions about nuclear physics, the history of Bulgaria, and the wildlife of the Boreal forest. However, you will hear questions about common topics like public transportation, healthy & unhealthy eating, and working with other people vs working alone. So, if you do hear a question you can’t answer, just say so! Tell the examiner you are not sure about this topic. Chances are you will know the next question.

There you have it. It isn’t what you know, it is how you say it. Remember, IELTS Examiners are there to help you speak about lots of topics during the test. So, relax, listen carefully, and keep on talking! Best of luck on test day, everyone!