Different cultures have different attitudes to silence, but for English speakers the attitude is one of near-zero tolerance. It’s fine to hesitate for a few seconds before speaking or between ideas, but silences of longer than five seconds will go down badly. Happily, there’s a solution to this problem and that’s to learn some filler expressions such as That’s a tough question and Let me see.
2. Memorised answers
The examiner is very likely to notice if you try to recite an answer from memory, and there is a penalty for this. The telltale signs of a memorised answer include speaking in a ‘written’ style of English, unnatural intonation, and the candidate attempting to ‘rephrase’ the question to the one they want to answer. Any questions you try to memorise answers to are very unlikely to be asked, so it is much more effective to practice speaking about a wide range of topics before you take the test.
3. Overuse of transition signals
It’s helpful to use a few signposting words like first, for example or on the other hand. But if you overload your speech with these you could actually damage your score. Sounding natural, not like a signposting robot, should be your goal in IELTS Speaking. There are also many words characteristic of formal writing such as furthermore, moreover and in addition that are hardly ever used in speech and could actually make you sound less natural if you say them.
4. Parrotting the question
In the wild, a parrot is a bird that can mimic but not understand human speech. In IELTS, a parrot is a candidate who repeats the question back in statement form: Q: What’s your favourite sport to watch on TV? A: My favourite sport to watch on TV is football. As the scoring criteria of IELTS heavily reward those who can vary speech, paraphrasing the words or structure of the question is a fast-track route to a higher score: I’m always watching football on TV.
5. Answering the wrong question
You will lose marks for coherence if your answer completely fails to address the question. Ask yourself before you begin speaking if you are sure you have understood, and do not be afraid to ask the examiner for help. But be sure to avoid…
6. Saying ‘I don’t understand’
There are much better ways to check for meaning, so learn them! You can use a straightforward request like Could you say that again, please? or ask a checking question such as Do you mean…? that shows you have at least partly understood the question.
7. Saying too much or too little
If you say too little, you miss the opportunity to show off your ability. If you say too much, you risk sounding less coherent and making more mistakes. As a general guide, answers of two to four sentences are fine in Part 1. There are clear instructions about the length of speaking time in Part 2. You should aim to say three to six sentences after each question in Part 3.
8. Poor pronunciation
Great ideas are worthless if the listener can’t make out your words. There’s a good reason pronunciation accounts for 25% of the score in IELTS Speaking and that’s because it’s fundamental to spoken communication. Before taking IELTS, you should find an opportunity to practice with native or native-level speakers and get an honest appraisal of your pronunciation. If they have trouble hearing your words, it’s very likely the examiner will too.
9. Flat intonation
Even when you pronounce words clearly, flat intonation will make it difficult to follow what you say. We vary intonation, pitch, volume and speaking speed in order to maintain the listener’s interest and direct attention to our important ideas. Even IELTS examiners, who are trained to listen carefully to everything a candidate says, will find a flatly-intoned response difficult to follow and your response may be marked down for both pronunciation and coherence as a result.
10. Asking for the examiner’s opinion
You are there to answer the questions, not ask them. The examiner will politely redirect the question back your way if you try to stall for time by saying I don’t know, what do you think? If you really don’t have any ideas, just say I’m afraid I know nothing about this topic and wait for the next question.
For examples of good responses to questions in all three parts of the Speaking module of IELTS, see: