While recently looking through the materials I have made and used for IELTS Speaking Part Two over the years, I was surprised to find that all of it practised the skill of giving one or two minute presentations and none of it was any use for a lesson to actually teach students what they need in order to do so well. I felt a bit better when a trawl of two shelves of IELTS books in the teachers’ room found the exact same thing, but those good feelings quickly faded when I realised I would have to try and plan how to teach this with just a few exam tips from textbooks to help me. This article is a summary of the ideas I have come up with and tried since then.
What students have to do in IELTS Speaking Part Two
After three or four minutes of answering questions on personal topics like family and leisure in IELTS Speaking Part One, the examiner gives the candidate a task sheet on which is written a topic that they must speak about on their own for one or two minutes. There is no choice of topic. The task cards always have four sub-topics that students should speak about during their mini-presentation, the first three as bullet points and the last as an additional sentence, as in:
"Speak for one or two minutes about a beautiful area of countryside that you have been to or would like to go to.
You should say:
- Where it is
- What it looks like
- What people can do there
And say how it compares to other areas of countryside you have been to or know about."
Before the candidate is asked to speak, they are given exactly one minute to think about what they are going to say. Students can’t underline words on the question sheet because it is laminated, but they can - and almost certainly should - make notes with the scrap paper and pencil given. This will help them think about the topic and they can refer to their notes later if they forget what they were going to say. After that one minute of preparation, the examiner will ask them to start speaking, getting more and more insistent if they don’t do so very soon after the first prompt. After they speak for between one and two minutes, the examiner will ask them one or two additional questions about what they said, e.g. "You said… Why…?/ Do you also think that…?" These are never the same as the questions on the task sheet, even if the candidate hasn’t yet talked about all the subtopics.
If they speak for less than one minute (unlikely if they speak about all four points on the sheet), the examiner will generally just wait in silence or show with body language that they expect them to continue. If the candidate speaks for over two minutes, the examiner will interrupt them – sometimes mid sentence. This is a good thing! However the presentation ends, the examiner will ask the usual one or two questions afterwards. The test then moves smoothly onto Speaking Part Three, which is a less personal and more general discussion on the same topic as Speaking Part Two, e.g. discussing questions like "What should the government do to preserve natural beauty?" after the Speaking Part Two example above.
What students need to do to do well in IELTS Speaking Part Two
Obviously, the first thing students will need to do is understand the question they are given. As in the other parts of the speaking test, students can ask any questions they like about the task. In Part Two they also have a written prompt they can point at when they do so with phrases like "What does this word mean?" However, some time spent on making sure students understand typical words and expressions in Speaking Part Two questions might be useful. Things they might need to know include the meanings of "how" questions, "is like"/ "looks like"/ "like", "if/ whether" to introduce yes/ no questions, and "if so" to mean "if yes". Other vocabulary in exam practice books that my students have found difficult include "your impression of…", "item", "possession", "suitable", "admire", "well known", "what kind/ type/ sort", "spend time", "occur", "related to", "is located" and "contain".
The next thing they’ll need to be able to do is to think of something to talk about. As they only have one minute to prepare, they’ll probably need to stick to the first or second thing that comes to mind, and it sometimes happens that they don’t know whether that thing exactly matches the task they have been given. For example, if the first or only thing that pops into their heads for the question above is a large park on the outskirts of a city, they might wonder whether it counts as "countryside". If those doubts occur to them straightaway, they could ask the examiner a question like "Sorry, can I just check something. Is it okay to talk about…?", to which the examiner will generally just say "Yes". If the doubts come up later, their only option is to mention that at the beginning of their presentation with a phrase like "I’m actually not sure if it completely matches the task, but I’ve chosen to speak about…/ the only thing I could think of was…" They can also use similar tactics in the very rare case that the task is a topic that it is impossible for them to talk about.
The next stage is making notes. Given the lack of time to prepare and the aim of the notes being to stimulate fluent speech, they should avoid full sentences and their own language, instead writing between one and three English words, numbers or symbols on their scrap paper for each of the four parts of the task. Although some books recommend it, in my experience brainstorming onto a Mind Map is neither possible in the time available nor useful. Some students also seem convinced that the task will be taken back before they speak and so they need to copy or remember stuff from the task sheet. This is obviously not the case, IELTS being a test of English rather than memory!
They can ask the examiner if they can start if they manage to prepare in less than one minute (as it is better than sitting there getting more nervous), but for most students the next thing they will need is a phrase to start off the presentation after the examiner prompts them to get started. It is better if this is something specific to their presentation such as "It was easy for me to choose a topic to talk about because…", but if they can’t think of anything creative it is fine to just use an all-purpose phrase like "I’m going to speak about…". As this is supposed to be a monologue, it is not good to start with a question to the examiner such as "I’m going to talk about sushi. Have you tried sushi?" They should also try to avoid just repeating what is written on the task sheet.
Once they have got started, they will then need to make sure they work their way through at least two or three of the four points on the task sheet, keeping on topic but expanding a little on each point. If they do that, there should be no need to worry about timing and whether they have said enough. Although the points are usually already in the most logical order, there is no reason why students shouldn’t mix them up.
As far as the content of their presentation goes, students will be marked on their ability to speak fluently with good pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar and organisation. To get a good mark, their vocabulary and grammar should be both accurate (especially avoiding basic errors and errors that impede communication) and ambitious. They should also make sure they actually answer the questions they are given (i.e. stay on topic), and that their presentation ties together. Those criteria are the same as for the rest of the IELTS Speaking exam and there aren’t separate marks for different sections of the test, but as this is the only part of the test that is a monologue it is probably their best opportunity to show their ability to speak at length and link ideas together.
One good way of students expanding the range of language they use is to put some effort into not repeating words and phrases from the task sheet or from what they said earlier. A more difficult issue is how much they should correct themselves, given that there are marks for both fluency and accuracy. For most students I believe the best policy is to only correct themselves if they are likely to be misunderstood or if it is the information rather than language that is wrong. Either way, they are likely to need phrases such as "Sorry, I mean…" and "That’s wrong. What I meant to say was…"
Other functional language that is likely to come up includes:
- Referring back to things they said earlier
- Getting back on track, e.g. if they have gone off topic
- Speaking while they are pausing to think of what to say, to remember some information, or to refer back to their notes or the presentation task sheet
- Mentioning things they forgot to say earlier
- Explaining their feelings
- Talking about their experiences
- Talking about the past, present and future, possibly including a range of future tenses
- Talking about reasons and consequences
Unlike what it says in some advice for candidates I have seen, they are not supposed to pretend they are giving a presentation to an audience, so there is no need for the usual language of presentations that is given in Business English and EAP books such as "My presentation is divided into four parts" and "Please interrupt me at any time".
Students will also want to clearly mark the end of their presentations, and possibly to carry on if they are under one minute. The easiest way to extend their presentation if they need to is just to expand on the last question on the task sheet, as it is always a more involved question such as "And say why…"
It is difficult to make similar generalisations about topics that are likely to come up, because the task sheet could literally be about anything. However, they always have to talk about one specific thing (rather than a kind of thing) such as "a friend/ a possession/ a place you recently went". It is also always something that they have some kind of personal connection to, e.g. something they have seen, like, have an attachment to or are interested in. This means most tasks fit into the pattern "Describe a person/ place/ time/ thing/ action that you…" You could obviously spend a lifetime learning how to describe every person, place etc that you have a connection to, but some class time spent on this can be useful as long as students concentrate on learning words that they can use to describe things connected to their own lives. Some time on typical mistakes (e.g. false friends) related to describing people, places, etc can also be worthwhile.
To give some idea of how IELTS Speaking Part Two can be taught rather than just practised, one of two examples of activities for most of the points above are given below.
Understanding the question
To make sure students analyse the questions on the task sheet carefully and think about how they can stick closely to them in their answer, you can do tasks involving judging how well some model answers match the questions. Using recordings, scripts, the teacher speaking or someone in their group doing a task, you can also get them to match the questions and answers or guess the task sheet from the answer.
Asking questions about the question
To force the students to use phrases to check comprehension (also useful in other parts of the speaking test), you could give them a Speaking Part Two task sheet that has nonsense words, very high level language or typical confusions (e.g. false friends) on it. A more fun way of practising this functional language is to ask them to check as many things as possible before they start (including things they really already understand), with the person who asks the most questions winning the game.
Quickly thinking of something to speak about that matches the task
You can’t really help them come up with ideas, but there are ways of practising quickly choosing a topic so that they can spend the rest of the time preparing. The easiest and most fun way is to shout out or flash up a first line from an IELTS Speaking Part Two task like "Describe a tourist spot in your hometown", asking students to put up their hands whenever they are sure they have thought of something that precisely matches that category. Ask them more questions (e.g. "Is this your hometown?") to check whether it does exactly fit the question if you need to, then give one point for the first person to choose something that is suitable but minus two points for anyone who chooses something that doesn’t match.
You can help them decide on their own tactics for this point by practising different ways of dividing up the one minute preparation time. Prepare roleplay cards that say "Choose the first thing that comes into your head as quickly as possible then prepare with the rest of the time available", "Think of two options, choose the best one and then prepare with the rest of the time available", etc. After they all try some exam tasks with the methods they have been given, they can discuss which one was best.
This is best practised by giving them good and bad examples of notes for Speaking Part Two, e.g. overlong ones to edit down or a good example that they should change to make true for themselves before doing the speaking task.
Talking about the four sub-topics
Decide on a suitable amount of time for each of the four points in the example exam task you give them (it depends on the individual task), tell them those timings, and during pairwork practice shout out when they should switch from one topic to the next. They can then discuss whether they would have divided up the time differently and what timings they would use with some other exam tasks.
This is also good practice of stretching things out, sometimes needed if they finish in less than one minute.
Starting and ending
You can introduce and practise a range of starting and ending phrases by reading them out and asking students to raise one of their two hands depending on which one they think they heard, e.g. right hand = a starting phrase and left hand = an ending phrase.
Keeping on topic and getting back on track
Working in pairs, ask students to speak about one of the topics you give them as long as they can. Whenever the person listening thinks their partner has gone off topic, they can interrupt and continue the topic themselves. Their partner can then interrupt back in the same way.
Fluency and thinking aloud
Fluency in this part of the exam mainly consists of two things – quickly thinking of things to say and avoiding silence. This can be practised with games where they are timed talking about topics as long as they can but with the time being calculated after estimating how long they paused and taking that off the total. They can also do the activity for points, e.g. one point for 30 seconds (after time taken off for pausing), two points for one minute. Alternatively, they can time them up to when the person speaking stops but interrupt them after they pause for more than a fixed amount of time, e.g. 20 seconds.
You can put typical IELTS vocabulary which is difficult to pronounce into the IELTS Speaking Part Two question or design a task to produce words which are often mispronounced. In the former case, they also have the option of rephrasing in their answer, which is also an important tactic that is well worth practising.
Vocabulary, organisation and grammar
Ask students to look at the script of an example answer and correct the vocabulary mistakes, change words which are repeated, and/ or add more complex vocabulary. Alternatively, you could give them a gapped version to add suitable words to. The same things can be done for grammar and linking words.
Another good one for vocabulary is to give them a list of suggested vocabulary before they do a task, then take the vocabulary list away the second time they do the same or a similar task.
Ask students to interrupt the person in their group who is doing an exam task if they repeat a vocabulary word or use a word from the task sheet. They can then do the same task, being interrupted in their turn if they repeat. This is like the BBC radio game show "Just a Minute".
Students do exam tasks in pairs, with one person taking the examiner role. When the teacher says "Switch", the person listening in each pair continues from the point their partner got up to on the task sheet but first "correcting" the things their partner said which aren’t true for them, e.g. "My answer is about a river rather than a lake".
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