Teaching IELTS Speaking Part One

Summary: What students need to do near the beginning of the IELTS Speaking paper and how to prepare them to do so.

What students need to do in IELTS Speaking Part One

After being invited in, sitting down, confirming their name and showing their ID, students will spend the rest of the first four minutes of the test answering personal questions about themselves such as “Do you live near here?” and “What do you do?”

Along with work, studies and accommodation, other common topics in this part of the exam include:

- Arts and media (e.g. “What kinds of films do you like?”)

- Family and friends (e.g. “Did you get on well with your parents when you were a child?”)

- Festivals and celebrations (e.g. “Do you have any plans for your next birthday?”

- Food (e.g. “What kind of food do you enjoy cooking?”)

- Hobbies and free time (e.g. “What do you usually do on your days off?”)

- Hometown (e.g. “How is Tokyo different from the city you come from?”)

- Language learning (e.g. “Are there any other languages that you’d like to study?”

- Sports and games/ Exercise (e.g. “Do you enjoy working out?”)

- Technology (e.g. “Are you planning to buy anything electronic?”)

- Transport and travel (e.g. “How did you get here today?”)

Nowadays students are also likely to get at least one more unusual topic that has never been in the exam before, e.g. “Using the internet” or “Personal development”.

The examiner will ask between two and four questions on one topic and then switch, usually making for two or three topics in the four minutes. The examiner will usually ask a mixture of present, past and future questions on one topic, e.g. two present questions then one past question and/ or one future question. The examiner will also have follow-up questions to use if the candidate’s answers are short, e.g. “Do your friends like the same kinds of films?” for “What kinds of films do you like?” or “What kinds of things did you disagree about?” for “Did you get on well with your parents when you were a child?” They will also have alternative versions of questions in case the examinee doesn’t understand the original question, e.g. “Are you working or are you a student?” for “What do you do?” If the candidate indicates that they don’t understand, the examiner will usually repeat the original question a little slower and if they still aren’t understood they will try the alternative version. They will then just move onto the next question.

This is much more common in Parts Two and Three of the speaking exam, but the candidate shouldn’t be worried if the examiner cuts them off once or twice, e.g. to make sure that they cover the right number of topics or to move onto IELTS Speaking Part Two.

What students need to do well in IELTS Speaking Part One

Students are not given separate scores for each part of the IELTS Speaking exam that are added together to make the total score but rather the examiners give marks based on the abilities that the candidate shows during the test. As IELTS Speaking Parts Two and Three are more challenging than Part One, this means that candidates can either see this part of the exam as an easy start that gives them a chance to relax and get their heads into gear or as an easy way of getting some good language in right from the start.

Although they are tested on their speaking rather than their listening ability, students will need to understand the questions or be able to indicate that they don’t understand. Problems my students have had while practising or taking Part One include:

- Understanding “What would you like me to call you?”

- Understanding “What do you do (for a living)?”

- Understanding questions with phrasal verbs like “take up” (e.g. a new hobby), “get on with” (e.g. with your brother or sister), “brought up” and “take after” (your mum or your dad)

- Understanding questions about festivals and celebrations (especially the exact definitions of those two things)

- Understanding the difference between “hobby” and “interest”

- Understanding the difference between “holiday”, “public holiday” and “days off”

- Understanding more precise expressions for relationships, e.g. “extended family”, “close friend” and “direct boss”

As this kind of vocabulary can also be used in their answers, it is well worth some class time.

Some students also have a general problem understanding British English and/ or unfamiliar accents in the test, and as these are relevant to the Listening paper too they are well worth some practice. British vocabulary that can throw them includes “flat” (meaning apartment), “film” (meaning movie), “holiday” (meaning “vacation”), and “cinema” (meaning movie theatre).

As in the other parts of the exam, their answers are judged mainly on their ability to really communicate. In this part of the exam this mainly consists of answering exactly the question that was asked, having the right length of answer with the right amount of detail, and being comprehensible. As the examiner always has follow up questions such as “Why?”/ “Why not?” available, candidates shouldn’t worry too much about the length of their answers, but answering “Yes” to “Do you have a large family?” is obviously not good communication. Very long answers like “Yes, I do. My oldest brother is a hairdresser who lives in Torquay. Last week he…” are obviously not real communication or really answering the question either, so emphasis on answering as you would in L1/ real life and making most answers a decent-length sentence or two is generally useful for students.

Students will also be marked on their ability to speak fluently with good pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar (“organisation” such as linking ideas together being more relevant to other parts of the exam). To get a high score, their vocabulary and grammar should both be reasonably accurate (especially avoiding basic errors and ones that could cause communication problems) and include some high level forms such as phrasal verbs.

As mentioned above, students will need to be able to speak about the present, past and future in the exam. Because there are more present questions than future or past, the most important grammar point is understanding the differences in meaning between Present Simple and Present Continuous, including the concept of State Verbs. They will also need the Present Perfect for questions such as “How long have you been studying English?” and Present Perfect Continuous might be useful for higher level students.

Although they might be able to slip Past Perfect and Past Continuous into mini-anecdotes in the exam, “used to” for past habits is likely to be more useful. They will need more of a range of future tenses, especially “going to” for future plans, Present Continuous for arrangements and “will” for predictions but also maybe Future Continuous for future points in time and Present Simple for scheduled events. They will also need suitable time clauses for all three times, e.g. “a couple of days ago”, “the week after next” and “once in a while”.

The main kinds of vocabulary they will need in Speaking Part One will be words and expressions to talk about the kinds of topics that are mentioned above such as different kinds of accommodation (e.g. “studio flat”, “semi-detached house” and “student halls”). The amount of possible vocabulary for those topics is obviously huge, but their task is made more manageable by the fact that in this part of the exam they are only asked to speak about their own accommodation, family, etc. Looking up and learning vocabulary to describe their own lives, perhaps while writing descriptions of their hometown etc, is therefore one of the most useful things they can do outside class, but some students will need to be told to memorise the vocabulary rather than the whole descriptions that they write.

The functional language they use to ask for repetition, pause for thought etc will be judged under the same criteria of accuracy, fluency and ambition as their grammar and vocabulary. Functions which are likely to be particularly important for this part of the exam include:

- Expressing preferences

- Giving reasons

- Expressing uncertainty (e.g. about their future or memories of things that happened a long time ago)

- Talking about future arrangements, plans and predictions

- Defining/ Explaining untranslatable words such as the names of local festivals and foods

- Giving exceptions (e.g. “Yes, I do enjoy my job a lot, apart from having to fly all the time. I hate airports!”)

- Showing when the question doesn’t quite match the answer (e.g. “Do you have any plans for this weekend?” “Actually, I’m going straight to the airport after this exam.”)

Activities to practise IELTS Speaking Part One


This part of the exam ties in very nicely with needs analysis, e.g. getting them to ask each other past, present and future questions about their work, studies and uses of English, then expanding that to similar questions on accommodation, keeping fit, etc.

Analysing the questions

As well as answering typical questions, any time students spend looking carefully at questions will help them be ready to understand and answer them in the exam. Students could rank them by how difficult they are to understand or answer, put them in categories by topic, put them into categories by time (past, present or future), or put them into sub-categories by what aspect of one time they are talking about (e.g. now or routines/ habits, or plans or arrangements).

Memories of the questions

As the vocabulary and the grammar in the questions needs to be understood and could well be useful in their answers, it is worth testing them on what they remember about the questions after they finish asking each other in pairs. For example, give them the same questions with gaps in which they should add the right tense, preposition or determiner from memory or their grammar knowledge. You could also ask them to brainstorm/ remember questions for one topic with no or very limited prompts (e.g. just sample answers, or just topic and question word) and check if the questions they come up with are grammatically correct and likely to come up in the exam.

Making it realistic

Ways of making pairwork exam practice realistic include asking them to stand up and knock on the table to practise coming into the room, giving the person in the examiner role at least some questions that their partner has never seen before, giving the examiner alternative forms of the questions and follow up questions, and making sure they use a range of tenses and the right number of topics.

Making tricky questions

Give students a list or pack of cards with tricky vocabulary and grammatical forms that could appear in IELTS questions, e.g. “What will you be doing…?” and “take after”. They take turns choosing one and making questions with it for their partner. You could then give them real questions with those forms taken out for them to reconstruct the questions and then ask each other in pairs (maybe in a more realistic exam format).

If the students don’t know the exam very well yet, this can also be made into more of a game. One student is given a list of tricky vocabulary (and possibly sentence starters) all linked to one topic in the exam. After answering each question the candidate can guess what the topic is, with this continuing with one question/ one guess until they get exactly the right answer.

Good and bad exam tips roleplays

Give out roleplay cards asking students to do things which are particularly good or bad in this part of the exam, e.g. “Keep on checking until you are sure of the exact meaning of the question” and “Make all your answers as long as possible”. Their partner takes the examiner role and during the practice test tries to guess what their partner’s roleplay card says. They can then discuss how good or bad those things are and brainstorm useful phrases for doing the things which are good.

Longer and longer answers

One student asks exactly the same question over and over with their partner trying to give a longer answer each time, e.g. “What do you do?” “I’m a student” then “What do you do?” “I’m an undergraduate student at Birmingham University” etc. When they can’t make their answer any longer, they discuss which of all the answers was most natural sounding.

Matching questions and answers

Giving students sample questions and answers to match is quite a good activity, especially if you cut them up to make pieces of paper for them to shuffle around on the table. However, unless you set it up carefully this activity tends to be too easy, over too quickly and unlikely to actually teach them very much. One way of making it more challenging and useful is to add tricky vocabulary to the questions and high level vocabulary that many students in the class can probably use to speak about their lives (e.g. “block of flats”) to the answers. Students then answer the same questions in pairs, obviously giving their own real answers.

Another possibility is to add useful phrases for the various functions that might come up in the exam such as “speculating” and “pausing for thought” to the answers, e.g. “Would you like to change job?” “I don’t have any plans to, but I guess I won’t want to do the same thing forever”. After the matching task, students try to brainstorm other phrases for doing the same things. You can also do something similar where some or most of the answers are not too good, e.g. are too short or don’t exactly match the question but don’t mention that fact. Students eliminate or improve on the bad answers before brainstorming other language to do the good things.

You can also design the cards to show students that most answers use the same tense as the question, e.g. “How long have you been studying English?” “(I’ve been studying English) since I was nine years old (on and off)”, but they don’t always have to, e.g. “Have you been to any English speaking countries?” “Actually, I just came back from a year in Australia last week”.

Copyright © 2012

Written by Alex Case for UsingEnglish.com

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