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IELTS Speaking: Lost for words?

‘I have no experience of the subject, so how can I respond?’

I often get this question from candidates. They worry they do not have knowledge of some of the topics that examiners might ask them about, for example a favourite building, an eye-catching advertisement or a memorable trip. Maybe you feel the same way?

The first thing to understand is that IELTS is not a test of knowledge or experience. If you do not have the knowledge or experience of a specific area, that’s not a problem. There are no correct or incorrect answers expected in the IELTS speaking test.

Checked and trialed

The first point to remember is that all IELTS questions are checked and trialed many times all around the world to ensure that they are fair and equal no matter where the test is conducted. You might have heard that Cambridge Examinations can spend two to four years in testing their exam questions! So you can be 100% sure that there is an effective way of answering the question whatever your level of knowledge.

This means you must avoid irrelevant answers – sometimes it seems candidates assume that if they don’t know anything about a specific topic they can talk about a different but similar topic. That is a dangerous tactic. If your answer is considered unrelated by the examiner, that specific response cannot be used to assess your speaking test score, and you will generate no marks.

So how can you respond if you do not know anything about a specific subject being asked about? Let’s look at two options.

Option 1: look for an alternative way to answer the question

One option is to admit that you do not know much — this is an opportunity to use some signposting language that helps your listener understand what you will say next. For example, assume you have been asked about an eye-catching advertisement. Start by saying ‘That’s an interesting question, I have never thought about that before, but ….’ Then start talking about any advertisement you can remember (after all, what’s eye-catching to one person may not be to another). You could describe the advertisement from foreground to background or from left to right, highlighting the key features.

Option 2: speaking from the others’ experience

Another option is to talk about an experience that a family member or a friend might have had. You can do this if the topic is to talk about a memorable trip you have made, for example. You may not have had the chance to make any trips, but you recall your father talking about his favourite journeys. You can tell the examiner you do not have any experience of this theme but you would like to share your father’s experience. Doing this, you are still following the instructions and sticking to the topic.

If you’d like to see candidates putting these strategies into practice, log in to the British Council and Clarity’s Road to IELTS, here.

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