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IELTS Speaking: How ‘correct’ does your English have to be?

IELTS Speaking: How 'correct' does your English have to be?

The question

An IELTS test taker asked me this question: ‘In the Speaking test, I know I will be marked on how correct my grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation are. But I don’t understand what this means. Do I have to speak in the same way I would write an essay?’ In this post, we will look at three ways you can improve your IELTS Speaking answers. (You may find it useful to look at this post first, on how to prepare for IELTS Speaking Part 2, before reading on.)

Answer 1: Style

Start by watching this video. It’s from a program called Practical Writing, and the focus is writing style. But it applies equally to speaking. So, while it is perfectly ‘correct’ to speak in a casual style to your friends, you need to speak in a polite, formal style to the examiner. A very simple example: you might say ‘yeah’ to a friend, but you should say ‘yes’ to an examiner.

This does not mean that you need to speak in the same way that you write an essay. Typically when we are writing we use much more complex and longer sentences than would be appropriate, or even possible, when speaking. We also tend to use more formal vocabulary when we are writing. For example, you might write ‘furthermore’ in an essay, but you are very unlikely to hear someone saying it. They would probably say ‘and another thing’.

You probably do this naturally, and unconsciously, in your own language. With some work, you will learn to do this in English too.

Answer 2: Mistakes

Speaking is different from writing. It’s quicker, and you don’t have time to make sure everything is perfect before you say it. The British Council LearnEnglish site points out that ‘even native speakers make mistakes when they speak in their own language, but they are always listening to themselves and correcting themselves.’

How do you correct yourself? Look at these examples and learn them.

  • ‘I move to Paris two years ago… Sorry, I moved to Paris two years ago.’
  • ‘My favourite building is rouge… I mean red.’
  • ‘The taste of the fruit was extra… extra… extraordinary. Sorry, I always find that word difficult to say!’

Note that the corrected words in italics (moved, red) are stressed. That means you say them a little louder and longer than the other words. (You can learn more about sentence stress in Clear Pronunciation 2 here.)

Answer 3: Pausing and playing for time

As I said above, time is against you when you are speaking, so speak slowly and don’t be afraid to use words and phrases like these to give you time to think. It is not incorrect to do this.

  • Ummm…
  • So, what I mean to say is…
  • Yes, that’s interesting. Ummm, what I think about this is…

You can try using these phrases when you are speaking in English in daily life. The more you practise, the more natural it will feel to use them in your test answer.


The best way to improve is to practise, listen back, identify your weak areas and focus on making them better. Try the IELTS Speaking Part 2 task on the card below. Record yourself on your phone.

Task 1

Talk about a friend who has played a big part in your life.

You should say:

  • When you met
  • What your friend is like
  • What is so special about him/her

And explain the impact he/she has had on you.

Now listen to your talk, ask yourself these three questions:

  1. Is my style appropriate?
  2. Was I able to correct any mistakes I made?
  3. Did I speak at an appropriate speed (not too fast) and did I effectively use pauses and phrases that gave me time to think?

To demonstrate how you can speak slowly, and use pauses and phrases like the ones above, I attempted the IELTS Speaking Part 2 task. Listen to my attempt below. Even though I speak slowly and do not use a lot of long words or complicated grammar, I would expect my talk to be given a Band 8, at least, and probably a Band 9. Click to listen to my attempt.


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