What to Say When You Don’t Know What to Say on the IELTS Speaking Exam

February 17, 2016 by Ange Quapp Ange Quapp

As a teacher, candidates come to me time after time seeking help to ‘pass’ the IELTS speaking exam. They ask me what the most important thing is they need to know. It is hard to narrow it down to just one thing, but I often relate this story.

Sam* was a dedicated student. He listened carefully to tips that I gave him and he did his own studies using practice tests and tips found on websites like www.ieltsessentials.com (click on practice tests). He told me that he felt confident and was sure that he was going to ‘ace’ the exam. Sam put extra time into practicing the speaking exam. He practiced with a partner and he even recorded himself as suggested on the IELTS Essentials website. He practiced a lot of topics.

Most definitely practice is essential for success. Practicing with a partner and doing practice exams are great preparation methods as they help to mimic the real exam. I can’t say that Sam did anything wrong in his preparation for the test.

The story continues…

Exam day arrived and Sam felt nervous, yet confident. He sailed through part one of the test. He talked about the topics with ease. But then  something happened that he never expected. He got this topic:

Describe a historical building in your country or city that you know.

You should say:

                                What it is and where it is located.

                                When it was built.

                                What it is known for.


         Explain why it is important to your country or city.


Of all the topics that Sam could get, he got the one that he knew the least about and which he really had no interest in. Sam couldn’t think of anything to say other than, ‘I don’t know what to say.’

What should a you do in Sam’s situation?

Remember these 4-Rs:

  • Remain Calm.
  • Refocus.
  • Read the prompt carefully and determine what you might know.
  • Recall life experiences, movies, and high school lessons that might help.

This is what Sam could have said:

“Historical buildings are definitely places of interest to many people. People like to see how things were done in the past and how things have changed over time. It is interesting to see progression in structures as well as in technology.  As far as historical buildings in my country or city, to be honest, I am not really aware of any. I am sure there are some, but actually, I have never really had an interest in history. I found history classes to be rather boring and useless in my personal life. Yah, sure, there are aspects of history that are important, but I don’t consciously think about them. I do know that in China, for example, the Great Wall is an important historical building. I think it was built for the purpose of protection…”

Why would that be a reasonable answer despite not exactly answering the question? Let’s look at the facts.

1. The IELTS exam is not a test of content.
Knowing this is of great importance. Basically this can be a license to lie, within reason of course! If you say something that isn’t factual or historically accurate, the examiner doesn’t verify the information before they assign the score. For example, if you say, ‘The Great Wall is a famous historic landmark in Japan.’ Even though we all know the Great Wall is in China, the examiner probably wouldn’t be disturbed by this comment. Linguistic abilities were demonstrated, and that is what is essential.

2. On the topic card there are prompts to assist you in speaking for two minutes.
These prompts are provided as suggestions or guidelines. They can help in developing the topic to fill the 2-minute timeframe. In the one-minute preparation time it helps to direct thoughts so that one has a ‘plan of attack’ to speak about the topic for the allotted time, especially if they don’t have a lot of their own ideas.

3. You are not penalized for speaking off-topic
You are assessed on linguistic ability rather than content. This being said, it is not an invitation to speak about anything. You should still aim to remain as close to the topic as possible. But if this is impossible, you should proceed to give the little information that you do know and then continue speaking about something that is related that naturally flows from the information presented.

The worst thing you can do is not say anything at all. If you don’t speak there is nothing that the examiner can use to assign a score. A speaking answer gone off topic can still receive a decent score in 3 out of 4 of the grading categories: lexical (vocabulary), grammar and pronunciation. The main score that would be affected would be the fluency/coherence score which may be reduced.

So, we can see the difference between what Sam did and what Sam should have done. Your test will be a success when you remember the 4-Rs and the basic facts. For some extra insight consider watching some videos (click on this page) of some samples of different band scores and to see how different candidates handle the speaking test.

Sign up for a Free IELTS Seminar to help learn more about how you can improve your IELTS score. Seminars are offered across Canada in major cities like Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, Mississauga, Ottawa and Halifax, and starting February 23rd, IDP IELTS is offering Online Masterclass Webinars for candidates who cannot attend events in person due to scheduling or location.

Best of luck as your seek IELTS success!

*Not the name of the actual candidate.

Ange Quapp

Ange has been teaching ESL and exam prep courses for more than 15 years. She is actively involved in helping students understand the language and how to succeed in their academic lives. Currently, Ange teaches at a university in the Vancouver area.