How To Deal With Tricky Questions In The Speaking Test

March 16, 2017 by Andrea Castro

There's no denying that the IELTS Speaking test is hard work. This part of the test requires you to listen carefully to what you are asked in order to provide clear and extended answers to the questions. You're expected to demonstrate your spoken English skills through a number of tasks, while trying your best to keep calm and relaxed in front of the examiner.

There are many things that you can do to help you be prepared and succeed on your Speaking test, from reading useful IELTS blog posts to watching IELTS Speaking test samples, to practicing speaking English with friends and relatives. But even if you practice, and practice, and practice, you could still get a tricky question you simply do not know how to answer. Whether it is a question you did not understand or a topic you are not familiar with, a question that confuses you in any way can really throw you off your game.

So, what should you do if you a get a tricky question on your IELTS Speaking test? First, identify the root of the problem: is the question “tricky” because you did not understand it or missed a word, or because you are not familiar with the topic and do not know how to answer it?

Asking For Clarification

Just as it's totally natural to not understand a question on the Speaking test, it's perfectly normal and acceptable to ask the examiner for clarification:

- Part 1 (introduction and interview): Even though examiners must stick to the script in Part 1, they are allowed to repeat the questions if necessary. If you don't understand what you're being asked, politely ask the examiner to repeat the question. Some of the phrases/questions you can use to do so include the following:
o “Sorry, I didn't get the question.”
o “Could you repeat the question, please?”
o “Could you say that again, please?”

- Part 2 (long turn): Part 2 is different from Parts 1 and 3 in that it does not follow a question-answer structure. The examiner will read out instructions and will then give you a task card which includes the topic and points to cover during your talk. You will have time to read the task carefully before deciding on what you're going to talk about. If you don't understand a word from the task card, try to guess the word’s meaning by using the text provided before and after the word.

- Part 3 (two-way discussion): Given that this part of the interview is a two-way discussion, if necessary, you can ask the examiner to repeat or even rephrase a question in Part 3. For the latter, you can use questions such as the following:
o “Could you explain the question, please?”
o “Sorry, could you rephrase that?”

Managing Difficult Content

When you are faced with a question you just don't know how to answer during your Speaking test, it is crucial to stay calm and focused. Take a deep breath, then try one or more of the following approaches:

- Make time to think

It is important that you acknowledge that the question was asked and that you are thinking about what to say. Something as simple as “That's an interesting question” or “I've never thought about that before” will provide you with a few seconds to work through your thoughts on how to approach the question while avoiding awkward silences.

- Ask questions

In Part 1, you will be asked questions about yourself and about familiar topics, so it is unlikely that you won't be able to answer them. However, in Part 3 you will be asked more abstract questions and you will be encouraged to discuss these more fully, hence these are more likely to pose a greater challenge. If you are having trouble gathering your thoughts to answer a question in Part 3, ask the examiner to clarify what has been asked. Go deeper into the question to see if you can get more details to help you figure it out.

- Speculate and give two sides to an argument

While it's essential that you have views and express your opinions in the discussion, it's also acceptable to speculate and to give two sides of an argument. This will allow you to give a more elaborated response, even if you have no experience or strong views on the topic.

- Attempt an answer

In the speaking test, your main goal is to demonstrate your speaking ability and not to be an expert on a variety of topics. If you don't know the answer to a question, you can let the examiner know that you're unsure and that you're going to attempt an answer by saying something like “I'm not really sure, but I would say…’ or “I don't know much about this topic, but I think…”. It's always better to attempt to give an answer rather than not trying at all.

Above all, keep in mind that regardless of what questions you get, being prepared and keeping calm and focused during the interview, even in the toughest of times, is truly the key to success.

Andrea is an experienced English teacher who has worked since 2009 in Costa Rica, Dubai and now Canada. When not working for IELTS, she spends her time with her little girl and her two canine siblings.

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