What if I don’t have anything to say?

December 26, 2017 by Lyla Hage Lyla Hage

There are times during an IELTS speaking exam when candidates are asked a question that they don’t know how to respond to. This may happen for a variety of reasons, including nervousness, not understanding the question, or simply not knowing much about (or perhaps not being interested in) the topic. The unfortunate result may be silence or few words being spoken by the candidate. 

Below are some things to keep in mind if you're wondering about getting a question on your IELTS speaking exam that you don’t know how to respond to:

  • Not for experts

The first thing to keep in mind is the questions on the speaking exam are about a variety of topics that the majority of people will probably be able to answer. You will not be asked really technical questions or questions about topics where you need to have specialized training or knowledge.

  • Don’t panic

Having said that, there is a chance that you may get a question that you're unsure about. If that happens, don’t panic! I would suggest you take a deep breath, and think about what you want to say. To give yourself a bit of time to think, you can say, “Let me think about that for a moment” or “That’s a good question”. This will give you a moment to gather your thoughts before you answer.

  • Ask for clarification

If you're unsure of how to answer a question because you don’t understand it, you should ask your examiner to repeat or clarify it. While you don’t want to do this for every question, it is acceptable (and preferable) to ask for clarification if you don’t understand or are unsure about the meaning of the question. You can say, “Can you restate the question, please?” or “I’m sorry, I don’t understand the question.”

  • Try to say something

Remember, this is a speaking test, so silence is not going to show your speaking and language abilities. If you don’t say anything (or very little) the examiner may have some difficulty evaluating your speaking ability, so make every effort to say something.

  • It’s OK to be creative

If you don’t know how to answer a question, it’s ok to be creative. If the question is a topic that you know little about, try to think of something to say that shows your speaking ability. 

For example, if the question is about sports and you don’t know much about sports, try to think of something that you do know, some experience you’ve had or know about, or someone you know who likes sports. If the question is, “Tell me about a popular sport in your country”, you could say the following:

“To be honest, I don’t know a lot about sports in my country, but I believe that football is very popular, as my brother and his friends enjoy watching matches on the weekend at our home.”

This may or may not be true, but it doesn’t matter! You are answering the question and showing your language skills.

  • It’s about language ability

The IELTS exam is testing you on your language ability, not your opinion, or the content of your answer. As mentioned above, your examiner doesn’t care whether it’s true, or whether your opinion is the same as hers. What is important is how well you express yourself, your opinions and ideas.

  • Lots of questions

Another thing to remember is there are several questions in Parts 1, 2 and 3 of the speaking exam. That means you have plenty of opportunities to speak during the test. If you don’t answer one question as well as you had hoped, you will have other opportunities during the test to do so. It is important to not get distracted or discouraged; rather just move on to the rest of the test. 

  • Familiarize yourself

In order to prepare for your IELTS exam, I would recommend that you spend some time familiarizing yourself with the speaking descriptors found here. Having a good idea of what the examiner is looking for is very important when preparing for your IELTS exam. Also, spend some time online before your test looking at sample questions and answers. Check here for samples.

Remember to stay calm, stay focused, and try your best to answer all questions on your IELTS speaking exam. 

Good luck!



Lyla Hage

Lyla is an English language instructor working with international students and immigrants in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Lyla loves everything about her work, especially helping people reach their language and learning goals.

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