Everyday English & Test Day English: Is there a difference on the speaking exam?

March 14, 2018 by Tony Rusinak

Did you ever have to memorize the lines of a play? Did you ever have to remember all the words to a presentation? When you were in grade school, did you have to sing an English song for your parents? If you’re like most of us, this was part of learning a language. This was how we got good marks. Memorizing English was the path to success. Unfortunately, many people have this idea before they take the IELTS. They think that IELTS is a performance. I see people all the time trying to remember and translate these huge lists of words to prepare for an exam.

It seems crazy, doesn’t it? How can you just memorize a whole language? And that’s my point. You can’t just memorize it; you have to truly know it. You have to use it thoughtfully and meaningfully for it to be real. That said, IELTS tests your real English language and not just a long list of words you memorized.

So, what does this mean? It means that the IELTS speaking test is not looking for a performance. It’s looking for a real sample of your English. It’s looking for your ability to speak and write easily about a mix of topics. IELTS wants you to truly understand things you read and hear. You need to communicate, not produce a long list of memorized phrases. You need to be natural, and not put on a show. Let’s take a look at some tips for the test, and hopefully, that will make things clearer.

1. Pretend it’s your friend

I’ve participated in many IELTS workshops and courses, and this phrase comes up a lot - Just pretend you’re talking to your friend. Why? Because when you talk to your friend, you probably speak fluently, are relaxed, communicate your message well, and listen to the questions carefully. Those things do matter. They’re part of something called Task Response. Task Response is the first criteria on your speaking score. This category is 25% of your speaking mark, so it’s best not to ignore it.

2. Formal and informal language are both important

If you’ve ever been to a university lecture, you’ve heard a lot of informal language. Professors use idioms, contracted speech, jokes, and slang more often than most want to admit. Why does a professor’s speech matter? I used this example because many people think that “profs” are the most formal and proper speakers around. Sometimes they are, but often they are not. My point is, use a mix of language. Use informal language if you feel like it, but also use some complex academic language if needed. The number one rule is that you communicate your message clearly. If you need to use some slang to explain, you should! Clear communication and fluency are what you want, not perfect formal language like the queen would use, lol.

3. Don’t worry about the perfect answer

I’ve seen many students who are preparing for IELTS. They try and prepare for EVERY question. For example, they have a practice book of 500 questions, and then they try and practice “perfect” replies to every single one. Then, when they get a similar question on the real test, they get really stressed-out and reply with a strange and memorized sentence. This is not good. Not only will you sound strange and robotic, but you might also be nervous and think too much. An important part of the test score is being fluent. You have to give a natural, thoughtful answer. So, don’t practice answering every possible question, practice speaking naturally and normally in a comfortable situation. Are you getting the main idea of this blog yet?  

4. Don’t correct yourself.

Have you ever learned how to practice the piano or another musical instrument? When you’re practicing, or when you listen to people practicing, they’ll often stop playing if they make a mistake. They correct themselves again and again. This might be ok when you’re practicing, but it’s really annoying when you have to listen to them. The same is true when speaking. Just keep moving. Don’t stop and correct all your little mistakes. Be fluent and keep flowing like a river!

5. Pronunciation? Think “Airport English”

Although pronunciation is 25% of your speaking mark, it isn’t your accent you should focus on. True, sometimes accents can be hard to understand, but so can native English speakers! Focus on being clear and communicating well. Don’t stress over what kind of accent you have. I like to think of it as “airport English”. If you can communicate clearly at any airport around the world, IELTS will be happy!

So, in the end, IELTS isn’t looking for the perfect memorized performance. IELTS wants clear, relaxed, and real language. Keep on pushing yourself to speak English and not just a huge memorized list of translations. Best of luck on your next test!

IELTS Expert

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