I first started prepping students for the IELTS exam when I was in China way back in 2010. I came to the conclusion that many Chinese students I encountered face a similar issue. They were very focused on using correct grammar. My students were afraid of making mistakes. In itself this is not a bad thing, but I found that a lot of them were so focused on staying perfect in their grammar that they limited themselves in the language they used. My previous students sounded so cautious and slow. It was almost like talking to a nervous robot.
This was an unfortunate mistake. And it is one that students all over the world make when preparing for the IELTS examination. They care too much about grammar and vocabulary and not enough about speaking fluently. This means, students who focus too much on grammar often time impede their conversation to simple sentences which limits them in reaching good fluency or using complex grammar. In short, they think they are helping themselves but, really, they are hurting themselves.
Trying to balance accuracy and fluency is always a difficult equation and there is no fixed way to strike a perfect equilibrium. However, the important thing to remember is that you do not need to find the perfect balance. In fact, perfection is not something you need at all for the IELTS exam. To understand things better we should look at the band descriptors - the criteria the examiners use to assess your answers - for two criterias.
Notice for band 6.0 look at what it says...
- Grammar: May make frequent mistakes.
- Fluency: Is willing to speak at length.
Look how the two factors are weighted. It is really easy to see that the examiners place more emphasis on fluency than they do on perfect grammar. To score 6.0 you only need to be “willing” to be speak at length (fluently). You have to try and show that you want to express your ideas. If you do that, you’re allowed to (sparingly) make "frequent mistakes".
Now, let’s look at how you can prepare for the IELTS in terms of your grammar. This is going to be a really simple point, but it is also a hugely important one. You can score very well on the exam even if you make grammar mistakes. In band 6.0 we see that it says "frequent mistakes". It doesn’t say perfect. It doesn’t say almost perfect. It says “frequent mistakes”. That means you are allowed to make mistakes. In 7.0, you can still make "some mistakes". This doesn’t mean that you should ignore your grammar errors. But, it does mean that you should worry about it less and worry about your capacity to speak at length more.
On a practical level, what does this mean when you take the exam. Let’s look at a couple of plausible scenarios and see how we can apply this idea.
You’re now on section two of the IELTS and the examiner asks you to describe a childhood memory - quite a common question. What do you do? Do you jump in and give as much information as you can and describe your childhood with great enthusiasm and passion. Or, do you worry about whether you should use the past simple, past continuous or past perfect (wording) for your introductory sentence? This is an easy one. Jump in and gIve the information.
You’re now on section three and the examiner asks you a question about the future. It could be about technology or society in your country in the next 20 years. Do you worry about whether you should use ‘will’ or ‘going to’? No, of course not. You give it your best shot with the grammar and you try to give a nice detailed and fluent answer.
To sum this article up, I have one major point: grammar is, of course, important. But, and this is the big issue. It is not the most important element for you to consider in your exam. It is much better to think about speaking fluently and speaking at length. Moving on...
The speaking section of the IELTS exam is often seen as a very difficult task and many students can get really nervous about talking in front of an examiner. To a degree this is true and being nervous is 100 percent natural. You need to be coherent when facing some difficult topics. This, in itself, is difficult. However, it is not impossible and with a bit of practice you can do really well.
Below are a selection of tips that can help you with your speaking skills:
1. Change your tone
You are not a robot speaking in one fixed tone. It is important to keep the speed and tone of your speech varied. If you get asked a question that you find interesting, let that show in the way you speak. Show that you find this question unusual or interesting. Let your motivation about certain subjects shine through. If there is no variety in the way you speak, it will make your speech sound far less fluent than it actually is.
2. How much should I talk?
There is quick answer to this question, and, there is a longer answer to this question. The quick answer is: “as much as you can”. The more complicated answer is that you should talk while being mindful of your coherence to the question being asked. If you begin to ramble or go off-topic, then you are talking too much. If you feel comfortable with the subject you are discussing and you feel that you can continue with it and are speaking well, then talk about it to the best of your ability.
Making mistakes is a complicated issue and one that many students worry about. However, there are two things to remember here:
(A) Everyone makes mistakes. If you are talking for up to 15 minutes in the exam, you will make some mistakes. That is normal.
(B) It is not the end of the world. There are two key points you need to remember here. The first is that correcting yourself is a good thing. It shows the examiner you are aware of the mistake and that you are capable of understanding the nature of the language you’re using. The second is that if you can’t correct it, you should keep going. Once it is gone, it is gone. Do not worry about it. The worst case scenario is making a mistake and then spending 20 seconds worrying about it and losing all your flow.
4. Give your opinion
The questions asked in the speaking test lend themselves to opinions. Giving your opinion enriches your answer. It also makes your answer seem more fluent because you will have a lot more to say. This is particularly true if you get a question on a topic you find interesting. Let the examiner know what you think. Give him your thoughts and the reasons behind your them.
5. Listen to the question
You get lots of help for your answers just by listening closely to the question being asked. Think about the wording:
Straight away these tell you the type of answer you need to give. Also think about the grammar the examiner uses in the question. If you are nervous about the grammar you need to use, mirroring the examiner is a great idea. If he asks a question using the Past Simple … answer in the past simple.
6. Think about impressions
This advice won’t help you go from 6.5 to 7.0, but it can give you a good start. When you meet the examiner be friendly and approachable. Allow your examiner to think that you are confident and fluent in English before you even start the test. Once you begin, smile and try to look like you are enjoying the interview.
7. Link things to your life
In sections one and two, the questions are likely to be about your life, your country or your culture. So, it is easy to give good examples. You should be keen to do this. Always relate the question and the task to your own life. This is very important for two reasons.
(A) Real-life examples add depth and colour to your answer. You are likely to be able to give examples from the past as well as the present and be able to compare different elements. This gives you an opportunity to speak with more complex language.
(B) You are more likely to be comfortable talking about the details of your own life than generic topics as answers. In sections one and two, this is relatively easy. It is tricky in section three, but keep trying to do it. The questions will be about wider concepts (education, the environment, music, art).
Good luck with the IELTS!
Hero image by Breather on Unsplash