Self-studying for IELTS: a tip for improving your speaking score

Posted: May 9, 2015 in ELT methodology
Tags: , , , ,

Update. I was delighted to hear that this post got shortlisted for Teaching English – British Council blog award. If you decide to vote for it (in which case, THANK YOU! :)), let them know by ‘liking’ the post on their facebook page: .

In this post I want to share a tip that might be an effective and enjoyable way to work on your IELTS speaking, and on your speaking skills in general.

When I first started teaching for IELTS, I came across a great book by Matt Clark on how to crack the Speaking part of the exam, and that book helped my students a lot. The idea that I learnt from Matt Clark was that a lot of IELTS Speaking topic fall into categories, and it’s important to know the common question types and to have a framework for each type. Here are some examples of question types (taken from ielts-yasi.englishlab.net/):

  • Frequency. How often do you see (or talk to) your neighbours? How often do you go to a restaurant (to eat)? How often do you use a computer for work / study?
  • Problems. What problems do many young people have? What problems can people have when they change jobs frequently? What problems can result if a teenager has too much money?
  • Solution. How can one (or, how do people) make new friendships? How can people maintain long-term friendships? How can the government encourage more people to use public (mass) transportation?
  • should. Do you think people should have to pay to visit museumsDo you think employers should provide recreational facilities for their employees? Do you think we should obey all laws, all the time? Do you think people should help their neighbours? (Why? How?) Do you think children should be encouraged (or taught) to help others? (How?)

The structure for replying to frequency questions could be ‘It depends’ + ‘case one’ + ‘case two’. E.g. here’s a possible reply to ‘How often do you see (or talk to) your neighbours?’

Well, that really depends on what time of year it is. If I’m on holiday spending time in my summer house, then probably that would happen every single day, because we see each other all the time and we’ve really grown quite close over the years. But on the other hand if I’m here in town, then that hardly ever happens, simply because we don’t run into each other that much.

You can see that this answer could be easily adapted to any other ‘How often..?’ question, and that the linkers in bold hold this reply together, helping to build an extended monologue out of short simple sentences.

Orcarbazepine_3d_structure

IELTS Speaking score consists of scores for the following aspects:

  • Fluency & coherence (speaking without pauses and structuring your speech)
  • Lexical resource
  • Grammatical range and accuracy
  • Pronunciation

As you can see, having ready-made frameworks for some of the question types will help you a lot with coherence – that is, with structuring your speech. That will also make your speech more fluent (by buying you thinking time) – provided you say the linkers fluently (fast) and with correct pronunciation and intonation. This will also allow you to use more complex sentences, improving your grammar score.

The importance of structures is true not only of IELTS and other exams, but of speaking in general. Here’s an extract from Matt Abrahams, an expert in communication, giving a workshop on spontaneous speaking in Stanford Graduate School of Business. In this extract he argues that the key to successful spontaneous speaking is having a structure, because it’s a lot easier for the listener to process structured information than information without structure. He gives two examples of great structures ‘to have in your back pocket’:

problem ⊲ solution ⊲ benefit

What? ⊲ So what? ⊲ Now what?

(NB This video has accurate subtitles – watch it on youtube with closed captions if you need them. The extract starts at 38:37 and finishes at 42:50)

So, how can you use this information to improve your IELTS speaking score and speaking in general? By actively looking for structures and linkers in examples of spoken communication and adapting them to other topics. Nowadays there are lots of talk shows and podcasts that come with transcripts, and it’s quite easy to find them and analyze them. For example, I spent some time today reading the transcript of a programme on Soft Skills and Marketing Yourself as a Software Developer with John Sonmez (an episode of JS Jabber, a great podcast for software engineers), and I could see some kind of structure in virtually every speaker’s turn, simply because when speakers speak at length, they have to organize their thoughts somehow. Here are a couple of examples. First look through each one looking for the linkers, and then scroll down to compare with my version.

1.

I’m not a big person who believes so much in focusing on natural strengths. I know that most of my greatest strengths today are what my greatest natural weaknesses were growing up. And I think that there’s a reason for that. I think that the things that you actually have the strengths tend to be taken for granted. And so, they don’t always get developed to the same degree as the things that you have to work hard to build. So yeah, so I think that there’s some truth to that. So, it kind of gives me… it also, I think if you believe what you believe, if you believe that you lack social skills or that you’re shy or these things, those beliefs can be limiting beliefs which will keep you exactly how you believe that you are. So, a lot of actually what I do, even in the book, is I talk about this idea of lifting those limiting beliefs and really stepping into the role that you want to be. And not allowing what other people have defined you to be to set your limits. You set your own limits and you can choose your destiny and your path. And so, I think while yes, we can look at people and say, “Yeah, this person is socially awkward or doesn’t quite have the poise or the social skills,” I don’t think that’s… I think that could be overcome for most people.

Here are the linkers that I saw:

I’m not a big person who believes so much in focusing on natural strengths. [stating general opinion: disagreementI know that most of my greatest strengths today are what my greatest natural weaknesses were growing up. [supporting statementAnd I think that there’s a reason for that. [opinion phrase + introducing a reason] I think that the things that you actually have the strengths tend to be taken for granted. [reasonAnd so, they don’t always get developed to the same degree as the things that you have to work hard to build. [consequenceSo yeah, so I think that there’s some truth to that. [wrap-up] So, it kind of gives me… it also, I think [introducing one more reason + using an opinion phrase] if you believe what you believe, if you believe that you lack social skills or that you’re shy or these things, those beliefs can be limiting beliefs which will keep you exactly how you believe that you are. [exploring consequences of a hypothetical caseSo, a lot of actually what I do, even in the book, is I talk about this idea of lifting those limiting beliefs and really stepping into the role that you want to be. And not allowing what other people have defined you to be to set your limits. You set your own limits and you can choose your destiny and your path. And so, I think while yes, we can look at people and say, “Yeah, this person is socially awkward or doesn’t quite have the poise or the social skills,” I don’t think that’s… I think that could be overcome for most people. [summary using contrast: mention the opposing opinion + reformulate your opinion]

Now, this structure could be adapted to ‘Do you think … should…?’ questions. E.g. here’s what I came up with for Do you think people should have to pay to visit museums?

I’m not a big person who believes so much in allowing people to visit museums for free. [stating general opinion: disagreementI know that most well-known museums, like Louvre or The Hermitage, aren’t free. [supporting statementAnd I think that there’s a reason for that. [opinion phrase + introducing a reason] I think that running a museum is very expensive [reasonAnd so, you can’t do that if you don’t have a stable income – the quality of your service will suffer and your museum will lose popularity. [consequenceSo yeah, so I think museums have to be paid for. [wrap-up] And also, I think [introducing one more reason + using an opinion phrase] they’re quite affordable anyway. You don’t need to go to the Hermitage every single week – most people go once a year, or only when they travel, and anyone can afford to go once a year. And so, I think while yes, we can look at prices and say, “Yeah, they are too high and they reduce the popularity of museums,”  I think that in fact most people can easily buy those tickets. [summary using contrast: mention the opposing opinion + reformulate your opinion]

2. Here’s another example:

But that’s not necessarily what marketing has to be. Marketing at its core is really just connecting someone who has a need with a product that fulfills that need. That’s the goal of marketing. Successful marketing is, if you didn’t have marketing I wouldn’t know what to do when I have a headache. I wouldn’t know to take an aspirin or Tylenol. I need to be informed of this, of the solution to my problem. So, at its core good marketing is good. It’s a beneficial thing.

Here are the linkers I saw:

But that’s not necessarily what marketing has to be. [disagreement with the opinion that marketing is bad] Marketing at its core is really just connecting someone who has a need with a product that fulfills that need.[stating a fundamental positive fact about marketing]  That’s the goal of marketing. [reformulating the previous statement] Successful marketing is, if you didn’t have marketing I wouldn’t know what to do when I have a headache. [an example, through exploring a hypothetical situation] I wouldn’t know to take an aspirin or Tylenol. I need to be informed of this, of the solution to my problem. So, at its core good marketing is good. [consequence marker (so) + reformulation of your opinionIt’s a beneficial thing. [saying marketing is good one more time]

And here is an adaptation of this framework to the following question: Do you think television has a positive effect on a child’s attitudes towards learning?

Yeah, I guess so. Some people say that TV makes kids stupid because they watch silly series for teens all the time. But that’s not necessarily what television has to be. [disagreement with the opinion that TV is bad] Television at its core is really just providing information to someone who needs that information.[stating a fundamental positive fact about TV]  That’s the goal of television. [reformulating the previous statement] If you didn’t have television, kids whose families can’t afford good schools wouldn’t have access to information. They wouldn’t have the chance to learn from programmes like Discovery channel, or other excellent educational programs, which I’m sure get lots of kids hooked and really interested in subjects like biology.  [an example, through exploring a hypothetical situation] So, at its core good TV is good for children’s education. [consequence marker (so) + reformulation of your opinionIt’s a beneficial thing. [saying TV is good one more time]

These are just two examples, but as I said, basically every single extended speaker’s turn was structured and packed with linkers. (Here you can find a couple of more turns that I analyzed – I’m putting them to a separate file in order not to clutter up the post).

Acknowledgement. A big word of thank you goes to Kirill Sukhomlin, who came up with the idea to look through the transcripts of JS Jabber as we were watching the youtube workshop above.

How to practice using structures?

I recommend the following steps:

  • Go through examples of past IELTS questions for parts 1 and 3 and start grouping them into categories, to get an idea what question types are frequent. Here is a great site with past questions: http://ielts-yasi.englishlab.net/How_to_Use_This_Website.htm NB As far as I understand, this website is perfectly legal, because there’s no policy on IELTS that stops test takers from sharing the questions they got asked.
  • Find a podcast or a talk show which comes with a transcript. Here are some links to youtube channels that feature interviews with transcripts. (If you’re in IT, the turns analyzed above come from JS Jabber, a podcast for JS developers. Another source that I’d really recommend for this kind of work is Android Design in Action on Android Developers youtube channel. Click on ‘More’ under the youtube video to load the interactive transcript.)
    I’ve never compiled a list of podcasts with transcripts, but apart from JS Jabber, a quick search on google returned e.g. Freakonomics, Science Session PodcastsThe Guardian Global Development podcastUniversity of Birmingham podcasts, The Creative Penn, and I’m sure there are a lot more.
  • Find an extended reply in the transcript and analyze its structure. Find linkers and try to formulate what kind of information each linker introduces (e.g. general opinion, an example, a reformulation, a summary of the previous point, etc).
  • Copy out the linkers; practice saying them after the video/audio – it’s extremely important that you get their pronunciation right, because research shows that you sound fluent if and only if you pronounce such frequent chunks fluently.
  • Try to reproduce the passage from memory looking only at the linkers – first in writing, then out loud.
  • To help yourself remember the structure, represent it visually, e.g. as a diagram with pictures.
  • Try to adapt the structure to another topic. First do that in writing, to help yourself memorize the linkers, then do lots of spoken practice.
  • Go through past questions looking which ones could be answered using the structure you’re working with.
  • To find examples of a particular type of question, use google search on http://ielts-yasi.englishlab.net/. Examples of search terms: 1) “What problems” site:http://ielts-yasi.englishlab.net/ 2) ‘Do you think * should” site:http://ielts-yasi.englishlab.net/ See this article called How to Google like a boss for tips on efficient googling.
  • Meanwhile, work on memorising those linkers – use mnemonics like Keyword method, flash cards, apps like Anki – whatever it takes to really nail them.

I hope that helps. Happy studying!

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Comments
  1. Ryan Vars says:

    What an amazing article on how to hack the IELTS exam. Brilliantly written!

  2. annforeman says:

    Hi Olya,

    Just to let you know that we’ve shortlisted this blog post for this month’s TeachingEnglish blog award and I’ll be putting up a post about it on today’s TeachingEnglish Facebook page http://www.facebook.com/TeachingEnglish.BritishCouncil, if you’d like to check there for likes and comments.

    Best,
    Ann

  3. Aloyamarsh says:

    Reblogged this on azaleamarhaniz and commented:
    A great big help to me…huuuua

  4. The website is quite impressive and has relevant information for IELTS.

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