This post will cover:
- what to do if you don’t understand the question
- what to do if you can’t think of an answer
- how to extend your answer
One of my strongest IELTS students came to me the other day and told me how worried she was about speaking part 3. In particular, she was worried about not understanding the question and not being able to give a long enough answer. She asked me for some tips to help her overcome these problems.
This guide will try to address these issues, give you lots of tips and help you give your best possible answer in part 3 of the IELTS speaking test.
What do I do if I don’t understand the question?
First of all, this is not a very academic test. The questions are designed so that anyone can answer them. If you look at some example questions, it will surprise you how easy they are. They require no specialist knowledge and the examiner does not even have to agree with your opinion, they just want to hear how well you convey your ideas and express your opinion.
However, sometimes you may not quite understand what the examiner just said. In this case, simply ask him or her to repeat the question. If there is a word or term you don’t understand, it is also acceptable to ask them to explain it to you. Don’t overdo this, as it will seem as if you are abusing this rule.
It is a speaking test, not a listening test and the examiner wants you to give your best possible answer so don’t be afraid to let them know. They won’t repeat the question or explain a word to you unless you ask.
Do I have to give an answer for every question in part 3?
Yes, if you don’t attempt an answer for all questions you will lose marks. However, if you get a question you are really struggling with you can admit this to the examiner and give the best answer you can.
You could say something like: ‘I don’t know a lot about this topic, but if I had to guess I would say…..’ It is unlikely you will have to use this phrase and it should only be used when you really have no ideas.
What if I need time to think?
The IELTS examiner does not expect you to give instant answers, you are not a robot! However, they do expect you to respond in a natural way. It is completely normal for native speakers to use certain words and phrases in order to give themselves time to think. You probably also do it a lot in your own language.
Phrases that can be used include:
That’s a difficult question, let me think for a second.
That’s a very interesting question, let me think.
It’s very difficult to know exactly, but I think/but I believe/perhaps….
It’s difficult to say, I think….
I don’t really know for sure, but I would say….
The most important thing is not to overuse these phrases. Some students put them in front of every answer and it sounds really unnatural. Remember, they are only to be used when you get an unexpected or particularly difficult question.
How do I extend my answer?
Many students are worried that they will not have enough to say in part 3.
In part 3 the examiner will mostly ask for your general thoughts on an issue; advantages and disadvantages; problems and solutions; how the issue has changed from the past until now; and how the issue will change in the future. You should therefore practice thinking and talking about your opinion on common everyday issues like health, the economy, education and the environment.
There is no set word limit for what a good part 3 answer, but it should not be too short and not too long. Too short and you will have failed to develop your answer properly; too long and you may go off topic and/or make mistakes. As a rule, I advise my students to try to answer with 3-4 sentences.
Technique #1- Paraphrase Question
A good way to extend your answer is respond with a paraphrase of the examiner’s question. Paraphrasing is when you repeat the sentence but with synonyms so that it has the same meaning.
This technique is very effective because it not only gives you time to think in a natural way, but it also focuses your mind on answering the question.
Examiner: What can people do to try and reduce water pollution?
Student: So, what can individuals do to ensure water is kept clean? I think….
Examiner: How can events like the Olympics improve international relations?
Student: Hmmmm, how can sport bring people from different countries closer together? I believe…
Again, this should not be used for every answer and only when you think it is appropriate.
Technique #2- Explain why
Many students state their opinion but don’t extend their answer by stating why they feel that way. Some students have told me that they are afraid of patronising the examiner and assume he or she will know why they have stated their opinion. Assume that the examiner has no knowledge at all about the topic. Pretend you are speaking to a child who knows nothing of the topic and this will help you explain how you feel.
Examiner: What can people do to reduce water pollution?
Student: I believe the best way to keep water clean is to curb water use at home. (Why?) The vast majority of water is used in the home, (why?), for cooking, cleaning and washing, (why?) therefore by reducing the amount of water we use, (why?) the government can conserve the water supply and keep it clean.
By asking ourselves ‘why’ we continue to explain our opinions and this leads to more developed answer.
Technique #3- Give Examples
This seems an obvious one but it is something many students don’t do. In order to really develop your answer an example is normally needed. A lot of my students complain that they don’t know or can’t think of any examples. If you can’t think of one just make one up. You will not lose any marks for making up an example and this will only lead to you gaining marks for giving a well developed answer.
A good technique is to use an example from a newspaper article or recent study.
Examiner: Have the modes of transport people use in your country changed much over the last few decades?
Student: Absolutely, they have changed a lot. In the past most people used bicycles, but now they predominantly use motorbikes. For example, a recent survey found that 72% of people in Ho Chi. Minh City now own a motorbike.
I just made that statistic up and it is perfectly acceptable for you to do the same thing in the IELTS speaking test. The examiner will never disagree with you or ask you to prove any of your examples.
Technique #4- Make Concessions
We make a concession by admitting that there are limits to our opinion or there may be another side to the argument. We use words like ‘however’, ‘on the other hand’ and ‘despite this’ to make concessions.
Some students don’t like doing this because they think it weakens their argument or opinion. In fact, by showing you are aware of other opinions you actually strengthen your argument.
Examiner: To what extent do you think advertising affects people’s shopping habits?
Student: Personally, I don’t think that it affects the way people shop at all. When people need something they make up their own mind rather than thinking about adverts. However, it must have some influence, if companies pay lots of money for ads.
Reading this guide won’t help you unless you put the ideas in to practice. Every part 3 question is different and therefore requires a different response. Try to answer it as naturally as possible and use the techniques above to extend your answer if needed.
There is no magic formula, so find some example questions and practice. Why not record your answers and you can then listen and pinpoint your mistakes.