IELTS Exam Speaking Section – Common Mistakes

‘Relax and be confident!’ This is advice commonly offered to students prior to exams, and although it is undoubtedly well-meant, it may actually add to anxiety levels if the individual doesn’t feel this way, despite having prepared.

It is ok to acknowledge feeling nervous, and the best way of increasing candidates’ chances of achieving a successful result is through practice, practice, practice. I don’t mean general speaking practice, but rather a simulation of the circumstances in which candidates will find themselves when asked to speak for 3-4 minutes about a topic of which they may have little interest. Such a task would be challenging enough in one’s own language, let alone in a second language! General speaking practice is highly effective in increasing fluency levels, but a significant part of the speaking exam assesses the ability to converse with others as well as the ability to deliver a monologue, which requires an entirely different set of skills.

Talking continually for 3-4 minutes with no prompts or interjections from the invigilator, while hearing the scribbling sound of another invigilator taking notes in the corner of the room, feels highly unnatural. There’s no doubt about that. There have been many occasions on which I have asked a seemingly confident student to do this, and he or she has managed 30 seconds or so before their mind has gone blank.

Therefore, I return to the idea of practice – the kind that equips candidates with the necessary skills to talk in an assured manner, irrespective of the topic. So how is this done if the topic relates to something as prosaic as ‘a letter you once received’, or ‘a hotel in which you once stayed’?

A common mistake made by candidates is the tendency to speak quickly, often arising from the misled belief that the pace at which a language is spoken directly correlates to a person’s level of competency. Unfortunately this is not the case, and racing through the speaking section without focusing on pronunciation and sentence structure will not help to convey an accomplished command of English. Another explanation for the tendency to speak rapidly in the IELTS speaking exam is a subconscious response to the state of stress, as the mind is functioning at a high speed and wants the situation to end as quickly as possible. However, diving headfirst into the topic and saying the first ideas that come to mind, rather than taking a few moments to structure the thoughts, will increase the chances of exhausting any ideas before exceeding the time limit. As an alternative technique, it would be advisable to methodically break down one’s ideas into sections, and consider ways of elaborating or giving examples on each point before jumping to the next one. Prompting oneself with the question words ‘where, when, why, how’ etc. as a way to expand on each idea will help the process.

By regularly practising this technique with a teacher, or anybody with whom candidates feel comfortable, it will soon become second nature.

Martin Wilson has been working as a teacher of English to non-native speakers for over 13 years, since qualifying from St. Giles International College, London, in 2004. His Trinity Tesol Certificate was followed shortly after with a Masters Degree in Linguistics and Philosophy from The University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Martin’s experience within the various fields of ELT has been plentiful, and has involved teaching children and teenagers in Thailand, as well as asylum seekers and refugees throughout Europe, and university students and business professionals in London, UK. In this series of blogs, Martin aims to share his insights into the world of ELT, including tips and tricks for students and teachers alike, in addition to observations and reviews regarding current available material and resources. Martin can be contacted at

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