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IELTS Speaking Tips: Common myths and how to overcome them


Test Takers


How to study

Date Published

19 January 2024

With so much IELTS Speaking information out there, there are bound to be misconceptions. Let’s look at some common myths and tips that you can use to overcome them.

Let’s imagine we are in a Speaking test room, and the conversation goes on like this:

  • Examiner: What do you like doing in your spare time?
  • Candidate: I take satisfaction in deciphering books due to the reason that I can attain aberrant intelligence from them.
  • Examiner: What do you usually read?
  • Candidate: I derive pleasure from taking entrance into state-of-the-art virtual technology society where human beings can correlate everywhere

As a teacher, you don’t need me to tell you how unnatural those answers are. While this example may seem a little extreme, some students do actually think an overly-complex answer “full of academic words” is expected in IELTS Speaking.

The above is sadly one of the many misconceptions around this skill. This is an issue because test takers may enter the exam with false expectations, and therefore, train themselves on bad habits. Let’s look at what these misconceptions are, why they exist and provide you with some IELTS Speaking tips you can use as a teacher.

What are 3 common speaking misconceptions in the IELTS Speaking exam?

1. You must use “big words”

This is perhaps the most common false belief. When my students think about the IELTS Academic test, they automatically assume that they always have to use academic words. They may think the secret is “the stranger, longer and more complicated the words they use, the higher the band score they get”.

This can’t be further from the truth. As we can see from the above example, the use of “formal” words unnaturally forced into responses can lead to complete confusion and unintelligible answers. This is because, despite knowing the meaning of the words, students often are unaware of how they should be used – things like style or connotations. In fact, speakers are even advised to “mix it up” – having a balance between common and less common vocabulary, and to study new words in context.

The Truth: Using “big words” doesn’t guarantee a high band score – it is using words precisely, flexibly and appropriately that does.

2. You must have a British or American accent

It is so funny how I, as a non-native speaker, used to be fooled by this. When I was a student, I was taught that I had to both pronounce words correctly and sound American or British. Often, teachers use native pronunciation as a benchmark to evaluate students. No wonder why they think they also have to adopt the accent as well.

The fact is, accent is not an evaluation criterion. Although accent is a part of pronunciation, it is not everything. Pronunciation features include other things such as intonation, sentence stress and individual sounds that, if done correctly, can allow students to be clearly understood. And being easy to understand is what the examiner is looking for.

The Truth: Any accent is acceptable as long as test takers are intelligible.

3. You must speak the whole truth

Some students may panic when they see questions like “Describe an overseas trip that you like” just because they have never been abroad. They end up keeping silent and losing marks for no reason.

IELTS is not a lie detector test. It only evaluates your language proficiency so there is no need to be completely honest. Of course, I would not recommend people to lie all the time, but it is a huge relief to know that you can when faced with difficult questions. Sometimes, a little white lie does no harm, but saves you from unnatural pausing and hesitation.

The Truth: You can make things up in the IELTS speaking test.

Reasons behind the 3 misconceptions in IELTS Speaking

So where do learners pick up these misconceptions? From my teaching experience, there are 3 things which give rise to these IELTS Speaking test myths:

1. Overload of test-prep materials

The enormous number of test-prep materials available on the Internet, both official and unofficial, is causing great confusion for learners. They find themselves navigating through a sea of materials, which may suggest contradictory or wrongful advice. The motive behind the act of collecting as many resources as possible is the fear that you may miss out on a tip or trick to magically transform your score. This happens when you believe a short-cut exists.

Sadly, it doesn’t. No tips or tricks can replace deliberate practice and time to improve language skills. For me, my go-to resource is always one from a reliable publisher. I always tell my students, “Don’t become a material collector, become a dedicated learner.”

2. Confusion from sample speaking answers

This also relates to the previous reason. I am sure many students wander around on the Internet and watch many 8.0 or 9.0 sample speaking tests. Are they all reliable and useful?

Some videos claiming to be high band score sample answers can be misleading because:

  1. they are not evaluated by a certified examiner
  2. they are manicured to impress viewers by using many big words
  3. students are not capable of evaluating the performance themselves.

Again, my advice is to choose materials carefully before presenting them to your students.

3. Excessive value placed on vocabulary

How do we let students know that they are speaking incorrectly? We tell them. We point out mistakes and how to correct them. However, there should be a balance.

How would a student feel if whatever he or she utters gets corrected every single time? It surely doesn’t boost confidence. Over time, the pressure to be lexically correct haunts students. They assume that speaking about something without knowing all of the vocabulary is a dead-end.

What teachers can do to help students prepare for their IELTS Speaking exam

Knowing students’ misunderstandings as well as the reasons behind them allows us to put things right and provide them with accurate IELTS Speaking tips. Here are some of my suggestions:

  • Explain to students clearly what is expected in the IELTS Speaking test from the assessment criteria, pointing out that vocabulary only accounts for 25% of the mark. It is also worth mentioning that even native speakers forget words from time to time so it is helpful to prepare strategies to deal with such a situation.

Check out how to cope with lethological hiccups from IELTS Speaking tips: finding a natural balance by Greg Archer.

  • Emphasize that it is far more important to be intelligible than to sound intelligent. It is better to use words that you know well, rather than taking risks on something new just for the sake of impressing the examiner.
  • Diversify speaking exercises to focus on other elements of speaking such as fluency, coherence and pronunciation. From my personal experience, teachers should first focus more on fluency at low levels to build up confidence and good speaking habits, then open to other exercises later.

Learn more about IELTS speaking misconceptions in this video with Hong:

Are you preparing test takers for their IELTS Speaking exam? Share your top tips below in the comments!

About the author:

Hong has been teaching IELTS in Vietnam for over 4 years. Having begun English lessons at the age of 12, she understands many challenges a non-native speaker may face learning a foreign language. Through her content work on the Learn English with Cambridge and We love IELTS YouTube channels, Hong shares her tips and insights about how to study IELTS more effectively.

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