One of the challenges facing any doctor, nurse or allied health professional looking to further their medical career in an English speaking country can be the IELTS Academic exam. The test, which incorporates listening, reading, writing and speaking, measures the language proficiency of non-English speakers.
The speaking test consists of three sections. Together they take about 12 to 15 minutes. There will be you and an examiner, who may be either male or female and are native or near-native speakers of English. They may be from anywhere in the world, although the majority are British or Australian speakers of English.
The whole test is recorded for quality control purposes. The marking criteria are applied consistently from centre to centre and all examiners have to pass regular tests to ensure marking is fair.
IELTS speaking - section one
The first section lasts for about four minutes and features interview-type questions about yourself and your family. You will know the answers to these questions and they shouldn’t give you any difficulty. However, be aware of the length of your answer.
For example, the following question could be answered in many ways: “Tell me about the house or apartment you live in?”
Answer: 1) “In a house.” or, 2) “Well, at the moment I’m living in a house with my sister and two friends from university. It’s crowded, but I like everyone and we have fun together. We eat meals together and we like the same movies. We get on really well and there aren’t many arguments.”
Answer two is better. It is developed and is quite sophisticated with regard to grammar and cause and effect links. Also, at just over 50 words, it’s about right for length too. It is just about on topic throughout but is beginning to drift as the information about meals and arguments is not directly linked to the house. Much longer and the candidate might begin to drift off topic.
Remember too, that the examiner wants you to demonstrate as many different grammar structures as you can and this will be easier to do if you give answers of around 50 words maximum. He/she has plenty of questions to ask, so get the balance right.
Also, after the initial introductions and checking of names and establishing what the examiner should call you, there will be a few ‘settling in’ questions which are not assessed and are designed only to allow the candidate time to get used to the examiner’s voice, accent and pitch.
You will get a clear signal that the test has really begun with a phrase like: “I’d like to talk about …” or “let’s move on to talk about…” So, don’t use up all your best phrases on the first couple of questions.
It is also worth pointing out that the examiner is not assessing your opinions, morals or decisions. In fact, the examiner can only assess how you say something and is not really interested in what you say.
IELTS speaking - section two
This section takes about three and a half minutes and is designed to show how you can describe some kind of situation either ongoing or past or perhaps a wish or plan for the future. You will be given a card with a topic and some questions using ‘wh…’ words to prompt you, some paper and a pen or pencil.
You should make notes on the paper provided which remind you what you were going to say in answer to each ‘wh…’ word. The examiner will tell you that you should talk for between one and two minutes, that you can take notes, and that you have one minute to prepare.
Make good use of that minute. Write only short notes containing keywords to help you remember against each section. This is then your plan. The examiner will tell you that you now have two minutes to talk about the topic on the card and that he/she will let you know when to stop.
Here is a typical topic card:
Describe a memorable holiday you have taken.
You should say:
- Where it was
- Who you went with
- What you did there
- Why it was memorable for you
You will need to say about 250 words to get to band seven or more. This is about the length of an essay, so the planning is important to help you remember. It is a good idea to base the response on true events or your own plans for the future. Stories and subjects which you don’t really know about are much harder to keep going for enough time. Ideally, you should be rounding off when the examiner indicates that time is up.
It’s important to keep on topic and not to repeat yourself. To get higher grades you will need to demonstrate a wide range of grammatical structures and vocabulary. Try never to repeat a word if you know another that means the same thing. For example, if talking about ‘soldiers’ say ‘troops’, ‘ground forces’, ‘infantry’ or ‘armed personnel’.
The next couple of questions are directly related to the topic you have just talked about. For instance, the above topic about a specific holiday may be followed with: “Do you plan to visit that place again?” Then by: “Where do you plan on going for your next holiday?”
Don’t expect the examiner to ‘engage’ with you during your answer to section two. They are told not to interact with the candidate. They should not even smile or nod. They are not being rude, just following rules.
IELTS speaking - section three
The final section lasts for about five minutes. This is again a two-way conversation. However, unlike section one, you may not ever have thought about the subjects, scenarios and timeframes of these questions. They would usually be challenging questions for native speakers too. If you’ve performed well so far in the test, this is where the examiner will finally decide if your English is good enough for a higher band score.
The first topic, at least, will naturally follow on from the section two topic. If following the above topic, the first set of questions would be related to travel and holidays in some way. The first question would usually be a background type one, to set the context and topic, followed by a more focussed, more targeted question. The final one or two questions will require some thinking to answer.
Sometimes you will be required to compare and contrast a given situation with how it was in the past. Another question form asks you to speculate on how a given situation might develop in the future.
If you don’t understand a question in this section, you can ask for clarification if you demonstrate enough understanding of the question. For instance, if you said “Can you repeat that please?” the examiner will ask EXACTLY the same question with no changes. However if you said “Do you mean holidays in my country or worldwide?”, the examiner will let you know what they expect. A request from you to fully explain the meaning or context of a question will not be answered. For example, “What does that mean?” would not be explained.
Here is an example set:
- Do you think it’s important for people to take holidays?
- How long do you think is the ideal length for a holiday?
- Do you think holiday habits have changed over the last 50 years? (How?)
- What factors might limit the places we travel to in order to take holidays in the future?
As mentioned, these kinds of questions are challenging. Although most people who are taking an IELTS test will have experience of talking about holidays, perhaps you have never been given the subject of how holidays have changed over 50 years or how they might change again in future and, more importantly for your answer, why or how?
Due to this level of complexity, you are not really expected to give a faultless answer. It is acceptable to use words and phrases like “erm” or “Oh! I would have thought…” You may even begin a sentence and realise that you are going in the wrong direction with it and stop before beginning a new, more appropriate sentence. Do not worry, it is a natural part of English and a feature of a native English speaker.
The examiner would look more favourably on this type of English than to be met with huge chunks of silence. If you are really stuck, something like the following is better than nothing. “Oh, I haven’t really got any idea about that, it’s something I just know nothing about and can’t decide what direction it might take.” At least there is some sophisticated grammar to assess.
Another strategy is to talk about another aspect of a topic. For example, if asked about where holidays might target as a destination you might say the following:
“Well, I don’t know any specific places but people these days are more interested in adventure holidays than simply relaxing on a beach. Maybe a new destination will be discovered which could be developed for adventure holidays. I’m not sure where that might be though.”
So, although the question was not directly answered, it was close enough to be considered on topic.
Bear in mind that the examiner wants you to do well and is giving you opportunities to display how much vocabulary, organisational skill, good pronunciation, and grammar you can use. You won’t be assessed on your answers but on how you deliver those answers.
Find out more
Are you a doctor, nurse or allied health professional looking for help and support with your IELTS exam? Take a look at our related articles about IELTS exams:
- IELTS reading, writing, speaking and listening skills
- Get your IELTS listening score to 7.0 or higher
- Get your IELTS writing score to 6.5 or higher
- Get your IELTS reading score to 7.0 or higher
- How NMC rule changes to IELTS writing are good news for international nurses
*This post was originally published on 10/08/2016 and has since been updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.