IELTS Speaking Practice : Why it’s importantAlmost 1.7 million people take the IELTS test every year as part of their plan to study or work in an English speaking country or as part of their educational requirements. For many of them, while it is easy to practice the skills of listening, reading and writing in English, IELTS speaking practice seems to offer all kinds of problems.
You can self-study with an English grammar book which has the answers, likewise with a vocabulary book. There are many different resources for listening and reading practice including radio, TV, the internet, books, magazines, journals and podcasts and videos. Thanks to the internet it’s never been easier to learn a foreign language than now.
However, many of the people who take the IELTS test each year struggle to feel comfortable with the IELTS speaking test, a short interview with an IELTS examiner which lasts between 11 and 14 minutes typically.
I did some research and spoke to several IELTS instructors, an IELTS examiner and some IELTS students to find out what they thought about candidates feeling uncomfortable and what they can do to improve their IELTS speaking score.
The number one reason for not performing well in the IELTS speaking test is nerves. Yes, people get nervous when they have to speak a strange language with another person.
It’s quite natural and I can certainly understand it as I have had the same experience, but in a different foreign language. While IELTS students may do a lot of reading and listening practice before the IELTS test, they don’t get as much IELTS speaking practice before the test and so they don’t feel confident.
Reason number two why many IELTS candidates feel uncomfortable is because it’s not a natural context for them. Think about it for a moment. How often do you attend an interview in your own daily life, speaking your own language?
Interviews are normally done for job applications and other entry processes. That is not exactly the kind of activity you do every week. The whole process of being in a room with a stranger and having to answer questions is just not natural for many people.
Another reason many people gave was that they are not used to being asked what they think about things. They spend every day talking with their friends about lots of different topics in their own language, but they aren’t often asked to describe something specifically or to express their opinion on a particular topic at length.
One instructor told me that she had an IELTS student who didn’t know what to say at first, but after a few weeks of intensive practising with hundreds of IELTS speaking questions her student was much better. Maybe her English wasn’t perfect but she was confident and could think about her answer quickly, respond without being nervous and express herself much better. Practice made all the difference.
Apparently some IELTS students are not aware of how they sound when they speak. In fact most people in general aren’t aware of how they sound (I wasn’t!). One of the IELTS instructors did an experiment with me and recorded me speaking without telling me and then we listened to the recording together. I had no idea my voice sounded like that, I was amazed that I say ‘erm’ so much when I’m thinking of what to say.
The instructor told me that he always records his IELTS students speaking practice so that they can hear themselves, learn from their answers and improve their IELTS speaking performance. Sounds good to me!
Another instructor told me how he would make students talk to themselves in a mirror – yes, a mirror, so that they could see themselves speaking in English. There is obviously some deep psychological benefit to this as his students justified that when they first did it they felt strange and awkward but after practising at home for a few weeks on a regular basis they began to feel more comfortable doing it.
I met another instructor who used the same technique but with a video camera in the classroom, and then made her IELTS students use their mobile phones to make short IELTS speaking practice videos as homework. The result was that students became much more comfortable speaking English in front of other people, and human nature as it is, always tried to improve their performance the next time. Some of them actually made a point of comparing their videos to see which one was best.
Most instructors I spoke with agreed that confidence is the most important aspect for many IELTS candidates in the speaking interview. They don’t need to speak perfectly, but if they can speak naturally, confidently and express their ideas then they will usually score well.
So it seems that instead of worrying about perfecting your English pronunciation, grinding through IELTS grammar or vexing about topic vocabulary too much, maybe the first thing you should do is video yourself speaking in English and then sit, watch and learn from yourself.