The Oxford TEFL Blog

Helping students prepare for the IELTS speaking test – A Task Based Approach

Tim is based in Bangkok Thailand, where he works as a CELTA trainer and also prepares students for the IELTS exam. He is a tutor on our Teaching IELTS and Teaching EAP teacher development courses. He has taught EAP at Chulalongkorn University in Thailand and also Leicester University in the UK. He spent 10 years teaching English in Russia and has also worked in Japan.

As EFL teachers, we are often asked to help students prepare for exams such as the IELTS exam. While we may me able to offer guidance in all of the four skills, students are often looking for most guidance with productive skills (i.e. speaking and writing). These are the skills that are difficult to practice at home on their own, whereas they may feel they can practice and develop reading and listening skills by themselves. It’s easy to find examples of tasks for the IELTS speaking test and give students practice but what can we do to actually help them move up to a higher score?

Teaching IELTS

The IELTS speaking test

It might be useful to first remind ourselves of the structure of the IELTS speaking test. There are basically 3 parts:

Part 1 (4-5 minutes): Relatively simple questions on everyday topics drawing primarily on personal experience (up to 4 questions in each of 2 or 3 topics)

Part 2 (2-3 minutes): After one-minute thinking time, the candidate has to talk by themselves for up to 2 minutes about a topic given by the examiner. This could be describing a person, object, event, or place from the candidate’s life.

Part 3 (4-5 minutes): The examiner poses more conceptually challenging and abstract questions (related to the topic in part 2) designed to push the candidate to the limit of their linguistic ability

How it is scored

Based on the language the candidate produces in these three parts, the examiner gives them a ‘band’ score from zero to nine based on four criteria:

  • Fluency and coherence – can the candidate keep going at a reasonable speed without pause and hesitation to look for words? Can they use a range of ‘discourse markers’?
  • Lexical Resource – the variety of vocabulary used, including appropriate collocation and an ability to paraphrase in the absence of the precise vocabulary required.
  • Grammatical Range and Accuracy – the variety of grammatical structures and how well they are controlled.
  • Pronunciation – is it easy to understand the candidate’s accent? Are they able to ‘chunk’ phrases or is every word pronounced separately?

This helps give us a road map to how to improve the candidate’s score. In the classroom, we need to ensure there is some focus on each of these 4 areas, with attention as to how to move the candidate up into the next band.

A framework for productive skills development

One way of doing this in the classroom is to take a Task Based Learning approach. There are a number of approaches that fall under the ‘Task Based’ label but we will look at a simple lesson framework that is easily adaptable to a number of IELTS speaking ‘tasks’. The speaking test is designed to get progressively more challenging, so let’s take a part 2 long-turn task as an example.

Let us imagine a Part 2 Task along the lines of:

“Describe a time when you tried some food for the first time”

A lesson plan could look something like this:

  1. Lead-in – Let students brainstorm in pairs which times in their own lives they could talk about. It’s possible here to let them have their first attempt at the task, setting a ‘base line’. The goal is for them to leave the lesson feeling they have made improvement from this level.
  2. Model – The Teacher models the task themselves, talking for 2 minutes using an appropriate range of language just above the class level. Provide some comprehension questions for students while they are listening (e.g. what is the food? Where/when was it? Did they like it? Why/why not?)
  3. Language focus – this is a key stage to draw out features of language from the model that students can use to upgrade their own language. We’ll look below at some ways to do this.
  4. Task Preparation – Give students some time to prepare their 2-minute talk. They should be given more than the one-minute in the exam. Encourage them to prepare the content (i.e. what happened) but also think about language (i.e. using the language the teacher highlighted in the previous stage). The teacher has a valuable role here, monitoring and helping with language each student needs for their particular situation.
  5. Task Performance – The student gives the talk to their partner and then listens to their partner’s talk.
  6. Language focus – this is another opportunity for the teacher to seek to upgrade the students’ language based on monitoring – what problems are they having with vocabulary/ grammar/ pronunciation? Some delayed error correction can help improve students’ accuracy. They can also be encouraged to widen their range (if they are using simple language accurately).
  7. Task Repetition – students then repeat the Task (with a new partner).
  8. Repeat stages 6 and 7, especially with a large class.

How this can help the band scores:

Fluency and Coherence: The chance to repeat the task is critical here. The more they repeat, the more fluent they will become. A ‘listening task’ can be given to motivate them to keep repeating and listening to similar stories. In this example, the task could be to find the person in the class who they think has the most unusual food to talk about. Get feedback on this at the end of the class.

But the 3rd stage above (language focus) can also be used to focus on a wider variety of discourse markers and linkers than the students usually use.

Lexical and Grammatical Resource: Useful vocabulary and grammatical structures can also be highlighted in the 3rd stage. This is a good way to revise and consolidate new language that has been introduced in other lessons recently.

Pronunciation: Drilling of key phrases from the above will help improve students’ pronunciation. The repetition of the task is also likely to help them ‘chunk’ words together.

How to highlight the language in stage 3:

There are several tasks you can give students to help them pay attention to the key language items you want to encourage them to use. For example, give them the list of items and get them to put them in the order they appear when the teacher presents the model. Or give some of the phrases jumbled up and get students to unscramble them. You could also give them some phrases split in 2 and get them to match the first and second halves. Don’t overload the learners here – 4 to 6 language items are probably enough. It’s important that they also get a chance to add their own language and think what language resource they need for their particular story.

Developing new lessons

The entire process is likely to take about 30-45 minutes and is easy adaptable – the teacher just needs to find a task (e.g. from a book of IELTS practice exams) then develop their own model to the task and pick out some useful language from their model that might help their students improve the quality of their language. We looked at an example form Part 2 but it would also work well with the more complex questions form part 3.

Have a go and let us know how it goes.

If you are interested in knowing more about the IELTS exam, how to prepare students for it or what teaching IELTS could mean for your career, enrol in our online Teaching IELTS course or get in touch to find out more.

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