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Resources: Find their inner chatterbox

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In the first of a three-part series about preparing classes for Ielts, teacher-trainer Rod Smith offers some useful advice on how to help students navigate the speaking test.

The initial challenge for teachers unaccustomed to running Ielts preparatory classes is one they share with their students: overcoming lack of confidence and developing the ability to express ideas with clarity. Nowhere is this more important than in the most unique aspect of Ielts: the speaking test. It is essential here not to forget the basics.

Here are five important tips for teachers to bear in mind:

1. Test taker nervousness is the first problem to address

Test-takers are understandably nervous at the prospect of a spoken interaction with an examiner, so it is important for teachers to emphasise that Part 1 of the speaking test is designed to put them at ease.
In this part of the test, test-takers are required to give basic personal information, a practice that they should be well-accustomed to. Part 2 then moves into a short conversational exchange in a question-and-answer format, dealing with topics ranging from hobbies and interests to such things as environmental concerns, media issues or travel experiences. Again, all these topics will be familiar and none will require specialist knowledge. By emphasising these points, a teacher will be doing much to alleviate undue nervousness.

2. Explain the format of the speaking test

It is extremely important for Ielts teachers to explain the format of the speaking test and the different demands each of its three parts will make on a test-taker’s speaking ability. Teachers should reinforce the main characteristics of each part. First is the short conversational format of Part 1, then the ‘long turn’ of Part 2, where a test-taker is required to speak for two minutes on a given subject, and finally Part 3, a conversation with the test-taker whereby the examiner will gradually introduce more abstract issues involving the ability to express opinions, different perspectives and future possibilities.

3. Problems should be extracted, not dictated

The challenges of each of the three parts of the speaking test should be described by the test-takers themselves rather than laid down by the teacher. It is important that everyone’s voice is heard in order to establish a foundation of classroom trust and individual support on which speaking skills can be successfully developed. The most common problems to emerge will be fear of not having enough to say, lack of vocabulary, not understanding an examiner’s questions and insufficient knowledge or interest in a topic. Teachers will need to supplement these issues to ensure that all the main problems faced by test-takers are covered. They will also need to note any difficulties individuals might be having, so that strategies for dealing with problems are seen to be relevant to the whole class.

4. Identify the most effective solutions without being overly rigid

In Part 1, the strategy most likely to be effective will include extending short responses by adding one or two relevant facts and not resorting to lengthy pre-rehearsed speeches. In Part 2, effective brainstorming, vocabulary gap and note-taking techniques will stand you in good stead. In Part 3, it is important to develop skills such as hedging and delaying tactics to ‘buy more time’ without drying up in the face of challenging questions. This is simply a useful summary of the most prominent strategies likely to be successful in dealing with problems faced in each part of the test. It is not an exhaustive list, nor a rigidly compartmentalised approach. It is important for teachers to be aware of both the universal relevance of skills development as well as demonstrating a willingness to adopt new strategies as the occasion demands.

5. Stay within the context of the speaking test

The primary goal of any Ielts test-taker is to achieve the score they need for success. The techniques a teacher employs in the classroom must be seen by his or her students as always aligned to this objective. For this reason, it is important that speaking activities are performed within the context of the Ielts speaking test. By keeping this consideration uppermost, teachers are far more likely to develop confident speakers who feel well prepared.

Rod Smith is an ELT author and an Ielts teacher trainer, editor, and materials developer with the British Council.