Teaching speaking skills for English, or for IELTS in general, is one of the most fun and rewarding parts of being a teacher. Whereas reading, writing, and listening can sometimes be a bit boring, speaking offers so many possibilities for a good, communicative lesson.
Of course, it all depends on your students… and your classroom… and a bunch of other stuff, too. But in this article, I’m going to tell you some important things about how to teach IELTS speaking skills.
Let’s talk about students’ English level
First of all, you need to know what level of English your students actually have. If they can barely string a sentence together, then this is going to be a challenge. That’s not to say it’s impossible, of course. On the contrary, you should be doing spoken lessons from Day One. However, an IELTS lesson on part 3 of the speaking exam is going to be next to useless for someone who can only just say their name and nationality.
I’ve been teaching IELTS since 2010 and so I tend to think in terms of IELTS band scores rather than, say, the Common European Framework (CEFR), so in this article and others I will refer to my groups of students as being around band 6 or 7 rather than B2 or C1. If you want to see the difference between these, you can find a conversion chart here at the IELTS website.
Although your students will invariably want and need IELTS speaking practice, at around level 4 or 5 they are going to need a lot more input and will probably only stand a chance of realistically answering questions in part one of the test, while those at bands 6, 7, and higher will need more feedback than input and will probably be able to answer parts two and three more easily.
The classroom set-up
Teaching English speaking skills also depends on the set-up of your classroom, office, or wherever you are working. Obviously, a giant lecture hall is not ideal for this sort of lesson, nor is any sort of environment with fixed seating and vast numbers of students.
(Unfortunately, as I have mentioned in previous posts, this is the norm in places like China, so you might have to just figure out a way of facilitating a lesson within these limitations.)
I think that it is important to get students speaking as much as possible in any lesson of this sort, and also to have them speaking with different people. If possible, get them moving around in small groups and practising speaking questions. A good old circular chair pattern is also good if you wish to have them speak aloud to the group or if you need to give some input before or after they have done their speaking practice.
As for online classes, you will probably be talking one-on-one with students on Skype and so you can basically just do the practice with them that way. Easy!
What do they need to know about IELTS speaking?
Your students may or may not already know about IELTS speaking, and if they do know, then they may have some misconceptions about it. It’s important to give them an overview of the test early on, and also to let them know what the examiners are looking for from IELTS candidates.
I find that in many parts of Asia, people view exams as a technical challenge and they are looking for secret strategies to pass. It would be wise, then, to remind your students that IELTS is a test of English ability and there is really no way to fake it. You cannot sit in front of an examiner for 15 and fake fluency!
It is important, though, that they know what they do need to do. Remind them of the basics of the marking criteria so that they know why a 5 is different from a 7. This will make the scores tangible. Emphasize that perfection is not what examiners are looking for, and that you don’t need to affect an American or English accent. Rather, you should be making yourself clearly understood.
Explaining the structure and modelling answers
Your students need to know what happens in the exam, so it’s worth walking them through the process. You can find a YouTube video of a mock test or perhaps model one with a particularly confident student. Show them what happens at each stage, from asking for ID to giving them time with the cue card, and so on. This will really help, as otherwise the exam can seem frightening and shrouded in mystery.
You should explain what sort of answers are necessary, and in some cases you can demonstrate a good answer. Actually, it is very helpful to give them a model answer that they can aspire to replicate. Here are a few videos that I made over the last year. These show the whole process of dealing with part two of the speaking test. If you have the facilities for it, I highly recommend showing at least one of these to your students, or perhaps you can assign it as homework.
When your students have this sort of model answer in their head, they will begin piecing together their own ideas with a realistic framework for what they should produce. This will give them a target and help increase their confidence.
As I mentioned above, it is really important to get the students talking as much as possible. I like to start lessons with speaking and then keep my own input to a minimum. Obviously, this will depend on the circumstances of the lesson, and you can’t realistically expect very low-level students to be talking non-stop for an hour.
The most important thing, I think, for IELTS speaking practice is just to have the students running through speaking questions. They should become familiar with the topics that are likely to occur:
At a higher level, the students should be consistently working on these questions and perfecting their answers. At a lower level, there will need to be much more input.
A speaking lesson can also include grammar and vocabulary. It’s a good idea to incorporate that into your model answer and then let them use it later in the lesson.
Feedback is vital at all stages of language learning, but you will find that your most advanced students are going to demand it consistently. I teach a few students whose scores are between 7.5 and 8.5 and the purpose of our lessons is basically to eradicate their mistakes. I give them really no input whatsoever except to let them know what they are doing wrong. Any pronunciation error or grammatical mistake is noted down, discussed, and then corrected. At the beginning of the next lesson, we talk about those mistakes again. Over time, they disappear from the students’ answers.
This is not a realistic lesson aim with large groups or lower-level students. I do this in my individual Skype lessons. At a lower level, you can pick up on the most significant errors and carefully correct them. If you mention too many things, it becomes overwhelming and disheartening. With big groups, you have to wander around and pick up on common mistakes, then address them without identifying the people who made the error.
Nonetheless, feedback is always important. This is true in all language learning, but remember that you are teaching IELTS and that your feedback should be pegged to the marking criteria. If the student says “uh” too much or includes too many pauses, you need to let them know that this will decrease their score for fluency and that may reduce the overall speaking score.
Teaching IELTS speaking lessons can be fun and rewarding, but you need to take many things into consideration before you begin. Most importantly, you need to find out what your students require and then provide them with a suitable lesson. Give model answers and then tailor your feedback according to their requirements.
This is a great way to help super-charge the learning experience and can also be a lot of fun for you as a teacher because you can work closely with students and watch them improve quickly.
If you have any questions about this, let me know in the comments section below.