In speaking part 2, you are to speak for up to 2 minutes using a cue card as a prompt. Many students find this part of the test particularly difficult. In this blog, we are going to look at the function of the language needed in different types of cue cards.
IELTS Cue Cards that ask you to describe an EVENT IN THE PAST
“Describe a time when the internet helped you to solve a problem”
This is probably the most common type of cue card and one that you have to be prepared for. The main problem for students here is using past tenses throughout the response. Even high-level students can drift from the past to the present if they are not careful.
I strongly recommend that when you practice this type of card, you record yourself and check your tenses. Are you always using past tenses to discuss the past, or do you forget and start using present tenses? Take particular care of simple verbs like “have” and “be” – these tend to be the ones that slip back into the present without students realising!
Top Tips for Past Cue Cards:
Make sure you are always using past tenses to describe the past.
Remember to give context at the start of your story – remember the examiner does not know you, so you might have to give extra details to make your narrative flow.
Add details to your story to make it flow naturally and to fill the time – remember, you do not need to cover all of the bullets in your response, so just focus on the story you are telling.
IELTS Cue Cards that ask you to describe a HABIT
“Describe something that you do that helps you to relax”
Habits are things that you usually do and, therefore, cue cards that ask about your habits will require you to answer using mostly the present simple. Although the present simple is often the first tense that we learn, I have noticed that my students in Pakistan / India have problems with this tense as they often use the present continuous instead. For example, rather than saying “I go for walks to relax” they will say “I am going for walks to relax“. If you recognise this problem, be careful!
Also, it can be hard to talk about one habit for two minutes. I mean, let’s imagine that what you do to relax is walk. Can you really talk about walking for two minutes? I mean, you can talk about where you walk and why you walk, but this is unlikely to last for more than 60 seconds. So, how can you extend your speech when you talk about habits?
Well, I would encourage you to tell the story of how you STARTED the habit, and also maybe a SPECIFIC EXAMPLE of your doing it (i.e. a time you went on a really memorable walk). Obviously, for specific examples, you will switch to the past tenses, so again be careful to make sure that you stay in the past! Finally, don’t be afraid of talking about TWO habits if you run out of things to say about the first!! This is always the best and easiest way to extend. All you have to say is “Another thing I do to relax is …” and then add a new habit.
Top Tips for Habit Cue Cards:
Use the present simple to describe the habit itself.
Tell the history of your habit or a specific example in the past to extend your speech.
Describe two habits if you run out of ideas for the first.
IELTS Cue cards that ask you to describe a PERSON
“Describe an interesting old person that you have met”
Let’s imagine that you are in a cafe and a friend asks you to describe your Mum (or Dad or sister or any close family member). What would you automatically do? Well, I imagine that after you have told them their age and what they do, you might start to list adjectives to describe them: “They are funny/beautiful/kind/friendly/etc.”
Adjectives are pretty much what everybody uses when they are asked to describe a person, and they are a GREAT thing to use in the speaking exam. The only problem is that you would need to list A LOT of adjectives to speak for two minutes! That’s why I recommend that every time you give an adjective to describe a person, you give a real-life example to extend your answer. For example, rather than saying “My grandfather’s friend Kenny is really generous” (which will take you 10 seconds), you can say “My grandfather’s friend Kenny is generous. I remember once we were sitting in his home talking about cooking, and when I mentioned that I really loved making cakes, he gave me a recipe book for fat-free cakes. Another time ….” (which will take at least 20 seconds).
Top Tips for People Cue Cards:
Don’t rely only on adjectives.
Give examples/anecdotes that will help you describe the person in detail.
IELTS Cue Cards that ask you to describe an OBJECT
“Describe a popular product which is made in the region you come from”
The main problem that students face when describing an object is lexis – not many students have enough vocabulary to be able to describe their favourite shoes or a laptop for more than 30 seconds.
To resolve this issue, you either have to broaden your vocabulary (which is always a good idea) or learn how to talk about the personal meaning an item has for you, (which can be much easier than giving a physical description). For this example, I would focus on why the product is popular rather than an actual description of the product (which is hard!). Also, making comparisons can be a great way of making a simple description of a complicated product. For example, it is much easier to say “So, I’m going to describe a balalaika, which is a type of musical instrument a bit like a guitar” than it is to say “So, I’m going to describe a balalaika, which is a three-stringed musical instrument that has a triangular body and a fretted neck”!
Top Tips for Object Cue Cards
Make sure you have the vocabulary to describe object cue card topics such as (i.e. screen, buttons, apps, crack, etc).
It is often easier to make a comparison than to describe an unknown object (It is like a/an X).
IELTS Cue Cards that ask you to describe a PLACE
“Describe a place you remember going to that was full of colour”
I think that cue cards that ask you to describe places are similar to those that ask you to describe objects – they are testing your VOCABULARY. You are going to struggle to describe a building if you don’t know basic words like ceiling, roof, wall, carpet, etc. In the same way, describing towns without knowing phrases like the city centre, in the suburbs, on the coast, or close to the mountains is also going to be difficult. There are no real shortcuts here. I would recommend that you get hold of a good IELTS vocabulary book and really make sure that you have some good phrases to describe your local area.
Top Tips for Place Cue Cards
I only have one – make sure that you have enough lexis to describe towns/cities/buildings.
IELTS Cue Cards that ask you to describe a CULTURAL EVENT / ITEM
“Describe a food that is eaten at a special time in your country”
As an examiner, I love these questions as it gives me a chance to sit back and find out something interesting about the culture of the student I am testing. However, I have noticed that students often struggle when describing their own culture because they need to use words that don’t have an English translation (or they do, but the student has no idea what that translation is!).
My advice here would be “Don’t try to translate”! In Russia, many people have a house in the country called a “dacha”. There is no translation for this word, so trying to find one is a waste of time. Instead of pausing to search for a translation (which will affect your score for Fluency and Coherence), just tell the examiner the word in your local language. For example, “Every weekend I go to stay in my friend’s house in the country. I don’t know what the word is in English, but we call it a “dacha“. This is 100% fine and much more natural than trying to give me a translation!
Also, even if the examiner is from your country, it is totally fine to explain the local tradition to them as if they have never heard of it before.
Top Tips for Favourite Cue Cards
Don’t worry about using words from your native language to describe cultural items if you don’t know the translation – just explain clearly what it is!
Even if your examiner is from your country, pretend that they have never heard of the event/item so that you can describe it fully.