Functional Language For IELTS Speaking

Alex Case
The most important language for all parts of the IELTS Speaking exam.

The IELTS Speaking test is taken one-to-one with an examiner and also recorded to be marked. After checking their ID, the examiner asks the candidate personal questions on two or three topics such as education and family. This is followed by a stage where the candidate gives a one- or two-minute mini-presentation on a topic given to them. They are given one minute to prepare and can make notes if they like. After one or two questions about what they said during their presentation, the examiner moves on to more general discussion of related topics.

What Students Need To Do To Get A Good Score In IELTS Speaking

Students will need to properly answer the questions with complex, fluent and accurate use of grammar, vocabulary and functional language. Longer answers should also be well organised, e.g. include linking and signalling expressions.

Probably even more vital than that list of demands is to show that they can really communicate, e.g. by what they say being a real answer to the question and being a reasonable length (rather than a pre-prepared speech or minimal response). Another important way of showing real communication is the way they deal with sticky moments such as not understanding. Things they are likely to need to do to cope with (potential) problems are:

  • Asking for clarification, e.g. when the question is ambiguous, and answering questions they might not have fully understood
  • Filling the silence, e.g. when pausing for thought
  • Having nothing (else) to say, e.g. because the question doesn’t match their situation or they can’t remember the information
  • Making sure they have answered or are answering the question
  • Getting back on topic, e.g. by asking for a reminder of what the question is
  • Correcting themselves
Other functional language that is likely to be useful includes:
  • Signalling the start and end of answers
  • Expressing uncertainty and speculating
  • Giving examples
  • Talking about personal experience
  • Generalising
  • Giving and justifying opinions
  • Comparing and contrasting
  • Expressing preferences

Example Classroom Activities

Asking for clarification/Answering questions they might not have understood

  • Give students a list of questions that could possibly be ambiguous, e.g. “How many people are there in your family?” Someone asks one of the questions and their partner should confirm something about it (e.g. “Including me?”) before answering, using a different phrase each time.
  • In pairs, give students different lists of questions which have very difficult vocabulary in them plus explanations of what those things are supposed to mean. Tell them that the person answering must confirm the meanings of the questions, using a different phrase each time.

Filling silence

  • Give students questions that are almost impossible to answer or will at least need thought. They give each other scores based on how little silence they leave and the range of language they use while thinking.
  • Give students a task or game where they should speak as long as possible. They give each other scores based on how long they speak, but with points taken off for silence.

Nothing to say

  • Similar to the Asking for Clarification game above, students have to find a reason why they can’t answer every question as it is asked, e.g. “Actually, I had no choice” for “Why did you choose that subject?”

Making sure they are answering the question

  • Give students difficult to understand questions to ask each other. They should try to answer without asking what they mean, instead asking for clarification during or after their answer. (This is not a good tactic in the exam!)

Getting back on topic

  • Students give answers to Speaking Part Two questions without being able to look back at it during those two minutes. Their partner should try to spot when the person speaking has gone off topic, interrupt them, and continue answering the question after using a phrase like “Anyway,…” or “Getting back to the question,…” They can continue interrupting each other until all parts of the question are answered or two minutes is up.


  • Give students answers to the questions that they are going to be asked that are probably slightly different from what their own would be, e.g. “I was born about 100 kilometres from here” for “Where are you from?” They should answer the questions with the sentences that they have been given, then correct themselves and give an answer that is true, e.g. “What am I talking about 100 km?? It’s more like ten.”

Start and end

  • In groups of three, two students compete to be the first to speak when a question is asked, e.g. by launching straight in with a starting phrase like “My first thoughts on that are…” before they’ve even decided what they are going to say. However, if they then pause more than three seconds or go off topic their partner can interrupt them.
  • Students try to give long answers to questions without pausing for more than three seconds, including clearly marking the end of what they are saying rather than just stopping or fading out.


  • Students are given over-generalised sentences such as “Japanese people think…” and must agree on a more accurate version such as “Most Japanese people traditionally thought that…”


  • One student gives examples of something such as “unpleasant things on holiday” or “consequences of global warming” until their partners guess exactly what they are giving examples of. They must use a different phrase each time, i.e. they can’t use the phrase “For example” more than once.
  • Students take turns giving examples of something until one of them runs out of ideas.


  • One student talks about different experiences of one thing until their partners guess exactly what they are talking about. Tell them that they must use different phrases such as “One time…” and “When I was younger…” each time.
  • One student gives true and made up examples of their personal experience of one thing and their partner should guess which aren’t true.
  • Students talk about personal experiences and their partners should guess whether it was their own or someone else’s.


  • Students must answer all questions by comparing and contrasting, including ones where it wouldn’t be necessary in the exam, e.g. “Pasta, because it’s easier than potatoes” for “What your favourite dish?”
Written by Alex Case for EnglishClub
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic blog.