Tips to answer IELTS speaking part 1 questions

The IELTS speaking test lasts 14 minutes and is divided into 3 parts.

In this tutorial, we look at tips to help you successfully pass this section of the exam.

We find out:

  • What exactly the examiner is listening for during the exam
  • We look at the different questions and topic types
  • We give you some tips to help you prepare yourself for this exam

IELTS speaking part 1: Overview

The IELTS speaking test lasts 14 minutes and is divided into 3 parts. Part 1 takes up the first 5 minutes and begins when the examiner greets the candidate with a “Good morning/afternoon. My name is ………. .”

The time has come for you to speak. This first part is not so demanding. You will be asked about whether you work or study or, alternatively, about where you currently live. Then, the examiner will ask 3 follow-up questions. Then, the examiner will ask you about 2 different topics to talk about. There are 4 questions to answer on each topic. Stop a moment and think about this:

Total time: 5 minutes (includes about 30 seconds to establish identification at the start)

questions about work/study or where you live.  4 questions each on 2 topics topic.

Let’s do the arithmetic. A total of 12 questions and answers in around 4 minutes 30 seconds. And, the examiner can ask you to explain answers in more detail with a simple “Why?” as a follow up to many questions.

What can we learn from those numbers?

Well, to begin with, that’s a lot of questions in a short space of time. It’s more of an interrogation. And first impressions are rightly or wrongly, important and so you need to show the examiner how good your English is right from the start.

When you have to answer a lot of questions in a short time, you do not have time to “think” of what you are going to say. You have to be spontaneous and, of course, sound confident. And to help guarantee that will happen, you need to be extremely well prepared.

What is the examiner listening for?

In part 1, the examiner is reading the questions from the booklet. If we know what the examiner is looking for, that can help us plan our answers. The questions are designed so that the candidate can begin to show his or her language skills when talking on familiar topics in the four areas the examiner is assessing.

Fluency: your ability to keep talking without long pauses or hesitations. This includes our ability to re-phrase, to backtrack and say something in a different way.

Vocabulary: if you have a wide vocabulary of general and specialised words and how you combine words together in familiar patterns (collocations)

Grammar: your range of structures, that is, of the different verb tenses, modal verbs and conditional sentences as well as correct word order. Someone who only talks in the “present tense” will not receive a high band score.

Pronunciation/Intonation: you must speak clearly with acceptable pronunciation of individual sounds and use intonation to express meaning, such as the voice rising or falling at the end of an utterance, for example. There is no problem with having an “accent” as long as any native English speaker would not have problems in understanding you.

All the above are part of your current English level. If you have any weakness in any of these areas, work on it.

Now, Part 1 topics and the sets of questions on each one, are designed not only to give you the chance to talk about yourself but also for the examiner to find your level in the 4 areas.

Topics and question types

The first question remember is either:

Let’s talk about what you do. Do you work or are you a student or

Let’s talk about where you live? …….

The best way to start is to be brief and put it into context. Something like:-

Well, I’m the Human Resources Manager in a multinational company. You’ve probably heard of it (name company). I’ve been there about 4 years and I’m responsible for all the stages of recruiting as well as sending staff members on courses to update their skills and knowledge and so on.

Why? Because the 3 follow up questions require more complex language.

What’s more important, the work you do or the people you work with? (comparisons, explanations)

Do you think you will live in this (house) for a long time? (future, conditionals)

To prepare for this, there are online IELTS exams videos. There’s nothing wrong with that but it’s YOU that has to put in the effort.

Think and write about work, studies, where you live. Answer What? Where? Why? When? Who? How long? 

Prepare the vocabulary you need, talk in the past, present, future.

What about the other two topics?

There’s a wide range including general areas such as:

The Arts (film, television, art, music, photography) Education (history, mathematics, science)

Communication (emails, contacting friends) Technology (computers, smartphones)

Free time (weekends, birthdays and national holidays, breaks and vacations) Styles and tastes (jeans, shoes, colours, hairstyles)

Relationships (friends, family, neighbours, pets, wild animals) Environment (weather, the sky).

Again, the questions go from the factual and personal to the more speculative and general. The pattern throughout Part 1 is to start with an “opener” plus 3 more questions. Let’s take this topic: History

Do you ever go to museums to learn about history?

Did you enjoy history classes at school?

When was the last time you read a book or a magazine about history?

Do you think it is important to learn about the history of your country?

Many questions begin with the following.

Do you ….? What type of …? Is there a ….?

Did you …..? Have you changed ….?

Would you ……? Do you think you will ….? Why do you think ….?

They’re all about YOU but there will be some we don’t normally talk about or even notice.

Let’s talk about the sky: Do you ever look at the sky?

Do you prefer the sky by night or during the day?

Did you study the stars and planets at school?

Would you like to learn more about the stars?

So, be prepared for the possible “strange” subject.

How long should you speak for?

Let’s go back to the arithmetic. Minimum 12 questions, main topics in 4 and a half minutes equals an average of 1:30 each topic, that’s about 20 – 22 seconds per question including the examiner asking it. How much can you say in 20 seconds?

Perhaps up to connected thoughts or “ideas”. It’s important not to say too little or too much. But if we say too much, the examiner finds a way to interrupt and go on with the next question.

But, this is something you can plan for. Look back at the example about work. Look at this example:

Is there a type of music you don’t like?

Hmm. Yes, there is. I really can’t stand what they call heavy metal because it’s just loud and the singer just shouts instead of really singing. Apart from that, the lyrics are pretty meaningless, if you can understand what they’re saying, that is. I prefer songs that are more romantic.

(4 connected “ideas”)

Try it yourself with as many questions and topics as you like. Time yourself. Remember always to add something to your basic opinion or idea. Give reasons and, where appropriate add an example.


(1)Things can go wrong. Maybe you don’t hear the question clearly or didn’t fully understand it. In these cases, there’s nothing wrong in asking for clarification. Just make sure you do it in the “right” way.

I’m sorry. Could you repeat that please? I’m sorry, I didn’t quite catch that. Do you mind saying it again?

(2) You realize you made a mistake immediately after saying it. Don’t worry. Any time you “repair” or correct yourself is very positive (as long as there are not too many times!)

…so I’ve been working there since 6 years…I mean for 6 years

(3) Sometimes we are not sure of what to say: we don’t have a quick answer. We all use some kind of fillers to occupy a little time while we are thinking of an answer. Often simple “umm” but we can maybe use:

Hmm. Yes, that’s an interesting question. Hmm. I’ve never thought about that before but ….

But, my advice is not to overuse these expressions. Sometimes a candidate will learn them and use them to impress the examiner but it can sound false. Please be you, be natural.

Prepare yourself

Some final tips.

  1. In pairs, groups, take topics, including the work/study/live one. Prepare and answer at least 4 questions on each.
  2. Take turns as examiner/candidate
  3. Record yourselves. Note the exact times.
  4. Together note positive strengths and weaknesses in vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation
  5. Always remember in Part 1 to make it personal. Give explanations and examples
  6. Write out your answers to cue cards and sample task questions, use a google doc to catch grammar errors.
  7. Apart from practising speaking, also read widely, listen to Podcasts and watch news broadcasts and documentaries.
  8. Work at your grammar and vocabulary, make meaningful lists of expressions, collocations, linking words.

For more help with IELTS speaking part 1, have a look at our tutorials:

Audio tutorial

You can download or listen to the audio version here:

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