When IELTS Speaking Part 1 gets strange

The first section of the IELTS speaking test should be the easiest for all test-takers because the questions are all about YOU 😎, so hopefully you will never have to struggle to find an answer! However, as many test-takers have discovered over the years, the topics in IELTS Speaking Part 1 can sometimes be, well, strange! So, in today’s blog, I want to talk about how to prepare for the questions you can predict, and then ones that you definitely can’t! But first, let’s start with the the basic information IELTS speaking part 1.

IELTS Speaking Part 1: THE FACTS 🗒

  • it lasts a between 4 and 5 minutes (including the part where the examiner checks your identification
  • you will be asked a maximum of 11 questions on THREE topics
  • the first 3 questions are always about your work/studies or your home
  • you should keep your answers relatively short (2 – 4 sentences). HOWEVER, don’t be afraid to extend answers if you genuinely have something to to say on the topic, AND don’t be afraid to answer with one sentence if it fully answers the question. I will write a blog about this in the coming weeks, but for now my advice is don’t worry about how long your answer is, as long as you are directly answering the question, you’ll be fine!
  • if the examiner interrupts you DON’T PANIC 😳- it’s simply time to move on!
  • the only response the examiner can give is Why? or Why not?. Seriously, that’s it. Even if you tell then that you are an astronaut and your favourite trip was to the moon, 👩‍🚀all they can say is Why! 🤦‍♂️

Now, as the topics in IELTS Speaking Part 1 always connected to YOU and your life, it means that they are fairly predictable. I mean, there are only so many that the IELTS test-writer can choose from. Topics you can expect the examiner to ask you about are:

 reading habits, cinema, television, clothes, exercise, home town, advertising, teachers, birthdays, giving presents, sleep, animals, mobiles, computers, apps, family, neighbours, colours, celebrities, food, websites, sports/games, singing, dancing, tea and coffee, etc.

In short, any of the topics covered in the vocabulary sections of any decent Pre-Intermediate through to Upper-Intermediate text book (English File, or Speak Out, for example 📖).

Now, let me be clear, even though the TOPICS remain fairly consistent, the SPECIFIC QUESTIONS that the IELTS exam asks CHANGE FREQUENTLY. For example, in one exam, the group of questions around the topic of Newspapers 🗞 might be:

  1. Do you enjoy reading newspapers?
  2. What was the first newspaper that you bought?
  3. Do you think reading a newspaper in a foreign language can help improve your language skills?
  4. Which part of the newspaper do you usually read first?

But, in another exam, the group of questions might be:

  1. Do you often read newspapers?
  2. Did any of your family read newspapers as a child?
  3. Do you ever read a newspaper online?
  4. What part of the newspaper do you usually read first?

As you can see, although question 1 in each sets is more or less the same, and question 4 is identical, questions 2 and 3 are completely different! Therefore, as you prepare for Speaking Part 1, I would focus more on learning vocabulary for the topics rather than learning how to answer particular questions.

And, more importantly PLEASE 🙌, NEVER MEMORISE ANSWERS ☠. It is a total waste of time as the exact question you memorise is unlikely to come up and, even if it does, it is completely obvious when students suddenly switch to regurgitate an answer that they have learned by heart (for one, they sound like a robot 🤖)

It’s much better to create good, high-level vocabulary lists for the common topics (if you feel you need to prepare). For example, for the topic of newspapers, it might be nice to learn:

  • biased/unbiased (I prefer to read papers that are unbiased)
  • tabloids / broadsheets (Most people in my country read tabloids, but I prefer broadsheets)
  • the headlines (I always read the headlines first to see what’s happening in the world.)
  • current affairs (I’m most interested in current affairs)

You don’t need a huge number of expressions for each topic, but taking the time to learn a few for the most common topics can make a big difference to your score for Lexical Resource. Most importantly, don’t just learn lists of single words – you need to know how each word works in a sentence. So, do what I have done above and write examples of how each word is used.

Want to know how you can use to improve your performance in Speaking Part One? Then press play to find out the 6 most common mistakes students make in this part of the test:

But (can you guess what’s coming?), even though the same topics get recycled again and again, sometimes one of the exam writers at IELTS head quarters has a brainwave 🧠 and comes up with a completely unique and often VERY STRANGE Part 1 topic 🧟‍♀️. I often wonder where the test-writer was when they were struck with inspiration for some of the ideas. Were they doing the washing up and looking out of the window into their garden, when they suddenly paused, put down a plate and exclaimed with joy:

TREES! 🌳🌳🌳🌳🌳

Or, was there a test-writer on holiday, sunbathing on the beach, who suddenly sat bolt upright and gasped:

BOATS! 🚤  🚤 🚤

Or, (and this, I have to be honest, is one of my all-time favourites), was there a test-writer in the bath relaxing after a hard day at work, when suddenly, out of nowhere whispered 💥:


I mean, you could lock me in a room for a month and I would never be able to come up with some of the topics that I’ve seen over the last few years. So, I think that even though it’s likely that in your exam, you will be asked questions on the IELTS topics that are recycled and recycled again ♻, you HAVE TO BE PREPARED TO FACE QUESTIONS ABOUT ANY TOPIC. 

So, what do you do when the examiner suddenly turns and says “Now, I’d like to talk to you about the topic of birds”?! Well, first of all, you have to remember that the examiner knows that they questions they are about to ask you are strange. I mean, I imagine it’s hard to ask the question “What’s your favourite bird?” without wanting to smile just a little bit! 😂 So, it’s perfectly fine for you to show the examiner that you have been surprised by the topic too. If ever there was a time to react genuinely to a question, this is it! One of my favourite ways of reacting is to mirror the question back by simply repeating the last few words:

My favourite bird? Wow, that’s something I haven’t thought about before!

Or, tell the examiner that you have no idea! Seriously, this is a great way of making it clear that you are going pause, but NOT for language.

Woah. I have no idea. Let me think for a moment…… so, I’d have to say …

Remember, in this part of the exam, there is no “right” answer, so ANY reaction is good. If you don’t have a favourite bird – tell the examiner that! If you can only think of a simple bird (like a penguin) – tell the examiner that. If you actually happen to love birds and know the English names of a few, then tell the examiner that! You won’t win or lose a 7.0 in these questions unless you um and ah and stumble trying to find words.

I always tell my students that Part 1 is all about fluency. You need to show the examiner that you can listen to and answer immediately any simple personal question (no matter how strange!) So, whatever the question is, just answer it naturally and instinctively. I know that there is nothing revolutionary in this advice, but being natural really is the best thing to do.

So, to help you start, here are four of my favourite “strange” IELTS Speaking Part 1 topics that have been reported in exams in recent months:

Let’s talk about smilingA smiling mouth

  • When do you smile most often [why/why not?]
  • When was the last time you saw a lot of people smiling? [why/why not?]
  • Do you always try to smile in photos? [why/why not?]
  • Can you tell when somebody’s smile is not real? [why/why not?]

Let’s talk about perfumeA perfum bottle

  • Do you like to wear perfume/aftershave?
  • Have you ever bought a bottle of perfume/aftershave as a gift?
  • Do you have a favourite type of perfume/aftershave?
  • Would you pay a lot for a bottle of perfume/aftershave?

A pair of blue jeans

Let’s talk about wearing jeans

  • How often do you wear jeans?
  • Did/Do you wear jeans at school?
  • Would you ever spend a lot of money on jeans?
  • Why do you think jeans are so popular around the world?

Let’s talk about hairstylesthe outline of a man's haircut

  • How long have you had your current hairstyle?
  • Do you enjoy going to the hairdresser’s/barber’s?
  • Have you ever had a haircut that you didn’t like?
  • Would you like to change the colour of your hair?

So, when you are preparing for Speaking Part 1, definitely make sure you are prepared for the IELTS favourites BUT leave some room for the unexpected, because you have no idea what inspirational ideas the IELTS exam-writers will be struck with next!

If you would like help preparing for the IELTS test, then why not work one-on-one with one of my experts? We have developed techniques that you can use in the exam that will maximise your score. Just click to find out more about how we can help you succeed 🚀

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