IELTS Speaking: 12 Common Mistakes Killing Your Band Score

When I examine IELTS speaking candidates I know what mistakes I am going to hear before the candidates have even arrived. It is frustrating as these common mistakes are easily avoided and they damage your band score.

I hate seeing candidates have to re-sit IELTS and hand over more money, so promise me that you won’t do any of these things:

#1 – ‘Phrase copying’ in part 2

As you know, you will be given a speaking prompt card for you to base your monologue on. Do not start your monologue by using the same words from the card.

Remember you are trying to show off your range of vocabulary so repeating the same words is not helpful.

How to fix this: Try to use synonyms or paraphrases of the words on the cards. This will prevent you from wasting those first few seconds repeating words you are given. 

For example, rather than repeating the phrase “I’m going to describe a time when…”, you could instead use one of these phrases “I’m going to tell you about an experience I had…” or “I’d like to tell you about something that happened last year…”.

You can check out my recommended strategies for part 2 speaking here.

#2 – Over using ‘because’

Try to vary the words you use in your explanations. It is fine to use the word ‘because’ multiple times as that is what native speakers often do, however, using a few different words will help improve your vocabulary and grammar band score.

How to fix this: Instead of ‘because’, you can use ‘as, due to, due to the fact that, since’. Here’s a few examples:

I’d prefer to live in a house rather than an apartment as you can usually have access to a garden as well.

Living in an apartment is preferable to me since you can usually get a better downtown location.

Personally, I’d rather not live in an apartment due to the fact that they do not hold their value as much as apartments.

Generally, I would prefer to live in a house due to the less cramped feel of a house.

#3 – Being flustered

To be flustered means to be stressed, worked up, overly nervous and not able to focus properly.

This usually happens when a candidate is late for their test. I know they are late because their name has been swapped with someone else on my list so they can gain more time to get to the centre.

When a candidate is flustered they rarely perform as well as you think they could. I can see it in their eyes that they are a little more ‘on edge’.

I imagine they are still annoyed about why they were late and whether the examiner can tell they are stressed rather than remaining calm and focusing on the question.

How to fix this – Please, leave enough time to get to the centre and if you have not been before it is worth having a trial run a few days before the test just so you know exactly how long it will take you to get there and where to go.

#4 – Speaking like a robot

It may be that in your language you can speak in quite a monotone voice and it sound perfectly normal.

As you probably know, in the English language the intonation, stress and sound linking that you place on your words and phrases is very important. You won’t score highly if you don’t demonstrate the ability to speak in this manner.

How to fix this – Get excited about what your talking about, show some enthusiasm towards what you are talking about, even if you have none, just fake it.

What this will do is lead you to add more stress and intonation on your words naturally. So, get a bit pumped up before the test if you feel this will be a problem.

#5 – Answering with silence

It is not unusual for students to not understand a question properly, or to struggle to think of an idea to answer the question. In this case, do not just sit there in silence whilst you are thinking of the answer.

The examiner won’t know if you are not speaking because you do not have the vocabulary to start speaking which is a big negative, or if you simply can’t think of an idea.

How to fix this: Learn a few natural fillers, or expressions that you can use to buy you some time whilst you think. You could try: 

  • Hmmm, that’s an interesting question…
  • Umm, to be honest I’m not really sure. How about…
  • Well, I suppose…
  • Sorry, I didn’t quite catch that.
  • Sorry, could you say that again?

#6 – Flirting

I can’t believe people think this would work! As you can see from my photo, I am male, and it has happened several times that a female candidate has been a little too suggestive with both their body language and their comments.

One lady said before she sat down ‘I am staying in the hotel next door if you want anything later’, and then winked at me! I don’t think she actually knew that I was already recording the interview and so any moderator listening to this later would have heard this.

Of course, I carried out the interview in a perfectly normal fashion but it always makes me chuckle and to be honest it makes the rest of the interview a little awkward and certainly does not help your band score.

#7 – Being flippant

I get this most from very high level candidates who obviously think they are going to score a band 9 as they have lived abroad for a long time, or worked with native English speakers for a long time.

Sure, they may speak really well and be capable of a band 9 in speaking, they may think the test is beneath them and all they need to do to get a band 9 is simply turn up.

Well, I am sorry to say that we need the evidence on the tape and so if you turn up with a bit of an attitude that you are better than this you may end up not actually taking the test seriously and not giving us the evidence we need to give you a band 9.

How to fix this: Realise that no matter how good your English is you can ‘fail’ and not get the band score you need if you do not demonstrate your level of English on the day. Swallow your pride and take the test seriously.

#8 – Not explaining ‘why’

It is an unwritten rule during the IELTS test that if you answer a question without explaining yourself or just giving a little bit extra detail then the examiner is usually going to ask you ‘why?’. So, save the examiner the bother and explain your ideas briefly.

The only exception to this is when the examiner asks for your name, nationality or something similar. 

How to fix it: remember the AAA technique, which stands for Ask, Answer, Add. The examiner asks you something and then it is your job to answer it but to also add something as well, whether that be an explanation, an example, or just a little extra detail, always ‘ask-answer-add’. 

You can listen to me explaining my opinions in the sample questions and answers for part 3 here.

#9 – Not pausing for breathe

Speaking at a million miles an hour does not help anybody. It may reduce the comprehensibility of your speech by damaging your pronunciation and it also means that you have to think of more things to say as you are using up all of your ideas very quickly.

How to fix it – Instead, try to mirror the pace at which the examiner speaks at and pause where there would be a full stop or comma in your writing. This is what native speakers do, and this it what you need to do to.

#10 – Lacking creativity 

I realise that in some cultures it may not be as usual to express your real feelings and thoughts about certain topics that you might normally consider sensitive.

This can cause some students to ‘clam up’ and not speak freely, or perhaps candidates are not used to thinking for themselves and actually having their own opinion.

Newsflash people, you need to:

a) have some thoughts, they don’t need to be original but you need to have some.

b) you need to not worry about what the examiner personally thinks about your opinions.

The examiner may or may not agree with your ideas but that does not matter. The examiner just wants a sample of your English and will not be offended by anything you say, of if they are, they are not allowed to say so. So, please relax and speak! 

#11 – Giving a memorised response

I will never forget the first IELTS candidate I examined. At the start of the test I asked for their name to which they quickly replied:

“My name’s Kanda which means honesty in my culture and I currently reside in Shanghai which is a major city in the People’s Republic of China which I am very proud of as I believe it is one of the greatest nations on earth.”

Now, I have already said in this article that IELTS examiners want you to speak but it needs to be in an appropriate way. All I had done was ask for the candidate’s name and so all I expected was a simple ‘Hi, I’m Kanda’, or ’My name’s Kanda’ –  those answers would have been normal and appropriate.

However, this answer was clearly memorised which makes me think two things: Firstly, I am not sure that they even know what some of those words mean so I cannot give them any credit for the grammar and vocabulary. 

Secondly, this is probably a weak student as they feel that they have to memorise answers in order to do well and they clearly did not realise that this was an inappropriate response.

Either way, it is not a positive start for this candidate.

How to fix this: Well, fairly obviously, do not memorise any responses. Instead, listen to the questions and answer them appropriately. Judge how much information to give based on the questions, the examiners mannerisms and which part of the test it is. 

I have written about how to introduce yourself in IELTS here which you might find useful at this point.

Apart from the very first introductory questions you should always add one piece of extra information in part 1, it could be a detail or an explanation.

In part 2, now this is the time to go mad and speak at length. And in part 3, this is a discussion so you should express yourself freely so long as you stay on topic. If you find yourself going off topic then it is probably time to stop.

#11 – Running out of things to say

There is really no reason to run out of things to say in part 2 of the test unless your vocabulary is so limited that you can’t put into words what you want to say, in which case you are probably not ready for IELTS yet.

The reason I say that you should not run out of things to say is that you do not have to to stick to the bullet points on the card, in fact, you can pretty much talk about anything you want that has even a slight link to the topic.

A few things you can do are: tell a story about something that happened to you or a friend related to the topic, explain examples related to your points, use an ‘if clause’, such as:

If I had been asked about… instead then I would have said…, or if I had known about this before then… 

You can even think about each bullet point in terms of past, present and future. Could you say something related to each of those times and those speaking prompts. 

You see there’s a lot you can say about any topic card and you could even make stuff up because let’s be honest the examiner does not know and will not care if you have made it up although it will sound a little weird if it is totally unrealistic.

#12 Taking the test before being ready

The IELTS test is really designed for intermediate level students and above. It is not a great test for any candidates lower than that. Without a certain level of vocabulary and grammar it is very difficult to complete the test without it feeling very awkward and disheartening.

Yet some students are convinced they need to do IELTS and book a test anyway not realizing just how difficult it is until they are sat in front of the examiner and can’t string more than a few words together. Don’t worry though, if you have read down the page this far your English is definitely good enough to be tackling IELTS with.

I have written a full article on how to know if you are ready for IELTS here should you be interested.

So, there you go, my guide to the most common mistakes in IELTS speaking. I hope you feel more confident now knowing some of the things not to do and most importantly what to do instead.

My full guide to IELTS speaking is located here with samples and questions for each part of the test or you might like my IELTS speaking do’s and don’ts guide also.

Recommended IELTS Study Tools

Thank you for reading this article. I always get lots of questions about how else to get a better band score quickly. So, this is what I recommend:

Complete IELTS Course: Of course, my full course ‘INCREASE YOUR IELTS‘ covers everything you need to need to know to pass IELTS, including practice questions, model answers, grammar work, strategies for every possible reading, writing and listening question type, as well as a complete speaking course too, check it out here.

IELTS Essay and Speaking Feedback: To complete full mock tests and get feedback from IELTS examiners on your IELTS essays or speaking tasks then visit: IELTS Feedback and Mock Tests, here.

Improve your grammar fast by using the Grammarly suggestions to improve your writing. Every IELTS students should have this free grammar improving tool.

Improve all-round English skill with If you have failed IELTS more than once then you probably need to improve your general level of English. Use the free online lessons and vocabulary building tools here and start improving today! HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!

Learn English with Free Podcasts