How to do well in Part 3 of the IELTS Speaking Exam

18th September 2022

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Dealing with abstract ideas in the IELTS exam

If you have prepared or been preparing for the IELTS (International English Language Testing System) exam, you will be aware of the three parts of the Speaking paper. In the first part the examiner asks questions about you: What’s your favourite season?; What kind of music do you like? etc.

The second part is the long turn where you have to talk for between one and two minutes on a given topic. Finally, in part three you answer questions related to the topic in part two but the questions are much more challenging. Here is an example of a part two and part three.

Part 2

Describe something successful you have done.

You should say:

- what you did

- how you prepared for it

- what kind of response you received

and explain why it was important for you.

Part 3 Example questions

- How would you define success?

- Do you think society places too much emphasis on money as a measurement of success?

- What do you think distinguishes successful people from unsuccessful ones?

- What makes some companies successful and other companies not?

Students often tell me that they really struggle in the third part and ask me how they can find something to say under pressure.

The first thing to understand is that part three of the exam is designed to deliberately challenge candidates in order to differentiate between those who are good, very good and extremely good (near native-like speakers) of English (as a foreign language). Remember that unlike some other language exams, this exam has to test a full range of levels.

Personalisation to Abstraction

The next point to consider is that the speaking test moves from the personal (parts one and two) to the abstract (part three). So what does this mean for you as a test-taker? Well, we all find it easy to talk about ourselves. Just think about the last time you were at a social event (and talking in your own language), it is highly likely that you were talking about your last holiday, your family, your studies or job etc. This is what we know and can relate to; our brains can draw on that first-hand knowledge and relay that information quite easily (especially in our mother-tongue!)

As you can see in the above example, in part three you are asked what you think about something; how you would define something (usually a concept), what you might believe about something and so on. Suddenly our brains can feel like they are swimming in a large ocean looking around for something to hold onto. This is what we mean by abstraction in language. It is the opposite of personalisation and we need to dip into another part of our brains and fish around for ideas that perhaps we didn’t know were there (or perhaps aren’t there), then formulate these ideas so they actually answer the question and all the while in a foreign language and in a matter of seconds - there is no preparation or thinking time here. It must be said that native speakers would struggle to come up with an answer on the spot for something like: ‘How would you define success?’


So, what can you do in an exam situation to maximise your chances of producing a response to please an examiner!

Remember to stay calm and keep breathing. This may sound obvious, but you will do better than if you let panic take over. You may think you haven’t understood a question when in fact you have probably understood more than you think and can at least say something rather nothing or “I don’t know.”  It is better to say something rather nothing but remember the examiner cannot help you or explain anything.

If you have understood the question but don’t have any ideas that come to mind or you use up your one idea too quickly, then use the following technique to help. Remember you need to provide extended answers to receive good marks here.

Break up the topic in manageable chunks such as:

  • children/young adults/adults/older people
  • past/present/future
  • low income/well-off/wealthy
  • personal/local/national/international
  • male/female
  • (you may have some more ideas)

An example (here I am using life stages to help me produce an answer to the question):

Examiner: How would you define success?

Candidate: Well, that is a tricky question, but success can mean different things to different people. For a child this may mean passing a weekly maths test at school, whereas for someone in their late teens or early 20’s, getting a place at the university of their choice would signify success. Later in life success could be achieved through a job promotion or buying a first home, for instance. So I don’t believe there can be any one definition of success, as it depends on what stage you are at in your life.

Hope that helps. Ultimately, though, practising with lots of examples and topics is the best way to improve and gain confidence. If you have met a topic before, then it will be easier for you to draw on your previous responses to help you answer the examiner’s questions.

Please contact me if you would like more help and advice with IELTS exam preparation.