In part two of the IELTS speaking test, you will be given a cue card. On it, there will be a task that you have to complete. The purpose is to see if you can speak on one topic for an extended period of time.
In this article, I will tell you everything that you need to know about IELTS speaking cue cards and also give you some advice on how to prepare for them.
What is an IELTS cue card?
A cue card is a piece of paper that will tell you to describe something and give you a few pieces of advice about how to describe it. Here is an example:
This is an example of a typical IELTS cue card. I have annotated it for you. Although every cue card will be different, they will always have these three parts:
- The task
- Bullet points
- Final thought
Don’t let that last label fool you, though. You don’t have to talk about that last. You can discuss these parts in any order. We’ll come back to that later.
What do you do with the cue card?
Once you are finished with part one of the IELTS speaking test, the examiner will hand you this cue card. You will also have a piece of paper and a pencil.
You will be given one minute to prepare your answer. In that minute, you need to:
- Analyse the cue card
- Think of a subject to discuss
- Plan out your answer
This can be challenging. In fact, even for a native speaker it would be a difficult thing to do! However, you should just try your best.
Once you have done that, you are required to speak for between one and two minutes on the given topic. If you go on longer than two minutes, the examiner will stop you. If you fail to speak for even one minute, they will prompt you to continue with further questions.
Types of IELTS cue card
I have written before about IELTS speaking topics. These are subjects that commonly arise in the speaking test. There is a very wide variety of topics, but fortunately you are not required to be an expert on any of them in order to succeed. These are mostly everyday topics that anyone could have an opinion on, like education, technology, sport, and so on.
I have produced dozens of sample answers to IELTS cue cards on this website and on my YouTube channel. Here are some of them:
- Describe your hometown
- Describe a tradition
- Describe a job
- Describe an indoor game
- Describe a person who influenced you
- Describe your favourite possession
- Describe your favourite singer
- Describe a big city
- Describe an interesting person
- Describe a polite person
- Describe a crowded place
- Describe a TV programme
- Describe a party
- Describe an app
- Describe a festival
- Describe a piece of art
- Describe a positive change in your life
- Describe a family
- Describe a historical period
- Describe a shop
- Describe an unusual meal
- Describe a plant or flower
- Describe a website
- Describe a helpful person
- Describe something you often do in the evening
- Describe a restaurant
- Describe a book
- Describe an animal
- Describe some good news
- Describe a foreign country
Do you notice anything about these cue cards? They all ask you to describe something! The list includes many different types of thing – people, places, objects, and also abstract concepts. Some of them could be easy but others could be very difficult. You have to be ready for anything.
How to answer an IELTS cue card
In each of the links above, I show you a few things about the cue card:
- How to analyse it
- How to plan your answer
- How to make notes
- How to deliver a coherent answer
In each of them, I also give my own sample band 9 answer, so that you can see what that looks like. You can even listen to my sample answers in these videos!
I will summarise the steps here again:
Analyse the cue card
This means reading the cue card to determine what it is asking you to do. Sometimes this is very easy, but occasionally it can be hard. Also, with the stress of the exam, it’s easy to make a mistake. The main part is the task (the first line). However, you should also pay attention to the bullet points as these can remind you of important ideas.
Planning your answer
You really don’t have long to do this. Just think of the first thing that comes into your head and then spend your one minute of planning time working out approximately what you want to say. If it asks you to describe a famous person, for example, then don’t think of five people and weigh their merits. Just choose one and start planning.
You need to think about what the cue card asks of you but also what you want to say. You should try to cover the bullet points, but feel free to talk about absolutely anything else that is necessary to give a good description.
You don’t have to make notes but it can be helpful. The important thing is to only write down a few words. I’ve seen IELTS candidates try to write whole sentences, but this does not go well. In fact, most people would struggle to write even a few sentences in a minute.
Instead, note down things that will help guide you while you’re speaking:
- Structure points
Basically, just write a couple of words (or abbreviations) that will remind you of what to say when you’re in the middle of your speech. It could stop you from slowing down or repeating yourself.
As for structure, you don’t have to talk about the bullet points in the same order that they appear on the cue card! In fact, you can order them as you please.
Giving a good answer
You will be marked on how good your English is, meaning your vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation, and so on. However, you will also be judged on your coherence and fluency, so it’s important to speak with confidence, avoid repetition, and logically connect your ideas.
I always advise people to start with a personal anecdote because the mind typically develops ideas in a natural and logical way from there. I have a whole article on this here.
What about really difficult cue cards?
Some cue cards are harder than others. It can be easy to describe a movie, a friend, a book, or your hometown… but what about if you are asked to describe a maths problem or a memory?
Unfortunately, you can’t ask for a new cue card. You just have to do your best. My advice would be to honestly tell the examiner why you find it hard. Remember: This is an English test! If you were asked to describe a prize but had never won a prize, you could just explain this to the examiner and then talk about a time you almost won or a prize you want to win… The point is to communicate in good English. That’s all the examiner needs from you.
I have a whole article on dealing with difficult cue cards here.
More advice about IELTS cue cards
I think we’ve covered just about everything, so let’s look at some final words of advice:
- Practise often before your exam. You can do this at home by picking random topics and then using the timer on your phone to see how long you can talk for without repeating yourself, running out of ideas, or otherwise coming to a stop. Even better: find a speaking partner or teacher to help you.
- Look at past cue cards. Use the list above or check the Cambridge IELTS books to see real cue cards that have been given in the past. You cannot predict the future, but you certainly can see common topics and trends. These will help you to prepare.
- Work on calming yourself. When I give practice IELTS speaking tests, the most common problem I see is that people are really nervous! This is understandable, of course. It’s a scary exam. However, nervous people talk too quickly and make too many mistakes. It’s better to stay calm and be in control of yourself. Doing this will help you get a better score.
- Work on answer structures. Although you should not memorise answers, you can figure out common structures that help you to spontaneously think of better answers. Fundamentally, you can have a beginning, middle, and end, just like a story.
I have lots more advice in this video:
Some people say that part two is the hardest part of the IELTS speaking test, but if you practise in the right ways, it doesn’t have to be. It certainly seems like a big challenge, but once you get used to speaking at length, it is not hard to describe something over a period of two minutes.
When you are confident that you can do this, you can focus on improving your grammar and vocabulary, as well as building up your pronunciation skills. All of this can push you up to a higher and higher band score.