People often ask me how they should handle difficult questions in the IELTS speaking test. It’s not easy for me to tell them because it depends on the question and on their ability.

Rather than just dealing with difficult IELTS questions in general (which I have discussed before), I’m going to talk about part two of the speaking test, which I find to be particularly troubling for many IELTS candidates.

What’s the problem with part 2?

Part two of the IELTS speaking test requires you to speak for between one and two minutes on a topic that will be presented on a cue card. Usually, it will say something like “describe a person/place/time/thing…” Here are a few examples:

I have spoken many times in these tutorials about how to handle the process of analyzing the question, planning an answer, and so on, and I have mentioned that sometimes it can be difficult to think of an idea.

It’s easy, in fact, to waste half of your preparation time just thinking of ideas to talk about… and then maybe you think of something but realize you don’t have the right vocabulary for it, so you change the subject entirely…

All of this is a big problem. It causes people to hesitate at the beginning of their allotted speaking time, or to panic and make lots of mistakes. Instead, you should prepare and practice so that you know how to begin.

the problem with difficult ielts questions

But… there is a problem, and that’s our main issue for today:

Some cue cards are really, really difficult

The IELTS test will never give you a specialist topic that would require a university degree to answer. There’s nothing about nuclear physics or brain surgery! The topics are all pretty general and, in theory, they should be applicable to most of the world. We see lots of questions about the environment or about age, for example. There are questions about education, family, work, and movies.

Sometimes, though, you will encounter something that just does not apply to you at all, or that you cannot think of how to answer. What if you are asked about travel but you have never travelled? What if you don’t know anything about architecture but it asks you about buildings?

It is possible that in part two of the IELTS speaking test, you will be given a cue card that you feel is really difficult to answer, but what I want to discuss today is how you can deal with that so that you don’t panic and get a bad score.

Take a look at the following question:

Describe an experience when you lost something.

You should say:

what you lost

how you lost it

where you lost it

And explain how you felt about it.

I once did a class with some students and this question was in the textbook. Some of them found it easy to answer and others found it quite difficult. Later, someone asked me to give them a model answer. I found it very, very difficult!

Of course, I’m a native speaker with 10 years of IELTS teaching experience, so all these questions should be easy for me, but sometimes I find it hard, too. I just couldn’t think of anything that I had lost… 30 seconds went past, then 40… Eventually, I remembered that I had lost my mobile phone about eight years ago.

a difficult ielts cue card

I had to think very carefully about it and then give an answer. It was very hard, and if English was my second language, I would have struggled. In fact, I probably would have panicked and gotten a really poor score.

Recently, I heard that there is an even harder version of this question that asks you to do something more specific:

Describe an experience when you lost something and then got it back.

You should say:

what you lost

how you lost it

how you got it back

And explain how you felt about the experience.

I never got my phone back so I don’t know how I would have answered this version of the question. So what could I have done?

Why are some cue cards so difficult?

There are a few different reasons why your cue card might be hard for you to answer. First of all, the example I previously gave about losing something was really, really specific. In other words, sometimes you may not be able to relate to the question at all.

Then there are questions that require a particular set of words in order to answer it correctly. A few weeks ago, I wrote this article on the topic of weather. Most people know how to say “it’s sunny” or “I like snow” but to do well in IELTS you will need to do better than that. What about questions to do with cooking or sports? These can actually have very specific words that you might not pick up in your general English studies, and which didn’t appear in any of your IELTS courses.

Finally, you can sometimes change the topic a little with your cue card, but other times it might be difficult because the question is very firm in what it asks you to do. It might, for example, ask you about a time you won a prize. Now maybe you have never won a prize before… so what can you do?

Let’s look at some solutions to these problems.

How to deal with difficult IELTS cue cards

Imagine that you have been given a cue card for part two and you suddenly realize that you can’t think of an answer. What should you do?

I want to suggest that there are two possibilities here. Perhaps you can think of more, but these are the two reasonable ones that I will recommend to you.

  1. You can change the subject.
  2. You can lie and make up a story.

Neither of these is a perfect solution, but they could both really help you if you use them correctly.

Let’s look at them and examine the advantages and disadvantages.

1. Change the Subject

This is a slightly controversial idea because in IELTS you are being tested on your English and part of that means responding directly to the questions. If an examiner asks you, “What’s your name?” and you reply, “Yes, I like fish,” then he will think that you did not understand him. The same is true with the cue card for part two. If you are asked about something you like doing in the winter, but you cannot think of anything, and you say “I like going swimming in the summer…” then the examiner will think you did not understand the question.

So… is this really a problem?

Technically, according to the IELTS speaking marking rubric, there is nothing that says a candidate has to answer a question correctly or even respond directly to the examiner. You are being judged in four areas:

  • Fluency
  • Vocabulary
  • Grammar
  • Pronunciation

Ultimately, the examiners are asking you questions so that you can have a chance to speak. They will then listen to your speech and grade you on those four things. In theory, if your answer was completely off-topic, but you spoke with perfect pronunciation, you should still be able to get a 9 for pronunciation!

Are there any drawbacks to this?

Yes. If your answer is completely off-topic, it will not leave a good impression upon the examiner. They may not be able to fail you, but they might mark you down in some other way. For example, if you have answered on a totally different topic, they might remark that your vocabulary was wrong. Why? Well, for IELTS you are being asked questions on a range of topics and if you really don’t know how to talk about a topic, then you have not demonstrated sufficient awareness of the language for that topic. Even though your sentences were correct, they could technically say that your words related to another topic and did not address this topic, and so they could give you a poor score.

ielts change the subject

There is another possibility, which is that the examiner might think you have memorized your answer. If this was the case, then the score you receive would be severely marked down. The reason is that IELTS obviously forbids cheating, and anyone who memorizes an answer and attempts to recite it in the test will be penalized accordingly.

However, overall, it is not a bad strategy to use if you are really desperate.  

2. Make up an Answer

The other option is to make something up. In my previous example, I said that you might be asked about a winter activity. Well, perhaps you don’t have any winter activities that you enjoy but you know skiing is popular. In that case, you can say “I really like skiing in winter…” and then attempt to make up an answer that lasts for 1-2 minutes and fulfils all the criteria from the cue card.

This is obviously a good way of getting around the problem of a difficult answer because it allows you to quickly think of a response. You don’t need to spend a long time thinking about how to change the topic carefully. In my earlier example about losing something, I could have lied and said that I got my phone back eventually.

But it also has its problems.

The biggest issue here is that it’s harder to lie than you might think. Sure, you can make up a story in your own language, but talking about some imaginary situation in another language can actually be really difficult. If you had never skied before, could you name all the equipment that you need for skiing? Do you know the specific verbs to describe the actions, or name the places that people go to ski? Probably not.

make up an answer for ielts

It is easy to think of a quick answer to a question but it’s much harder to actually give that whole answer without ample preparation, and therefore taking this approach can get you in trouble. You should only use it if you are very confident in your English ability but lack the particular experience to talk about the given topic.

What’s the best way to answer a hard question?

Of the two answers above, neither one is perfect for answering a difficult cue card. However, I would generally recommend option #1 but with some important changes.

When you are given a very difficult speaking question and you cannot think of a suitable answer, you should always start by telling the examiner that fact. Don’t use any memorized phrases. Just tell the examiner honestly what the problem is and what your solution will be:

I’ve looked at the cue card and I honestly cannot think of a single winter activity that I enjoy doing because I hate the cold and spend all my winters in warm places. Therefore, I’m going to talk about something that I usually do in spring, which is….

By doing this, you are changing the topic to something else, but it is something that is related to the original topic. Importantly, you are telling the examiner in real, everyday English that you are doing this. It is very different than just giving an off-topic answer.

What is the result?

Now the examiner will have to listen to you and grade you according to the usual criteria. He will check your pronunciation and grammar, etc.

Remember that the most important thing about IELTS is: It is an English test.

People always forget that. They become obsessed with essay structures and so-called advanced vocabulary. However, in the end, it is just about how well you can use English. If you could sit down and chat with the examiner as a native speaker, the examiner would give you a band 9 because it is his job to be honest and fair. He is not there to trick you.