I love history. For years, I have been fascinated with learning about the past. In my spare time, I read books about the spice trade, ancient Japan, or the Mayan culture. All of this is really interesting to me, and so I would have no problem if I was asked to describe a historical period.

However, this could be a difficult question for some people. After all, it is not a common part of daily conversation! Most people do not sit down with a friend and say, “You know what period of history I really like… the Qing Dynasty!”

Still, it is possible that you may be asked about this for IELTS speaking and so it is useful to know how to answer the cue card. In today’s lesson, I want to guide you through each step of the process. We will discuss things like:

  1. The topic of historical periods
  2. Possible cue cards
  3. Useful language

We will also finish this article with a brief look at how the IELTS topic of history could occur in the other parts of the test.

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IELTS and History

You do not need to be an expert on anything in order to sit the IELTS test. That means when you are asked about history, you do not have to be a historian in order to answer it. You certainly do not have to go into great detail about life in ancient Greece, for example.

Instead, history is one of those common topics that everyone can discuss a little bit. You may think that you know nothing about history, but in fact you know some things. You probably remember a little of your own country’s history because of lessons from school or visits to a museum or castle.

History could appear in any part of the IELTS test, and we will cover that later, but now we shall instead look at the speaking test.

History and IELTS Speaking

In part one of the IELTS speaking test, you may be asked some quite general questions about history, such as:

  1. Do you like learning about history?
  2. Have you been to many museums?
  3. Do you know much about the history of your country?
  4. Do you ever read books about history?
  5. How often do you watch historical movies?

In other words, these will be quite personal and quite general. You could answer them in very simple ways:

Q: Do you like learning about history?

A: Yes, I find it quite interesting. To be honest, I have a bad memory and so I don’t really remember that much. However, that’s ok because I can just learn it again and it feels new to me!

This is a very simple answer but that is also fine. Simple answers are great because they are more likely to be correct. This one even contains a slight joke, which is good because it can help to calm your nerves during the first part of the test. It also shows some effective communication to the examiner.

In part three, you may be asked something more complicated, like this:

What do you think we can learn by studying events of the past?

To this, we might say something like this:

I think that it is really important to learn about the past because we can use that to avoid future mistakes. For example, World War II was such a devastating event that people have tried to avoid anything similar for the past seventy-five years. It is only by remembering those horrific moments that we can make the difficult decisions necessary to avoid repeating them. As soon as people forget the past, they blindly start to follow the same roads that people took and history will repeat itself.

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This answer is a lot more complicated but still relatively basic. I strongly suggest that you don’t over-complicate your approach to this part of the test or else you may struggle to offer a coherent answer. Instead, follow this three-step approach:

  1. Answer the question directly.
  2. Give an example
  3. Explain
  4. Summarise

Actually, #2 and #3 can put be put in either order.

IELTS Cue Card: Describe a Historical Period

For part two of the IELTS speaking test, you will be given a cue card with instructions on it, as well as 1 minute to think and 2 minutes to speak. The cue card will tell you to describe something and then there will be some guides for what you should say.

Today’s cue card is about describing a historical period and there are two main variations on it:

Describe a historical period you are interested in

The first cue card is about a time that interested you:

Describe a historical period that you are interested in

You should say:

– what the historical period is

– how you know it

– what happened during that period

and say why you find it interesting

Describe a historical period you want to know more about

Our second cue card is basically the same fundamental idea, but without the word “interested.”

Talk about a historical period/time you want to know more about

You should say:

– what the period is

– when it happened

– who or what was involved in it

and explain why you want to know more.

**Note that these cue cards are different from another, similar one: Describe a Historic Place. Clearly, you should focus on that last word: place vs period.

Planning your Answer

The first thing that you need to do is think of a historical period that you want to talk about or feel comfortable talking about. You need to ensure that it fits with the cue card perfectly. For example, maybe you think of ancient Egypt. Is it interesting to you? Do you want to learn more about it? If so, then this is an appropriate period to talk about. If not, you should choose something else.

For me, an interesting historical period is the 1800s. (We will return to talk about naming periods of time later.) I want to learn more about this and I find it interesting, so I could use this period for either version of the question.

Once you have decided this, you should make a few notes to help you remember. Of course, in just 1 minute you will not have much time to write and so you should just note down a few words.

Useful Language

Ok, so how do you talk about historical periods? Let’s look at some useful language in a few different ways.

Historic vs Historical

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One thing that is a little confusing to some people (including native speakers!) is the difference between historic and historical. To put it simply:

The word “historic” means something very important in history. The word “historical” means something from history (but not necessarily important).

Perhaps you noticed that my earlier post was called “Describe a Historic Place.” This means that the place had to be really important, so we could not just talk about some random village in the 1600s. A historical period, however, could be something monumentally important or something trivial.

A Historical Period vs An Historical Period

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Next, should we say “a” or “an” before “historical period”? The answer depends on where you come from. In the UK, many people say “an historical period” but in the US most people say “a historical period.”

So what is the difference?

You should be aware that we use “an” before a vowel sound. Some consonants make vowel sounds, such as y and h. However, the difference is regional. An English person might say “’istorical” without pronouncing the h sound but an American would almost never do that.

To conclude, both are possible and correct but may sound wrong to some people.

Talking about Periods from History

Certain periods from history are given a name and we often put “the” in front of it to show that it is known to the writer/speaker and reader/listener. For example:

  • The Renaissance
  • The Dark Ages
  • The Ice Age
  • The Ming Dynasty
  • The Shogunate
  • The Victorian Era
  • The Colonial Period

There are many of these and you certainly don’t need to know them all, but it is useful to learn the ones that are interesting to you.

We can also talk about time by referring to the years, and we do that for periods of time usually in recent history:

  • The sixties
  • The eighties

It is also possible to expand this to full centuries:

  • The 1900s (the nineteen hundreds)
  • The 1500s (the fifteen hundreds)

When we do this, there is also another way:

  • 1900s = the twentieth century
  • 1500s = the sixteenth century

This might seem strange, but when you think back then it starts to make sense:

  • 0-99 = the first century
  • 100-199 = the second century
  • 1000-1099 = the eleventh century
  • 2000-2099 = the twenty-first century

It is a little confusing but you can get the idea. Also, you really don’t need this in daily English and so it is not something you need to remember except for the most useful ones. For example, when I am writing sample answers for my IELTS writing correction services, I often say things like, “Since the beginning of the twentieth century…” or “In the twenty-first century…” However, I have never had a cause to use “the seventh century” or anything like that.

Sample Answer

Let’s work with the cue card that asks you to describe a historical period that you are interested in.

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I am really interested in the 1800s and specifically I find the history of Asia really fascinating from this time. I have read a little of Japanese, Chinese, and Korean history and I also know some things about the European colonial powers and their territories in Asia.

This period went on throughout most of the 1800s and it encompasses many places and events, but I suppose what really fascinates me in particular are places like Southeast Asia, which were taken over by the French. I really want to know about how this happened and what people thought about it, as well as how these cultures fused together or clashed.

I have been interested in this since I first visited Southeast Asia about fifteen years ago. I found that the place was really captivating and I naturally began to wonder about its past. When I was young, I learned a lot about my own country’s history, as well as neighbouring nations, and so I wanted to know what people thought about or how they acted in this part of the world long ago.

I also really wanted to learn about the environment there because now it has been totally changed by globalisation. The jungles have been cut down, the animals have been killed, and the landscape has been permanently altered. Given how much natural beauty still exists, I could only wonder what it was like prior to the events of the past two hundred years, which have brough industrial and information era technologies.

Overall, I know little about this period in this part of the world and so I would love to learn more. I feel that it would be a rewarding experience and help me better understand a part of the world that is dear to my heart.

Others Parts of the IELTS Exam

As I have mentioned already, the topic of history could appear in almost any part of the IELTS test. It is common to see it arise in the reading exam, such as this passage about the history of pasta. Yes, it is a strange topic but it is quite normal to see a reading exercise called “The History of ____.”

History could come up in the listening test, but it is more likely in the final parts. You would not need to know much, though. Mostly, you would be doing more general listening work and you would not need a great vocabulary for it.

That brings us to the IELTS writing test…

IELTS Writing Task 2: History Question

Here is a question from the IELTS writing test:

Some people say history is one of the most important school subjects. Other people think that, in today’s world, subjects like science and technology are more important than history.

Discuss both of these views and give your own opinion.

Sample Answer

For as long as there have been schools, people have debated what should be taught in them. Nowadays, with economic troubles creating additional pressure for people, there is a call for school curriculums to include more practical subjects and less of the arts and humanities. This essay will look at both sides of the argument and conclude that subjects like history should continue to be taught.

In the modern era, people often clamour for changes to school curriculums and the range of subjects is continuously changing according to social demands. People now ask that their children are taught practical subjects that can help them in their lives, and this is a very reasonable request. In the twenty-first century, science and technology are booming fields and so these areas are important for young people to study in order that they may one day contribute and get a good job.

However, to include these subjects at the expense of traditional ones like history is misguided. History is important for a number of reasons. Perhaps one of the most overlooked aspects of studying history is that it teaches critical thinking that many people simply do not learn elsewhere in life. It is clear that people who have studied history are able to discern what is and isn’t true far more easily than others. By critically assessing historical sources, they may seem to be learning an arcane skill, but in fact they are learning something that is important in life. Particularly in an era of social media and “fake news,” being able to pick apart truth and lies is increasingly important.

In conclusion, history may seem less important than more practical subjects, but the underlying skills taught in this subject are very useful for people in the modern world.