What to do when you don’t understand a question

The IELTS speaking exam can be difficult. One of the biggest problems is not understanding the examiner. So what do you do when you encounter a difficult question? In today’s lesson, I’ll show you how to deal with this problem without losing marks.

This is the video lesson:

What should you do when you don’t understand a question in IELTS speaking?

First of all, try not to panic when the examiner asks you a question and you don’t understand it. This is not a big deal, and it will not cause you to get a lower score. It happens to native speakers all the time. My friend might say, “Hey, what d’you wanna do this weekend?” and I might be distracted and not hear him. So I would reply:

“Sorry, what did you say?”

He would simply repeat himself. It is not a big problem in conversation, so don’t worry if you need to ask the examiner to say something again.

However, it is important that you make this request in a polite and grammatically correct way. Look at the following and think about what is wrong:

“Say it again.”

This sounds a little threatening! In fact, speaking like this is quite rude, and you should always be polite to the examiner.

How about this?

“Can you speak that again?”

In this case, we have used the wrong verb. You should say:

“Can you say that again?”

And, in fact, in English, we try to be as polite as possible. You should add a “please” at the end:

“Can you say that again, please?”

Remember that you can impress the examiner with your English skills even when you didn’t understand the question, so perhaps you could elaborate further:

“I’m sorry, but I didn’t understand the question. Can you say that again, please?”

“I’m sorry, but I didn’t quite hear you. Can you say that again, please?”

By doing this, you have turned a potential problem into an advantage!

What about just one difficult word?

Next, there is sometimes just one word in a sentence that stops us from understanding. It’s ok to ask for the question to be rephrased or for a word to be explained. Again, native speakers even do this sometimes. If my brother is talking to me about his work at a bank, I might not know some banking terminology. That’s ok. I would just ask him to explain.

If an examiner asks you this question,

“What genre of music do you listen to?”

Then you might not understand the word “genre.” Therefore, you should ask the examiner to explain or rephrase. You could say:

“I’m sorry, but I don’t know the meaning of the word ‘genre’. Could you explain it, please?”

You could also say:

“I’m afraid I don’t quite understand you. Could you please rephrase the question?”

These are both very polite ways of telling the examiner that you don’t understand something. They also use appropriate language, and ultimately, the IELTS speaking exam is about giving the candidate the chance to display their English abilities.

Ultimately, there are many ways to ask the examiner to repeat or explain a question. Just avoid panicking, and don’t speak in any other language but English! These mistakes will cost you, but politely saying the examiner to say something again will set you up for a great speaking score.

Author: David S. Wills

David S. Wills is the author of Scientologist! William S. Burroughs and the 'Weird Cult' and the founder/editor of Beatdom literary journal. He lives and works in rural China, and loves to travel. He has worked as an IELTS tutor since 2010, has completed both TEFL and CELTA courses, and has a certificate from Cambridge for Teaching Writing. In 2018, he wrote the popular IELTS handbook, Grammar for IELTS Writing. His other IELTS website is called IELTS Teaching.

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