Type 1: Basic Description Questions [IELTS speaking test – Part 1]

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Question Type 1: Basic Description

In IELTS speaking test Part One, you may be asked this example question: “Tell me about your hometown.”

This seems like a simple question. Candidates must remember that the examiner is NOT asking this question because he or she wants to know something about your hometown.

Remember: The examiner is not interested in you, your life or anything you say. The examiner is doing a job. The job is to award a score for your spoken English in relation to the marking system.

So again we can see that content becomes irrelevant. The examiner is actually asking the following question: “Show me your ability to describe something (a place) and give me some town or city vocabulary.”

Look at the example answer:

“I come from Nhatrang. I am native of this city. Nhatrang is a coastal city in Vietnam. In Nhatrang there are many beautiful landscapes. Nem is very famous – I always eat it with my friends.”

The problem with this response is that it “answers” the question but it doesn’t offer the examiner any evidence of your ability to describe something. A description needs to offer detailed and precise information and the points need to be developed in some way.

If we consider the marking system we can also add that the answer does not contain any features of native-speaker style spoken English.

  • The answer is short / direct.
  • It does not contain any linking words or phrases.
  • It does not contain any redundant language.
  • There are no examples of uncommon vocabulary.
  • There is no idiomatic language.
  • The grammar is correct but it is very basic grammar.
  • There are no complex sentence structures.
  • The tense use is limited.

This answer is therefore typical of a lower score (4-5).

Now consider the following answer:

Well as you can probably guess I come from Nhatrang and I have lived here all my life, although at the moment I’m studying in HCMC. I suppose if I had to describe Nhatrang, the first thing I would say is that it’s absolutely beautiful with the features of a coastal city. It’s not so big in fact, though the people there are very friendly. Another significant characteristic is that it offers examples of both classical and contemporary architecture…

This response is much better in quality than the first answer for the following reasons:

  • It is long but doesn’t move away from the topic / question.
  • It contains redundant language.
  • It contains linking phrases.
  • It contains one idiom.
  • It contains some uncommon vocabulary.
  • The vocabulary is topic-specific.
  • It contains examples of complex sentence structures.
  • It contains a mix of tenses.
  • The grammar is correct (even in the longer structures).

Because this answer meets many of the marking system descriptions required to achieve a higher score it would be typical of a score of 7+.

Activity

In the answer above find examples of the following:

  • Redundant language
  • Uncommon vocabulary
  • Linking words
  • Idiomatic vocabulary
  • Linking phrases
  • Different tenses (how many are used?)

Description Structures

When responding to description questions, you need to begin with a lead-in phrase. (This is an example of a linking device I redundant language). Possible lead-in phrases include the following:

  • OK then…
  • Right, ok…
  • Alright…
  • Well…
  • Well, you know…
  • Well first of all…
  • Actually…

We can add a “pointing phrase” next, to signal to the listener that the first point is coming. (This is another example of a linking device / redundant language.)

  • …the first thing I should mention is that…
  • …the point I’d like to begin with is that…
  • …I could start off by saying that…
  • …my initial point would be that…
  • …I need to start off by pointing out that…
  • …the main thing you need to know is that…
  • …I suppose I should begin by highlighting the fact that…
  • …you may (or may not) be aware that in fact…
  • …I really need to kick of with the point that…

Most of the above contain interchangeable words. Now you are ready to describe your first point.

Activity

Example question: “Tell me about your studies or job.”

Choose a lead-in and pointing phrase. Introduce your first point and use a structure with “that”. Add a linking word to introduce a detail about your first point. Now we can look at the full structure.

  1. Lead-in phrase
  2. 1st pointing phrase
  3. Point I
  4. Linking word / phrase + detail about point I
  5. 2nd pointing phrase
  6. Point 2
  7. Linking word / phrase + detail about point 2
  8. 3rd pointing phrase
  9. Point 3
  10. Linking word / phrase + detail about point 3

Examples of 2nd pointing phrases:

  • Another point which I could add is that…
  • A second feature which I should mention is that…
  • As well as that, I could say that…
  • On top of that I can also add that…
  • Also, I suppose I should say that…

Examples of 3rd pointing phrases:

  • And I shouldn’t forget to mention that…
  • In addition to what I’ve just said, I can add that…
  • Something else that I need to comment on is that…
  • I guess I could also remark on the fact that…

So a complete response might look something like this:

“Well first of all, the main thing you need to know is that… (point I) … In fact … (detail I)… On top of that I can also add that… (point 2) … which means… (detail 2) … Something else that I need to comment on is that… (point 3)…So actually (detail 3)…

Activity

Practice saying the full sample structure with your own points and details for the following questions:

  • Tell me about the house / flat you live in.
  • Tell me about your city
  • Describe your hometown.
  • What is your main ambition?
  • Tell me about your job.
  • What makes you happy
  • Tell me about your family.

Now write out your own full describing structure using the example phrases. Now practice using your structure for the questions above.