1) A question is a general prompt; it is your job to “develop the topic”
I’m certainly not the first person to say this, but this is undoubtedly the single biggest issue for many IELTS candidates, especially in Part 1. In non-test life, when someone asks you a simple yes/no question such as Do you live alone or with other people? it’s perfectly fine to just say By myself.
An IELTS response that will put you on track for a high score, however, is something along the lines of I live in a house with a couple of other people right now, but I’m actually planning to move into a studio in a couple of months. I get along with everyone pretty well, but to be totally honest, I’m the sort of person who does better alone, so I’m really looking forward to having my own space.
It’s ok to speak until the examiner cuts you off. You only get points taken off for talking too little, not for talking too much. If you are not naturally talkative, you will need to practice pushing yourself to keep giving more information than what certain questions seem to call for. Although this may seem deceptive on the IELTS’ part, it’s actually right there in the Band Descriptors: high-scoring responses are “fully” developed—by definition, that involves giving a lot of information.
2) Just keep going, even if you make a mistake
One thing you want to avoid at all cost (no matter what) is the tendency to continually go back and correct yourself. Doing so will seriously impede your fluency and bring your score in that area down very quickly. If you realize you said something incorrectly, just make sure you say it right in the next sentence. Your final mark is based on the examiner’s overall impression, so if you do very well otherwise, especially in Parts 2 and 3, a couple of slips won’t have much of an impact.
3) Use everyday speech; do not try to sound overly formal
Remember that native speakers automatically use contractions such I’m and it’s in speech unless they deliberately want to emphasize a particular word (e.g., I would really like to do that, but it’s just not realistic right now), and that they do not use academic language such as therefore and hence in regular conversation. Your spoken English should not sound like your Task 2 essay.
Yes, the Band Descriptors mention “less common” vocabulary*, but this means topic-specific terms such as UNESCO World Heritage Site in a response about travel. It does not mean saying plethora instead of a lot.
If you are a native speaker of a Romance language (Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian), practice using phrasal verbs instead of automatically reaching for single-word equivalents (cognates), which may sound overly formal in English.
Also: I’ve read a number of model answers to Speaking questions that give the false impression that responses should sound like highly structured, practiced speeches. This is not realistic—not even in Part 2, really—and it creates unnecessary pressure about what is expected. Notably, there is no “Cohesion” Band criterion for Speaking. The exam is set up so that the exact questions will be random and unpredictable, and so that you will have to speak spontaneously. Your answers should obviously be focused and make sense within reason, but the examiner will not expect you to sound like you are giving a polished presentation (and in fact will probably be suspicious if you do sound that way).
While you can certainly familiarize yourself with common question categories, you cannot memorize every possible answer, and you will only make yourself crazy trying to do so. Just focus on getting comfortable speaking and learning essential vocabulary related to topics you don’t know a lot about.
*Note that vocabulary is treated as singular/uncountable; you can say vocabulary or vocabulary words, but not vocabularies.
4) Don’t sound too casual either
You should absolutely use normal casual language such as hang out with my friends or hit the gym after work, and if you connect your words in a natural way, you’ll automatically end up using constructions like gonna and wanna, but avoid slang terms (note that anglophones do not use the plural *slangs*) such as dude or bro.
And this should go without saying, but absolutely no swear words.
Imagine you’re interviewing for a job at a company known for its relaxed culture. You don’t have to be overly serious, but still, it’s a professional situation, and there are limits.
5) Try not to repeat yourself
By definition, “developing the topic” means that you keep saying new things about it; if you keep repeating the same idea, even if you use different words, you will lose points in Fluency and Coherence.
This is most frequently an issue in Part 2: it is not uncommon for candidates get stuck relatively early on in their “speech” and end up just reiterating the same points over and over again. Remember, though, that the instructions on the cue card telling you what to cover are there to help: if you make sure to discuss each one, you’ll automatically provide a developed answer and use up the required time much more easily.
6) Don’t overuse idioms
You are assessed in part on whether your language is idiomatic, which means whether it is consistent with how English is actually spoken; this does not mean that you need to include lots of clichés such as not my cup of tea or over the moon (which in any case, English speakers don’t actually use that often).
If you happen to know some idioms well and are accustomed to using them in daily life, AND they are relevant to the particular response you are giving, then of course you should use them. However, if you bend over backwards trying to find ways to fit them into your answers, your language will end up sounding very unnatural.
To sound more idiomatic, focus on learning common phrasal verbs and collocations (words typically used together), which are a central part of everyday English. Your examiner is primarily concerned with whether your language sounds authentic, not whether you are using a particular type of expression.
7) Worry about your pronunciation, not your accent
These are actually not the same thing. Pronunciation makes up 25% of the Speaking score; “accent” is not part of the Band criteria at all. (And no, trying to do a British accent will not get you extra points!) What really matters is how easily you can be understood.
Saying individual words correctly is of course important, but there are two additional components that are less commonly discussed: intonation and connected speech.
Intonation refers to which syllables are stressed within a word, and which words are stressed within a sentence. For example, the second syllable is emphasized in the word com-PU-ter; you cannot say COM-pu-teror com-pu-TER. When syllables are not stressed, they are said slightly faster and more softly, and vowels are generally neutralized to a schwa (“uh”) sound. As a result, computer is actually pronounced more like kum-PU-ter because the first syllable, which contains a short “o” vowel, is unaccented.
Important words are also given more emphasis within a sentence, whereas less important words/phrases between them are said slightly more quickly and softly. For example, in the sentence It is necessary to pay attention to your pronunciation, the words necessary, attention, and pronunciation carry the most meaning and would all be stressed.
If you are not a naturally expressive person, you should not worry about being penalized for lack of enthusiasm; however, you should make an effort not to sound robotic either.
Connected speech or elision refers to the fact that in English, the end of one word typically blends into the beginning of the next so that there are no clear divisions between them. Learning to speak this way is a key part of becoming more fluent.
If you haven’t spent a lot of time in class developing these features and aren’t a natural at speaking, you will probably have to get out of your comfort zone to develop theses skills. In order to improve, you will have to make real changes to the way you talk. Try watching an English-language film (without subtitles), choose a scene, pause the video after each line, and practice imitating the actors. Pay close attention to where their voices rise and fall, which words they emphasize, etc.
For more information about fluency and rhythm in English, Baruch College of the City University of New York has an outstanding site devoted to these issues: https://tfcs.baruch.cuny.edu/focused-skills-series/