Taking a test on your English skills can be very intimidating. Even after our CISL students prepare for their IELTS, TOEFL, CAE, or FCE classes, there is always the chance that something “horrible” can happen the day of the test: the student doesn’t understand the question. Oh no! Do not worry: we have the tips to help you overcome this obstacle!

First of all, remember that you are not going to lose points in a Cambridge test if you do not understand the question, and you will also not get points removed for asking the interlocutor to repeat his or her question. Therefore, if you do not understand the question, do not be afraid to ask them to repeat it. This gives you time to process the question again.

If you still do not understand the question, then it is time to work around the problem word. There are a few way to do this:

Avoiding Silence in the Speaking Test: Helpful Hints

1. Look for key words or pictures

In a CAE or FCE test, you will have photos for two parts of the test. Use these photos to help you. If you do not know the name of an object in the pictures, simply explain the object. This will not hurt your score.

Photo source.


Question: I would like you to say why these objects might be important to the people holding them and how they might be feeling

Answer: In the first picture, a girl is holding two objects. I do not know the name of these objects, but they are the things that you receive after you win a competition; for example, after you win a race or a championship. Anyway, the object is probably important to her because she seems to have won it in some sort of competition, so she probably worked very hard to win this thing. She is probably feeling very proud of herself at the moment for this achievement. 

(You are describing a trophy or award. You didn’t waste time describing the photo: you just briefly explained the missing word, and then moved on to answer the question. Good job!)


2. First explain that you do not understand; then explain your answer

Be honest. If you do not understand, then begin by explaining to the interlocutor that you are unsure about the vocabulary. Then explain what you think it means, and proceed with your answer.


Question: What do you think is the most strenuous part of working in a factory?

(You do not know the meaning of the word “strenuous.” Oh no!)

Answer: I’m sorry, but I am not familiar with the word “strenuous.” However, I think that it might mean “stressful”; therefore, I think the most strenuous part of working in a factory would be the potential danger of hurting yourself. Many factory jobs are definitely dangerous, as many use large machines and equipment.

Notice how the student first explains what he or she does not understand. This make the answer so much clearer! (By the way, “strenuous” means “requiring or using great exertion.”)

With these tricks, you will be able to confidently answer questions in your next IELTS, CAE, or FCE exam. Good luck!


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