Thinking on your feet

When you are having a conversation, you don’t always know the answers to questions and sometimes, you might not know what to say next. In lots of conversations, you will have to pause for a moment to collect your thoughts and plan your next words. This is perfectly normal and natural in your own language but it can cause IELTS candidates to panic. They think they are in danger of getting a lower IELTS band score for their speaking exam because they don’t answer all questions immediately.

If you don’t answer a question immediately when you are chatting in your own language, your friend doesn’t think that you are terrible at your own language. They don’t point at you and tell you that you have failed. Most people understand that time is needed to think about answers sometimes.

The most important thing to remember is that when the examiner asks you a question, you must not sit there in silence while you try to work out what to say. Nothing screams “this person does not understand” more than silence. That silence is made worse by a lack of any kind of reaction from the candidate.

When asking English language students questions, a silence may be followed by a perfectly good answer but it is often the silence that is remembered. I hear the silence and form an impression. I think that the student doesn’t understand my question and I might be more critical of the answer that follows.

React react react

One piece of advice that my students always thank me for is this : when asked a question, react. Don’t just sit there. Don’t switch off. Don’t panic. React!

The first reaction is non-verbal. You don’t need to say anything at all. It’s amazing what effect a smile can have. Look the examiner in the eyes and smile. Your smile tells the examiner that you have understood the question and you feel confident about answering it. Don’t take this too far though : a smile is just your first reaction. The good that it does is undone if you sit there smiling and say nothing! Smile and then speak.

What do I say? I need time to think about my answer.

That’s true. You need time to think about your answer but you can’t sit there in silence, smiling like a fool. You need to say something. It’s amazing how fast the brain works behind the scenes so giving yourself a moment to think can really help. But you can’t sit there in silence.

What do I say?

Add a thoughtful “hmmmmmm” to your smile. This sound shows instantly that you have listened and you are thinking about your answer. Don’t make this sound too long. You just want to show that you are alert and thinking. Remember! You are buying time to think. You haven’t bought much time with your smile and your thoughtful “hmmmmmm” but you have bought a second and the mind works quickly. Now you need to add a sentence to give yourself more time. There are a variety of things you can say, depending on what you have been asked.

1 Hmmmmmm. Let me think about that for a moment. The moment that you need is provided by the time it takes to say this sentence.


2 Hmmmmmm. What an interesting question. I’ve never thought about that before. Don’t say this in response to the question “where are you from?” That would be inappropriate.

[audio:|titles=interesting question]

3 Hmmmmmm. I don’t think there’s a simple answer to that question. If the examiner asks for your name, don’t say this! Use this sentence if you think that your answer might be more complex.

[audio:|titles=no simple answer]

Keep in mind that the point of saying these sentences is to give yourself time to think. If you have practised them enough, they should be easy to say and sound natural. The examiner will feel that you have understood the question and you will have a few seconds to plan what you are going to say.


Long silences will make you feel uncomfortable and the examiner may think that you don’t understand. Always smile at the examiner and respond to the question asked. Say something while you are thinking of how to answer the question. Try not to use the same phrase after every question! Overuse of a phrase or an expression is not good : read this

It’s also important to give full answers to questions. Read this post for more information.

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