Teaching the IELTS Speaking Test: Play Taboo for Developing Candidates’ Lexical Resource and Skill in Paraphrasing

Teaching IELTS Speaking Exam games

In the UAE, colleges and universities generally require an IELTS band score of 5.0 or 5.5 for admission, and a large majority of IELTS candidates in the country are taking the test for this purpose. There are many resources online that can help your candidates achieve their target band scores. One such resource is the public version of the IELTS speaking rubric, which gives an idea of some of the criteria and descriptors used to establish band scores. With this awareness you can develop lessons and activities closely calibrated to your candidates’ target band.

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Preparing Students for the IELTS Speaking Exam

One criteria on the speaking rubric is a candidate’s lexical resource (i.e. vocabulary).At band 4.0 a candidate is “able to talk about familiar topics but can only convey basic meaning on unfamiliar topics and makes frequent errors in word choice” and he or she “rarely attempts to paraphrase”. While paraphrasing generally means using different words to express an idea, in the IELTS speaking exam it is a candidate’s ability to effectively “talk around” gaps in their lexical resource. At band 4.0, a candidate may suddenly pause as they struggle to recall a particular word. At band 5.0, however, a candidate “attempts to use paraphrase but with mixed success”. Your goal then is not only bulk up your candidates’ vocabulary but also develop their ability to paraphrase when they suddenly forget a word.

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Vocabulary Games for the IELTS Exam

One game I like to use that allows candidates to practice target vocabulary and develop their ability to paraphrase under pressure at the same time is called TABOO! In a nutshell, the object of the game is to get your team to guess a word by describing it using different words—the textbook definition of paraphrasing, right? The catch is that certain words are taboo. These are words with a close semantic relationship with the target word and would thus be easy giveaways. For this reason, you cannot use them. Here’s how to play:

Step 1: Create your set of TABOO cards. Each card presents a target word, usually in bold at the top, and between 2 to 4 taboo words. Create the set yourself or have your candidates develop their own and then choose the best.

Step 2: Break the class into two teams. The team that goes first sends someone up to the front of the class.

Step 3: Give that candidate one of the TABOO cards and set a time limit of a minute or a minute and a half. I often use an online countdown timer projected upon our whiteboard.

Step 4: The candidate describes the target word on the TABOO card, being careful not to use any of the taboo words. His or her teammates then must guess the word. Only spoken English can be used—no writing, no L1, and no body language. If someone guesses the word correctly, then that team gets a point.

Step 6: While the one team is trying to guess, the other team must sit quietly until time’s up. If time runs out and the first team does not guess the word correctly, then the other team has a chance to guess and gain a point for themselves. Of course, the team with the most points wins!

Not only have your candidates practiced the target words; they have also practiced thinking on their feet and coming up with other words to express the meaning of the target vocabulary. The hope is that if they forget a word in their speaking exam, they will be able to more deftly and smoothly talk around that missing lexical item.

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