The official IELTS by IDP app is here! Download it today.


Sometimes during the IELTS Speaking test, you may be unsure of what the examiner has asked you.  This can be because you didn’t hear the question clearly, you lost concentration for a moment, or perhaps there is a word the examiner used that you didn’t understand.  In cases like this, what should you do?  Here is a brief article to provide some suggestions for you. 

Some people may panic when they don’t understand the question and they try to guess what the examiner asks them.  They think that they might lose marks if they don’t understand the question.  Do you think this is true?  In fact, it is not.  You do not lose marks if you need the examiner to repeat the question. 

But what is an appropriate way to do this?  Let’s look at some examples: 

Examiner: What was your favourite pastime when you were younger? 

Speaker 1: What? 

Speaker 2: Pardon? 

Speaker 3: I’m sorry, could you please repeat the question? 

All three responses will prompt the examiner to repeat the question, although the second and third speaker come across as being more polite.  The third speaker uses more language (which is also part of your assessment and rated). 

However, sometimes you may not understand the question because one of the words is unknown or unclear. Look at the scenarios below and let’s say the word ‘pastime’ is unfamiliar to you. 


Scenario A 

Examiner: What was your favourite pastime when you were younger? 

Speaker 1: I’m sorry, could you please repeat the question? 

Examiner: What was your favourite pastime when you were younger? 

Scenario B 

Examiner: What was your favourite pastime when you were younger? 

Speaker 2: What do you mean by ‘pastime’? 

Examiner: A hobby. 

Speaker 2: Oh, I see.  Well, when I was a kid, I was really into … 

From these examples, you can see that Speaker 1 might have trouble answering the question because the meaning has not been cleared up for him/her.  Speaker 2 on the other hand, specifically targeted what he/she didn’t know, which made the question much clearer. Doing something like this can help you to avoid providing an answer that is off-topic. 

Sometimes, you have a good idea of what is being asked, but it is still okay if you need to clarify what the examiner is saying. 

Examiner: What is the best thing about your home? 

Speaker 1: Do you mean where I’m living now or the home back in my country? 

Examiner: Your home now. 

Speaker 1: Okay.  In that case, what I like most is … 

There might be other times when you have started answering the question, but you might have a feeling that you haven’t answered the question.  It is okay to confirm the question with the examiner again. 

Examiner: What are the advantages of free public transport? 

Speaker 1: I guess the main one is that it can remove a lot of traffic congestion from the roads because there would be a financial incentive for people.  I mean, large cities in particular have a lot of pollution and one of the main culprits is the motor vehicle.  So, with fewer cars on the road, the air quality would surely improve … Sorry, what were you asking about public transport? 

Examiner: The advantages if it is free. 

Speaker 1: Ah yes, so the obvious benefit here is an indirect one - free public transport leads to better health outcomes, I think. 

There may be other times when it is not a particular word that you understand, but the whole question.  When this happens, don’t be afraid to ask the examiner for clarification.  Here are some useful expressions you can try: 

Examiner: How do the purposes of language acquisition these days differ to what was the main function in the past?  

Speaker 1: I’m sorry, I don’t quite follow. 

Speaker 2: I’m not sure what you mean, I’m sorry. 

Speaker 3: Sorry, I didn’t quite catch the main point of the question. 

Examiner: What is the reason for learning a language these days compared to the past? 

As you can see, the examiner has simplified the question for each of the three speakers. Examiners can rephrase the question in Part 3, but in Part 1, they will only repeat the same question again (but try to enunciate more clearly or slowly).