Cracking the IELTS

Too many uhs in your speaking? Try these simple tips to improve your IETLS score.

This is part of our ongoing “Cracking the IELTS” series we will bring you to help improve your IELTS score. Last article, we discussed ways to structure your answer so it sounds clearer and more natural. Today we will be continuing with how to improve your speaking through different speech patterns and phrases. This will mostly focus on Section 2 of the speaking section, but can be applied to any other section as well as well as how to sound more naturally outside of the IELTS test.

Decreasing your “uhs” when speaking is an important part of sounding like a native speaker – as well as important for your speaking score. The number of times you say “uh” will be counted and could hurt your score.

Use less uhs, use more discourse markers.

What is a discourse marker? A discourse market is a word or phrases that help to connect, organize, and manage what we say or write or to express attitude. There are quite a few of them, so here is a little list:


I would recommend using 2-3 words from each category for speaking. Similar to the uhs, your test evaluate will count how many times a word is repeated. The more times a word is repeated, the more likely your score will be hurt. The aim of this test is to test proficiency and how natural you sound. Part of sounding natural is having a wide range of words and phrases that you can use and employ when speaking, which means not using the same “so” again and again to connect ideas together.

What else can you do? How about elongate the sounds of the answer?

Elongate the sounds? What does that mean? Well, rather than finishing a word, adding a pause with an “uh,” and continuing your though, how about having no “uhs” at all and make the original word sound longer, thereby elongating the sound. This can be quite hard to understand, so I have an example recorded below. Let’s look:

Yes. One of the most important things I have is my piano because I like playing the piano. I got it from my parents on my twelve birthday, so I’ve had it for about nine years (?), and the reason why it is so important for me is that I can go into another world when I’m playing piano. I can forget what’s around me and I can forget my problems and this is sometimes quite good for – a few minutes. Or I can play to relax or just, uh, yes to … to relax and to think of something completely different.

As shown above, there was only one time where i used the word “uh” while speaking. One or two “uhs” are always fine. However, I also made certain words longer (as you can see underlined). Rather than saying “is, uh, my, uh” piano, I make those sounds (particularly the “i” in “is” and the “y” in “my”) longer, leading to something that sounds more natural.

Let’s check the tapes: Bad verses Good examples.

So let’s see this all in practice. Below are some recordings that I have labeled “the good, the bad, and the ugly” which we will examine and see how you can use these tips in action. So, first let’s look at our example question:

Describe a game or sport you enjoy playing.

You should say:

    • What kind of sport it is
    • Who you play it with
    • Where you play it
    • and explain why you enjoy playing it

It should be noted that below are sample answers I have given. For sake of focusing just on today’s tips these are short examples and do not span the full 2 minutes that are required for the IELTS.

The Good:

There aren’t many people like me, but I am a big fan of watching swimming. Most people when they watch the Olympic Games, for example, like to see the swimming events and are sometimes bored by how slow it is. But for me, however, I really enjoy watching it and doing it all year. You don’t really play with anyone when you swim, but you might be on a team and swim with a few other people like in a relay or something like that. I just really enjoy the thrill of watching the race, and seeing someone come up from behind. Also, I have swam competitively for a while now, so I know what to look for and what not to look for so that adds to the enjoyment of swimming


There’s a wide range of discourse markers in here, from but to also. There’s also quite a bit more I can say on the topic; I could talk about why I enjoy playing it and giving examples and details about it. Also, I am able to cut out my uhs quite a bit for adding more emphasis to certain words and elongating words like “but,” and “for example”. It comes off as more natural, which is the aim of the IELTS. Also, and this is very important, I don’t sound nervous or stressed. This is a minor thing that really helps. Sounding like you really want to talk about something versus sounding like you don’t want to be there will help you sound more natural, and therefore improve your overall score.

The Bad:

There aren’t many people like me,  but I am a big fan of watching swimming. Uh…Most people when they watch the Olympic Games, sometimes they don’t look at the games,  but I like to see – watch, watch? – the swimming events uh and are sometimes bored by how slow it is. But for me… I really enjoy watching it and doing it all year. You don’t really play with anyone when you swim. You might be on a team and swim with a few other people like in a relay or something like that… I like swimming and I think it’s fun.


There’s not many discourse markers in here, and we are really using only but and overusing on “uhs”. Near the end, I start to run out of steam and sound like I have nothing more to say. I have a lot of long pauses as well. While that can be fine if you need to catch your breath, it can come off as not being entirely sure how to best answer the question. I sound very nervous and I am trying to rush through everything, leading me to stumble in the middle and trying to decide if I want to use “see” or “watch” in the sentence. Also, because I am rushing the middle chunk is a bit confusing; am I bored because swimming is slow or am I excited? It’s a bit hard to tell. All of this can lead to potential issues for your score.

Lastly, one of the best things to do is to practice by yourself and record yourself speaking. I know that is difficult, or even worse potentially embarrassing. But it is a great way to see where your mistakes are, and where you need the most help.


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