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Conversation rules for IELTS speaking

In 1975, the philosopher Paul Grice proposed four conversational maxims or rules. These are important in everyday speech, business meetings, presentations and, of course, IELTS interviews.

Grice’s maxims are:

  1. The maxim of quantity.
    This means that you should give as much information as is needed – no more, and no less. In the IELTS speaking, this means that you should give detailed answers. Don’t wait for the examiner to ask ‘why?’ in parts 1 and 3. But don’t overdo it. Don’t turn each answer into a  2 minute presentation. There is a danger in part 2 that you will break this rule. Sometimes, when candidates can’t think of enough to say, they start repeating themselves or saying the same thing using slightly different words. Use the planning time carefully to avoid this.
  2. The maxim of quality.
    This maxim tells us that we should try to be truthful. Now, in the IELTS, the examiner won’t know if you’re not telling the truth, but it’s a good idea. If you’re sharing something that you really do, or that really happened to you, you will be able to give more detail about it. There is another part to the maxim of quality and that is that you should be able to support your points with evidence. In part 3, where you are having a discussion with the examiner, give reasons and examples to support the points that you are making.
  3. The maxim of relation.
    According to this maxim, you should always try and be relevant and say things which fit with the topic that is being discussed. The connection with the IELTS is very clear here. Make sure you answer what the examiner asks you rather than what you think he/she asked you, what you prepared for, or the question the examiner asked your friend in his/her interview. If you don’t understand the question, ask the examiner to repeat it, or ask what a particular word means. Again, there is a risk in part 2 that you may start talking about things which are irrelevant because you’ve run out of things to say. Don’t forget to use your planning time wisely.
  4. The maxim of manner.
    You should speak as clearly as possible. This relates to more than just pronunciation. The grammar you use should be accurate and clear. Your vocabulary should be appropriate in terms of meaning and register. That means that you shouldn’t use words that belong to very formal written English. Your speech should be coherent and cohesive, especially in part 2 and the connection between your ideas should be explicit (e.g. is it clear why you are giving a particular example; have you clearly indicated the order in which events have happened.

Here is a rather strange cartoon from ‘Dinosaur Comics‘ which can help remind you of the importance of Grice’s maxims. (The stranger something is, often the better it sticks in our minds.)



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