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Speaking Part 2: Follow the Bullet-Points or Past Present Future (PPF)?

In this post I will discuss two of the most common ways of using the 1 minute of thinking and planning time as well as structuring your IELTS Speaking Part 2 talk.

I will give you my opinion on each strategy, as well as share what other IELTS teachers have said about each of them, before finally concluding what I think the best strategies is.

So, in this post, we will do the following:

  1. 👋 Give a general introduction to the topic

  2. 🔎 Describe the 'follow the bullet points' method and the 'PPF' method

  3. ⚖️ Discuss some different opinions on these methods

  4. 💡 Share some Speaking Part 2 Pro-Tips

I think (1) is probably most useful for students who are preparing to take the exam and (2) is probably most interesting for other IELTS instructors!

In a future post, I will go into more detail about exactly how I would recommend students use the 1-minute thinking and planning time.

1. 👋 Introduction

Before we get into the details of different strategies and what I think about them, it's worth clarifying that there really isn't just 1 single best way of planning and delivering your Speaking Part 2 talk.

Experienced teachers and students often have different opinions about what works best.

However, I would recommend the following:

  • Before exam day, you should experiment with a couple of different approaches and see what works best for you, then decide on ONE, so you know exactly what to do on the day.

  • Choosing a strategy that works for you is important, but the most important things to work on are your Fluency and Coherence, Grammar, Vocabulary and Pronunciation, as ultimately those are what will be evaluated in the exam.

  • As such, the best strategy for you will be the one that helps you speak fluently while demonstrating the best of your language ability.

2. 🔎 Following the Bullet-Points vs. PPF

Two of the most common approaches to completing Speaking Part 2 are the 'follow the bullet-points' approach and the so-called 'PPF method'.

Follow the Bullet-Points

For this method, you use the bullet-points to help you think of ideas and structure your talk. You can adapt them slightly, skipping ones you don't want to talk about and adding new ideas where necessary.

Here's an example in action:

I'm going to talk about an acclaimed actor from my country, named Christian Bale.
Christian Bale is kinda prolific. He's been in all kinds of movies, ranging from action movies like Christopher Nolan's Batman Trilogy, to dark comedies like American Pyscho, to historical thrillers such as The Prestige. Honestly though, he's been in so many movies at this point, and I've only seen a few.
I don't know a huge amount about his life, and I think he's quite a private guy, but I do know that despite the fact that he plays a lot of American characters and often affects an American accent, he was actually born in Wales. Also, a few years ago I heard a rumour that he'd actually lived in my home town, and he'd even gone to the same secondary school as me, but I'm 99.9% sure that that isn't true!
I think he's really popular for a few reasons. Firstly, he's been in some really well regarded movies, and in many cases, arguably been the best, most memorable part of those movies. People absolutely love those Batman movies and I personally think his performance as Patrick Bateman in American Psycho is one of the most iconic performances of modern cinema. Secondly, when he takes on a role, he really, really commits to it ... He famously lost loads of weight to play an anorexic character in The Machinist, put on loads of muscle to play Batman, and got really fat to play another character in another movie whose name I can't remember right now, so he's someone who clearly takes his job very seriously and is ready to suffer for his art. Thirdly, I think he must be so popular in Hollywood and get to star in so many movies because not only is he a talented, hard-working actor, but he also has a natural on-screen charisma that will help sell movie tickets; that is, he's had such a successful career and been in so many great movies that now it's easy for him to get offered more and more roles.

The PPF (Past, Present, Future) Method

For this method, you have to focus on the main topic at the top of the cue card, make notes about the past, present and the future, then talk about each of these things in turn.

Here's an example in action:

I'm going to talk about an acclaimed actor from my country named Christian Bale.
I think the first time I actually saw him in a movie was American Psycho. Years before watching it, a friend of mine had told me that it actually wasn't very good, I think because he was expecting some kinda horror movie or something, but when I watched it I really enjoyed it's dark, biting satire, and obviously one of the best things about the movie was Christian Bale's performance. After watching that movie I actually read the book, which is great too, and I'll always think of him as the main character.
After seeing that movie, I then saw him in loads of other things like the Christopher Nolan's Batman Trilogy, The Prestige and the Machinist. I really enjoyed and he always delivers solid performances. I read that for some of those roles he had to really, really commit to the performance, like in The Machinist, he had to lose loads and loads of weight to play an anorexic character and to play Batman he had to put on loads of muscle.
Now that he's a bit older I don't think he stars in too many action movies nor does anything too extreme in terms of losing or gaining weight, but he stills stars in lots of movies. Although I haven't watched any new films with him for a while, I think he's still pretty prolific, and as a well-established star in Hollywood he gets offered plenty of work. This is probably because he's so hard-working and dedicated to his job, always delivering intense and charismatic performances.
I think he'll continue to be a Hollywood A-lister for a long time, and because I've enjoyed so many of his performances, in the future I'll always be open to see anything he stars in.

3. ⚖️ Opinions on these 2 Methods

When I first came across the PPF method (l think in some British Council material) I thought it was a great, adaptable strategy for helping students fill the 2-minutes speaking time in a structured, formulaic way which allowed them to show off some grammatical range.

I used this method for a couple of years, but I frequently encountered students who said they found it confusing to think of different tenses in such a forced way. Others complained that the PPF didn't always fit the cue card, as it's fairly easy to 'talk about a hotel you visited' in the past, but not necessarily the present, and it's fairly easy to 'talk about your favourite book' in the present, and maybe in the past, but not necessarily in the future. These students would often perform worse when trying to use the PPF method and better when just sticking to the bullet points.

These days I tell students to follow the bullet points, adapt where necessary, and be ready to tell a short anecdote if they 'dry up' before the 2 minutes has ended. I'll explain more about this method in a future post.

When researching what other IELTS instructors suggest, the results are mixed.

  • E2 IELTS promotes the PPF method (here and here), as does the British Council (here).

  • In 2015 IELTS Advantage was promoting something very similar to the PPF (here), but more recently he seems more critical of it and more in favour of following (and adapting) the bullet points (here).

  • MyIELTSClassroom levels some pretty valid criticisms against the PPF (here).

  • IELTS Simon is for following the bullet points (here) and against the PPF (here).

I'd recommend reading/listening to what each of these instructors have to say, because they all make good arguments.

I personally have taught plenty of students using both methods, and plenty of them have achieved a band 7+ in the speaking exam.

And what did all of these high-achieving students have in common?

Their English was very good. They decided which method worked best for them, then spoke naturally, making sure they stayed on topic and gave lots of descriptive detail to show off their English.

Interestingly, according to this piece of research (here) when assessing how students use their Speaking Part 2 preparation time "There was no evidence that ... the particular type of strategy used by learners made a significant difference to performance." While this piece of research didn't specifically compare 'follow the bullet points' vs. 'PPF', I think this highlights the fact that the best predictor of a students' performance is having good English, rather than having 'the best' strategy.

4. 💡Speaking Part 2 Pro-Tips

⭐ The main instruction on the card is ‘describe’ so you need to be descriptive.

⭐ Use your one minute planning well. Decide what you want to talk about very quickly, and only write down key words - not whole sentences.

⭐ Write down some precise adjectives to show what you think/feel about the topic.

⭐ Have a good solid first sentence prepared before you start.

⭐ Don’t speak too fast.

⭐ Remember to breathe! Pause briefly between ideas to catch your breath, and control your breathing.

⭐ Try not to make too many audible pauses (err, umm, uhh). Doing this occasionally is fine, and it's a natural part of speech, but if you do it constantly, it'll make your fluency score go down.

⭐ Speak until the examiner tells you to stop at 2 minutes.

⭐ Don’t just give a pre-prepared memorised talk - be flexible and talk about the specific topic in front of you.

⭐ If you can’t think of ideas relating to the topic, you can be honest and adapt what you want to say, or you can lie, embellish, and make things up; however, always keep your talk relevant to the topic.

⭐ Practice this part a lot to get used to the timings (1 minute preparation, 2 minutes speaking)

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