Best Strategies & Tips for Speaking Questions

Best Strategies & Tips for Speaking Questions
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Table of Contents

Scoring Criteria for Speaking Questions

To perform your best on any exam or test it's a good idea to know how your response will be scored. The Duolingo English Test is no different. To get the highest scores on the speaking questions take some time to think like the examiner. High-scoring responses:

  1. Have well-developed ideas

a. Are your ideas easy to follow?

  i) Are your ideas relevant? All responses should be directly related to the prompt provided. You can have the most well-worded response EVER, but if you aren't directly answering the question or responding to the prompt then you won't get the score you deserve :(

  ii) Are your ideas coherent? All ideas should be connected logically. Readers shouldn't have to pause to figure out how you got from A to B. Neither should the reader have to guess or make assumptions about how your ideas connect. Make it easy for the reader and make your logic evident from what you say, even if it sounds like you are stating the obvious!!! Connecting ideas doesn't have to be challenging or time-consuming...it can be as simple as adding a single word, for example, "the dog was hungry. The dog ate his dinner" versus "the dog was hungry SO the dog ate his dinner."

2. Lack of grammar mistakes

a) How many grammar mistakes are you making?

While it may sound a bit silly to be focusing on grammar when speaking, as opposed to writing, the examiners will certainly be looking at this during the Duolingo English Test, especially, whether you are using the correct verb tenses and prepositions.

3. Have diverse grammatical structures

a) Are you using different kinds of sentence structures?

Many people might assume that only long sentences will help them score highly on the test. While it is true that "production" is a subscore on the Duolingo English Test, native speakers tend to vary the length and structure of their responses... so should you!!! Consider including a long sentence, that is complex with connecting words, and a short, snappy response at the very least in each response. In general, varied sentence structures will make you a better writer/speaker in any language to make your speech or text less repetitive, predictable, and dull.

4. Display a diverse vocabulary

a) Are you repeating the same words?

Sometimes test takers can fall into the trap of learning a few "advanced" vocabulary words and using them repeatedly to boost their scores. While it is true that using more advanced words helps demonstrate your English proficiency, the range of words you use is just as important. One way to boost your ability to do this is to look up common words that you are likely to use in a thesaurus to uncover different words with similar meanings.

Here are some common words in the English language and some of their synonyms, for example:

  • "Say" --> propose, announce, disclose, express, mention, repeat, report, respond, reveal, suggest, state
  • "Make" --> create, build, compose, form, generate, manufacture, prepare, produce, conceive, fabricate, forge, hatch, initiate, invent, mold, synthesize
  • "People" --> folk, persons, citizens, humankind, humans, populace, individuals
  • "Look" --> gaze, glance, glimpse, peek, review, stare, view, behold, contemplate, inspect, leer, notice, observe, regard, scrutinize
  • "Great" --> amazing, awesome, excellent, fantastic, terrific, wonderful, superb, outstanding, tremendous

5. Are Well Pronounced

a) Is it easy to understand you?

While many of the tips above also apply to written responses, this one is specific to spoken ones. To "Pronounce" something well, means to say it accurately, correctly, and clearly. In turn, this means that you emphasize sentences and words in the correct place and pause when you see a comma or period.

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General Tips for Speaking Questions

Below are some tips for improving your responses on Duolingo English Test speaking questions. These tips are relevant for all types of "speaking" questions on the test.

  1. Use a good microphone – part of what examiners are grading you on is how easy it is to understand you. As such, we recommend using a laptop or computer high-quality microphone for the test to ensure that you get the score you deserve. It would be a shame to put in all this hard work only to score low because the tester can't hear what you are saying!
  2. Take the test in a quiet place – similarly to the above point, making sure that background noise is reduced is key to ensuring that the examiner can hear you properly. This is also important to allow you to better focus on the test at hand and to avoid having your test results "uncertified" due to suspected cheating (some background noise could be mistaken for having another person in the room).
  3. Don’t panic if you make a mistake – on Duolingo English Test speaking questions you can only record yourself once on each question, so if you make a mistake while answering don’t panic just continue.  Remember, even native speakers make mistakes sometimes. Just because you mispronounced a word or stumbled over a word or two doesn't mean that you can't still score very highly on the test.
  4. Speak for the entire time – examiners are partially grading you on your "Production", this means the quantity of speech you can provide. As such, you should aim to speak for the full amount of time provided. This will demonstrate that you are comfortable and proficient in English, have lots of things to talk about, and can talk about those things.  
  5. Slow down and enunciate - this means that you should always ensure that you pronounce words clearly.  A great way to do this is to pretend you are speaking to an older person: slow down and speak loudly and clearly so they can understand you. Don't be afraid to let your mouth open wide and really shape those sounds and words. A great example of clear pronunciation can be seen in the video below.

6. Match the verb tense of the prompt – your response must match the prompt in its tense. For example, a question may be worded in any of the following tenses:

a) Present 🥡

"What food DOES the restaurant serve?" ... "The restaurant SERVES chicken fried rice"

b) Past 🥡

"What food DID the restaurant serve?" ... "The restaurant SERVED chicken fried rice"

c) Future 🥡

"What food WILL the restaurant serve?"... "The restaurant WILL SERVE chicken fried rice"

🥡🥡🥡🥡🥡🥡🥡🥡  Here are Arno we hope that chicken fried rice is in all your past, present, and futures 🥡🥡🥡🥡🥡🥡🥡🥡

Strategies and Tips for "Read Aloud" Questions

Now we're going to provide some specific strategies and tips for each type of "Speaking" question on the Duolingo English Test.

"Read Aloud" questions, like the one below, are perhaps the simplest "Speaking" questions on the Duolingo English Test. For these questions, you are given twenty seconds to simply read the text provided aloud.

A Duolingo English Test "Read Aloud" Question
A Duolingo English Test "Read Aloud" Question

Text for these questions is usually just a sentence long but can be up to 3 sentences long. When answering these questions you should always pay attention to the punctuation. When you see a comma, pause. When you see a period, take a long pause. And when you see a question mark, ensure to end the sentence with an upwards inflection.

Comma ⇒ Short pause
Period ⇒ Long pause
Question mark ⇒ Upward inflection

Strategies and Tips for "Speak About the Photo" Questions

For "Speak about the photo" questions you will have 20 seconds to study an image and 90 seconds to describe it.  

The official Duolingo English Test guide suggests that students "go beyond simple labeling and try to describe the image in detail". "Simple labeling" would be just pointing out what you see and naming it, for example:

"There is a boy. There is a girl. There is a wall."

The best way to "go beyond" this is to use the 5 W's strategy and ask yourself:

Who? What? When? Where? Why?

For images like those below with people featured in them, you might ask:

  1. What is happening in this photo? A boy and a girl are smiling and laughing. They both seem very happy.
  2. Who is doing what? The boy is holding the girl’s head and embracing her.
  3. Where are they doing it? They are inside, but it’s not clear which room they are in.
  4. When are they doing it? It’s also not clear when this happening.
  5. Why are they doing it? Perhaps they are brother and sister. The girl’s hair appears wet, so maybe they just took a bath and are getting ready for bed.
A Duolingo English Test "Speak About the Photo" Question
A Duolingo English Test "Speak About the Photo" Question

This is a hard image to describe because not a lot is going on in the picture, but that last question (Why?) is important as it allows you to speculate and use your imagination to come up with things to talk about.

Remember, you won't have answers to each of these questions all the time. For example, it's not clear when or where this photo was taken. This is okay because the 5 W's strategy is just for YOU to generate things to talk about and plan a response. In fact is better to leave out an answer to ensure what you include is relevant.

As such, a high-scoring answer might look like this:

A boy and a girl are smiling and laughing. They both seem very happy. The boy is holding the girl’s head and embracing her. Perhaps they are brother and sister. The girl’s hair appears wet, so maybe they just took a bath and are getting ready for bed.

For pictures with objects, like the one below, you may instead ask:

  1. What objects are in this photo? There are cars. There is also a cobblestone street.
  2. What are those objects doing or what is happening to them? The cars are parked.
  3. Where are things taking place? It looks like a quiet street in a pleasant, older city.
  4. When are things happening? Some of the buildings are in the shadows so perhaps late in the day.
  5. Why are they happening? There are not any empty parking spaces, so perhaps this photo was taken at the end of the day, after everyone has returned from work.
Example "Object" prompt for a "Speak About the Photo" question
Example "Object" prompt for a "Speak About the Photo" question

As such, a high-scoring response might look like this:

In this photo, I see cars parked along a cobblestone street. Some of the buildings are in the shadows, so I think that the sun is setting. There are also no empty parking spaces. Perhaps this photo was taken at the end of the work day, after everyone has returned home from work.

Strategies and Tips for "Read, Then Speak" Questions

"Read then Speak" questions allow you 20 seconds to read the prompt and 90 seconds to speak about it.

"Read then Speak" Duolingo English Test question
"Read then Speak" Duolingo English Test question

Our tips for these question types are as follows:

  1. Make sure you answer all the questions provided in full.
  2. Provide 1-3 sentences for each question (or more sentences if you have the time)
  3. Match the verb tense of the prompt in your response – the example above is in the present tense. We know this because of the following capitalized words:
“Where IS your favorite restaurant?”
“What type of food DOES it serve”
“Why IS IT your favorite”

As such, your answer also needs to be in the present tense like the model answer below:

My favorite restaurant is called Nan Zhou Hand Drawn Noodle House. It is in the Chinatown neighborhood of Philadelphia, specifically on Arch Street.
They serve American Chinese food of all kinds, but they specialize in hand drawn noodles, which they use in many dishes. My personal favorite are the cold peanut noodles. I go there once a month, on average.
If it was closer to my house, I would probably go more often! It’s my favorite because not only is the food really good, it is also really cheap. It is the best value meal in Philadelphia in my opinion. In addition, they have very fast service, so you never have to wait long to get a table and to get your food after ordering.

Strategies and Tips for "Listen, Then Speak" Questions

For "Listen then Speak" questions you will be given 90 seconds to speak about the topic provided.

"Listen then Speak" Duolingo English Test question
"Listen then Speak" Duolingo English Test question

This question is very similar to “Read then Speak” questions, however, there are two differences:

  1. You have 20 seconds to listen to the prompt, as opposed to reading a prompt. You can listen to the prompt up to 3 times (we recommend you listen all three times, so you can be sure you understand the question).
  2. The prompt is usually in the format of a topic followed by a guided question relating to the topic. For example:


Talk about a teacher or mentor who has positively impacted your life. (Topic). How have they helped shape your personal or academic growth? (Guided Question)


Describe a place you have always wanted to visit. (Topic). What attracts you to this location and what do you hope to experience there? (Guided Question).

(By contrast, "Read then Speak" questions typically have 3 or 4 guiding questions).

The best strategy to use for "Listen then Speak" questions is the "I LAST" Strategy:

  • Identify: Identify the idea
  • List: List out the tasks that Duolingo wants you to perform
  • Answer: Answer the question or state your viewpoint directly
  • Support: Support your answer
  • Two or three examples: Provide 2 or 3 examples

Let's take a look at this strategy in action.

Example: Talk about a teacher or mentor who has positively impacted your life. How have they helped shape your personal or academic growth?


Step 1: Identify the idea
• A teacher or mentor who has positively impacted your life
Step 2: List out the tasks to perform
•    Talk about that teacher/mentor
• Describe how they have shaped your personal or academic growth
Step 3: Answer the question or state your viewpoint
• Mrs. Rotruck was a middle school teacher who helped me blossom intellectually.
Step 4 & 5: Support your answer + two or three examples
• She helped me discover my love for reading.
• She encouraged me to follow my curiosities.
• She taught me how to be organized, work hard, and be persistent.

A high-scoring response might look like this:

Mrs. Rotruck was a teacher that I had for 3 years in middle school. She was a brilliant teacher and a kind woman who helped me to blossom intellectually.
First, she helped me discover my love for reading. Before her, I didn’t read much. She showed me that I just wasn’t reading things I was interested in! She showed me how there are so many different kinds of books and how to use the library and the internet to find the ones that may interest me.
Second, she encouraged me, and all of her students, to explore our curiosities. In her class, we had large projects for which we could research whatever we wanted. It just had to culminate in a presentation to the class.
Finally, she taught me the essential principles of success. From her, I learned how to be organized, work hard, and remain persistent to overcome challenges that life inevitably places before us.

While this strategy is a little more complex than the 5 W's strategy mentioned earlier, with practice it will become easier and is a great way to plan out your response and ensure your response is organized and relevant – don't waste time on extra details that don't actually answer the prompt/questions.

Strategies and Tips for "Speaking Sample" Questions

For "Speaking Sample" questions you will have 30 seconds to read the prompt (see below for an example) and prepare. You will then have 3 minutes to respond.

Duolingo English Test "Speaking Sample" Example Question
Duolingo English Test "Speaking Sample" Example Question

You can also use the "I LAST" strategy for this question type:
Step 1: Identify the idea
• Information that you consume
Step 2: List out the tasks to perform
• Talk about how you decide which information is most important to focus on
• Describe a time when you filtered out some information to give other sources your full attention
• Include details
• Include examples
Step 3: Answer the question or state your viewpoint
• I decide which information is most important based on my personal or professional goals at that point in time.
• I recently decided to focus on consuming more information that will help me in business.
Steps 4 & 5: Support your answer + two or three examples
• I stopped using social media as much and instead subscribed to helpful blogs.
• I started reading business books at night instead of watching TV.
• I stopped reading general news and started following news about my industry.

A model answer might look like the response below:

I decide which information is most important to me based on my goals at that point in time. For example, I recently decided to really focus on becoming a better businessperson. To support that goal, I changed the information that I consumed.
First, I stopped using social media as much. I realized that social media was just a distraction, and it did not teach me anything useful. I subscribed to several business blogs. Now, instead of opening Instagram, I read those blogs, and I’m learning so many skills that are helping me in business.
Second, I am watching less TV. Like social media, TV was not helpful to me. In the evenings, I now read books, specifically books about things like marketing and building software, which I can apply to my business.
Third, I read less general news and spend more time reading news about technology companies and related areas. This helps me stay current on the latest trends, which helps me to be an innovative businessperson.

Remember – this question is a little different from the others because the recording is sent alongside your scores to recipients so that they can evaluate your English themselves. As such, we recommend you curate an answer that shows off the personality traits and skills that you displayed elsewhere in your application if you can.

The Best (Secret?) Tip for Speaking Questions

With all these tips in mind, there is ONE MORE top secret tip that will ensure you score highly on Duolingo English Test speaking questions.

This is not only the BEST tip but the easiest...

And that's to sign up for Arno! 😍😍😍😍😍😍

Arno has unlimited, free practice questions for all question types on the Duolingo English Test, including all the "Speaking" questions we described in this article. If you purchase credits you can also get feedback on the grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary in your response.

An example of Arno's "Speaking Sample" question feedback
An example of Arno's "Speaking Sample" question feedback

Responses are recorded and transcribed so that you can see/hear what you sound like. As you can see, we then not only provide an estimated score for your responses, but also pronunciation feedback including an evaluation of your pronunciation accuracy, fluency, and completeness. Arno even points out specific words where your pronunciation needs improvement which can be helpful for students aiming for advanced scores.

An example of Arno's "Speaking Sample" question feedback
An example of Arno's "Speaking Sample" question feedback

As with all of our questions and feedback, we also provide vocabulary and grammar assessments. Arno will not only point out grammar mistakes but demonstrate how to fix them. We also evaluate the level of the vocabulary you used and ways to "boost" your vocabulary, again, great for students aiming for those top-tier scores and top-tier universities.

An example of Arno's "Speaking Sample" question feedback
An example of Arno's "Speaking Sample" question feedback

Finally, we also provide a rewritten (or re-spoken) version of your response that includes all this feedback and more. This way you always have access to a "model answer" for comparison! So go ahead and create your free account on duolingo.goarno.io by clicking below!

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You can also review 50 Duolingo English Test Speaking Topics and Model Answers on our blog for more model answers.

Happy studying!!!