IELTS Speaking Test: Format & Grading

Format

 

Being familiar with the format will give you confidence in that you will know what is expected of you in each part. There should be no surprises. It happens, rarely, that “high level” candidates take the test without any preparation or practice. Consequently, they are surprised by the question types and confused about what they are expected to do and it can affect their band score.

The speaking test has three parts.

Grading

 

Candidates are graded in 4 criteria – Fluency & Coherence, Lexical Resource, Grammatical Range & Accuracy and Pronunciation. The criteria are equally weighted and the speaking band score is the average score. For example…

Each criteria is scored from 0 – 9. The public band descriptors can be found on any of the IELTS test partners websites.

https://www.ielts.org/-/media/pdfs/speaking-band-descriptors.ashx?la=en

 

IELTS candidates and teachers often ask me… “What are the secret speaking band descriptors?” This is a common IELTS myth. I know from experience that there are NO secret speaking band descriptors. What you see in the public band descriptors is exactly how you are graded.

Another myth is that candidates are penalized and give minimum scores. There are NO penalties or minimum scores in the speaking test. You simply get a score based on your performance according to the public band descriptors. 

Fluency and Coherence

Fluency is speaking at length without hesitation, self-correction and repetition. at a “natural” speed – that’s not too fast or slow. The IELTS speaking band descriptors mention “pauses” and “hesitation” from bands 2 – 9. 

Hesitation or pauses break the flow / fluency of speech and the less you can do it the better. There are 2 types of hesitation mentioned in the band descriptors, “language and content” Language hesitation is when a candidate pauses to think about language (usually grammar or vocabulary). Content hesitation is when they pause to think about the topic or their response to a question.

 

Coherence is logically and relevantly describing your ideas and thoughts, using linking words (discourse markers). Using a variety of discourse markers accurately, will increase your band score. Discourse markers can be used as “fillers” which give you some time to think about your response, for example, “That’s an interesting question…” Let me see, well…” 

 

Repetition and self-correction are also an important aspect of the Fluency and coherence criteria. Repetition is repeating the same words, phrases and sentence structures. Self-correction happens when candidates stop talking about the topic or answering a question in order to correct a language mistake in their use of grammar or vocabulary.

According to the band descriptors, the fewer times you self-correct, the higher the band score in Fluency and coherence.

Fluency and Coherence:

Band 7: May demonstrate language-related hesitation at times, or some repetition and/or self-correction.

 

Self-correction usually happens when students realize they have made a grammar or vocabulary mistake and correct themselves. Doing this too much breaks the flow / fluency of speech.

Strategies & Tips: Fluency

  • Think in English and don’t translate everything.

  • The main reason for hesitation is when candidates think too much about language, usually grammar and vocabulary. Although they are important in that they make up 25% each of your band score, don’t over-value grammar and vocabulary.

  • Most of the test is spent answering closed questions (yes/no questions) but answering with one or two short sentences is not advisable.

  • When answering, use your knowledge, experience, give examples and give extra details.

  • Always expand your answers and be willing to speak at length in order to move above band 6.

Fluency and Coherence:

Band 6: Is willing to speak at length

  • Remember that some hesitation is acceptable. You don’t need to be flawlessly fluent to achieve a band 7. 

Fluency and Coherence:

Band 7: May demonstrate language-related hesitation at time

Strategies & Tips: Coherence

  • I’ve met quite a few students whose greatest frustration was their inability to express their ideas. They would say things like “I have a lot of big ideas but I can’t express them.” 

  • There is no mention of “good ideas or intelligent answers” in the IELTS band descriptors. It’s a language test not an intelligence test.

  • Trying to express clever ideas and complex theories, especially in Parts 2 and 3 may have a negative impact on your Fluency and coherence score because you could be hesitating while searching for appropriate language to express yourself.

  • Linking your ideas and responses together are discourse markers. 

  • Be sure of the meaning of the discourse marker and how it can be used in a sentence.

  • A reputable dictionary will give you the definition, pronunciation, examples, synonyms, collocation, related words and the CEFR level. 

  • I recommend…

         https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/

  • Once you are certain of the meaning and how to use them, practice using discourse markers.

  • Learning long lists of isolated discourse markers is not a useful strategy unless you are sure about their function and how they are used in sentences. 

  • Although band 7 says “uses a range of discourse markers” it’s not necessary to use several in each sentence as this can sound unnatural.

Fluency and Coherence:

Band 7: Uses a range of connectives and discourse markers with some flexibility

  • Use discourse markers and phrases as “fillers”, for example, “That’s an interesting question…Let me see, well…”. This is better than silence or awkward “Ahhh…. ummm.” responses. However, it’s not an effective strategy to use “fillers” before every response as it can sound unnatural.

  • When reading and listening to English, take note of the discourse markers and their function. Try to incorporate them into your speaking.

  • Below are listed common discourse markers. Using a range of them flexibly and accurately will increase your band score.

Strategies & Tips: Repetition & Self-Correction

       Repetition

  • Candidates are often unaware and surprised that they are repeating the same words and phrases over and over. So, when you listen back to your recording of a practice test, take note of the words, phrases and sentence structures that you are repeating.

  • Think of synonyms and paraphrase for these words and phrases then practice using them. 

  • Vary the use of sentence structures and this will have a positive impact on the Grammatical range and accuracy band score.

​       Self-Correction

  • A small amount of self-correction is perfectly fine and natural. It shows the examiner that you are aware of your mistakes and have the ability to correct them.

  • However, too much self-correction will have a negative impact your fluency and coherence.

  • Constant self-correction will also disrupt your train of thought on the topic or your response to a question.

  • Candidates who constantly self-correct have, most likely, been taught that accuracy in grammar is the most important aspect of the test. 

  • Try not to think of the speaking test as a test of your grammatical accuracy. There are 3 other criteria that account for 75% of the overall score.

  • Remember the speaking test is not an accuracy test and mistakes in the use of vocabulary and grammar are acceptable for a band 7.

Lexical Resource

Lexical resource is the range of your vocabulary, your ability to paraphrase and use idioms

For more detailed discussion and tips for Lexical resource, follow the link...

IELTS Vocabulary

Grammatical Range and Accuracy

 

Grammatical Range is from basic to complex sentence structures.

Grammatical Range and Accuracy

Band 4: Produces basic sentence forms and some correct simple sentences but subordinate clauses are rare

Grammatical Range and Accuracy

Band 7: Uses a range of complex structures with some flexibility

The more complex your grammar is, the higher your band score will be. Some sources recommend keeping it simple and using short, basic sentences. However, to achieve a higher band score in Grammatical Range and Accuracy, you need to demonstrate a range of complex sentences.

Band four mentions “subordinate clauses are rare”. Compare…

A: I studied a lot. I still didn’t get my target score.

B: Even though I studied a lot, I still didn’t get my target score.

OR

I still didn’t get my target score even though I studied a lot.

 

Example A is short basic sentences and would get a lower band score. Examples B is a more complex sentence that uses a subordinate clauses and will get a higher band score.

Grammatical Accuracy is the number of mistakes or errors you make and the effect these have on comprehension. 

Grammatical Range and Accuracy

Band 7: Frequently produces error free sentences, though some grammatical mistakes persist

Strategies & Tips: Grammatical Range and Accuracy

  • Don’t think of the speaking test as a gauge of your grammatical accuracy.

  • It’s still possible to achieve band 7 while making grammar mistakes.

  • Listen carefully to the question and answer in the correct tense. A common mistake candidates make is…

 

               Examiner: What’s the best holiday you’ve ever had?

              Candidate: I think that was when I went to Istanbul with my husband. We stay in a                                                                        nice hotel and go shopping in the big bazar. 

  • Here the candidate started well in the Past Simple but lapsed into the Present Simple.

  • Be aware of your L1 interference (language transfer). L1 is the speaker’s first language or mother tongue. L1 interference happens when the speaker uses language structures and forms from their first language when speaking a second language such as English. For example a French speaker might say…

  • L1 interference is particularly noticeable when it comes to grammar.

  • A simple internet search will reveal sites that describe your language’s L1 interference (language transfer) when speaking English. Try to become aware of the L1 interference that your language is having on your English and work to eradicate these.

  • The range and accuracy of your grammar doesn’t happen overnight. It’s something that’s developed over time. So don’t go to bed with a grammar book the night before the test!

Pronunciation

Watch the video on 5 Pronunciation Tips.

How you are graded

You are graded only according to the IELTS Speaking Band descriptors. There are no "secret" band descriptors. 

https://www.ielts.org/-/media/pdfs/speaking-band-descriptors.ashx?la=en

The “pronunciation features” mentioned in the Speaking band descriptors are appropriate…

… word and sentence stress

… rhythm and intonation

… chunking (dividing speech into small parts)

… pronunciation of individual sounds

 use of connected speech

According to the band descriptors, it's not necessary to have native speaker level pronunciation to score well. Rather it is how easily you can be understood and how well you use the pronunciation features.

Know your pronunciation challenges

All nationalities have their individual “pronunciation issues” and you should be aware of your own. Awareness of your own pronunciation issues is an important first step to overcome them.

 

A simple internet search will reveal lots of sites and videos on the pronunciation issues for your own nationality / language with advice and tips on how to improve. Focus on your own challenges and practice overcoming them. 

 

The effect of accent

IELTS students often worry too much about accent and some actually believe it's necessary to have a native speaker accent to score well. In the Speaking test accents are acceptable because IELTS is a test of international English.

Accent is only an issue when it leads to misunderstanding. If your accent is causing misunderstanding, get feedback from an experienced IELTS teacher on how to improve it. 

 

Sources for pronunciation models

When sourcing examples of "good" pronunciation, don't limit your search to IELTS mock test videos or academic contexts. Don't forget the world of entertainment and information. 

When watching or listening to English language content, notice the use of the pronunciation features and imitate them. When you come across new words, check the pronunciation in a reliable dictionary. 

https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/

Practice & feedback

Practice is essential for improving your pronunciation but don't limit your practice to IELTS mock tests only. Your goal should be to improve your pronunciation in all English-speaking contexts. Not just for IELTS. When you do practice IELTS mock tests, record yourself and when you listen to it, it’ll be clear what features of English pronunciation you need to improve.

Don't forget to practice in social situations with friends, colleagues and family. Get feedback on your progress from friends and colleagues and an experienced IELTS teacher.