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Evaluating speaking - the IELTS speaking test

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This is the third in a series of articles looking at evaluating speaking, focusing on the IELTS speaking test. 

Evaluating speaking - the IELTS speaking test - speaking article
Paul Kaye

The previous two parts looked at effective communication and whether different elements needed to be able to do so can be evaluated formally, and what ways there are to do this. In this final part we are going to analyse the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) and discuss what happens and how evaluation is carried out, and then we will look at some of the challenges candidates face, with ways to help them overcome these.


What happens in a test?
The IELTS speaking test is one candidate and one examiner, who manages the test and evaluates the candidate at the same time. The test is separated into three parts. Each part takes about 4 minutes. In parts 1 and 2 the examiner uses a script, in part 2 a list of questions.

In Part 1, the examiner asks the candidate some simple personal questions on everyday familiar topics. The examiner reads these questions from a script. Example topics are work, study, where you live, food, holidays, friends, going out, festivals, sports, schools and public transport.

In Part 2, the examiner gives the candidate a topic on a card and the candidate needs to speak about it for about 2 minutes. Before speaking, the candidate has one minute to make notes. The task is to talk about a personal experience such as a memorable day or a significant person. This is followed by a quick question, which the candidate gives a short answer to. This provides some continuity for the transition to part 3.

In Part 3, candidate and examiner will have a discussion relating to the subject area in Part 2. The candidate will be asked to do more complicated things, such as evaluate, justify positions and opinions, make predictions, and express preferences. The examiner has a list of questions but is not limited to these. He or she can respond freely to the candidate's answers, making this part of the test more like a normal conversation.

How is the candidate evaluated?
The examiner listens to the candidate as they do the test, and then evaluates their level by comparing the speaker's performance to descriptions. These say what a speaker can do in four areas. Levels go from 1 - 9. The four criteria are described below:

Fluency and Coherence
This refers to how good the candidate is at keeping talking at the right speed and how good they are at connecting their ideas together. This is a fairly general criteria which includes evaluating the relevance of the candidate's answers, but in terms of the elements we have identified in part 1 of this article, it refers to the speaker's need to be able to understand and follow the rules of language at a word, sentence and text level.

Lexical Resource
This refers to how much vocabulary the candidate has and how well they use it. As well as the rules of language at a word level, this criteria considers the communicative functions of speech and the social meaning of speech.

Grammatical Range and Accuracy
This refers to how many structures the candidate has and how well they use them. Again, as well as the rules of language, this criteria considers the communicative functions of speech.

This refers to how well the candidate pronounces the language. As well as considering the communicative effect of the candidate's pronunciation, there is evaluation of how much strain it causes on a listener, and how noticeable their accent is - although accent itself is not a problem. In terms of the elements we have identified in part 1 of this article, this criteria refers to Speakers need to be able to produce the phonological features of speech.

Challenges for candidates
Here are some of the challenges candidates face, and ways to help them prepare:

  • Many candidates do not prepare in the same extensive way as a learner taking an FCE exam at the end of a course, for example. This means that amongst other problems they do not know how long their answers need to be. It is important to focus on the different answers needed in order to not only give a good performance but also reduce strain on both the candidate and the examiner. For example in part 2 a long response is needed but this is followed by another quick question, which requires a very short answer.
  • Candidates are evaluated on their entire performance and need to get started immediately in part 1. It is good to speak only English just before the test, and candidates can organise this amongst themselves, or with a teacher.
  • The topics in part 1 of the test are limited and very familiar, so candidates can do focused practice of these areas. They can write their own questions, interview each other, do mini-presentations for the class, and prepare the vocabulary they might need. Similar activities can be used to explore part 3 more - writing their own questions is particularly effective in deepening candidates' understanding of the demands of the task.
  • The long turn in part 2 is always very challenging. Candidates often produce answers that are short, repetitive, off topic (although this may not be a problem), or lacking structure. Ways to help include integrating practising this into other lessons and as an easy form of homework, playing ‘Just a minute', learners writing tasks for each other, 1-minute micro-practise of the notes stage, and focusing on structuring answers by writing them rather than speaking.
  • The IELTS test is designed to push a candidate to the limits of their language and so learners will at some point struggle. It is useful to look at strategies to deal with this, such as paraphrasing and rephrasing, using the rubric to help (such as in part 2), and asking for time to think about answers - especially useful in part 3, where there can be some complex ideas.

IELTS is a challenging exam and there is no ‘magic' way to get a high level it if your students' English isn't good enough, but using some of these tips and techniques should help your students to perform to the best of their ability and so get the level they deserve.

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