Evaluating speaking - the IELTS speaking test

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.

Copyright - please read
All the materials on these pages are free for you to download and copy for educational use only. You may not redistribute, sell or place these materials on any other web site without written permission from the BBC and British Council. If you have any questions about the use of these materials please email us at: teachingenglish@britishcouncil.org


Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 06/23/2022 - 21:36

Hi there,

You may already have found the public information about IELTS which doesn't say how the final bands are calculated but that band scores are awarded on each of the four scales, but no information about whether than can be half or whole bands. Just in case it's here https://ielts.idp.com/results/scores/speaking.

Best regards,


TeachingEnglish team 



Submitted by Noushin on Wed, 01/09/2019 - 20:40

Hi, I was wondering if you could help me with marking scheme of each band descriptor.Is there any half a score for each.For example ,is a score 4.5 for fluency acceptable or it must be either 4or 5.

Hello You can get a half score in all of the skills for IELTS - e.g. 5, or 5.5, 6 or 6.5 etc. You can find out more about how the scores work on this website: https://takeielts.britishcouncil.org/find-out-about-results/understand-your-ielts-scores If you are interested in finding out more about the IELTS speaking test, then this webinar might be interesting for you: https://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/article/kishore-roy-ielts-speaking-test Hope that helps, Cath TE Team

Submitted by manfromwales on Thu, 06/23/2022 - 07:38

In reply to by Cath McLellan

Thank you so much Cath. However what is not clear to me, and I think the original question, is can you have half band scores for FC, LR, GRA, PRON in speaking? I came across an IDP article that said they must be whole band scores but I have not seen anything else on this topic... Many thanks in advance...

Submitted by melinaj on Mon, 03/28/2016 - 07:04

Thanks for this post. In a nutshell, fluency, lexical, grammar and pronunciation are the four criteria that evaluate our IELTS speaking band score. I have gone through pelinzos link to get rid of my confusion about these criteria’s and found it useful. But, recently I`ve come across another great tutorial that explains the speaking marking criteria’s in more depth. I like to share with all: http://www.ieltsg.com/2016/02/ielts-speaking.html. Thanks everyone.

Submitted by pelinzo on Sun, 06/28/2015 - 13:34

Thanks for the post. I especially like your tip about paraphrasing the question to give candidates a bit of breathing room and time to think. I took each of the Speaking Criteria and broke them down to analyse the difference between a band 5 and band 8 answer. The IELTS Speaking Criteria can be a bit confusing and my students find it useful when you put them in practical terms. Please have a look http://ieltsadvantage.com/2015/06/28/ielts-speaking-criteria/ Thanks.

Submitted by ieltsguru on Fri, 12/20/2013 - 18:23

The best advice for IELTS speaking is very simply to listen to the question and answer it. The reason for this is for this is the one time you are face to face with the examiner and nerves are a significant problem. If you are trying to remember complex advice, you are likely to become more nervous and not perform to your best. Keep it simple. Following on from the previous advice, you need to practice before the exam to make sure that the appropriate skills are automatic. This will only happen if you practice sufficiently. However, you also need to practise the right skills – each part of the speaking paper tests a different skill.

Submitted by hohoho on Tue, 04/30/2013 - 15:08

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.


Look at your text. How can you guys sit in judgment of these students when you cannot even proofread your own work on your semi official site?  These students are working very hard to understand this language, we should at least clean up our own errors if we earn a living from this.

Submitted by WBurns on Fri, 12/24/2010 - 04:05

I am getting conflicting information about the role of the examiner in the speaking evaluation. On the one hand many textbooks state that the examiner has a conversation with the student and can also ask for clarification. This is also implied in this series of articles. However, some of my students say that the examiner never goes off the script. That is the examiner asks questions, but there is no dialogue. Furthermore when they ask questions, the examiner can only repeat the question but not define a word or say it in a different way.

So, is the speaking section a dialgoue (except part 2 obviously), or is it more of an oral exam with set questions?Can students ask questions of the examiner? 

Submitted by adamjk on Sat, 06/11/2011 - 13:32

In reply to by WBurns


The IELTS exam is structured to encourage the candidate to produce as much English as possible at as high a level as possible and one role of the examiner is to support this. In general, the examiner is directing the conversation, so they ask the questions rather than the candidate. 

The examiner stays on the script as far as possible in parts one and two, but in part three there is more freedom to develop the conversation. Sometimes a candidate asks the examiner questions in part three, but this reduces the time available for the candidate to speak, so examiners will reply as briefly as possible.

The script in part one is structured so that it feels like a conversation and the examiner can choose questions to ensure it feels more natural. The questions in part one are simple, so there should be no need for the candidate to ask for clarification. The examiner can choose the simplest questions if the candidate has a low level of English. The prompts in part two are written on the card, so again there should be no need for the candidate to ask the examiner to repeat or explain.

All the questions in the exam are simple to understand, so that even candidates with a fairly low level of English should be able to know what the examiner wants without asking for help.

Submitted by mangay on Thu, 02/25/2010 - 06:45


Dear Paul,

 I am dr.mangay from India and I read all your articles regarding speaking assessment. A nice explanation! Indeed! In this context I would be very much pleased if you give some details for the queries below.

Please answer the following queries

How do you assess the writing task 1 and 2 in ielts?

Which task carries more weight and how the band score is determined  between the two?

Regarding ielts practice, Vaneesa jackman and Clara Mcdowell practice tests prescribed by Cambridge are the reliable ones  for ielts takers and teachers. Apart from these are there any other standard materials for practicing ielts.

Thanks in advance


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