This article looks at what a speaker needs to be able to do in order to use spoken English as an effective form of communication.

Evaluating speaking - speaking article

For example, speakers need to pronounce individual sounds clearly, understand the functions of language, and follow the conventions of turn-taking. The second part of this article looks at whether these different elements can be evaluated formally, and what ways there are to do this. In the third part of this article we will look at how these competencies can be evaluated, with specific discussion of the IELTS speaking test.

  • What speakers do
  • Phonological features of speech
  • Following the rules of language
  • Paralinguistic devices
  • Communicative functions
  • Social meaning
  • Conclusion


What speakers do
Speaking is a complex act with many different elements interacting to produce effective communication. In order to evaluate this skill accurately, we need to identify and isolate each of these elements. We can then develop frameworks to evaluate them. Below is a list of the things that speakers need to be able to do in order to communicate effectively.

Phonological features of speech
Speakers need to be able to produce the phonological features of speech well enough to be understood, and understand them when they hear them. These features include:

  • Individual sounds – consonants, vowels, diphthongs such as in day and triphthongs such as in here.
  • The stressed and weak sounds in words; for example, the second syllable of 'banana' is stressed and the first and third are weak.
  • The stressed and weak words in speech; for example, in the order "Go to bed!" 'Go' and 'bed' are stressed and 'to' is not.
  • The rhythm of speech in general. English is stress-timed, meaning that in general stressed syllables have an equal amount of time between them.
  • The intonation patterns in speech, falling, rising, flat, etcetera
  • The features of connected speech, i.e. things that happen when we connect sounds together. For example, connected speech produces contractions such as doesn’t, linking sounds such as the /j/ in 'I am', lost sounds such as the /t/ in 'I don’t know', and changed sounds such as the /t/ in 'white bag' changing to a /p/.


Following the rules of language
Speakers need to be able to understand and follow the rules of language at a word, sentence and text level. This includes:

  • Choosing the right vocabulary. Speakers need to think about the meaning of a word, its connotations, the level of formality, the type of register and genre, and the words it normally goes with (collocations).
  • Using grammar structures to put clauses and sentences together.
  • Using features of discourse to give long and short turns cohesion and coherence. For example, speakers need to use referencing "This is the problem" and connectors "so...".


Paralinguistic devices
Speakers need to be able to understand and use paralinguistic devices as a communicative tool. There are different definitions of paralanguage, but if we say that it does not involve words in any way then this includes:

  • Non-verbal tools such as gestures and facial expressions.
  • Other body language, such as eye contact, posture, positioning and movement of the head.
  • Verbal tools such as changes in volume, e.g. whispering and shouting, and noises such as whew! and tsk!


Communicative functions
Speakers need to be able to recognise, understand and use the communicative functions of speech. This includes:

  • Understanding the communicative functions of vocabulary and grammar. For example, why this is a normal exchange:
    • A: "Did you walk the dog today?"
    • B: "I’ve been in bed all day with a cold."


Or what a speaker means when he says: "Do you know who I am?"

  • Understanding the functions of intonation and moving stress. For example, intonation and stress can show attitude: "Oh, really?" Emphasis: "I said three bananas", and structure, e.g. a falling intonation at the end of a list of items.
  • Recognising features such as repetitions, re-phrasing, pauses, and noises and understanding their function.
  • Recognising non-linguistic features such as changes in volume and tone.


Social meaning
Speakers need to be able to understand and use the social meaning of speech.
This includes thinking about:

  • When to use formal and informal language.
  • What connotation language might have, for example the difference between thin, slender and skinny.
  • How direct they can be, for example when to say; "Help me with this." and when to say; "Would you mind helping me, please?"
  • What social factors are important, e.g. social status, age, gender.
  • Conversational principals such as turn taking and exchanges – these can be different in different cultures and societies.
  • The rules to start, maintain, manage, and close conversations.


Spoken communication involves many things, as we can see from the lists above, and communicative success depends on the speaker’s ability to use them. Therefore, evaluation of a learner’s spoken English must involve looking at these different tools.


In the second part of the article, we will think about which of these factors we can include in our evaluation and which we can’t, and then review some formal speaking tests and how they approach this challenge.

Paul Kaye, Materials writer, Bolivia

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