When I was teaching IELTS at a university in China, my students would always ask me about the “IELTS speaking standards.” In other words, they wanted to know how this part of the test is marked.
On the one hand, it is not hugely important to know this sort of thing. After all, IELTS is an English test and you should just go into it trying to speak English as well as possible.
However, it can be useful to know a little about the standards used to judge your IELTS speaking performance, and so I will explain them here for you.
The IELTS Speaking Band Descriptors
IELTS makes its speaking criteria publicly available, so anyone can view the criteria by which students are assessed. The PDF file is here.
These can be a little difficult for people to understand because they are primarily intended for professionals with a very high degree of English proficiency. However, you can gain some idea about what you need to do.
Below, I will translate this into regular English for you and I will do so by breaking it down into the four speaking criteria:
- Fluency and Coherence
- Lexical Resource
- Grammatical Range and Accuracy
Note that two of these are the same as for IELTS writing.
Fluency and Coherence
You probably know the word “fluency” because it essentially means “how well a person can speak a language.” In the context of IELTS, it means how readily you speak English, regardless of your accuracy. Coherence, meanwhile, means whether you make sense or not.
Fluency: the ability to speak or write a language easily, well, and quickly:Cambridge Dictionary
Ultimately, “Fluency and Coherence” relates to how confidently and freely you speak during the test. Some things that examiners will look for are:
- Connectives and Discourse Markers
The first one is perhaps the most obvious. A person who hesitates for a very long time will get a very low score. You need to try and answer questions without a long pause, and then avoid hesitating between words or clauses.
Repetition is considered bad in English unless it is done for a specific effect, so you should not repeat the same words and phrases too often.
When it comes to self-correction, a little is fine but you don’t want to do it too often. For example, if you were talking about your education and said the following, it would be ok:
When I first started studying history, I wasn’t… I mean, I didn’t enjoy the lessons.
It’s not a problem to say something, then take it back and say something else. However, if you do this repeatedly, it becomes a problem.
Finally, Connectives and Discourse Markers means words that help you transition from one idea to the next. These include conjunctive adverbs and subordinating conjunctions, as well as coordinating conjunctions and other words and phrases that guide your speech. For example:
- When I was seventeen
- A little later
- Not too long ago
- For that reason
It’s worth noting here that some conjunctions can be a little formal and might sound strange in spoken English. Meanwhile, we commonly use informal constructions that are technically ungrammatical, such as starting a sentence with “but.”
Lexical Resource basically means vocabulary. I wrote about this in the context of IELTS writing and you can read that article here. The fundamentals are the same:
- Aim to use language accurately
- Use a range of vocabulary
That’s pretty much the key to success.
Some people think that you have to use really bizarre words or that there are some magical words and phrases that will get you a good score. This is really bad advice. Just speak normally and use appropriate language.
One other thing to consider here is collocation. That means how words go together. For example, we can say “take a break” or “have a break,” but we cannot say “do a break.” If you use this sort of language well, you can get a good score.
Remember that IELTS speaking is quite informal, so you should use less formal language than in the writing test. That means some mild slang is ok as well as other colloquialisms and contractions. We can say things like “I didn’t” rather than “I did not” and “I’m gonna go to England” instead of “I am going to go to England.”
Grammatical Range and Accuracy
The key to this part of the test is in the name – it’s all about range and accuracy! To do well here, you need to have:
- Accurate grammar
- A range of grammar
Notice that I inverted the order. I would argue that accuracy is much more important than range. But that doesn’t really matter much because both are massively important.
In the speaking test, the finer points of grammar are a bit less important than in speaking because the examiner will not be able to pick up on every little error you make, but they will certainly get a sense of your most common mistakes and be able to assign a grade.
Whilst the grading process is a bit complicated, there are some general truths. If you make a lot of basic errors, you will score a maximum of band 5. If you are making plenty of quite simple errors (verb tense, subject-verb agreement, pluralisation, articles, etc), then you will score a maximum of band 6. Above that, you really need to be producing quite a few error-free sentences and generally using language with accuracy.
Again, don’t focus on range too much. The examiner is not ticking off a list of grammatical challenges that you need to complete. Your errors will mostly determine your score. However, if you just repeated the same basic sentence types over and over, it would lead to a low score.
This one is obvious, right? It’s all about pronunciation…
Actually, some people misunderstand this, too. They think that pronunciation means you must speak English with a posh London accent or a brash American one, but this isn’t true at all.
Fundamentally, you just need to speak clearly enough that the examiner can understand everything that you say. That involves several skills:
- Saying words clearly
- Getting the intonation right
- Getting word stress correct
Most English speakers have an accent and that’s ok. As long as it doesn’t impede communication, you’re fine. However, you might want to look into common pronunciation errors for people from your country because often these can lead to misunderstandings.
There are various ways to practise your pronunciation skills, which you can read about here.
What do you need to do to score band 7 in IELTS writing?
Finally, now that we understand the IELTS speaking standards or how this test is assessed, let’s look at what you need to do to score band 7. That seems to be the target for almost everyone!
To score band 7 for Fluency and Coherence, you need to:
- speak at length without noticeable effort or loss of coherence
- demonstrate language-related hesitation at times, or some repetition and/or self-correction
- use a range of connectives and discourse markers with some flexibility
To put it simply, you should be talking freely without any major problems. You might pause a little to find the right word and you might repeat yourself a bit. However, none of this will be significant enough to cause the listener problems.
For Lexical Resource, you need to:
- use vocabulary resources flexibly to discuss a variety of topics
- use some less common and idiomatic vocabulary and shows some awareness of style and collocation, with some inappropriate choices
- use paraphrasing effectively
In summary, that means your language should be specific to the topic and allow you the freedom to express ideas clearly. You might take the examiner’s question and turn it into a totally new sentence without being repetitious.
Note: Don’t fixate on this idea of “less common and idiomatic vocabulary.” That doesn’t mean using random words or picking bizarre idioms to include. It just means using language naturally.
For Grammatical Range and Accuracy, you should:
- use a range of complex structures with some flexibility
- frequently produce error-free sentences, though some grammatical mistakes persist
Basically, your language should be relatively free of errors but you will still make some.
Finally, to get a band 7 in Pronunciation, you will come somewhere between the criteria for bands 6 and 8. That means you should:
- use a range of pronunciation features with mixed control
- show some effective use of features but this is not sustained
- generally be understood throughout, though mispronunciation of individual words or sounds reduces clarity at times
and hopefully also:
- use a wide range of pronunciation features
- sustain flexible use of features, with only occasional lapses
- be easy to understand throughout; L1 accent has minimal effect on intelligibility
You can miss out on some of the last three and still get a band 7.
Now you are familiar with the standards used to assess IELTS speaking, you should practise often and begin to prepare for your first test. I have lots of materials on this website to help you. Type “speaking” into the search box in the top-right of the page and see what you can find. There’s also a useful list of IELTS speaking tips here and you can see some videos to help you with IELTS speaking here.