Paradigm Language Institute

The most important Speaking skill in IELTS

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Recently, a test taker asked me this about the speaking test in IELTS (International English Language Testing System): “Can you tell me what the most important skill for speaking is? Is it pronunciation? How is pronunciation marked?”  My reply was:

Regarding your question about the most important speaking skill, there’s no simple answer. Four areas are assessed in the speaking test, and you need to be good at all four. Having good vocabulary, for example, is not going to help you get a satisfactory band score if your grammar is weak or your fluency is poor.

Areas assessed

Here are the four areas assessed by examiners in the speaking module and an outline of the factors influencing your band score:

Fluency and Coherence: Can you talk at a normal rate of speech (not too fast and not too slow), with normal effort, and without too many pauses or corrections? Can you present and link ideas in an understandable and connected way?

Lexical Resource: How clearly can you present your information, ideas and opinions through the words you choose to use? How appropriate are those words? How broad is your range of words? How well can you get round any lack of vocabulary by using other words?

Grammatical Range and Accuracy: How broad is your range of grammatical structures? How complex are those structures, and how long are your answers? How accurate and appropriate are the structures? How much do any grammatical errors affect the examiner’s ability to understand what you’re talking about?

Pronunciation: How difficult is it for the examiner to understand what you’re saying because of the way you’re pronouncing words? How well do you communicate meaning by using pronunciation features (such as the use of a rising tone to show you’re asking a question)?
Pronunciation scoring

“Pronunciation” refers to the way a word or a language is usually spoken.

IELTS examiners use a nine-band scale to measure test taker’s pronunciation skills. The scale considers how easily an examiner can understand a candidate plus a number of features of spoken English.

Here’s a brief introduction to some of the features of English pronunciation:

Word and sentence stress: “Word stress” relates to the stress given to one syllable within a word.

By comparison, “sentence stress” relates to the stress that is given to the key words in a sentence: the words that communicate the sentence’s main meaning.

Intonation: This refers to the use of rising or falling tones to indicate different meanings.

For example, different tones can show whether the speaker has a positive or negative attitude, is certain or unsure, or is asking a question.

The linking of words: The pronunciation of a word can change a little when it’s part of a phrase or sentence. This allows that word and the following word to be said together more quickly.

Rhythm: This is a combination of stress, intonation, linking and the speed of talking.

In a stress-timed language like English, syllables are stressed at roughly regular intervals. As it is the key words in sentences that are stressed, the words in between get shortened and weakened so that two or three of them together take up the same amount of time as the single, stressed syllables before and after them. This produces the rhythm, or “beat,” of spoken English.

Phrasing: This refers to the appropriate use of pauses to show the correct meaning of groups of words.
Nine-band scale

Here’s my simplified version of the band scores for pronunciation:

Band 1: Any English that the test taker tries to produce is impossible to understand.

Band 2: The candidate’s English is often impossible to understand as pronunciation is so poor.

Band 3: The test taker’s pronunciation shows some of the features of Band 2 and some, but not all, of the positive features of Band 4.

Band 4: Although the candidate uses a limited range of pronunciation features, his or her overall control of spoken English is poor. There are often pronunciation errors that make it difficult for the examiner to understand what the candidate is trying to say.

Band 5: The test taker’s pronunciation shows all the positive features of Band 4 and some, but not all, of the positive features of Band 6.
Band 6: The candidate uses a range of pronunciation features with mixed control, and can only produce some pronunciation features effectively for a short while. Although individual words or sounds are occasionally pronounced incorrectly, causing brief difficulty for the examiner, the candidate can generally be understood throughout the test.

Band 7: The test taker’s pronunciation shows all the positive features of Band 6 and some, but not all, of the positive features of Band 8.

Band 8: The candidate uses a wide range of features of spoken English with only occasional errors. The candidate is easy to understand throughout the test (even if there’s an accent from his or her first language).

Band 9: The test taker uses a full range of pronunciation features with great precision and skill. The examiner can understand the candidate without any effort.

Always use the official version of the IELTS band scores to estimate your score for the speaking module. 
You can download a digital copy at .   

This article was written by David Park, a highly experienced IELTS teacher. Ajarn David teaches at Paradigm Language Institute.

If you have any questions about IELTS that you would like Ajarn David to answer,
or if you wish to do an IELTS preparation course, write to:

IELTS is owned by Cambridge ESOL, the British Council and IELTS Australia.

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