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[IELTS Article] What is speaking fluency ?

Monday, November 4, 2013

Some reasons Why IELTS candidates lose marks for fluency and some ways to overcome them

The speaking test in IELTS (the International English Language Testing System) takes between 11 to 14 minutes. The examiner will rate you in four areas:
  • How well you can speak fluently and coherently.
  • How effective your vocabulary is.
  • How accurate and appropriate your grammar is.
  • How clear your pronunciation is.

You’ll be given a mark for each area, and the marks will then be averaged to give your speaking test band score.

Let’s look at fluency. Many people think that speaking fluently means being able to speak perfectly (or very well) or speaking quickly. However, they’re wrong. “Speaking fluently” means being able to speak smoothly and continuously. In other words, with little or no pausing (or breaks), repetition and corrections when speaking.

In the speaking test, aim to speak at a relaxed pace. Your delivery should sound smooth, not “stop-start.” Of course, because you need to think about what you’re going to say, it’s natural to pause now and again when speaking. This is accepted as a normal part of speaking in any language, and you won’t be penalised if you do that in the IELTS speaking test.

In contrast, you may lose marks if you show you’re having difficulty knowing what to say or how to say it. This will become evident if you repeat or correct yourself, speak slowly, often have short or lengthy pauses, or stop speaking altogether. Any of those behaviours risks lowering your fluency mark.

Here are some reasons why IELTS candidates lose marks for fluency and some ways to overcome them.

Not understanding

Candidates may not hear or understand something the examiner has said. They may then sit in silence while they try to guess what was said. This isn’t a good strategy!

If you don’t hear a question, ask the examiner to repeat it. Say, “Sorry, could you repeat that, please?” However, do avoid saying, “Again, please” since this phrase sounds unsophisticated and slightly impolite.

On the other hand, if you don’t understand a question, ask the examiner to explain it. You can say:

  • “Sorry, I don’t quite follow you.”
  • “Sorry, I don’t understand.”
  • “What does [word you are unsure of] mean?”

You can ask the examiner to repeat or explain a question at any time during the test. There’s no penalty for asking.

Not knowing what to say

Candidates sometimes hesitate too long because they don’t know what to say next. This might happen to you if the examiner asks you to talk about something you’ve never thought about before, such as what the education system was like in your parent’s time.

You could get more time to develop an answer by putting the question into your own words (i.e. by paraphrasing it) and then checking it with the examiner. For the question above, you could say, “Are you asking me to say what schools were like when my parent’s were children?”

You could also get extra time to think about what to say by using “filler” words and phrases like:

  • “Well, . . .”
  • “I guess . . .”
  • “That’s a tough question . . .”
  • “I haven’t thought about that before . . .”

By the time you paraphrase the examiner’s question or use a filler phrase, an idea should pop into your head. You can then start to give a full answer.

Be careful not to overuse filler phrases, though. Use them sparingly or else your speaking will sound unnatural.

Not having the words

Candidates may hesitate because they don’t know, or can’t remember, the English words they need. In this next example, the candidate doesn’t speak fluently as she can’t think of the English word “inflation.”

“Thailand has very high . . . [long silence] . . . I don’t know how to say it in English.”

Instead of pausing, the candidate should just quickly use words she does know. For instance:

“Thailand has very high . . . the price of things in the department stores increases fast.”

By using familiar words, you’ll not only get your meaning across, but you’ll also feel more confident.

As in the example above, some candidates choose to tell their examiner they don’t have the English words or don’t know how to explain their idea. This is not wise! The examiner may think both their fluency and their vocabulary are not well developed.

Trying to avoid errors

In order to get a high band score, candidates may think carefully about what grammar or vocabulary they should use before speaking.

As well, while answering the next question, candidates

may even try to analyse their reply to the last question to see if they made any grammar or vocabulary errors.

Whatever the reason, the result is the same: slowness of speech or hesitations. Speaking slowly or hesitating is most unlikely to result in a higher mark for either grammar or vocabulary. Instead, you risk getting a lower mark for fluency.

On the day of your test, focus on your fluency instead of trying hard to avoid grammar or vocabulary errors.


In the speaking test, speak as smoothly as you can and be less concerned about the accuracy of what you say. If you’re not sure what the examiner has said, then quickly ask him or her to clarify or repeat the question.

Make sure that you don’t stop communicating simply because you can’t find a particular word. Quickly find a different way to say it and keep going.

You may also use a filler phrase now and again to give you a little extra thinking time.


Do as much speaking practice as you can, and do it well before your test date. The best way is to practise with a native English speaker who later gives you feedback about exactly how to improve your speaking. However, to be fully effective, the person should know the structure and scoring system of the IELTS speaking test.

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 IDP: IELTS Australia.

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