Paradigm Language Institute

Handling IELTS speaking test confusion

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Judging by the frequent comments made by students preparing for IELTS (International English Language Testing System), many candidates believe they’ll lose marks if they ask for speaking test questions to be explained or repeated.

In fact, there’s no specific penalty if test takers who are confused by a question ask the examiner to explain it or say it again.

In conversations between people who are native speakers of the same language, it’s always possible that one person won’t hear another person properly, or needs a word or question to be clarified.

Given that the IELTS speaking test involves a lengthy discussion between a native speaker and a non-native speaker of English, it’s even more likely that either of these situations will happen.

Asking for clarification or repetition during a speaking test allows the communication between the candidate and the examiner to keep going. This is most appropriate.

After all, the test is designed to assess candidates’ ability to use spoken English to answer questions, to speak at length and to talk with the examiner.

Test takers who know how to handle confusion caused by not hearing or not understanding questions will be able to show their speaking abilities all the more.

Only speaking is assessed

One reason why test takers may not understand a word or a phrase is that they’re not used to hearing English pronounced the “right” way by native speakers. Instead, they may be used to hearing English pronounced with incorrect word stress, intonation or rhythm by teachers who aren’t native speakers of English, or by other learners of English.

However, candidates’ ability to understand spoken English

is not assessed in the speaking test, but in the listening test. The speaking test examiner only assesses candidates in the following four areas:

  • Fluency and Coherence. This refers to how well test takers can keep talking without stopping or hesitating too much, and how well they connect ideas so their meaning is clear.

  • Lexical Resource. This means how many different words test takers use and how appropriate their word choices are.

It also includes how well test takers find different ways to get their meaning across when they don’t know the word for something in English.

  • Grammatical Range and Accuracy. This refers to how many different grammar forms are used and how well they’re used.

Candidates get a better mark by using more complicated grammar forms and a mix of long and short sentences. Their mark is also higher if their mistakes don’t make it difficult for the examiner to understand them.

  • Pronunciation. This means how clearly test takers can speak (i.e., the correct pronunciation of individual words, and the use of natural patterns of stress and intonation within sentences).

The mark also takes into account how easy it is for the examiner to understand the candidates.

Visit to see a description of the public version of the speaking test marking scheme. Always use the official version to assess your speaking.

What to do

There are two main ways to keep the communication between the candidate and the examiner going.

The first is asking for the repetition of a word, phrase, sentence or question that hasn’t been heard or understood clearly.

The second is asking for clarification or more information. Some phrases which can be used are in the box.

I’m sorry?
Sorry, what was that?
Would you mind repeating
Could you repeat the
      question, please?
Sorry, I didn’t catch that.
What was that last word?
[repeat the part that was
      heard] what?
I’m not sure what you mean
      by that.
Could you explain what you
      mean by [x x x]?
What does [x x x] mean?
Sorry, I don’t quite follow.
Do you mean [y y y]?
When you say [x x x], do you
      mean [y y y]?

Candidates can ask the examiner at any stage of the speaking test to repeat or explain a word, a phrase or even a whole question they’re not sure of.

To help the test taker, the examiner may decide to repeat the question, or give a simple explanation for an unknown word, or maybe even reword the question. The next box has an example of how the phrases might be used:

Examiner:             Let’s move on to talk about your “skerldoze,” if
                                             that’s all right.
Candidate:            Sorry, I didn’t catch that. Let’s talk about what?
Examiner:             Your schooldays.
Candidate:            OK. Sure.
Examiner:             Was your secondary school located far from
                                             where you lived?
Candidate:            What does “secondary school” mean?
Examiner:             Your high school.

In Parts 1 and 3 of the test, test takers should immediately use an appropriate phrase.

However, in Part 2 (the two-minute talk), candidates should quickly look at the whole task card before asking for the examiner’s help. They may find the prompts on the card help them guess the meaning of a word or phrase they haven’t understood.

What not to do

If unsure of a word or phrase, candidates should not sit there, saying nothing, hoping that the meaning of the word or phrase will somehow come to them.

Similarly, it’s not appropriate to hope that the examiner will automatically repeat or reword a question, or that the examiner will move on to another question.

It’s clear from the speaking test marking scheme that such pausing can greatly affect a test taker’s mark for “Fluency and Coherence.” To avoid a marking penalty, candidates shouldn’t hesitate or pause often or for long during the test. Instead, they should always keep the communication with the examiner going in an appropriate way.

In addition, taking a “wild guess” at the meaning of words or phrases, or – worse still – pretending to understand words, phrases or questions, is very unwise. The candidate’s response will almost certainly be off-topic, which means that the examiner will be able to tell that the candidate has not correctly understood the English.

The result is that the candidate risks receiving a penalty for “Fluency and Coherence” because the examiner finds the response is confusing or even not understandable. Also, the test taker risks getting a marking penalty for “Lexical Resource” as the examiner may conclude that the candidate’s overall vocabulary range is limited.

Finally, in Part 2 of the test (the two-minute talk), it’s particularly important that candidates ask for an explanation as soon as they realise they cannot work out the meaning of a word or phrase used in the task card.

The examiner will always help if asked for an explanation of a word or phrase in Part 2. However, the preparation time for the talk is strictly only one minute. It therefore doesn’t make sense to wait until near the end – or at the very end – of that preparation time before asking the examiner for help with a word or phrase.

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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