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IELTS Speaking: Essential information and advice for Band 7+

If you are planning to reside or study in New Zealand, you may need to provide proof of your English language ability. Scores from a range of tests are accepted these days, including TOEFL, the Pearson Test of English (PTE), Cambridge B2 First and CAE. However, IELTS is still the most popular test. This article provides information and advice for candidates aiming for Band 7 or higher. 

General information

The IELTS Speaking test consists of three parts.

Part 1: Introduction

You will answer general questions about yourself and a range of familiar topics, such as your home, family, studies or work and so on.

Part 2: The long turn

In this section you will be asked to talk about a particular topic. You will have one minute to prepare and then two minutes to deliver your ‘long turn’.

Part 3: Extension

In Part 3 you will be asked further questions linked to the topic you spoke about in Part 2. These questions will give you a chance to discuss more abstract issues and ideas.

The descriptors 

You receive marks for the speaking test based on 4 key criteria: Fluency and Coherence (FC), Lexical Resource (LR), Grammatical Range and Accuracy (GRA), and Pronunciation (PRON). 

The descriptive statements (bullet points) for the key criteria follow the same sequence for each band. For example, for fluency and coherence, the descriptors follow this order:

  • The ability to keep speaking (speech-rate)
  • The impact that pauses and hesitations have on communication
  • The range of linking words, connectives and discourse markers used
  • How much topic development occurs

Features of performance

You will be rated on your average performance across the three parts of the test. It’s important to note that you cannot score a particular band score unless all of the positive features of the descriptors for that band score are met in your speaking performance.

Negative features are often preceded with the word ‘may’, showing negative features that may or may not be present. 

If the negative features are present, the examiner will look at the descriptor below to confirm the best match for the performance.

The examiner rates using all four criteria which converts into a final speaking band score. 

Let’s now unpack the 4 key criteria.

Fluency and coherence

Fluency focuses on your ability to keep speaking at a normal rate of speech. 

Coherence refers to how ideas are connected and if the ideas are relevant to the spoken turn. 

You need to speak at a speed that does not interfere with communication. If you speak too fast, the examiner may need to concentrate hard to understand what you are saying and this is not good. A slow speech rate, on the other hand, can also require the examiner to concentrate hard on what you are saying, so make sure you practise with someone who can provide feedback on your speed.

In addition, the examiner will be focusing on your ability to talk about a range of topics without pausing or hesitating to search for language. They will also be looking for the amount of effort you need to make to produce language which is appropriate, and your ability to connect ideas.

Your ability to keep going, and to keep speaking without pausing, hesitating or self-correcting is important. Hesitations are generally a sign that you are searching for language. When you practise, get someone to check how often you use fillers like um, er or well. You should try to limit these.

At Band 6 the speaker can speak at length and occasionally hesitates and repeats what has been said. If you want to reach Band 6 and above you must be able to speak at length with little or no effort; in general, the fewer hesitations that you make, the better your performance will be. At Band 8 or 9, any hesitations will usually be content-related rather than a search for appropriate language. IELTS examiners are trained to recognise if you are simply pausing for thought rather than searching for a word or a grammatical structure.

Use of discourse markers

Fluency is also dependent on how well you use cohesive devices to help structure your content and to aid meaning. Lower-level test takers tend to rely on fairly basic linkers such as I think | and | or | so | also and but, and they are sometimes overused, misused (used inappropriately) or memorised. 

Your aim should be to use discourse markers and connectives in such a way that the listener will often not notice them.  

Topic development

If you’re aiming for band 8 or higher it is expected that you can develop topics coherently. If you are able to use a wide range of discourse markers but you don’t fully develop the topic, you’ll be limited to Band 8. However, if your answers are consistently well structured and fully extended, you may be able to achieve a Band 9 for this criterion.

Lexical resource

This criterion refers to the range of vocabulary that you can produce to respond to the questions you get throughout the test. Your vocabulary knowledge will have an impact on the range of topics that you’re able to discuss and the word choices that you can make in order to convey meaning.

The marking criteria for lexical resource focus on the variety of words that you use, your ability to use those words appropriately, and your ability to use other words when you either don’t know or can’t remember the right word. 

The range of lexical items used

If you can use a range of vocabulary you will be able to discuss topics at length, which of course should be your aim. However, if the examiner notices that your lexical resource is limited, and you are relying on basic lexical items or repeating vocabulary rather than using synonyms or paraphrasing, you will not be able to reach the higher bands for this criterion.

Part 3 of the test is where you have an opportunity to show off your vocabulary as you discuss more abstract topics, which is needed to reach the higher bands. 

The appropriacy of use

You will have a chance of reaching the higher bands if you can make precise language choices. 

The ability to use less common and idiomatic vocabulary is first mentioned at Band 7 – Uses some less common and idiomatic vocabulary

At this band and higher, you need to be able to show some awareness of style and collocation and produce less common items including idioms and phrasal verbs. At Bands 8 and 9, you need to be able to use these items skilfully and  show more flexibility and precision

The ability to paraphrase is referred to in Bands 4-8.

As I mentioned earlier, if you can’t think of the correct lexical item, you have to be able to come up with an alternative word or expression to fill the lexical gap and to prevent a breakdown in communication. Being able to do this shows flexibility in accessing a wider range of lexical resource, which of course is a good thing. 

Grammatical range and accuracy

When it comes to demonstrating grammatical range, examiners take notice of the length and complexity of your spoken sentences, your ability to use subordinate clauses, and the range of sentence structures that you produce. Flexible use of language is what examiners are looking for to award higher band scores. 

Examples of grammatical range include:

  • the ability to express certainty, willingness, obligation, ability and so on (modality)
  • the ability to use the passive voice at appropriate times
  • the ability to use verb tense and aspect appropriately to discuss different time periods

The number of grammatical errors and the communicative effect of any errors are the main indicators of grammatical accuracy.

Reference to basic errors occurs across a range of bands up to Band 7 (some grammatical mistakes persist). Basic errors are those which speakers often make which have little impact on meaning. However, if you make a lot of basic errors, that can impede meaning and you will be penalised accordingly.

Systematic errors are errors that are made repeatedly and consistently throughout the test. For example, if you consistently make subject-verb agreement errors, you are showing that you don’t fully understand that area of grammar. To reach Band 8, you can make occasional errors, but these must not be systematic.

In order to reach Band 8 and above the majority of your sentences will need to be error-free. A Band 9 speaker is consistently accurate apart from ‘slips’ characteristic of native speaker speech. 


Key features of pronunciation

The key indicators of pronunciation are:  

  • the amount of strain caused to the listener 
  • the amount of the speech that is unintelligible 
  • the noticeability of influence from the test-taker’s first language

There is a lot more to achieving good pronunciation than you might initially think. For example, if your first language is a syllable-timed language, the syllables take approximately equal amounts of time to pronounce. English, on the other hand, is a stress-timed language, where there is approximately the same amount of time between stressed syllables. 

Using stress and intonation well goes a long way to conveying meaning. We can use stress to emphasise important words and enhance their significance, while intonation is used to express attitude and enhance meaning. 

Pitch, which involves rising and falling intonation, helps the listener understand the purpose of the speaker’s message, such as whether they are contrasting, emphasizing, or questioning. 

If you don’t pay attention to stress and intonation, you risk speaking in a monotone or robotic fashion. Don’t get carried away though. Overusing stress and intonation can sound very unnatural or even comical.

From Band 6 and higher it is expected that the speaker can use a range of pronunciation features with mixed control.

The production of English sounds is also tested within the pronunciation criterion. 

If there is a lack of clarity resulting from mispronunciations, the message will be impeded and the listener will not be able to follow what is said. Often errors will occur as a result of you following sound conventions from your first language. Common errors include shortening or lengthening vowel sounds (ship vs sheep) and failure to sound consonants or consonant clusters, especially at the ends of words. It’s a good idea to do some work on minimal pairs and getting feedback from experienced teachers or advanced speakers of the language to ensure you are making necessary distinctions.

The last thing I need to discuss is accent. We all speak English with an accent. The examiner will assess the degree to which your accent affects intelligibility. Accent is mentioned for the first time at Band 8 in the speaking assessment criteria, where ‘accent has a minimal effect on intelligibility. So, if you have a strong accent which causes some strain for the listener this will impact on your score. 

Final thoughts and next steps

I really hope you found this article valuable. 

If you are serious about gaining the IELTS score you need, I’d love to hear from you. This is one of the things we specialise in at Front Foot English through our training and 1-to-1 coaching packages, so please consider booking a free chat to discuss your needs.


Image credit: Photo by LinkedIn Sales Solutions on Unsplash 

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