Wednesday, May 30, 2018

IELTS Speaking: The Basics

In my 20 or so years of teaching, I've come to the conclusion that the IELTS Speaking component is the most innocuous part of the test. Other English-language examinations last longer, have more complicated tasks which need to be fulfilled, include two candidates who are assessed simultaneously and involve other factors that could create more stressful conditions for candidates. The IELTS is straightforward -- which means there's a catch. 

The proof lies in the following case: I had one particular student whose parents (one of them, to be more precise) was a native speaker of English. This student, a girl, had been brought up in a foreign country where English was taught as a secondary language in schools, but who spoke English at home with her native English-speaking parent. She was, in effect, bilingual even though there were sporadic errors in more advanced grammatical structures and, as is natural, gaps in more advanced vocabulary. However, her pronunciation was impeccable and she was fluent. In other words, she could effectively communicate in English. With these qualifications, one would expect her to get at least an 8.0. I believe her score was a 7.0 or 7.5.

Which brings me to the point I want to make:
the IELTS oral exam is not about whether you can simply speak. It is about how well you can speak and show your full knowledge of the language, not simply your ability to make yourself fully understood. To put it more simply, the difference between a satisfactory overall score in the Speaking section of 6.0 -7.0 and 7.5-8.0 lies in the manner you display your grasp of English. 

First of all, for those who are not aware, there are three parts to the oral exam, which lasts 11-14 minutes in its entirety.
  • Part 1: Introduction and interview
    • the examiner will introduce themselves and will ask you to do the same to confirm your identity
    • general questions will follow that have to do with your family, daily routine, interests, etc.

  • Part 2: Individual long-turn
    • you will be given a card with a specific task written on it (for example, "If you won the lottery, what would you do with the money?")
    • the task will be summarized in an introductory phrase and bullet points will follow to guide you through your answer 
    • you have about a minute to prepare what you are going to say
    • you will need to speak about the topic for 1-2 minutes without examiner intervention or assistance
    • after 2 minutes, if you haven't finished your answer, the examiner will interrupt you and ask you 1-2 follow-up questions about what you have said

  • Part 3: Two-way discussion
    • this part of the test lasts approximately 4-5 minutes 
    • general questions connected to the topic on the card you received in part 2 will be asked 
    • these questions are usually of a more social, philosophical nature, meaning that you are required to express your opinion  

As I said earlier, the questions are straightforward, there is no great difficulty involved in the amount of time needed to speak in Part 2 (two minutes go by very quickly) and you are even given some time to think about the topic in Part 2 before answering. So why isn't the Speaking section of the exam a walk in the park, and in what cases does an examiner award an 8.0 instead of a 7.0?

Let's look at an example.  As already mentioned, in Part 1 of the exam candidates are asked general questions about themselves. A typical question that could be asked is 

"Are you studying or working at the moment?"

Let's say the candidate has the following information to share:
  • he/she is a university student
  • he/she is studying German Philology
  • he/she is in the second year of studies
  • the university is in London
Now let's look at two different answers with these limited pieces of information:

Answer 1: 
Well, I'm studying right now. I'm in my second year and am studying German at a university in London.
Answer 2:
Well, I'm not employed at the moment but am studying German as a full-time student at an undergraduate level. In fact, I'm a sophomore, even though that's not the term I should be using since I'm attending a British university, in particular King's College in London.

Both answers are grammatically correct and respond more or less fully to the question asked. Nevertheless, the second answer has the following advantages over the first answer:

  • no repetition of meaningful words in your answer (words that aren't grammar words)
  • use of linking phrases (in fact, in particular, even though) to create flowing sentences
  • use of a wider range of vocabulary (full-time, undergraduate, sophomore, attend, employed)
  • no unnecessary repetition of words found in the question ('employed' is used instead of 'working')
  • acknowledgement of the entire question (something which shows comprehension and good listening skills) by saying "I'm not employed" and not just "I'm studying" immediately. This technique of fully answering a question also creates compound sentences (made up of 2 clauses) rather than simple sentences.

So, what have we gathered from this short example? Examiners are looking for:
  • variety in vocabulary
  • more complex sentence structures which should also vary (in other words, don't have complex sentences only!)
  • flowing sentences

Now let's look at what else they'd like to hear:
  • clear speech
    • There's no point giving an answer if you're the only one who can understand or hear what you're saying.
    • You need to pay attention to 
      • pace: how quickly you speak. Some people tend to speak too quickly to make every word heard.
      • enunciation: words need to be articulated, that means every sound of each word needs to be heard clearly. Don't leave examiners in doubt as to the ending of the irregular verb or plural noun you used.
      • pronunciation: we all have a particular accent. Here the issue isn't to speak 100% like a native speaker. Besides, there are so many different pronunciations of English, that it would be hypocritical to expect non-native speakers of the language to sound "native". The main idea to keep in mind is that your pronunciation shouldn't impede understanding. Anything that is incomprehensible, stressed wrongly, or creates doubt as to grammatical accuracy (for instance intending to say "bookshelves" but pronouncing it "bookshelfes") is considered an error.
      • volume: don't mumble to yourself. Remember you are talking TO someone, so make yourself heard.
  • no prepared answers
    • Candidates tend to prepare fixed sets of answers to a variety of potential questions -- this is the worst thing they can do.
    • The easiest thing for a seasoned examiner to do is to pick up on these prepared answers, which they will disregard by interrupting candidates and asking them a different question.
    • Examiners want to see how you would handle yourself in a situation where you aren't given time to think in parts 1 and 3. In part 2, they allow you to recall better vocabulary or linking devices during the minute they let you prepare, but still expect your answer to sound natural and not like something out of a dissertation.
  • correct register
    • Register is the variety of language used in a particular communicative setting or context. For instance, the language used during an official royal dinner held in honor of a visiting Prime Minister would not be the same as that used by three hip teens hanging out at their local diner.
    • This point is tied to the previous one. Prepared answers tend to sound too formal or like something you'd write down rather than say out loud.
    • In the Speaking section of the test, you should maintain a semi-formal register. Phrasal verbs, idioms, cliches and colloquial language are acceptable, but avoid words identified in dictionaries as slang (don't say, for example, "I think drug trafficking laws should become stricter so criminals can be busted more easily.")
    • Just make sure you don't overuse colloquial language. By speaking during the oral exam as you would to a friend, you usually avoid using words examiners consider advanced.
  • pertinent answers
    • Answer the question asked, not something else. If you go off on a tangent without bringing your answer back to reflect the question at the end of your response, then your answer will be considered beside the point.
    • If, for example, the examiner has asked what you can do to help reduce pollution and you talk about what the government should do, then your answer will be considered problematic. However, your answer is acceptable if it focuses on what the government should do and you finish off by saying, "Therefore, it's not really what we as individuals can do as much as what governments around the world should be doing at the moment."
  • elaborate answers   
    • The more you speak, the better. The less you make the examiner work, the better.
    • Answering questions as fully as possible without making the examiner ask one or two more questions related to what you've said will get you a higher mark. If a question asks you to talk about what you do in your free time and you say you like watching films then give as many details about this as you can think of (what kinds of films you like; why you like these types of films; how often you find time to watch them; whether you go to a movie theater to watch them or stay at home; whether you enjoy watching them with friends or by yourself; what your all-time favorite film is)
    • The key is not to make lists in your answers. Find one thing and explain it at length. I've seen over the years that the candidates who tend to give shorter answers to questions are the ones who mention 4-5 things and end up concluding their answer abruptly, thinking that they've said many things, when in fact they've just given the examiner a brief inventory of nouns without any complex sentence structures or vocabulary words.
  • eye contact and body language
    • This is not graded per se, but impressions do make a difference. Having a slouching individual in front of you who would rather be staring at their fingers than you is never a pretty sight.
    • Make a good impression by looking at your interlocutor and maintaining a comfortable posture. 
    • Don't fidget.
    • Smile. I'm not going to get into the many studies that have proven how being an open, cheerful person can have a good effect on oneself and others, but the bottom line is that no matter how the oral exam is going for you, always look eager and pleased to be speaking in English. Believe me, the overall effect will be a positive one for both you and the examiner.
  • communicative skills 
    • Conversations doesn't always transpire without snags. There will be moments when you will get stuck finding a word, or you didn't hear the question, or may not have understood the question. In such cases always ask yourself  "What would anyone else do?"
    • One of the major flaws candidates overlook in themselves is their inability to see the Speaking section of the IELTS exam as a conversation between two people. Of course you need to be aware of your grammar and vocabulary, but don't play the part of the passive candidate -- see yourself as a person sitting down and talking to another person about a variety of things. Asking them to clarify a point, or repeat what they've said because you didn't quite catch it is part of a normal conversation, so don't bottle up your typical reactions in such circumstances. Of course you'd tell someone to repeat a question. Of course, you'd be honest enough to say you don't understand what they mean. Of course, if you're not able to find a word in English you'll stop mid-sentence and rephrase your answer in a different way so as to avoid having to use the word you couldn't find. Likewise, if you realize you've made a mistake, correct it.
    • Asking the examiner a question, paraphrasing, excusing yourself and proceeding to correct a mistake are expected behaviors an examiner considers standard.
And with all this in mind, good luck on your oral exam. Remember:
  • speak clearly
  • answer questions at length
  • conclude your replies by giving a direct answer to the question asked
  • use a variety of grammar structures and vocabulary words  
  • smile  
Find out more about the speaking section of the exam here as well as other helpful IELTS tips here.

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