ielts-yasi.englishlab.net  

Updated Sept 25, 2010

(A correction and a note in the email to a student concerning the term, "discourse markers" was added on Sept. 25, 2010)

 

Note: This article was written before August 2008, when a 7 for the pronunciation sub-score became possible. Getting a 7 for pronunciation can make a big difference towards getting an overall 7 for speaking. I have not yet had time to change this article (that is, it has not been changed at all) but obviously a 7 for pronunciation changes the different ways a person can get an overall 7 for speaking. Many of you who aim for a 7 probably can get a 7 for pronunciation.

 

What is a Band 7 level in Speaking like?

Recently I've come across several students who tell me they aim to get a Band 7 for Speaking when, in fact, their level right now is about a Band 5.5 or, in some cases, a 6.0. It seems to me that these students have a somewhat unrealistic idea of what standard a Band 7 in speaking really is and how much work is necessary before reaching that level. What I've written below is an approximate guide to give you a better idea of a Band 7 in speaking.

What speaking level is needed for a Band 7.0?

In my estimation, the average Chinese English teacher, in his or her twenties or thirties, is a Band 7.0 or 7.5 in speaking. (Typically, older teachers are a little weaker at speaking than the younger ones.) 

I think if you go into some high schools in small cities in China, you'll find some English teachers who are really only a 6.5 in Speaking, but this would be quite rare in a place such as Beijing. On the other hand, in places like Beijing, I would say that the top 10% or 15% of Chinese English teachers would be a Band 8.0 in speaking but only about the top 1% or 2% would be an 8.5. 

What is the best way to get a Band 7.0 in speaking?

I'd say the most important thing to focus on is grammar because I think it is the hardest thing to improve for most students in China. You should be able to make several grammatically high-level sentences rather effortlessly and you should make only a small number of 'minor grammar errors'. 

Of course you need to be quite fluent, too, but many Band 6.0 and especially Band 6.5 people are already quite fluent I'm talking about moving from that level up to 7.0. Remember, 'fluent' just means that your language flows continuously; you might be quite fluent but still be just average (or poor) at grammar, vocabulary or coherence (and even pronunciation) and end up just getting a 5.0 or 5.5. 

If you are one of those unlucky people who has problems producing accurate, clear pronunciation, you absolutely must improve your pronunciation, and improve it greatly, because if you get a 4 for that, it is virtually impossible to get an overall 7.0 in speaking. But probably about 70% of all Chinese candidates get a 6 for pronunciation, including most of those candidates who get an overall 5.0 or 5.5 for speaking. (Remember, for pronunciation, the only possible scores are 2, 4, 6 & 8.) 

An 8 for pronunciation is not very common in China because 8 is the highest score possible for pronunciation probably less than 5% of all candidates in China get an 8 for that sub-score. Although many people (especially girls) do speak very clearly, to get an 8 you need to 'sound like' a native English speaker, to some extent, and you also need to show native-speaker usage of intonation. (If there was a score of 7 possible for pronunciation, I think quite a few people in China, maybe 20%, would get that score.) 

What sub-scores are needed to get a 7.0 for speaking?

In order to get a 7.0 for speaking you would probably need to get one of the following combinations of sub-scores: 

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Combination 1

Pronunciation 6

Grammar 7

Vocabulary 8

Fluency & Coherence 7

This would probably be the easiest way to get 7.0 for most Chinese students. Don't forget that, to get a 7 or above for Vocabulary, you need to show good knowledge of phrasal verbs because the usage of phrasal verbs is a key sign of a 7 or above for vocabulary, although it is not the only sign. 

Another key sign is showing the skill of communicating meaning when you don't know the word for what you mean. (This is called "paraphrasing".) This would be shown more in Part 3 (or perhaps Part 2), when you might be trying to express a very complex or abstract idea. A person who is a Band 8 in vocabulary should not need to use that skill for most ideas because, after all, a Band 8 for vocabulary means that you have impressed the examiner with your vocabulary knowledge!  Overall, you would need to impress the examiner with not just your vocabulary knowledge but with the suitability and accuracy of those words in the context of what you are saying. Showing a lot of  impressive vocabulary but also showing that you do not fully understand the meaning and usage of those words will not result in an 8 for vocabulary! Several errors like that would actually result in a 6 for vocabulary, or even a 5 if you repeatedly show this weakness.

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Combination 2

Pronunciation 6

Grammar 7

Vocabulary 7

Fluency & Coherence 8

This would probably be the easiest way to get 7.0 for those Chinese students who love talking. But to get an 8 in Fluency and Coherence, you need to be both very fluent and show a very strong ability to connect your ideas, (i.e., coherence). To get this 8, you definitely need to spend many hours communicating in English with others (, who don't have to be native English speakers).

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Combination 3

Pronunciation 6

Grammar 8

Vocabulary 7

Fluency & Coherence 7

This way is also possible for those students who thoroughly learn quite advanced grammar, who can use this grammar quite effortlessly in speaking and who make almost no small errors. However, in my experience, candidates reaching Band 8 level in grammar in China are quite rare. You don't have to use Band 8 level sentences for everything you say, but you will need to make many sentences at that level to impress the examiner enough for an 8. Almost certainly, you would need to spend several months seriously practicing with the book (& recordings), 'Side by Side'. Why do I emphasize this book so much? Because it is based on making grammatically correct sentences in a speaking context. Just studying grammar using the usual grammar books is good, but to a large extent, most grammar books are meant for writing more than speaking.

As I mentioned earlier in this article and as I mention in the notes for Combination 5, I personally believe an 8 for grammar would strongly convince most examiners that, for most candidates, the overall speaking standard is at least a 7.0. (This is for most candidates, although it is possible for a candidate to show big differences between his grammar and some other sub-scores and in this case, the examiner would feel that an overall score of 7 is probably not an accurate assessment.) 

For most candidates, what is the practical effect of such a strong impression on the examiner? It might not have any practical effect if the examiner is very clear about the accuracy of all the 4 sub-scores he gives you. But if there is one sub-score that the examiner is not very sure about, this strong impression can have a practical effect. It works like this Let's say the examiner writes on a little piece of paper a '6' for pronunciation because he or she (the examiner) is sure that is your pronunciation score and an '8' for grammar because he is convinced you are at that level. Let's also say that the examiner is very sure that you are a '7' for vocabulary. But for the Fluency & Coherence score, let's say the examiner is in two minds about what score to give you you seem to be a '6.5' for this score, better than a typical 6 but not a convincing 7, but there is no sub-score of '6.5' because the sub-scores are only whole numbers. In this case, the examiner would be fully justified in either giving you a 6 or a 7 for this sub-score. That is, probably about half of other examiners would give you a 6 but the other half would give you a 7. Now, if the examiner had given you a 6 for this sub-score, the final score is (6+8+7+6)/4 = 27/4 = 6.75 6.5. Many examiners would leave it there but I believe many others would think, "No, this candidate is clearly better than the typical candidate who gets a 6.5. This candidate really is closer to a typical 7.0 candidate than to a typical 6.5 candidate." In this case, the examiner would change his Fluency and Coherence sub-score to a '7'. The same situation would apply if the examiner was convinced that you were a 7 for Fluency and Coherence but was in two minds about your Vocabulary sub-score.

However, if the examiner was in two minds about both the Vocabulary score and the Fluency & Coherence score, I don't believe many examiners would change both sub-scores from 6 to 7, even if the candidate was a convincing 8 for grammar. This is because the sub-score system is supposed to be an 'averaging process' so that the overall score is a good overall or average assessment of the candidate's speaking ability and changing two scores upwards would not be a balanced process of averaging. Not only that, the examiner would not change even one of these sub-scores because changing just one of these scores upwards would make no difference, as you can see here: After changing one score upwards, (6+8+7+6)/4 = 27/4 = 6.75 6.5; After not changing any score upwards, (6+8+6+6)/4 = 26/4 = 6.5.

As I said, it is my personal opinion that strong grammar leaves this impression on most examiners. However, it is possible that some examiners are more impressed by Fluency (in combination with Coherence), by Vocabulary or by Pronunciation. Since the 4 sub-scores are supposed to carry equal weight in the calculations, it is really just a subjective judgment on what sub-score, if any, impresses examiners more than the others.

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Combination 4

Pronunciation 8

Grammar 6

Vocabulary 7

Fluency & Coherence 7

This combination might be the easiest way for a small number people to get a 7, for example, people who have lived overseas for a while and can now speak with a pronunciation very similar to a native speaker, or those who have been exposed to native speakers quite a lot (either in real life or on recordings). 

However, as I mentioned previously, an examiner would have to be very impressed by your pronunciation to give you an 8 (the highest possible score for pronunciation).  

To get an 8 for pronunciation, it would be best, although not essential, to speak with one, quite recognizable, national accent an accent from England, North America or even Australia (as long as it is easily understood). However, although speaking with a single national accent is preferable because it is more convincing to an examiner and more natural-sounding, a mixed accent is also possible, in theory. For example, speaking with an accent from England at times and one from the U.S.A. at other times, can still convince the examiner that you are an 8 for pronunciation. ('Accent' and 'pronunciation' are not exactly the same but they do go together.)

I sometimes worry about recommending the book 'Side by Side' because this is American, when I also recommend students to mimic the Listening tests in the Cambridge test books, which contain a mixture of British, Australian, (New Zealand) & Canadian accents. There is a small danger that someone who speaks with a 'mixed accent' might create a momentary lack of word recognition in the listener (the examiner) because the examiner might be expecting you to use one accent or one form of pronunciation only. But I have not found a British-English book that is as good as 'Side by Side'. Overall, I feel that the benefits of using 'Side by Side' far outweigh any possible problems that could result from speaking with a mixed accent and using mixed pronunciation.

As well as showing recognizable native speaker accents (to some extent), in order to get an 8 for pronunciation, you need to show fine shades of meaning by using intonation, as native English speakers do. To develop this skill, you would need to either spend a lot of time with native English speakers or spend a lot of time mimicking recordings of native speakers speaking naturally

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Combination 5

Pronunciation 8

Grammar 7

Vocabulary 6

Fluency & Coherence 7

This combination is similar to Combination 4. In theory, each of the sub-scores carries equal weight. But I tend to believe that examiners would be 'more convinced' that you are a Band 7 if you get a 7 for grammar so this combination would, in my opinion, be a more convincing 7.0 than Combination 4.

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Combination 6

Pronunciation 8

Grammar 7

Vocabulary 7

Fluency & Coherence 6

This combination is similar to Combinations 4 & 5 but it would be unusual for a person to have exceptional pronunciation but only 'average' fluency. Nevertheless, this score combination is possible, for example, if you are shy and this reduces your fluency, if you stutter quite a lot, if you stop talking a little bit (not a lot) in your Part 2 or if you only show enough linking words and phrases (discourse markers) in the coherence section to get a 6 but not a 7. 

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     A Few Final Words

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An Email from a Student on the Topic of Getting a 7 for Speaking.

XXXXX wrote:

Dear Mr. Green,

First of all, I would like to thank you for establishing such a wonderful website that benefits hundreds of thousands of IELTS examinees including me. I really appreciate your hard work, kindness and devotion, coz I know it requires strong perseverance to keep this website going. 

Get down to business, I am writing to ask for your instruction. I have already had 4 IELTS tests, and will still have to take it... 

I could easily get an overall score of 8 with Listening, Reading and Writing all above 7; while my Speaking results are always 6.5. I started learning English at 5 years old; and as a graduate of foreign language institute, I am confident that my English has a very solid base. 

In the Speaking test, I had pleasant and smooth conversations with the examiners, and had no problem organizing and delivering a 1-2 minutes' short speech.

As for practice, I talk to some American friends face to face for 1-2 hours once a week (this activity started from early February). Usually, they prepare a topic with a list of questions, and we discuss it. They say my English is very good (though i know there is a bit of exaggeration).

"7" in each item of the IELTS test is a must for me, but the "6.5"s make me so frustrated. Could you please give me some hints on how to improve my oral English? What are the essentials for scoring a 7 in IELTS Speaking test?

Looking forward to your reply. Thank you very much!!

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My Reply

 

Hi XXXXXX,

I don't know why you are not getting a 7 for speaking. But here are a few suggestions: 

  1. show the examiner very clearly that you have very good complex sentence making ability,
  2. reduce and virtually eliminate any minor grammar errors,
  3. show the examiner very clearly that you have a very good ability to use a wide variety of discourse connectives (linking devices for cohesion),
  4. [also see this Note, below]
  5. show the examiner very clearly that you have a very good knowledge of several phrasal verbs,
  6. clearly & frequently show the examiner that you can make sentences at the higher-level of grammar such as, "I chose to study XXX because I thought it would lead to a well-paid and interesting career" and, "If he hadn't given me that advice, I probably would have made an unsuitable career choice" and 
  7. use contractions much more than you use the full form of verbs.

If you especially do a, b, c, d & e, the examiner almost has no choice but to give you a 7.

You wrote > I had pleasant and smooth conversations with the examiners <  You should aim for this, AND MORE. You really have to impress the examiner in several ways to get a 7.0 or more. 

Just speaking to native English speakers might not be good enough, although it is good for your fluency. Are they trained English teachers? Do they really point out and explain your errors and do they really suggest improvements? Do they know what IELTS Speaking examiners think is important?

Hopefully, if you follow my suggestions, you'll get an examiner who recognizes that you really are a Band 7.

Good luck,

Chris


P.S. I forgot to add these points:
 

      Here's an example:

 
Q: "What's the government doing to help low income people buy their own homes?"

 
A: "I really don't know because I haven't been following this topic in the news but if I were the government, I'd build many small, very cheap flats and sell them to low-income people at a very low price, even at a loss."

      Notice how that answer gives your suggested solution to the problem, even though the question is asking for information about what the government is doing. You don't know the answer to the original question but you didn't stop talking after you said you didn't know you are willing to keep talking about some other aspect of the topic. This is the way people talk when they are discussing a topic. 

    Make sure you show the examiner that you can answer Yes/No questions suitably. See http://ielts-yasi.englishlab.net/YES_NO_QUESTIONS.htm 


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Her Next Email

From: XXXXX>
Subject: Thank you so much!!!
To: "Chris Green" <gelin3@yahoo.com>
Date: Thursday, July 10, 2008, 7:06 PM

Dear Mr. Green,  

Words cannot express my gratitude and excitement. I got a 7 in Speaking, finally!!  

Following your advice, my capability of making long complex sentences has been greatly improved. I paid more attention to grammar when I speak, and made sentences with subjunctive mood and different types of subordinate clauses and murmured them very often. It works!! Even though I didn't spoke better than previous times (in terms of vocabulary), I found myself successfully saying the complex sentences. 

Thank you so much!!

 XXXXX 

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My Comment

This girl got 7 for Speaking before August, 2008 when a sub-score of 7 for Pronunciation became possible. Now, it should be a bit easier for people to get 7 for Speaking because many people are good enough to qualify for 7 in Pronunciation. (Before August, 2008, you had to be very good in pronunciation to get 8 for that sub-score and most people who now get a 7 for pronunciation were only getting a 6 for this sub-score.)

So, for this girl, my guess is that she got the following sub-scores:

Pronunciation - 6

Grammar - 7

Vocabulary - 8

Fluency and Coherence - 7

 

Alternatively, her sub-scores might have been:

Pronunciation - 6

Grammar - 7

Vocabulary - 7

Fluency and Coherence - 8

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Note about "discourse markers"

Previously, instead of the phrase, "discourse connectives", I wrote "discourse markers". I was mistaken in my use of terminology but the link to linking devices for cohesion shows what I mean. If you go here to wikipedia, you'll see that it says about discourse markers:

In linguistics, a discourse marker is a word or phrase that is relatively syntax-independent and does not change the meaning of the sentence , and has a somewhat empty meaning.[1] Examples of discourse markers include the particles "oh", "well", "now", "then", "you know", and "I mean", and the connectives "so", "because", "and", "but", and "or".[2]  

Some people call these, "fluency fillers".  I do suggest that you learn how to include a moderate amount of these discourse markers (or, fluency fillers) in your speech because they are examples of natural language that do serve a purpose and they do help you to be more fluent and natural-sounding. But you should not overuse them (or overuse any one phrase) in the speaking test. The use of these will help your coherence sub-score but these alone are not enough to get a score of 6 or more for coherence.

What the examiner is looking for more is your knowledge of discourse connectives, which help to improve the comprehension of the listener when you are speaking a mixture of complex ideas and when you are speaking for a long time, such as in Part 2. One key point is to know about the natural usage of these connectives in a spoken situation. If you "speak like a book" too much, that is, if you speak too formally, you will probably get a 6 for your coherence sub-score but you might not get a 7 because the examiner might feel that you lack some knowledge concerning the appropriate usage of these connectives.

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