Updated July 31, 2013


My Assessment of Zara, the Portuguese Girl

(From this video mention)

Also, her full test is available as an MP3 here.


Overall, I would give her a score of 6.5 for the Speaking test. (See IELTS Speaking band descriptors.) I calculated her score as: [Pronunciation 7 + Vocabulary 7 + Grammar 6 + Fluency & Coherence 6]/4 = 26/4 = 6.5 

However, I think she could quite easily move up to a 7.0 by focusing on and practicing a few key points. I say, "quite easily" because she is already strong in fluency and pronunciation, which are possibly the most time-consuming things to improve, if you need to improve these things. 

I think some examiners would, based on her performance in that test, give her a 7 for the Fluency and Coherence sub-score. But this would only increase her score to 6.75, which goes down to 6.5. But if an examiner also gave her a score of 8 for pronunciation, that would bring her score to 7.0. However, I think to give her an overall score of 7.0 would be too lenient when one looks at the number of small vocabulary and grammar mistakes she made and her lack of precision in answering some questions (coherence) the overall impression is that she is not (yet) quite what a 7.0 should be.

Other people might rate her higher than 6.5 because she has a very good general ability to communicate effectively and naturally, she is very fluent and she gives a good impression of communication skill with her smile, her confidence and her intelligence. The fact that she comes across as a well-educated, middle-class girl who wants to study medicine at university might also influence some people to think her English is actually better than it really is and that she is 'suitable' to get a score to allow her to enter university because she is a 'suitable' person to be a university student. 

One example of her communication skills is her ability to show meaning in subtle ways such as when she said she also studies English in school. When she answered the question about her subjects, she dropped her tone a little and added, almost as an afterthought, "and English" with a shrug, in an almost apologetic way, as if to admit that she thinks her English is not very strong. This is a very European way of communicating, which English also uses and it is a useful skill. However, it's the kind of cultural communication skill that might not be so easy for Chinese students or other North-East Asians, to show. But it's only a small thing and, overall, the speaking test assesses verbal ways to express meaning and, although she was quite good at that, she was not strong enough to get a 7.

Her strongest points are her fluency, vocabulary and her pronunciation. Her grammar is not bad, but not strong enough to get a 7 and, while her overall coherence is also not bad, she uses a limited range of connective words and phrases, is a little faulty on answering questions in a way that focuses on the real meaning of the question and she should give more, and clearer extra information to illustrate her meaning.

Overall, I would say that this girl has had quite a lot of experience in communicating with others in spoken English, which has resulted in her good fluency. One of the good points about getting experience communicating with others in spoken English is that you learn how to communicate fluently and naturally using the limited English that you have. She is a good example of that.

In fact, it seems that she is a high school student in an English speaking school, probably in England. This is probably the reason why she shows several aspects of well-educated and natural speech, including fluency.

This girl could quite easily move up to 7.0 by focusing on and practicing the following things: 

  1. showing a greater range of linking words and phrases for complex sentences, especially the relative pronouns (which, who, etc.),

  1. showing a greater range of connective words and phrases for beginning sentences and linking to the previous sentences (i.e., coherence) 

  1. by purposefully showing the examiner a few more advanced grammatical structures, 

  1. by giving longer and more detailed answers in Part 3, and

  1. by having an even stronger willingness to give the examiner information throughout the test, although she was quite willing to do that. She didn't realize that the questions in Part 1 are "invitations to give information" and as a result, her answer to the question about her school subjects, for example, was limited only to listing the subjects, without adding any comments at all. She especially needs to be more willing to speak about her personal feelings, not just her personal facts.


In More Detail



Her sub-score: 7

Since August 2008, a more specific set of criteria for grading pronunciation has been in use.

Based on these new criteria, I would give this girl a 7 for pronunciation. In fact, under the new criteria, I think she could be close to an 8 for pronunciation but I would be reluctant to give her an 8 because of the small number of instances when I didn't hear her clearly. Under the new criteria, an 8 for pronunciation is now not as hard to get and not as high standard as it was before the new criteria. This is because, under the new criteria, an 8 represents the second best grade for pronunciation whereas before it represented the very top score a candidate could get.

Her pronunciation has more of an American accent than a British accent but that does not detract from the pronunciation quality. 

Generally, her pronunciation is clear although there were a couple of times when I didn't catch what she said. For example, when she gave the reason why she is studying physics, she said something like, "I want to follow in college." I didn't hear that very clearly the first time I watched the video. This is an example of where an unsuitable choice of words partially contributes to the lack of clarity for the listener. Another time was when she introduced the ipod, in Part 2 and she said, " ... the ipod which ....." and the following words are unclear although it is clear that she is saying both teenagers and adults use it. I also didn't catch the words "chill out" the first time I watched the video when she said, " ... at home, when I want to relax or chill out.

I think possibly she was a little too relaxed in the test and forgot that she should try to ensure the examiner can understand her pronunciation. On the one hand, it's good to be relaxed and confident, as she was, because this helps you speak more naturally. But you should also try to project your voice, like a singer, making sure your pronunciation is clear to the listener. For example, whenever you use unusual words or phrases, slow down just a little and project these words especially clearly.

Her pronunciation of "because" as, "coz" is acceptable but she used that pronunciation almost every time she wanted to say, "because". I suggest not overusing this pronunciation or using it habitually because it makes your spoken English sound too casual. Certainly, don't deliberately choose to say that in an attempt to 'impress' the examiner. When candidates deliberately try to impress the examiner with what they think is more 'natural' pronunciation, they usually don't succeed in impressing the examiner   it should come naturally in the course of quite fast speech. (The same applies to, "gonna", "wanna" etc.)



Her sub-score: 7

Overall, she has quite a strong vocabulary. We see in Part 2 that she wisely chose to talk about something, the ipod, that allows her to show a good range of vocabulary that she knows. And in Part 3 she shows quite good vocabulary when talking about technology and its relationship to people. 

She used the idiomatic expressions, "be at ease" and "keep in touch" although I think a few more phrasal verbs would be even better. (A full test might result in more examples of these from her.)

She used the expression, "chill out", which could be considered to be "slang" by many people but since it has become widely used now, it can now be considered to be "a colloquial expression" in general use. ("Slang" is usually used only by certain groups of people.) Colloquial expressions, but not slang, are acceptable language to use in the Speaking test but there should not be too many of them examiners are looking for language that is more suitable for university students, so it should be rather 'educated' English, without being overly formal.

She did show a few 'inappropriacies' (not major errors) in her choice of words but, balancing these against the overall vocabulary knowledge she showed, I think she still qualifies for a 7. 

For example, "I want to follow in college." she should have said, "I want to continue with physics in college." And she said, "in Christmas", "in Easter" when the word "at" should be used here and she said, "in the weekend" when the word "on" or "at" should be used. She also said, "long travels" when she should have said, "long trips"; and she used, "sitting on a desk" instead of "sitting at a desk". Another mistake was her use of "the logics" (instead of "the logic") and "the graphics" (instead of "graphs") when she was talking about physics. She also said, "with my families" (instead of, "with my family") after she had just said, "with my friends". We see that she is not really showing many different errors here but rather, she is sometimes repeating the same or similar error. 

Of the vocabulary errors listed here, "the logics" and "families" could perhaps be listed as grammatical errors uncountable nouns. 



Her sub-score: 6

This is her weakest point. She didn't make many 'large' grammatical mistakes, that is, mistakes that could cause a serious breakdown in communication or a misunderstanding or that just sound terrible. However, the following error would cause confusion in an English speaker who is not used to foreigners speaking English: "... and since they were born they learn how to use these technologies" (which should have been, " ... and they have been learning (or, have learned) how to use these technologies all their lives (or, since they were born)"). This one mistake shows that, almost certainly, her grammar level is not yet at Band 7 standard.

Other smaller errors that she made were:  " ... it has helped work to be much efficient, faster ..." (which should have been, " ... it has helped work to be much more efficient, faster ..."); and, "It's different, I guess." (which should have been, "They're different, I guess.")

As for complex sentences, she adequately showed a Band 6 standard, but I think she should have shown a larger number of complex sentences. (Possibly in a full 14 minute test we would see a larger number of complex sentences from her.) She used the word, "which" about three times in the test, the word, "whenever" about twice, the word, "because" about three or four times and the word, "even" about twice, "but" a few times; "when" (as a relative pronoun) once or twice; the word, "since" once or twice [and, "and" many times]. These are good but she had many opportunities to use these linking words, and others, a lot more. For example, when answering the question about her school subjects, she didn't use the word, "which" once.

I did not see much evidence of 'higher-level' grammatical knowledge (or, usage) at all. Her major grammatical error, mentioned above, shows that she is not skilled in the use of the present perfect continuous tense. The fact that she showed no examples of 'higher-level' grammatical knowledge is the main reason why she only gets a 6 for grammar, not a 7.


Fluency and Coherence

Her sub-score: 6 (or 7)

She's quite fluent, based on the degree to which she can "keep going" and the degree to which she speaks at natural speaking speed. She qualifies for a 7 or even an 8 for fluency but there is no separate score for fluency itself the sub-score for 'Fluency and Coherence' should reflect her ability in both Fluency and Coherence; the score is not an average of these two items. In other words, the lower of the two assessments for Fluency and for Coherence is the sub-score that she gets for Fluency and Coherence. I assess her level of coherence in this test at 6, for the reasons stated below.

Although her coherence is good, that is, she expresses her meaning quite well and it is easy to follow what she says most of the time, she shows a rather limited choice of connective words and phrases. For example, she didn't use such connective phrases as, "On the other hand, ..." or, "As well as that, ...". The main connective words or phrases that she used were the rather simple: "For instance, ..." , "Actually, ..." and, "As I said, ...". For this reason, and the reasons listed, I would give her only a score of 6 for Coherence and therefore a 6 for this overall sub-score.

In Part 2 she was rather repetitious with her use of "and you ...", "and then you ...", "and then you can ...". These are suitable but they are a little simple, as well as the fact that she repeated them too much. She should have tried to show more variety in the way she linked her ideas.

As well as that, the logic of some of her answers is a little faulty because some of her answers should have been more focused on the actual meaning of the question. (Logical answers, especially the degree to which they are direct answers to the question, is part of 'coherence'.)

For example, when the examiner asked, "Is physics a difficult subject?", she just answered with, "Yes. Actually I'm having extra classes now 'coz this year I'm having an examination." She did not say how or why it is a difficult subject for her, although it is suitable to include the information about extra classes in her answer. Throughout the test, she avoided speaking her personal feelings about things.

Similarly, when the examiner asked: "What's the most interesting aspect of physics?", she did begin to give a suitable answer by saying, "I guess it's the logics 'coz we apply a lot of mathematics with formulas and graphics." But when you say why you think something is interesting (interesting to you), you should speak more personally she didn't really say why the use of logic or mathematics is interesting to her. (This is a difficult question, saying why you find something interesting, because it is so abstract!) If she had simply added something like, "and I'm fascinated by the power of logic and mathematics" it would have been a better attempt at expressing herself personally.

Another example of rather faulty logic, also in Part 1, was when the examiner asked, "And do you prefer eating at home or in restaurants?". ('Prefer questions' are a variation of 'compare questions' and a variety of 'like' questions.) She first answered, "It's different, I guess." (It should have been, "They're different, I guess.") This is an acceptable way to begin an answer, by confirming the fact that the two things are different. But she just followed that by basically saying that different circumstances determine where she eats. She didn't really say which she liked more and because she did not say that, she also did not say why she liked one of them more (eating in restaurants or eating at home).

And a final example of one of her answers that was not 100% focused on the meaning of the question was her answer to the question, "What are some of the main uses of technology for communication?" Here, the meaning of the word, "uses" is similar to the meaning of, "activities for a specific purpose" or, "situations". The meaning of "uses" here is more than simply, "examples of technological devices". But she answered by listing the devices, rather than first listing the activities or situations and then following these with the actual devices that are used to achieve that usage or purpose. This was a rather indirect answer. As well as that, she didn't expand her answer with extra information, introduced by connective words such as "which" (for grammar complex sentences) or connective phrases (for coherence) such as, "For example, ..." or "As well as that, ..." .

In answer to this question: "And what differences are there between the attitudes of older people and of younger people towards the use of technology for communication?", she used good logical deduction by first stating that young people are used to these technologies while older people are not so used to them, and then she came to the conclusion that, as a result of not being very used to them, older people feel less at ease with these modern technologies. However, this answer could have been more direct by stating, at the beginning, that older people are less at ease with these technologies. Is seems that she wasn't sure of the attitude differences between older and younger people when she first started her answer but, by "thinking aloud" and comparing the two, she was able to arrive at a suitable conclusion, representing a suitable answer to the question. This "thinking aloud" is a good fluency skill that she displayed, a good way to start answering a rather difficult question immediately, without sitting there thinking silently too long before speaking. (See here, on the topic of "thinking aloud".)

Another language item that I classify under "coherence", rather than grammar, was the way she answered 'Yes/No' questions. She just said, "Yes", "Yeah", "No" or "I guess not", without showing, even once, the skill of making the short answer, "Yes, I do" etc. And I think her answer, "Yeah" to the Part 2 follow-up question, "Do your friends also have ipods?" was too short and simple.

I think she is a 6 for coherence, better than a 5, because she is still quite skilled at communicating and linking her ideas even though she uses a rather limited range of connectives, her answers could be more focused on the meaning of the question and she could give more information to illustrate her meaning.

Overall, I think she is very close to a 7 for the combined Fluency and Coherence score, based on her strong fluency and her coherence that is 'not too bad'. In fact, other examiners (or former examiners like me) might justifiably give her a 7 for this sub-score because, even though I found her logic 'a little faulty', it wasn't 'terrible' and even though I think her use of connective phrases is 'a little weak', she still did use a few of these phrases.