Measuring Vocabulary Skill in IELTS Speaking

Part Three of the Speaking Test is used to measure your vocabulary level. If you look at the Public Band Descriptors they talk about “familiar” and “unfamiliar” topics. Part I and Part 2 contain “familiar” topics. You know this because they ask questions about “you”. In Part Three, where the questions are more general, the questions involve unfamiliar” topics and you know this because instead of asking “… where do you like to go for a holiday” they will ask you “where do people in YOUR COUNTRY like to have a holiday”.

Your vocabulary score is determined by your use of lexis (words) in this part of the test. For example, according to the Public Band Descriptors a candidate at:

Band 3
  • Uses simple vocabulary to convey personal information.
  • Has insufficient vocabulary for less familiar topics.
  • Gives only simple responses and is frequently unable to convey basic message.
  • Has limited ability to link simple sentences.
Band 4
  • Is able to talk about familiar topics.
  • Can only convey basic meaning on unfamiliar topics.
  • Makes frequent errors in word choice.
  • Rarely attempts paraphrase.
Band 5
  • Manages to talk about familiar.
  • Is also able to talk about unfamiliar topics.
  • Uses vocabulary with limited flexibility.
  • Attempts to use paraphrase but with mixed success.
Band 6
  • Has a wide enough vocabulary to discuss all topics at length.
  • Makes meaning clear in spite of errors.
  • Generally paraphrases successfully.
Band 7
  • Uses vocabulary resource flexibly to discuss a variety of topics.
  • Uses some less common and idiomatic vocabulary.
  • Shows some awareness of style and collocation, with some inappropriate choices.
  • Uses paraphrase effectively.
Band 8
  • Uses a wide vocabulary resource readily and flexibly to convey precise meaning.
  • Uses less common and idiomatic vocabulary skillfully, with occasional inaccuracies.
  • Uses paraphrase effectively as required.

Look carefully at the first two bullet points in these descriptions.

From Band 3 to Band 6 there is a transition of increasing ability to talk about BOTH familiar and unfamiliar topic areas but it is only at Band 6 where the candidate is able to talk about all topics AT LENGTH.

  • Band 3: The candidate cannot talk about unfamiliar topics
  • Band 4: The candidate can give only basic information about unfamiliar topics
  • Band 5: The candidate can talk in a limited way about unfamiliar topics
  • Band 6: The candidate can talk AT LENGTH about unfamiliar topics

These words AT LENGTH are very significant. Candidates who deliberately don’t speak very much because they are worried that the more they speak the more errors they will make, will never have the opportunity of getting higher than Band 5 for their Lexical Resource (vocabulary) score.

 

Talking At Length

This is especially for those about to take the IELTS test.

Do your best to relax in the speaking test and DO NOT be afraid to talk a lot even if you make mistakes in grammar – everyone, including CNN and BBC reporters, makes mistakes now and then. This is NOT the most important thing. What IS important is that you get your message across, even if it contains grammar errors.

The Public Band Descriptors at Band 6, for BOTH Fluency and Coherence AND Lexical Resource (vocabulary), refer to the ability of the candidate to talk at length. What this means is that IF the candidate DOES NOT ‘talk at length’ they will NOT achieve Band 6.

So what does “at length’ mean?

It means the ability to extend each answer with supporting material so that your answer is, say, 15 to 30 seconds long.

If you are asked for example, “What subject are you studying?” or “What work do you do?”, DO NOT give a brief answer like: “physics” or “business” or “medicine” or “I’m an architect” or “I’m an engineer”. Extend the answer so that it gives some detail about what you do so you can talk for at least 15 seconds BUT (for part 1) don’t talk longer than 30 seconds.

For example:

“Well… I’m an engineer, in fact, I am civil engineer. Although, for a time when I was young, I really wanted to study science, I found that engineering was really a fascinating field. Civil engineering in particular attracted me because it is so important for society – bridges, dams, roads … things people need everyday … civil engineers play a role in all of these.”

Or, if you are answering the question: “What subject are you studying?” you might say:

“Actually … I am studying medicine. It was not something I always wanted to do although both my parents are doctors. That might sound surprising, but I really loved music when I was young and wanted to study piano. As I grew up, however, I saw the work my parents did and was really impressed by how much they helped people so I decided I would follow in their footsteps and study medicine too.”

The answers YOU give to these questions will be highly personal, you cannot memorize the answer someone else would give. The important thing is to EXTEND your answers but NOT talk longer than 30 seconds in part 1 (in part 2 and 3 you can talk until the examiner stops you).

IELTS SPEAKING: ACHIEVING BAND 8 (Part 4)

This is the final part of “Achieving Band 8″. For pronunciation at Band 8 the Public Band Descriptors say this:

  • uses a wide range of pronunciation features
  • sustains flexible use of features, with only occasional lapses
  • is easy to understand throughout; L1 accent has minimal effect on intelligibility

As pointed out in an earlier post, which you can read in the “Speaking” Category on the IELTS English blog, when I ‘googled’ the words “good pronunciation” and “pronunciation features”, I came up with:

  1.  pronounces the words and sounds of English correctly: enunciation
  2.  uses the correct stress in English words and sentences
  3.  uses the correct intonation
  4.  links words together correctly when speaking: what the University of Technology Sydney calls “pausing and chunking”

So what does this mean in the IELTS exam for achieving Band 8?

  1. Speak CLEARLY so the examiner can understand EVERY word spoken
  2. Put FEELING and EXPRESSION into your voice so you are using word stress and intonation ALL the time
  3. Consistently group words into meaningful chunks: a simple example is the statement “this is a problem”, when properly grouped together the “this-s-a” part almost sounds like one single word: “this-s-a problem”; “this-s-a table”; “this-s-a chair” the words are not spoken individually and mechanically like: “this / is / a / problem”

This last point, what UTS describes as ‘chunking’, is really another aspect of speaking ‘smoothly’.

To achieve Band 8 the candidate must show ALL (“uses a wide range of pronunciation features”) these pronunciation features continuously, not just some of the time, (” sustains flexible use of features, with only occasional lapses”) and must clearly enunciate words so that they are easily understood for the whole test (“is easy to understand throughout”).

Easy, right?

No! It is extremely difficult, which is why less than 1% of candidates in Thailand achieve it.

Is it worth trying for? ABSOLUTELY! Believe in yourself and your ability, that is the first step to being successful at anything.

IELTS SPEAKING: ACHIEVING BAND 8 (Part 3)

For Grammar Range and Accuracy the Public Band Descriptors say this at Band 8:

  • uses a wide range of structures flexibly
  • produces a majority of error-free sentences with only very occasional inappropriate language or basic/non-systematic errors

This is a difficult criteria to satisfy.

It means you must be able to use a wide range of sentence types: simple, compound, complex (subordinate clauses, relative clauses, if-conditionals, modal verbs, perfect tenses), compound/complex and do it almost error free. Systematic errors like repeated mistakes with articles, subject-verb agreement, plurals, modals are also not allowed at this level.

One of the big differences between Band 7 and Band 8 is the much greater level of accuracy required at Band 8 level (“a majority of error-free sentences “) compared to Band 7 (“frequently produces error-free sentences”)  and it is one of the things that makes Band 8 so hard to achieve.

IELTS SPEAKING: ACHIEVING BAND 8 (Part 2)

The Public Band Descriptors say this about Lexical Resource (vocabulary):

• uses a wide vocabulary resource readily and flexibly to convey precise meaning
• uses less common and idiomatic vocabulary skilfully, with occasional inaccuracies
• uses paraphrase effectively as required

This means the candidate uses the correct words to talk about whatever topic they are asked when explaining their opinion (“precise meaning”) and they do it fluently without pausing (“readily”).

It also means the candidate has a wide enough vocabulary that they can use some less common words. That doesn’t mean some big complex words that even native English speakers hardly ever use, it simply means words that accurately explain the meaning the candidate is trying to express but are above the level of basic vocabulary. An example might be using the word “vehicle” instead of “car”, or “financial management” instead of “taking care of money” or “sustainable development” instead of “develop in a way that doesn’t use up all the things in the world”.

I made a long post on the blog about idiomatic vocabulary recently. You will find it here.

This post was about achieving Band 7 in vocabulary but it applies even more to Band 8 where examiners are expecting to hear much more use of idiomatic language. This criteria makes it difficult to achieve Band 8 in vocabulary.

Finally, being able to “paraphrase effectively” means that when the candidate cannot remember the word they want to use, they are able to explain what they mean by using other words. For example, suppose I am trying to tell the examiner I keep something valuable that I own in my wardrobe but I can’t remember the word “wardrobe”, I might say this:

“…. I keep it in …. mmmmm … I keep it in ….. oh, look, it is on the tip of my tongue … you know … that thing people keep their clothes in … I keep it there …..”

“that thing people keep their clothes in” effectively explains exactly where I keep it AND I also said “it is on the tip of my tongue” which is an idiomatic expression meaning “I can almost remember but just can’t think of it at the moment”.

More next time.

IELTS SPEAKING: ACHIEVING BAND 8 (Part 1)

Here is what the Public Band Descriptors say for Band 8 under Fluency and Coherence:
  • speaks fluently with only occasional repetition or self-correction
  • hesitation is usually content-related and only rarely to search for language
  • develops topics coherently and appropriately
What does this mean?

Quite simply, it means that the candidate speaks almost as fluently as a native English speaker: “only occasional repetition or self-correction” – means it doesn’t happen much; hesitation is used “only rarely to search for language” means that the grammar and vocabulary of the candidate are almost “second nature” – they don’t have to take time to think of the grammar or vocabulary when they answer.

In addition it says the topic must be developed in some detail (“develops topics appropriately”) and directly answers the question asked (“develops topics coherently”). In short, the answer has to make sense AND be developed with some amount of detail.

More next time for those interested.

Achieving Band 7 for Vocabulary

Achieving Band 7 in the IELTS Speaking Test: Vocabulary

I was asked a great question yesterday after the free Speaking Clinic about using idioms to help get Band 7.

Under “Lexical Resource”  for Speaking the Public Band Descriptors say this:

  • uses some less common and idiomatic vocabulary and shows some awareness of style and collocation, with some inappropriate choices

“with some inappropriate choices” means the candidate still makes mistakes in putting word combinations (collocations) together.

“awareness of style and collocation” refers to the candidates ability to use words the way they are used in normal English. Native English speakers often use words in pairs or small groups. For example we say “knife and fork” – we never say “fork and knife”, there is nothing wrong with “fork and knife”, it is perfectly understandable, it is just that it is not the way we say it.

Some examples of collocations are:

  • global warming

  • sustainable development

  • financial management

  • job satisfaction

“less common vocabulary” this is referring to the candidate’s ability to show they know a greater variety of vocabulary than just basic words. For example, the candidate might be asked to “describe a car or motorbike that you would like to buy” and if they answered something like:

“Well … you know … the kind of vehicle I’ve always wanted to buy is ….”

the word ‘vehicle’ is less common vocabulary. It is simply not possible to give a list of all the words that satisfy this criteria of being “less common” – expand your vocabulary is the best advice to everyone.

“idiomatic vocabulary” this is referring to both idiomatic words (“hmmm … a sporting activity I like ….. well, actually … I am really keen on diving….” – “keen on” = to like something) and idiomatic expressions e.g. “once in a blue moon” = very rarely.

This bring us to “idioms”. In the past I helped a candidate achieve Band 7 by teaching her to use idioms BUT most teachers will tell you this is a waste of time and they have a point. To learn to use even a few idioms well enough to help get Band 7 takes hours and hours of practice. So you have to decide if you are prepared to put the time in to achieve the result.

1.            “in a nutshell” (‘to put it in a nut shell’) = in brief, in short,

in summary

This can be used to sum up what you say after you have given some details or it can be used before you give the details to summarize what you are about to day. If you used it differently each time, you could actually use this one twice in the exam.

Here is an example of the second use, summarizing what I am about to say BEFORE I say it:

The examiner asks:

“Can you describe the qualities of a good teacher?”

The candidate says:

“Well … to put it in a nutshell, if someone wants to be a teacher they MUST have a teacher’s heart. By this I mean …..”

“in a nutshell” is usually easy to fit into the test somewhere.

BUT …. you will have to practice it a lot.

 

2.            “it’s on the tip of my tongue” meaning you can almost remember something but not quite – it only applies to a word or a name usually.

The reason it can be useful is for those times when you can’t think of the right word like the example I gave in the Speaking Clinic with the word ‘wardrobe’

The examiner asks:

“Describe something you own which is important to you”

the candidate describes a camera he has been given and says:

“… it is very important to me so i don’t leave it out where everyone can see it … I keep it in ….hmm … I keep it in … oh look … it is on the tip of my tongue ….. you know …. that thing where people keep their clothes …. I keep it in there so it is safe and out of sight …..”

‘tip of my tongue’ can also be used another way … to describe something you were about to say but chose not to:

Examiner asks:

“What do you enjoy about your job?”

Candidate answers:

“Actually I love my job not because of the work but because of my colleagues … well … except for my boss … when he was extremely rude yesterday it was on the tip of my tongue to tell him he had no right to talk to people that way, but I decided it was better to stay quiet.”

 

3.            “put my feet up” = to relax

There are some restrictions on the use of this as we talked about but it is usually easy to decide when it is OK and when it isn’t. If you really could put your feet up in the place you are talking about then it is OK to use the idiom. It is usually not too difficult to work this into a question but like the example I gave about going to the restaurant you might have to manipulate the question.

Example:

The examiner asks you:

“Do you know your neighbours very well?”

And the candidate answers:

“Do you know? … I am the kind of person who likes to go home put my feet up for a few hours and just read the newspaper or watch TV. BUT … as soon as my neighbour hears me come home she comes over for a chat, EVERY day! …”

Because I already have in my mind that I want to use the idiom it is not so hard to work it into the conversation.

Here is another example:

Examiner asks:

“What do you enjoy about your job?”

Candidate answers:

Most people are surprised when I tell them that I love the work and pressure in my job. I am the kind of person who feels guilty if I put my feet up and do nothing … I have always been like that  … I actually enjoy the hard work and in MY job there’s lots of it! …..”

 

The problem is, if the candidate cannot do this almost without thinking, it will cause them to hesitate while their brain figures out how they can work it into the answer. This is why it takes hours and hours of practice to do this well. To get the credit for band 7, it HAS to be done well.

(Although it shouldn’t matter, a candidate who uses lots of word stress and intonation, i.e. puts lots of feeling into their voice, and who speaks very fluently will have a better chance of convincing the examiner they deserve Band 7 for vocab with just a few idioms or good words.)

4.            “to have a ball”  = to have a good time

No real restrictions on its use that I can think of.

“…. if my friends call up we always go to a little Thai restaurant near my house because the staff are so friendly and we always have a ball when we go to eat there.”

 

5.            “to hang out with” = to spend time with

This is quite common but it often is the only idiom a candidate will use.

Examiner asks:

“What do you usually do on weekends?”

Candidate says:

“Actually, I usually just stay at home, put my feet up and watch TV, but if I am hanging out with my friends we will often go shopping in Siam Square at the weekend or maybe ….”

(Notice that this idiom is really a verb structure and it is used in the continuous form here). Of course, I don’t have to be this complicated, the candidate could have just said:

” At weekends I usually like to hang out with my friends in Siam Square where we go window shopping, usually, for clothes at ….”

 

6.            “hit home” = something you have come to understand very well but (perhaps) didn’t realize at first

Examiner asks:

“What kind of weather do you have in your country?”

Candidate says:

“Do you know …. Thailand has very hot weather … all year .. it is quite hot. It didn’t really hit home just how much I enjoy this type of weather until I started to think about going to the UK study. I am worried that it will be too cold there…. but … to answer your question … it is hot in Thailand … it is a tropical climate … …”

Improving Listening Skill

One of the things that makes listening difficult in English is the weak “schwa” sound. It is the sound at the end of words like doct/or/; lawy/er/; teach/er/ . It is the most common sound in English and appears in almost every word.

The Schwa Sound

The “schwa” sound allows English to be spoken very fast and helps put the word stress in the right place:

Badly Spoken English

Well Spoken

This quick ‘schwa’ sound is the reason that “you” in this sentence:

“How are you today?”

Actually sounds the same as the “your” in this one:

“How is your mother?”

when these sentences are spoken by a native English speaker.

How Are You Today?

Learning to hear this sound and understand the word it is in means training your ear to hear and understand real spoken English.

This will also get you a higher mark in the speaking test when you start using the sound in your own speaking you will get a much higher score for pronunciation because you will now be using word stress much more like an native English speaker.

How do you ‘train’ your ear. Practice! You need to listen to a passage of spoken English and WRITE DOWN what the speaker is saying. When you have 4 or 5 lines down check the script and see how well you did.

Where can you get audio AND script?

There are many places on the internet and even IELTS Listening tests can be used for this task if you have any practice material. One great source that is easily accessible is the British Council website:

Audio and Script Files for Listening Practice (Source: The British Council)

When you are doing this practice concentrate on hearing the ends of the words: the “ed” sounds and the “s” sounds. ten to fifteen percent of marks are lost in the listening test in Thailand because candidates do not hear the end of the words. (That is around 1 to 1.5 bands or more).

Achieving 6.5 In Speaking

The Speaking Test is assessed in 4 areas:
  1. Fluency and Coherence (speaking smoothly in logical sentences)
  2. Lexical Resource (vocabulary)
  3. Grammar Range and Accuracy (the types of sentences and grammar accuracy)
  4. Pronunciation
The easiest way to get Band 6.5 is to get two 6′s and two 7′s. (Examiners only award whole numbers in each assessment area).

Let’s look very briefly at each assessment criteria.

  1. Fluency and Coherence (Need Band 7 – not easy but with practice, possible)
    The candidate will have to speak without noticeable effort (not stopping much). Speaking at length and connecting sentences together smoothly. Part 1: 20-30 second answers; Part 2: two minute answer (let the examiner stop you speaking); part 3: 1-1.5 minute answers
  2. Lexical Resource (vocabulary) (Band 6 will be enough)
    Being able to talk about all the questions the examiner asks at length with words that allow you to talk accurately about the topic will be enough. Less common words and idiomatic language can get Band 7 but this needs a post if its own to talk about.
  3. Grammar Range and Accuracy (Need Band 7 – not easy)
    The candidate will have to use many words from the following list: although, even though, while, whereas, when, who, that, which, if, even if, may, might, must, can, could, will, would.
    This list is not the only possible list of words to use but using words on this list will mean you are producing complex grammatical structures: Subordinate clauses, relative clauses, if-clauses, modal verbs. All of these are required to get to band 6 for grammar and they have to be FREQUENTLY CORRECT to get Band 7.
  4. Pronunciation (Band 6 will be enough)
    The candidate will need to talk very clearly so the examiner can understand EVERY WORD the candidate says. (This is getting up to Band 8 level).
    They will need to speak smoothly, grouping words into meaningful chunks. A good Fluency mark will help here.
    They will also need to put lots of feeling, enthusiasm and excitement into their voice.
    You want the examiner to be thinking if he should give you Band 6 or 7; we don’t want him wondering if he should be giving Band 5 or 6.
This is already a long answer and it really needs more information but I hope this gives you some direction as to where to concentrate your efforts. Please post a comment or email me at barrie@ielts-english.info if you need more information.

IELTS Speaking Test: Pronunciation

At Band 6 for speaking, the Public Band Descriptors say:

  • uses a range of pronunciation features with mixed control
  • shows some effective use of features but this is not sustained
  • can generally be understood throughout, though mispronunciation of individual words or sounds reduces clarity at times

and at Band 7 they say:

  • shows all the positive features of Band 6 and some, but not all, of the positive features of Band 8

and at Band 8 they say:

  • uses a wide range of pronunciation features
  • sustains flexible use of features, with only occasional lapses
  • is easy to understand throughout; L1 accent has minimal effect on intelligibility

What do we learn from this?

  1. to achieve Band 6 the candidate MUST be able to pronounce the words so that the examiner can understand MOST of the time: “mispronunciation of individual words or sounds reduces clarity at times”
  2. at Band 6 all “pronunciation features” are shown but the candidate is unable to show them all the time
  3. To get Band 7 a candidate must show everything from Band 6 and at least TWO things from Band 8! this is because the Public Band Descriptors say “some …” which implies more than 1.

So what are “pronunciation features”?

I ‘googled’ the words “good pronunciation” and “pronunciation features” and came up with:

  1. pronounce the words and sounds of English correctly: enunciation
  2. use the correct stress in English words and sentences
  3. use the correct intonation
  4. links words together correctly when speaking: what the University of Technology Sydney calls “pausing and chunking”

So what does this mean in the IELTS exam for achieving Band 6?

  1. Speak CLEARLY so the examiner can understand almost every word spoken
  2. Put FEELING into your voice so you are using word stress and intonation, at least some of the time
  3. Group words into meaningful chunks: a simple example is the statement “this is a problem”, when properly grouped together the “this-s-a” part almost sounds like 1 word: “this-s-a problem”; “this-s-a table”; “this-s-a chair” the words are not spoken individually and mechanically like: “this / is / a / problem”

This last point, what UTS describes as ‘chunking’, is really another aspect of speaking ‘smoothly’.

We will say more about this topic, particularly achieving Band 7, in later posts. If you have questions or comments please post them below or send them directly to me at barrie@ielts-english.info