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.