IELTS Speaking – what is Cambridge looking for? An introduction to IELTS speaking grading criteria.

IELTS Speaking – what is Cambridge looking for? An introduction to IELTS speaking grading criteria.

What is IELTS?

If you’ve never heard of IELTS, you’ll probably come across it sooner or later – it’s the world’s most popular English proficiency test, with over 2 million test takers per year. IELTS is the International English Language Testing System administered by University of Cambridge ESOL Examinations. It is used primarily by students wishing to gain entry onto university courses in English speaking countries, just like the TOEFL. Although IELTS is a British test, it is accepted by most American institutions as well as the majority of universities around the world.

The test is divided into four parts – Listening, Reading, Writing and Speaking. Candidates are assigned a ‘band’ score for each section from 0-9. The average of these bands gives the students’ overall score as a whole or half band (e.g. 6.0 or 6.5).

While the grading for Reading and Listening are straight forward, the Writing and Speaking sections use grading criteria. Understanding these is essential to teaching IELTS effectively. This article will give a brief introduction to the IELTS speaking criteria.


What do my students want?

“How can I get a 7 in IELTS speaking?” This is a question I am often asked by students, and when I first started teaching IELTS many years ago I didn’t really know how to answer the question. ‘Improve your English,” or “Practise more” is the advice I used to give. This was because at that time, it was a mystery to me how the test was graded. However, once I had discovered and got to grips with the IELTS grading criteria, it became much easier for me to create lessons focused very specifically on how to get a required grade in the test. You just have to know what Cambridge is looking for.


Where do I start?

Before you look at the grading criteria, you need to ask the question, “What IELTS speaking score do my students need?” This may seem like an obvious thing to do, but it is often overlooked by teachers in IELTS classes, especially if you have students with different backgrounds, levels and goals. However, this simple question should be the starting point for any IELTS course. Without this knowledge, you cannot give the students the strategies and advice they need to obtain their required score. Typically, a student going on an undergraduate exchange programme may require a 6.0 overall. For post-graduate courses this will most likely be 6.5 or 7.0, and for the top universities, 7.5 overall. Some universities will ask for an overall grade but also stipulate what the student should get in speaking and/or writing.

But once you know the target score, then what?


Understanding the grading criteria

Once you know what score your students need, it is vital that you fully understand the grading criteria used for assessing the speaking test. The publicly available version of the grading criteria, which is slightly less detailed but very similar to the one used by real IELTS examiners, can be found here.

This document can look a little confusing at first glance, so here is an overview of what the four criteria are:
Fluency and Coherence – this measures the student’s ability to express ideas and opinions clearly, logically, and without hesitation. Ideas should be linked together using appropriate language (discourse markers) and topics should be developed fully and naturally.
Lexical Resource – this looks at the range of words and phrases the student can use to talk about a range of topics, and how accurate their use of lexis is. Students should use less common vocabulary and idiomatic expressions, and be able to paraphrase effectively to get higher grades.
Grammatical Range and Accuracy – this assesses the student’s use of a variety of simple and complex grammatical structures and how accurately they employ them.
Pronunciation – this takes into account all features of pronunciation from the production of individual sounds and words to sentence level stress, rhythm and linking, to using intonation for expressing feelings.

To give the student an overall grade for speaking, the examiner will assign a band score for each of the criteria. The overall grade is an average of the four scores, rounded down to the nearest half band. So for example, if the student gets 7, 7, 7, 6 – an average of 6.75 – the overall score will be 6.5.


Understanding the student’s current level

It is also crucial that you understand where the student is now as well as where they need to get to. Unless you know the starting point, you cannot give the right advice to progress. Let’s look at a real example from an IELTS examiner training video of a student who received a 6.0 for speaking, which you can watch in full here (extract below from 00:44 – 1:16):

Tell me about your hometown. What do you like most about your hometown?

“So, I live in Cascais. It’s er, a little town near Lisbon, around about, er, 25 kilometres. And it’s, er, on the coast, so I have a lot of, we have there a lot of beaches, and the weather is pretty warm in the, um, in the summer and it’s not that cold in the winter, so we have a pretty good weather.”

Why is it a 6.0 and how could she improve her score?

Fluency and Coherence
Why it’s a 6.0
She speaks quite naturally and confidently, but with some self-correction and hesitations. Linking of ideas is basic but adequate for the question.
How to improve it
The answer is a little short, so she needs to develop the topic a bit more, and try to reduce the number of hesitations.

Lexical Resource
Why it’s a 6.0
She can express herself adequately to talk about the topic with some colloquialisms (e.g. pretty warm).
How to improve it
The range is a little limited – she repeats the words weather and pretty. The vocabulary she uses is quite simple and common, so she could try to use some less common words.

Grammatical Range and Accuracy
Why it’s a 6.0
The grammar is fairly limited, but good enough to communicate her ideas clearly.
How to improve it
A wider range of more complex grammatical structures is required. Also, she makes too many mistakes to score a 7.

Why it’s a 6.0
Can be generally understood despite some pronunciation issues.
How to improve it
Actually, this is close to scoring a 7, but she loses rhythm through lapses in stress timing, and has some problems with certain phonemes (e.g. the th sound in weather)

So here’s how she could produce an example that would score at least a 7.0

“So, I live in Cascais, which is a really small town around about 25 kilometres from Lisbon, so it’s not too far away from the capital. The town is right on the coast, which means we’ve got loads of gorgeous beaches. But I guess the thing I like most about my hometown is the weather. It’s pretty warm in the summer and it’s also not that cold in the winter, so we’re extremely lucky to have such a fantastic climate. I’ve been living there since I was a child, and I don’t want to live anywhere else.”

Why is this a 7.0?

Fluency and Coherence – as you can see, this is a much fuller answer. The topic is developed fully and answers the question – what do you like most? The structure is logical and coherent, and there are no hesitations.
Lexical Resource – this response uses more precise descriptions (really small, right on the coast) which are crucial to getting a higher score. Also, less common lexical items are used, such as loads of, gorgeous, extremely, and synonyms are used to prevent repetition (e.g. weather – climate).
Grammatical Range and Accuracy – there are more complex sentences in this response using subordinate clauses (which means…) and different tenses (I’ve been living…), and there are no mistakes.
Pronunciation – of course, we can’t hear the response above, but if she can improve her rhythm and stress timing, she would score a 7.


How do I put this into practice in the classroom?

Unfortunately, there isn’t space in this article to go into details with teaching tips. But look out for upcoming articles where I will fully explain each of the grading criteria and give some insights into how to teach each one.

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  • Thanks for your article Michael. It’s very informative.

    I have looked at this topic in a bit more detail. I took each of the IELTS Speaking Criteria and broke them down so students can see the difference between a Band 5 and Band 9 answer. I’ve also included some common problems and tips. Hope you like it.

    • Michael Thundercliffe

      Thanks Christopher, that’s a very useful link. May use it with my students!