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IELTS Speaking Criteria and Areas for Improvement

Analysis by Dr. Linh Phung

with the contribution of IELTS Examiner Lara Hauer


If you have taken the IELTS exam or prepared for it, you are probably familiar with the four grading criteria for the speaking exam. They are (1) fluency and coherence, (2) lexical resource, (3) grammatical range and accuracy, and (4) pronunciation.

Fluency and coherence

Fluency refers to the amount of language produced and whether you need to hesitate, self-correct, or repeat ideas to keep going.

Coherence has to do with how the ideas are connected and flow together. Using connecting words, such as first, second, in addition, overall, and so on will help with coherence.

Lexical resource

Lexical resource means the use of vocabulary. This criterion refers to your ability to use words accurately and flexibly to express your ideas: whether the words match the meaning and whether you use them correctly with other words (collocation). You will also need to demonstrate the ability to use a wide range of vocabulary items and idiomatic expressions if you want to achieve a high score.

Grammatical range and accuracy

Grammatical range has to do with your ability to use both simple and complex sentences. To get a high score, you need a wide range of complex structures.

Accuracy refers to your ability to use grammar correctly. The more errors you make, the less accurate you are. To receive a high score (e.g. Band 7), you need to frequently produce error-free sentences. It means most of your sentences are free of errors.


Pronunciation covers different features including the pronunciation of sounds, intonation, and rhythm. Together they make your speech easy or difficult to understand.


After listening to my students’ mock IELTS interviews with an IELTS examiner, I’ve noticed a few patterns in their performance. There are 10 students in the group, and their estimated band scores based on the interviews range from 5.0 to 7.0.

Students meet the four criteria differently. However, overall, this group of students are quite good at their pronunciation of sounds and intonation except for some who make errors in the pronunciation of words or fail to enunciate words clearly and one or two who need to work on grouping words together into chunks. Students also use a variety of sentence structures: adverbial clauses with conjunctions such as because, when, after, and if; infinitive clauses; gerund clauses; and relative clauses. They can also produce a good amount of language by keeping talking to answer questions. Most students use a variety of vocabulary items and less common words and expressions, such as mischief, intriguing, extinct, hustle and bustle, to the best of my knowledge, as far as I know, from my perspective …

Regarding areas for improvement, students need to improve their fluency by reducing the number of hesitations due to long pauses or frequent fillers such as er and um. Another common weakness lies in grammatical accuracy. The common grammatical errors within this group include the following types. Other errors are not analyzed here.

Singular and plural nouns

Students tend to use a singular noun when a plural noun is called for. Using plural nouns accurately can be difficult because without the plural form, the meaning of the sentence is still clear. Another reason is that Vietnamese students may not be consistent in pronouncing the s sound at the end of a word. In addition, some students over-pronounce s by adding the sound to words that don’t require it, pointing to the issue of pronunciation rather than grammar. Whatever the reason is, the IELTS examiner will take notes of these errors and mark grammatical accuracy down when they are too frequent. Below are some examples from my students’ performance.

1. There are plains, rocky mountain, hills, and rivers. (Correct form: mountains)

2. I don’t often visit farm. (Correct form: farms)

3. People keep dog, cat, fish, bird inside their home because these animal they are friendly and fish can be animal that decorate the house. (Correct forms: dogs, cats, birds, animals)

Subject-Verb agreement

When necessary, the verb has to agree with the subject in number. In a nutshell, when the subject is singular (e.g. she, the dog, pollution), the verb has to be singular (She walks, The dog barks, Pollution sucks). When the subject is plural, the verb has to be plural. However, students tend to make errors with this rule. Below are some examples.

1. Each family in our society have a pet. (Correct form: has)

2. It feel good when you create a program which actually run. (Correct forms: feels, runs)

Verb tense

In an IELTS interview, the examiner will ask you questions to prompt you to use different verb tenses.

How has your hometown changed? (Present perfect)

Describe an encounter with an animal? (Past)

How will the way people shop change in the future? (Future)

Using the correct tenses seems to be difficult for many students. Students tend to mix the present tense with the past tense when they tell a story about the past. Below are examples of some errors.

1. I see this when I was in secondary school. My classroom travel to the mountain. (Correct forms: saw, travelled)

2. When I come to Hanoi and met people in the city, I had difficulty in talking with them. (Correct form: came)

3. When I was six, I often visit to the zoo and met a monkey. (Correct form: visited)


Improving fluency requires regular practice so that you can express more ideas with greater ease. In other words, your speaking becomes more automatic with practice. Just like learning to play a musical instrument, such as the piano, you need regular practice. I have a musician friend who has been playing the piano for decades, but still needs to practice every day. Similarly, find opportunities to speak English every day.

Improving grammatical accuracy is a long and slow process. In the context of preparing for an IELTS, one of the best ways to practice is to record your speech, transcribe it, analyze the errors, and record the speech again. Talking about the same topic again will also help to improve your fluency. In conversations, students may also slow down and pay more attention to grammar instead of trying to speak fast.

In addition, it’s important to practice both conversational English and academic English. As you prepare for IELTS, try to engage in academic discussions so that you have a chance to apply your academic vocabulary and sophisticated grammar.

Keep an IELTS prep journal where you write down a few new words or grammar points each day. At the end of each week, review your journal. Did you use the words? How and when?

Information about Eduling: Eduling is planning to expand its IELTS course offerings and services to include: courses at different levels, mock IELTS interviews and feedback, and writing feedback. Connect with us to learn more.

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