IELTS speaking, know what the examiners want..Fluency and Coherence!

As I mentioned in my last posts, I want to write about the criteria for the speaking section in more detail than previously. You may recall, I wrote a brief overview of the criteria and gave a small example of the difference between 6.0 and 7.0 along with some explanation and suggestions as to how this might be improved. For today, I want to start with Fluency and Coherence and describe what that means exactly and once again give some example and a breakdown of the dos and don’ts in regard to this.

So what does Fluency and Coherence mean?

Put simply, fluency is the ability to speak for some time without stopping, whether by searching for words or by pausing to think, speaking without hesitation in fact. Now I know that you might say that so-called “natives” often “umm” and “er” whilst speaking, and this is indeed true, but this is one measure of speaking that the IELTS insists upon, regardless of how natural or realistic this might be.

Very closely connected to fluency is coherence, the ability to develop topics and link your ideas logically without undue repetition. The two criteria, although not synonymous, are assessed together as one is dependent more or less upon the other.

Let’s have a look at an example of how this works in practice, the example below would only realistically score a 5.0. As before this is only a transcript, but it should be sufficient to illustrate my main points.

Question: “Is fishing a social kind of hobby?”

Answer: “I think, I hope…I hope so. And, erm…social hobby. Yeah and little bit this is a difficult question I think. Well, erm, but I, I think so honestly. Erm, and erm…”

To see why this is a 5.0 we need to look at what the criteria says

  • keeps it going but with repetition, self correction and with generally slow speech
  • certain linking words and discourse markers are over used
  • is fluent when speaking simply but when more complex subjects are expressed this fluency breaks down

You will notice there are quite a number of pauses in this extract, and some words are overused (I think is said three times), also as the subject becomes too complex (“this is a difficult question“) the fluency stops completely.

Now let’s consider how it could have been done, and this answer would probably score a 8.0, if you look closely you can see the obvious differences.

Question: “What do you think are the social benefits of having a hobby?”

Answer: “Well, it’s depending on what your hobby is. If you would, for example, do a hobby where you don’t meet anyone, if you’re hiking or climbing alone, there’s not a big social effect on that I would say. But if you do it in a community like, for example, soccer or rugby or what, whatever, then you in a way share time with people and have the opportunity  to get to know each other better, and closer, and exchange ideas and, erm, opinions. So I think for that reason, a hobby is very, very important because usually you, you find there people who are not at your work, working environment. Er. it’s, they are not part of your family, so they come from different backgrounds and so I think you get a quite good insight into other people’s opinions and…”

This is a lot better, as I am sure you will agree. Let’s look at why it is better. So, the criteria for band 8.0 state

  • 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

As we can see then, from the example, the level of fluency is very good with almost no hesitations and repetition. The topic is fully developed by using a good range of discourse markers (for example, I would say, or whatever, for that reason). It starts drifting away a little at the end, but in general it is logical and coherent.

How can you speak in such a way? Well, consider the two examples below.

Question: “What are the advantages of internet shopping?”

Answer 1: “Er…I think it’s more convenient. Yes, there are many advantages. You can do it from your computer at home. I think internet shopping is cheaper than going to the shops. Er…you can also use your smartphone. And websites like Amazon are less expensive. Yes, there are many advantages I think.”

Answer 2: “Well, I guess there are a lot of advantages. But basically, there are two main benefits. Firstly, it’s more convenient. you don’t have to leave your home, and you can shop from anywhere using your smartphone. Secondly, internet shopping is much cheaper. Websites like Amazon, for example, offer much lower prices than normal stores.”

Have you noticed the difference? As I am sure you will agree, the second answer is much better in terms of fluency and coherence which is mainly due to the use of structure in the students response. This is what you will see teachers refer to as “Discourse markers”, the words and expressions that hold your sentences together.

However, you should be cautious about using these. What I mean is that some students think that they can create a fixed template using certain markers, and memorise it, and then use it to answer every question. I have seen several IELTS text books that do exactly this, and I have to say it is not a good idea. If you do this, it is perfectly possible the examiners will notice, as they are trained to notice any memorised unnatural sounding answer, and will give a low score accordingly. That is not to say that you shouldn’t learn a structure, or better yet, a series of structures, and use them interchangeably and flexibly.

If you must do this, then I have written about this before and compiled a short list for your information.

So, that is all for today, I hope you found it useful, as always any questions and comments to my email: