An examination of discourse competence at different proficiency levels in IELTS Speaking Part 2


Noriko Iwashita

Claudia Vasquez

Date Published:

1st March 2015

This study investigates characteristics of test-taker performance on IELTS Speaking Part 2 at Levels 5, 6 and 7 focusing on test-takers’ strategies for producing comprehensible, high-quality speech with various devices. The features of performance identified in the study were co-referenced with the IELTS Speaking Band Descriptors.

The study investigated the features of discourse competence observed in IELTS Speaking Part 2 performance and how the distinctive features of performance correlate to the IELTS Speaking Band Descriptors. Scholars attempted to elaborate the notion of discourse competence as a part of their pursuit for further understanding of communicative competence (eg, Bachman & Palmer 1996; Chalhoub-Deville 2003; Purpura 2008). While there seems to be consensus on the importance of greater understanding of discourse competence as a means of further understanding communicative language ability and L2 proficiency in general, a detailed study of discourse competence appears to have been somewhat neglected (Kormos 2011; Purpura 2008), particularly into speaking performance. Discourse competence is one of the four categories identified in the IELTS Speaking Band Descriptor.

In order to fill this gap, the current study undertook detailed examination of test-taker oral discourse at three proficiency levels. The transcribed 58 speech samples (18–20 examples at each level) of IELTS Speaking Part 2 were analysed both quantitatively and qualitatively. The features of discourse competence analysed in the current study included both cohesive devices (use of reference, ellipsis and substitution, lexical cohesion, conjunctions) and coherence devices (ie, text generic structure and theme-rheme development).

The in-depth analysis revealed that some features of discourse (eg, use of a wider range of conjunctions, more accurate use of referential expressions) were more distinctively observed in the higher-level test-taker performance than the lower level test-takers, but other features (eg, ellipsis and substitution, use of reference) were not clearly distinguished across the levels.

These findings contribute to further understanding of the nature of oral proficiency; they also supplement IELTS Speaking Band Descriptors with features of test-taker discourse empirically identified in the test-taker performances. Furthermore, the results will inform language teachers of characteristics of oral proficiency to be targeted in L2 instruction.