Cognitive processes involved in performing the IELTS Speaking Test: Respondents’ strategic behaviours in simulated testing and non-testing contexts


Li-Shih Huang

Date Published:

1st March 2013

Research on second-language acquisition offers repeated findings suggesting a positive relationship between learners’ strategy use and second-language performance. From the language-testing perspective, however, the evidence that is needed to substantiate how test-takers’ strategic behaviours may interact with test performance in the speaking domain is grossly lacking, even though the strategic component has been part of the language-ability and communicative-competence models that numerous researchers have put forward over the past three decades.

In this context, this project sets out to probe and describe the strategic behaviours that test-takers/learners used when performing the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) Speaking Test. Specifically, the study involved collecting stimulated verbal report data from 40 Chinese-speaking, English-as-an-additional-language students at both intermediate and advanced levels, to examine the strategic behaviours of those who perform the IELTS Speaking Test in a simulated testing situation versus those who perform it in a non-testing situation. The study was designed to analyse test-takers’/learners’ strategic behaviours, through both elicitation from stimulated recalls carried out in the participants’ first language and observation of the participants’ actual production during their performance of the three IELTS speaking tasks.

The findings provided IELTS with an empirically grounded understanding of learners’ strategies in performing the three tasks of the IELTS Speaking Test in both simulated testing and non-testing situations. The results showed that participants used 90 different individual strategies during the IELTS Speaking Test and overall, there were 2454 instances of strategy use identified in participants’ performing of the three tasks.

Of the six strategy categories, metacognitive, communication, and affective strategies had the highest percentages. Results from the mixed-model multivariate analysis of variance suggested that there were statistically significant between-subjects effects for context (i.e., simulated testing vs. non-testing), with a moderate effect size. The between-subjects effects were not statistically significant for proficiency level (i.e., intermediate vs. advanced level). Task had a significant within-subjects effect, with a large effect size, but there was a significant interaction between task and context, with a moderate effect size. The effects of the three tasks on strategy use were statistically significant with respect to the affective and communication strategy variables, with small to moderate effects.

The theorisation of strategic competence as an integral component of the construct of communicative competence, and, by extension, of strategy use needs to be carefully considered. The findings generated point to the need to conduct multifactorial experiments involving multivariate statistical analysis. The report concluded with statements about empirical and methodological implications and specific directions for future research that should involve an adequate sample size based on the power analysis, as well as an inter-disciplinary approach to gain insight into the complex nature of test-takers’/learners’ cognitive processes and strategic behaviours.