The impact of gender in the IELTS oral interview


Kieran O'Loughlin

Date Published:

1st April 2000

This paper reports on a study into the impact of gender on the IELTS oral interview. This is a relatively underinvestigated issue in the assessment of oral proficiency. The study examines the issue of gender on two levels: firstly, its impact on the discourse of the interview and secondly, its effect on the rating process.

There is a large body of research which suggests that male and female speakers have distinctive communicative styles. Therefore, it might be anticipated that such differences would be reflected in the discourse of interviewers in the oral test interview, possibly affecting the quantity and quality of the candidate's output. Furthermore, candidates' output may vary in relation to their own gender and whether their interviewer is of the same or opposite sex. It is also possible that the gender of the rater and/or candidate may significantly influence assessment of the oral interview. In the case of tests like the IELTS interview where the interlocutor also acts as the rater this poses the question of whether gender bias, where it exists, stems from the interview itself, the rating decision or a combination of both these 'events'.

The study is based on interviews undertaken with sixteen candidates (eight female and eight male) who were each interviewed by a female and male interviewer. This yielded a total of 32 interviews. Each interview was rated by the interviewer and audiotaped. Four other raters (two females and two males), drawn from a pool of eight females and eight males, subsequently assessed each of the interviews using the audio-recordings. The audio-recordings were then transcribed and several features of language use which have been identified in previous research as key markers of gendered communication were examined, specifically the use of overlaps, interruptions and Minimal responses by both interviewers and candidates. The test score data was analysed using a facility of the multi-faceted Rasch computer program FACETS (Linacre, 1989-1995) known as bias analysis.

In the discourse analysis of the interviews it was found that there were some gender differences between female and male interviewers and candidates, but these did not form a consistent gender pattern. In general, most interviewers and candidates adopted a supportive and collaborative speech style irrespective of their own gender or the gender of their interlocutor. Furthermore, the analysis of test scores indicated there was no evidence of significant bias in the rating process in relation to the gender of raters or candidates. Both sets of findings therefore suggest that gender does not have a significant impact on the IELTS interview.