The impact on candidate language of examiner deviation from a set interlocutor frame in the IELTS Speaking Test


Barry O'Sullivan

Yang Lu

Date Published:

17th April 2006

The Interlocutor Frame (IF) was introduced by Cambridge ESOL in the early 1990s to ensure that all test events conform to the original test design so that all test-takers participate in essentially the same event. While essentially successful, Lazaraton (1992, 2002) demonstrated that examiners sometimes deviate from the IF under test conditions. This study of the IELTS Speaking Test set out to locate specific sources of deviation, the nature of these deviations and their effect on the language of the candidates. 

Sixty recordings of test events were analysed. The methodology involved the identification of deviations from the IF, and then the transcription of the candidates’ pre- and post-deviation output. The deviations were classified and the test-takers’ pre- and post-deviation oral production compared in terms of elaborating and expanding in discourse, linguistic accuracy and complexity as well as fluency. 

Results indicate that the first two parts of the Speaking Test are quite stable in terms of deviations, with relatively few noted, and the impact of these deviations on the language of the candidates was essentially negligible in practical terms. However, in the final part of the Test, there appears to have been a somewhat different pattern of behaviour, particularly in relation to the number of paraphrased questions used by the examiners. The impact on candidate language again appears to have been minimal. 

One implication of these findings is that it may be possible to allow for some flexibility in the Interlocutor Frame, though this should be limited to allowing for examiner paraphrasing of questions.