The relationship between speaking features and band descriptors: A mixed methods study


Paul Seedhouse

Andrew Harris

Rola Naeb

Eda Üstünel

Date Published:

1st March 2014

This study looked at the relationship between how candidates speak in the IELTS speaking test and the scores they were given. We identified the features of their talk which were associated with high and low scores.

The research focus was on how features of candidate discourse relate to scores allocated to candidates, and the overall aim was to identify candidate speaking features that distinguish proficiency levels in the IELTS speaking test (IST). There were two research questions:

  1. The first noted that grading criteria distinguish between levels 5, 6, 7 and 8 in the ways described in the IELTS speaking band descriptors and asked to what extent these differences are evident in ISTs at those levels. In order to answer this research question, quantitative measures of constructs in the grading criteria were operationalised and applied to the spoken data (fluency, grammatical complexity, range and accuracy).
  2. The second question asked which speaking features distinguish tests rated at levels 5, 6, 7 and 8 from each other. This question was answered by working inductively from the spoken data, applying Conversation Analysis (CA) to transcripts of the speaking tests. The dataset for this study consisted of 60 audio recordings of IELTS speaking tests. These were transcribed, giving a total of 15 tests for each of the score bands (5, 6, 7, 8).

The quantitative measures showed that accuracy does increase in direct proportion to score. Grammatical range and complexity was lowest for band 5, but band 7 scored higher than band 8 candidates. The measure of fluency employed (pause length per 100 words) showed significant differences between score bands 5 and 8. The qualitative analysis did not identify any single speaking feature that distinguishes between the score bands, but suggests that in any given IELTS speaking test, a cluster of assessable speaking features can be seen to lead toward a given score.