Topic development in the IELTS Speaking test


Paul Seedhouse

Andrew Harris

Date Published:

3rd April 2011

This study investigated topic development in the Speaking Test, applying a Conversation Analysis (CA) institutional discourse methodology to a corpus of 60 transcribed test audio-recordings. Topic is presented as a vital construct in the Speaking Test, as inextricably entwined with the organisation of turn-taking, sequence and repair, and as directly related to the institutional goal of ensuring validity in the assessment of English speaking proficiency. In the data, management of topic is almost entirely pre-determined by the examiner’s script and how this script is interactionally implemented throughout each individual interview. There are asymmetrical rights to topic management between examiner and candidate. Examiners mark topic boundary markers in a variety of ways and employ a variety of next moves when candidates have produced a response to a question.

Topic is integrated into the organisation of the interaction in that there is an archetypal organisation which combines turn-taking, adjacency pair and topic, as follows. Examiner questions contain two components: a) an adjacency pair component, which requires the candidate to provide an answer; and b) a topic component, which requires the candidate to develop a specific topic. This organisation may be termed a ‘topic-based Q-A adjacency pair’. So in the Speaking Test, unlike in conversation, topic is always introduced by means of a question. To obtain a high score, candidates need to do the following: a) understand the question they have been asked; b) provide an answer to the question; c) identify the topic inherent in the question; and d) develop the topic inherent in the question.

The characteristics of high-scoring and low-scoring tests in relation to topic are detailed, with reference to: length of turn; topic trouble; engagement with the topic; coherence; use of lexical items and syntax; and projection of identity. Examiners may take a number of features of monologic topic development into account in Part 2. There is very little variation in the interactional style of examiners. Examiners rarely diverge from the brief in our corpus.

Recommendations are made in relation to the provision and use of follow-up questions, the importance of examiners following their briefs, and of explicit marking of topic shift. Although Part 3 is termed ‘two-way discussion’, it is almost identical to Part 1 interactionally, in that it consists of a series of topic-based question-answer adjacency pairs. There are hardly any opportunities for candidates to introduce or shift topic and they are generally closed down when they try to do so. The authors recommend adding a short Part 4, in which the examiner would not ask any questions at all. Rather, the candidate would lead a discussion and ask the examiner topic-related questions.