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IELTS Speaking Band Descriptors: How to Improve your IELTS Speaking Score

If you’re trying to level up, or raise your IELTS Speaking score, the first thing you should do is to look at the IELTS to review the IELTS Speaking band descriptors. By looking at the category descriptions—Fluency and Coherence, Lexical Resource, Grammatical Range and Accuracy, and Pronunciation—and truthfully evaluating your current abilities, you’ll set yourself up for success. We’ll be right there with you: in this post, we’ll highlight the most important elements of the IELTS Speaking band descriptors, describing them in understandable terms. As we move through the post, we’ll compare low-scoring responses (band scores 5-6) and higher-scoring responses (IELTS Speaking score 7 and above), and show you how to improve.

ielts speaking band descriptors - magoosh

Table of Contents

Review: IELTS Speaking Rubric

If you haven’t seen the IELTS Speaking band descriptors before (or even if you have!), you’ll want to familiarize yourself with the : Fluency and Coherence, Lexical Resource, Grammatical Range and Accuracy, and Pronunciation. This IELTS Speaking rubric describes the official IELTS Speaking score system—it can show you the difference between a band score of 6.5 and 7, or a 7 and 8. Of course, you’ll have to use these IELTS Speaking band descriptors in the right way to guide your studying!

Ready to dive in? Great! Let’s take a look: what should you do to move from a low-scoring response to a high-scoring response in IELTS Speaking?

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IELTS Speaking Rubric Scoring Category 1: Fluency & Coherence

Fluency and Coherence are two ways of describing how well you communicate logically, clearly, and without difficulty in English. That can sound intimidating, but don’t worry: even a perfect band score of 9 doesn’t mean that the response is without its flaws.

The main thing to keep in mind regarding your fluency score is that it measures how well you can focus on the message you want to convey—rather than the language you need to express it. A speaker who pauses to remember words or consider grammatical structures can still get a perfect IELTS Speaking score, so don’t let this overwhelm you. However, repeated pauses and stumbles will cause your Fluency & Coherence score to fall.

Coherence is related to fluency, but it’s not the same thing. Instead of measuring how easily you speak, it measures how well your ideas create a logical whole. In other words, do they make sense together? Using transition words well can help your coherence score, but only if they’re the logical words used to show logical relationships between ideas. What this means for your score is that jumping around from one point to the next will keep you at a lower band score in IELTS Speaking.

What does this look (or rather sound) like in practice? Take a look! Here’s how you can evaluate your IELTS Speaking band descriptors score for Fluency & Coherence.

Point 1

Do you speak at a similar speed as a native speaker? Are you able to speak without frequent self-correction and repetition?

Low vs. High Fluency & Coherence Scores

Low-scoring responses in fluency and coherence are characterized by slowness formulating sentences. In a lot of cases, this happens because the student has to put a lot of effort towards making grammar and vocabulary choices.

High-scoring responses in fluency and coherence are characterized by their use of a “normal” speed. You don’t have to speak super quickly, buty you should speak at approximately the same speed as the average native speaker. If you’re scoring in these higher bands, you’re using appropriate vocabulary on every topic without noticeable effort, while easily manipulating grammar to express ideas.

Tips for Improvement in Fluency

  • Improve your vocabulary by studying every day. Create flashcards of the words you don’t know and time yourself as you use them to make your recall of vocabulary words faster. Make sure, when you read, that you cover a wide variety of topics so you are prepared for a variety of topics during your exam.
  • Speak regularly in front of an audience—even if it’s only to yourself in front of a mirror. In some ways, fluency is like exercise. You can’t prepare for a marathon by thinking about training—you have to run. Daily practice responding to speaking questions, even if only to yourself, can make a big difference in your fluency score.
     
  • Record yourself as you practice speaking. Then, take time to listen to and analyze your responses. Stop the recording at places where you had to slow down or repeat yourself. Analyze what happened. What caused the disruption? Did you have trouble remembering a point of grammar, a particular word, or was the issue something else entirely? Try to figure out how you could have responded more fluently in your response and make a list of bullet points to improve your responses. Then, re-record yourself responding to the same prompt as you incorporate the points you noted.

Point 2

Are your ideas easy to follow? Do they flow logically from one to the next?

Low vs. High Fluency & Coherence Scores

Low-scoring responses in fluency and coherence have gaps in logic. In other words, ideas may not be connected in a way that makes sense (or a way that is clear). This is particularly true for longer responses. IELTS Speaking responses that are low-scoring in coherence also tend to overuse connecting words. They use the same transition words and phrases repeatedly.

High-scoring responses in fluency and coherence use a variety of cohesive features and discourse markers with ease. These are features that help communicate ideas clearly and logically, and without any noticeable gaps.

Tips for Improvement in Fluency & Coherence

  • Add transition words/phrases to your repertoire. By not repeating the same connecting words, you’ll make your response more coherent; the more you practice with different connecting words, the greater you fluency will become. If you’re not sure where to look, this is a helpful resource for transitions.
     
  • Coherent speaking responses use “referents” to connect ideas. A referent is a word that refers back to another. For example, you might say, “I get along well with Jim. I find that he has a lot to say about politics.” Notice that this sounds more fluent than “I get along well with Jim. I find that Jim has a lot to say about politics.” If you find that you’re repeating words a lot in your responses, that’s a sign that you should work on using referents. Mastering pronouns can help you with this; start your study here.

     
    What does this look like in practice? Here’s another example, incorporating two referents this time.

    • Low-scoring for fluency and coherence: Adam’s roommate was upset because he didn’t wash his dishes after dinner last night. Adam often forgets to wash his dishes.
    • High-scoring for fluency and coherence: Adam’s roommate was upset because he didn’t wash his dishes after dinner last night. This is common for him.

Point 3

Can you speak at length about complex topics without a lot of obvious effort?

Low vs. High Fluency & Coherence Scores

Low scoring responses in fluency and coherence have speakers who are unable to sustain lengthy responses without problems in fluency and/or coherence becoming clear.

High scoring responses in fluency and coherence have speakers who easily respond at length to the prompt.

Tips for Improvement in Fluency and Coherence

  • Develop your vocabulary. A big reason test-takers have trouble speaking at length about a topic is that they don’t have the vocabulary to do so. Reading a lot, and defining words in context, then using them yourself, can help build your vocabulary.
     
  • Practice organizing lengthy responses. If you struggle when giving lengthy responses, take your time when you practice. Take a few minutes to plan before you speak. This is a great way to practice for Part 2 and Part 3 questions (although over time, you should practice in a more realistic way. Remember, you have 1 minute to plan part 2 monologue responses, and no time to prepare for Part 3 interview responses). Plan your lengthy responses similarly to how you write body paragraphs for an essay.

     
    What might this look like?

    • Make a point.
    • Provide details (reasons, examples, illustrations, etc.)
    • Make a second point.
    • Provide details that support your second point!

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IELTS Speaking Rubric Scoring Category 2: Lexical Resource

This scoring category measures vocabulary. You will be assessed on your ability to use words appropriately (in the right context) and accurately (with the correct meaning). As we’ve already seen, IELTS Speaking rewards test-takers with large vocabularies indirectly in Fluency & Coherence—but it rewards them directly in Lexical Resource.

Point 1

Can you easily respond to questions that cover a wide range of topics?

Low vs. High Lexical Resource Scores

Low-scoring responses for lexical resource often have strong enough answers on Part 1 questions, but not on parts 2 and 3. Remember, to answer Part 1 questions, you can rely on vocabulary that is both used frequently in everyday life, and factual (for example, describing your hometown).

Part 2 and 3 questions require vocabulary that’s rarer in common daily interactions. Topics are more abstract, requiring a wider range of vocabulary to answer fully.

High-scoring responses for lexical resource are produced by students who do not struggle to find appropriate words when discussing Part 2 and 3 questions (this also relates to Fluency & Coherence).

Tips for Improving in Lexical Resource

  • Seek variety in your practice. You may be asked to discuss your opinions about a social topic, education, raising children, the environment, or a wide variety of other issues. You should be studying varied reading and listening materials as you learn vocabulary.
     
  • Respond, out loud, to as many Part 2 and Part 3 practice questions as you can.

Point 2

How well can you paraphrase the questions you’re asked in the interview?

Low vs. High Lexical Resource Scores

Low-scoring responses for lexical resource use language found in the questions frequently.

High-scoring responses for lexical resource alter the language from the questions by using synonyms and changing sentence structures.

Here’s what the difference between these responses looks like in practice:

    Q: What is your normal weekday routine?
    A: My normal weekday routine is to get up around 7:00am.
    A: During the work week I typically wake up around 7:00am.

Tip for Improving in Lexical Resource

Practice paraphrasing IELTS questions! By paraphrasing, you’ll use related words that aren’t repeated from the prompt. Take extra time to write out paraphrases to sample interview questions (like in the example above) as a grammar and vocabulary development exercise.

Point 3

Do you use idioms and collocations (with accuracy) in your speech?

Low vs. High Lexical Resource Scores

Low-scoring responses in lexical resource rarely use idioms or collocations. If they do have idioms, they are used with frequent errors.

High-scoring responses in lexical resource use idioms and collocations accurately and easily across a wide range of topics.

Tip for Improvement in Idioms

This is one aspect in which there are few shortcuts. Knowledge of idioms and collocations naturally develops through consistent exposure and frequent communication in a target language. So keep going!

Tip for Improvement in Lexical Resource

Spend time studying useful resource lists and attempt to use what you learn as you practice speaking:

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IELTS Speaking Rubric Scoring Category 3: Grammatical Range and Accuracy

Yes, your grammar will also be assessed on the Speaking exam. Keep in mind that your grammatical score range is not simply based on your avoidance of grammatical mistakes. It’s true that limiting errors is important. On the other hand, you can only reach a very high Speaking band score if you can also demonstrate that you have mastered complex sentence structures, verb tenses, and other advanced grammatical features. Here are the features of low-scoring and high-scoring grammatical range and accuracy scores:

Point 1

Do you use a wide range of grammatical structures, including grammatical forms that are considered “advanced?”

Low vs. High Grammatical Range and Accuracy Scores

Low-scoring responses for grammatical range and accuracy can have a variety of issues. Assess your recorded responses. Do you notice either of the following patterns?

  • Relying mainly on simple sentence patterns (subject + verb).
     
  • Overusing the BE verb as the main verb of a sentence (am, is, are, was, were). It is not incorrect or necessarily bad to use BE as a main verb. Even non-native speakers tend to overuse it. However, it does lead to a lot of repetition, and actively trying to limit BE verb use can be a fantastic language development exercise. BE is very limiting as a main verb for several reasons. Not only do you lose the descriptive possibilities of other verbs, but sentences also tend to follow one pattern: Subject / complement. Furthermore, overuse of BE does not permit adverb or adverbial phrases/clauses, leading to an overreliance on nouns and adjectives for description.

High-scoring responses for grammatical range and accuracy use a wide range of sentence patterns and grammatical structures accurately and appropriately. There are a lot of word types and structures to master. As you work on your improving your performance on the IELTS Speaking rubric, evaluate how well you use structures like these with ease:

  • Connectors like transition words/phrases
  • Coordination
  • Subordination
  • Gerund subjects
  • Passive voice
  • Noun, adverb, adjective clauses
  • Modal verbs
  • Irregular verbs
  • Transitive vs. intransitive verbs
  • Pronouns
  • Verb tenses

The important thing here is to evaluate, rather than spend a lot of time studying, each area. When studying for IELTS, it’s not a good idea to spend a significant amount of time studying tenses that occur rarely in the course of regular interactions, like past perfect progressive or even future perfect. It is a much better use of time reviewing the complexities of the most common verb tenses. Not sure what those are? Here’s a quick refresher:

  • Simple present
  • Simple past
  • Present continuous
  • Present perfect
  • Past continuous
  • Future simple
  • Future continuous

Tips for Improvement in Grammatical Range and Accuracy

Study and review grammar as you prepare for the exam! Here are some resources I recommend.

Point 2

Do you make frequent grammar errors when you speak?

Low vs. High Grammatical Range and Accuracy Scores

Low-scoring responses for grammatical range and accuracy make consistent “systematic” errors. These are errors that reveal you’re having problems with a particular feature of English grammar–let’s say adjective clauses or verb tenses. In other words, they are repeated errors in the same grammatical errors.

High-scoring responses for grammatical range and accuracy can have occasional grammar mistakes! Making a few mistakes doesn’t mean that you can’t still score very high for grammar in the speaking section. However, the mistakes should be isolated, not revealing general gaps in your grammar.

Tips for Grammatical Range and Accuracy

If you have grammar problems, consider signing up for a class or working with a tutor if that is an option. This can be the best way to discover and fix your grammar problems. If that is not an option, you’ll have to find ways to identify your own errors when you speak. Here’s what I suggest:

  • Record your responses.
     
  • It is likely, even without the help of a native speaker or teacher, that you will be able to identify grammar mistakes you make. For example, you probably learned very early that in simple present tense, subject/verb agreement requires you to add an “s” to the end of a verb. However, even though you may know this rule very well, it is still one of the most common mistakes students make (even very advanced English students)!
     
  • The biggest issue in this case is not finding the mistakes…it’s about finding them and then correcting them. It’s likely you will be able to catch many other similar mistakes when you listen to recordings of yourself. If you can limit these kinds of errors, especially if they show a pattern of errors, you can boost your grammatical range and accuracy score.
     
  • So you’ve found a mistake you make consistently. What can you do about it?
    • Identify it: What is the mistake and what is the rule that’s giving you trouble?
    • Practice it: Find some exercises in a textbook or online to practice the rule.
    • Performance: Try to incorporate what you learned/practiced in your IELTS Speaking practice responses (that you recorded).
    • Repeat!

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IELTS Speaking Rubric Scoring Category 4: Pronunciation

For most students, this is a very difficult category in which to make improvements, especially if you only have a short time to prepare before the exam. On the other hand, it can be worthwhile to focus on pronunciation if your speech is very difficult for English speakers to understand.

Point 1

How difficult is it for others understand your speech?

Low vs. High Pronunciation Scores

Low-scoring responses for pronunciation are generally understandable, but mispronunciations reduce clarity.

High-scoring for pronunciation are easy to understand. Accent does not affect clarity. Accent-free is not necessary for a great score, and might take more time than you have to achieve. It’s better to spend that time working on other areas of your IELTS Speaking band score!

Tips for Improvement in Pronunciation

  • Study pronunciation as you study vocabulary. For British English, the Cambridge English Dictionary is useful for this; for American English, turn to the Merriam Webster Dictionary.
     
  • Listen to recordings of native English speakers and attempt to mimic their speech exactly.
     
  • Ask for feedback from an English speaker if possible!

Point 2

Do you use the pronunciation features of English?

Low vs. High Pronunciation Scores

Low- and high- scoring responses in pronunciation often show a different level of mastery in the following areas:

  • Individual sounds: Every language has its own pronunciation features that make certain English sounds harder to produce than others (w vs. v / th / r vs. l / et cetera).
     
  • Word stress: Every word of two syllables or more has a predictable stress pattern. Keep in mind that these differ occasionally among the various English accents.
     
  • Rhythm: Native speakers tend to slow down and place more emphasis on the keyword of each phrase. This is highly context specific; just keep in mind that you should emphasize the most important idea in each phrase slightly more.
    Here’s what intonation can do in practice:
     
    – Did you give the paper to Jim?
    – No, I gave the paper to ALICE.
     
    versus
     
    – Did you give the paper to Jim?
    – No, I gave the BALL to Jim. I gave the PAPER to Alice.
     
  • Intonation: Following very similar rules as rhythm, intonation can change the meaning of a sentence. Native speakers tend use the rising and falling tones to emphasise the keywords in each phrase, but also to indicate when they are asking a question (often a rising tone at the end of a yes/no question, especially in American English), or when they have completed a thought (with a falling tone). The rules for intonation are highly complex and vary greatly.

Tips for Improvement in Pronunciation

The first step to improving your pronunciation is to be aware of pronunciation and listen for the features listed above. Then, for self-study, keep returning to the classic exercise: listen to recordings of native speakers, pausing frequently to repeat exactly what you hear, and attempting an exact copy of the pronunciation you hear.

How else can you improve your pronunciation? Here are some resources to help you along the way:

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A Final Word on IELTS Speaking Band Descriptors

While leveling up even half a band score can seem impossible, it’s not—and it can make all the difference! Going from a 6.5 to IELTS Speaking score 7, for example, puts you in the high-scoring range. So while it takes lots of hard work and study, know that it is possible to level up, and that you can get the IELTS score you need, by focusing on the IELTS Speaking band descriptors, levels, and IELTS speaking score system criteria. Good luck!

P.S. Interested in improving your score for the other parts of the IELTS? See our accompanying posts on the band descriptors for Listening, Reading, and Writing.

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