Benz, from Bangkok, asked me about the speaking test in Ielts (International English Language Testing System): I read on a website that people doing Ielts shouldn't worry about having an accent as a candidate's accent is not evaluated by examiners. Is that true?
Here's my reply: In the Ielts speaking test, test takers are assessed in four areas: "Fluency and Coherence," "Grammatical Range and Accuracy," "Lexical Resource" (the words and phrases used) and "Pronunciation." An accent can definitely affect a candidate's score for "Pronunciation."
Let's define a couple of terms. "Pronunciation" refers to the way a word or a language is usually spoken, or the manner in which an individual says a word. "Accent" refers to the way in which people pronounce words in a particular area, country or social group. Individuals and groups can speak words in different ways, depending on factors such as:
The Ielts Handbook 2007 (downloadable from the official Ielts website, www.ielts.org) states that pronunciation "refers to the ability to produce comprehensible speech to fulfill the speaking test requirements. The key indicators will be the amount of strain caused to the listener, the amount of speech which is unintelligible, and noticeable L1 [first language] influence."
To put it simply, examiners assess how easy it is to understand test takers. The easier the examiner can understand the candidates, the higher the score the candidates receive for pronunciation. This is clearly shown in my simplified version of the official scoring scheme for pronunciation:
Band 2: The candidate's speech is often unintelligible. This means that what the test taker says is often impossible to understand because the pronunciation is so poor.
Band 4: The candidate can produce some acceptable features of English pronunciation. However, the test taker's overall control of spoken English is limited, so there could be severe strain for the examiner. In other words, the examiner may sometimes need to make much effort to understand what the candidate is trying to say.
Band 6: The candidate can be understood throughout the test. Nevertheless, words are occasionally pronounced incorrectly, causing brief difficulty for the examiner as he or she tries to understand what word has just been used.
Band 8: The candidate is easy to understand throughout the test (even if there is an accent from his or her first language). The candidate also uses a wide range of features of spoken English (such as the appropriate use of word stress to express different meanings, or the linking of words in a natural way).
Visit tinyurl.com/39m9fn to see the public version of the grading scheme for pronunciation. Always use the official version to estimate your own speaking test score.
Effect of Thai accent
The phrase given in the Ielts Handbook 2007 - "noticeable L1 influence" - refers to how candidates' first language interferes with their ability to speak understandable English. This interference may make it difficult for an examiner to understand what's being said. Here are some of the more common features of a Thai accent that can cause problems for native speakers of English:
You should be able to see how a Thai accent might affect the pronunciation score. For example, a Thai candidate who often mispronounces words, causing difficulty for the examiner, would not receive the highest band score of 8 for pronunciation.
Van Anh, an Ielts teacher in Hanoi, Vietnam, asked about re-scoring: A student got 4.0 for speaking even though she'd received 6.0 a few months before. Another student, who I thought would get 7.0 or 8.0 for speaking, only got 6.0. Can tests be rechecked? How complicated is the procedure? I've also heard scores can never be changed. Is that right?
Here's my reply: There is a policy on the re-scoring of tests, and it's outlined in the official Ielts publication Information for Candidates July 2007 (visit www.ielts.org to download a digital copy). It's clear from the policy that candidates' scores can be changed.
Because Ielts test results are carefully checked before being released, there's very little chance that a scoring mistake is made. There are a number of much more likely reasons why your students' results varied unexpectedly. A high level of anxiety on the day of the test is a common reason.
Nevertheless, if candidates are unhappy with their results, they may apply for a re-mark at the center where they took the test. The application must be made no later than six weeks from the date of the test. The application form, titled Ielts Enquiry on Results, is easy to complete. Candidates can choose to have one or more of the test modules (listening, reading, writing and speaking) re-graded. There's a standard fee for re-scoring, and it's the same whether a full or partial re-score is requested. The fee's paid when the application is made.
Re-scores are processed by the head office of either the British Council in the UK or IDP Ielts Australia, not by the original test center. Senior examiners do the reassessments of writing and speaking tests, while trained clerical markers score listening and reading tests. It takes up to six weeks for re-scorings to be completed, and candidates should make any enquiries regarding the progress of the re-score to the test center. As the original test results are frozen during the period, they can't be used to apply for a university course or sent to an immigration office.
As soon as the re-scoring results are available, the test center sends a letter that informs candidates of the final scores. Should the band score for any module increase, the center refunds the full fee for the re-scoring service and issues a new Test Report Form showing the revised band scores. During the following four weeks, candidates can apply for five copies of the Test Report Form to be sent, free of charge, to any institutions that need the results.
David Park designs & teaches Ielts courses for individuals and groups and is involved with Ielts testing at IDP. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org to ask about Ielts. Ielts is owned by IDP Ielts Australia, the University of Cambridge and the British Council.