What I want to write about today is some of the common mistakes that my Chinese students (although these mistakes are not exclusive to Chinese students by any means) make when taking the speaking section of the IELTS and to offer some suggestions for how to avoid making them in the first place. The first thing, and possibly the main reason for getting a low score is that they don’t fully understand what the examiner is looking for. They haven’t looked at the criteria and haven’t grasped what is meant by them. You can see them here. If you care to take a look, you will notice that for a band 9 score (no point aiming for anything less) the key word is “full”. As in, “fully appropriate cohesive features” for Fluency and Coherence. ” full flexibility and precision in all topics” for Lexical Resource. ” full range of structures” for Grammatical Range and Accuracy, and ” full range of pronunciation features with precision and subtlety” for Pronunciation.
This means, essentially that you have to demonstrate quite a lot to the examiner, and as I have mentioned in some previous posts, some students tend to give very short, closed “yes”, “no”, answers to some questions. If you give such answers you will get a low score, as the examiner can only assess you on what you say. Another thing is that many people confuse the IELTS with any other exam like at university for example, which it is not. That is to say, it is not about the “content”, it is not a “truth” test. There are no “right” or “wrong” answers. All that matters are the criteria as mentioned above, anything else is irrelevant.
As an illustration, if you ask about public transport, “Can you tell me about public transport in your city?”, instead of answering “Yes, we have a great system in my city, it’s so cheap to get around, for instance one card allows you to use the metro, tram and bus for one monthly fee, and it keeps cars out of town as it’s so easy to get around as I said”. Which is a good answer. They might say, “In my city, we have lots of public transport, such as metro, bus, tram and taxis”. Thereby, focusing on the content and simply listing every public transport option available. Contrary to what some might think, you do not get a point for every means of transportation!
This is just one example, but to help the students understand what is expected of them, I find it is necessary to first help them to understand the difference between Chinese and English as language systems. What do I mean by this? Well, we might say then, that among other things, Chinese is an economical language, it is possible to convey a message with a minimum amount of words and also that it tends to “recycle” vocabulary. If we were to ask, “Is this food delicious?” the answer might be “Yes, this food is delicious” or “No, it is not delicious”. In English however, we would tend not to reuse the same words as the question. We might say something like “yeah, it’s ok” or “Well, it’s not too bad” or whatever. This is usually the first point I have to make to the students, to try to give the examiner some original language, not just repeat the same words as in the question.
Also, it could be said that Chinese is a direct “black and white” language, things are good or bad, interesting or boring, whereas English is more “graded” and “indirect”. Things are “quite good”, “very good” or “not so bad”. This is a little simplistic but I think you should be able to get my point. Another thing is that, English tends to use more words than is necessary to convey a meaning, so-called “redundant” language.
Let’s consider an example…
“Well you know my hometown London is kind of like huge you know. I mean it’s actually enormous maybe even the biggest city in Europe. So really if you live there, it’s sort of amazing really. You can do almost anything you want. Like you know there’s so many things to do, and I guess that’s why I love living there.” (58 words).
“My hometown London is huge, maybe the biggest city in Europe. If you live there, it’s amazing. You can do anything you want. There are so many things to do. That’s why I love living here.” (36 words).
As you see, the number of “redundant” words, (words that don’t essentially add to the meaning and could be left out) is maybe 50 per cent of the total. This is what native English speakers do most of the time, and this is what students need to learn to do in order to get a good band score.
In summary then, So how can the student get a high band score? As all the books and teachers say, by trying to be as “natural” and “native-like” as possible. To try to speak English in the same way as a native would, to give longer responses, to avoid being too direct, to use extra words (redundant language), to speak in degrees, and quite importantly not to recycle language. There is more to the speaking than this of course, pronunciation and grammar, vocab, etc are all important as well. What I have tried to highlight here are the basic differences between Chinese and English, in a somewhat simplistic way, of course, and to show the main reason, all things being equal, why some Chinese students fail to get the score they need.