IELTS speaking: Part 1 – Fluency and Coherence

fluency and coherence

IELTS speaking: Part 1 – Fluency and Coherence

In my last article, I gave a brief introduction to the IELTS speaking grading criteria. If you haven’t seen it, you might want to have a quick read here before we begin. It would also be useful to quickly look at the three parts of the speaking section.

IELTS speaking – the three parts

Part 1 – Introduction and Interview. In this part, the examiner will ask the candidate questions on familiar, everyday topics. Things like work or study, hometown, travel, hobbies etc. This part lasts for 4-5 minutes.
Part 2 – Short talk. The candidate will see a topic card asking them to describe something. This could be a person, a thing, an event or a future hope. The candidate has one minute to prepare, then must speak on the topic for 1-2 minutes. This part takes about 4 minutes in total.
Part 3 – Two-way discussion. In the last part, the examiner will ask more questions, but they will be more abstract and academic and will require the candidate to express more complex ideas and opinions. The examiner may ask follow-up questions to make it a real discussion. This section takes about 5 minutes.

Now that you understand the speaking section, let’s look at the first of the four grading criteria – Fluency and Coherence – and how that impacts your classroom teaching.

What is Fluency and Coherence?

Firstly, Fluency can be described as the ability to talk at length without hesitation – no searching for words, no long pauses.

Coherence is about being able to develop topics and link ideas together in a logical structure without repeating yourself.

Let’s look at some examples taken from IELTS examiner training videos of speaking Part 3. Below is a response from a candidate who scored 5.0 for speaking. You can watch it here (extract below from 0:47-1:08):

Is fishing a social kind of hobby?

“I think, I hope… I hope so. And, erm… social hobby. Yeah, and little bit this is a difficult question I think. Well, erm, but I, I think so honestly. Erm, and erm…”

Why is this a 5.0?

Here are the Fluency and Coherence criteria at Band 5:

– usually maintains flow of speech but uses repetition, self-correction and/or slow speech to keep going
– may over-use certain connectives and discourse markers
– produces simple speech fluently, but more complex communication causes fluency problems

As you can see, the flow of speech is not really maintained, and there are a number of pauses. The candidate overuses some discourse markers (he uses ‘I think’ three times), and the complexity of what he wants to say becomes overwhelming (‘this is a difficult question’) so that fluency completely breaks down. However, he does manage to understand and answer the question to some extent.

Now let’s look at another example of a candidate at band 8 answering a similar question. You can watch it here (extract below from 2:20-3:09):

What do you think are the social benefits of having a hobby?

“Well, it’s depending on what your hobby is. If you would, for example, do a hobby where you don’t meet anybody, if you’re hiking or climbing alone, there’s not a big social effect on that I would say. But if you do it in a community like, for example, soccer or rugby or what, whatever, then you in a way share time with people and have the opportunity to get to know each other better, and closer, and exchange ideas and, erm, opinions. So I think for that reason, a hobby is very, very important because usually you, you find there people who are not at your work, working environment. Er, it’s, they are not part of your family, so they come from different backgrounds and so I think you get a quite good insight into other people’s opinions and… “

Why is this an 8.0?

Let’s look at the Fluency and Coherence criteria at Band 8:

– speaks fluently with only occasional repetition or self-correction; hesitation is usually content-related and only rarely to search for language
– develops topics coherently and appropriately

As you can see from this extract, the fluency level is very high – there are almost no hesitations, she speaks at a good pace with very little repetition. She develops the topic fully using an effective range of discourse markers (‘for example’, ‘I would say’, ‘or whatever’, ‘for that reason’). It loses coherence a little at the end as it becomes a bit repetitive (until the examiner interrupts with a follow-up question), but overall is a coherent, logically structured response.

How do I get my students to speak like that?

Well, as we saw in my previous article, the first thing to consider is where your students are now, and what grades they actually need. Most people will not need to be at band 8 to gain entry onto university courses at undergraduate or post-graduate level. However, you can get students scoring 6 or 7 for Fluency and Coherence by focusing on structure.

To illustrate this, let’s use a guided discovery technique you can easily replicate in class. Look at the Part 3 question below and the two sample responses. As you’ll see, both responses have essentially the same information, but which is better and why?

What are the advantages of internet shopping?

Response A:
Er… I think it’s more convenient. Yes, there are many advantages. You can do it from your computer at home. I think internet shopping is cheaper than going to the shops. Er…You can also use your smartphone. And websites like Amazon are less expensive. Yes, there are many advantages I think.

Response B:
Well, I guess there are a lot of advantages. But basically, there are two main benefits. Firstly, it’s more convenient. You don’t need to leave your home, and you can shop from anywhere using your smartphone. Secondly, internet shopping is much cheaper. Websites like Amazon, for example, offer much lower prices than normal stores.

The correct answer is, of course, Response B. Your students may find several reasons why B is better than A, but guide them to looking at the structure. As you can see, Response A jumps around and loses coherence and also becomes repetitive. Response B is far more fluent and coherent.

Once your students understand that structure is the key difference, get them to identify which parts of response B fit the structure guide below (I’ve done it for you this time).

‘Buying time’ phrase
Well, I guess there are a lot of advantages.
Answering the question
But basically, there are two main benefits.
Reason/evidence/example 1
Firstly, it’s more convenient.
Extra information 1
You don’t need to leave your home, and you can shop from anywhere using your smartphone.
Reason/evidence/example 2
Secondly, internet shopping is much cheaper.
Extra information 2
Websites like Amazon, for example, offer much lower prices than normal stores.

Language input – functional expressions/discourse markers

To get your students producing the right language, you need to input some functional expressions. Here are some examples – you can probably think of more to add.

Buying time:
That’s a difficult question.
Hmm, let me think.
Well, I’ve never really thought about it before, but…
Answering the question (giving an opinion):
I’d say that…
I think…
In my opinion…
Sequencing ideas:
The first point I’d like to make is…
On top of that…
Introducing examples and reasons:
For example,…
For instance,…
The main reason is…
Another reason is…

These types of expressions are what are referred to in the IELTS speaking criteria as discourse markers, and they hold the structure of the response together. Your students need to be using a range of these with some flexibility to score a 6 or a 7 for Fluency and Coherence.

A word of warning about using this structure and function approach. Sometimes students (and teachers) think they can make a fixed template using specific discourse markers, memorize it and use it for every answer. This is easy for examiners to spot, and it can have a negative impact on the Fluency and Coherence grade. It’s also impossible to find one template that works for every answer. The trick is to learn a coherent structure and to use the functional phrases flexibly, as and when you need them.

What about practice?

Once your students have had some chance to practice the pronunciation of the phrases, you should set up a controlled practice to get them using the phrases. One idea is to make cards with one of the target expressions on each card. Put the students in groups and deal out the cards. Give them some discussion topics, and if they successfully use one of their expressions, they can throw that card down. The first student to get rid of all their cards is the winner.

You should follow that up with some free practice in pairs or small groups using authentic IELTS Part 3 questions.

That’s it for this week. In my next article, I’ll be looking at the Lexical Resource criterion, and in the meantime, happy IELTS teaching!

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