IELTS speaking – what is Cambridge looking for? Part 3 – Grammatical Range and Accuracy.

Grammatical Range

IELTS speaking – what is Cambridge looking for? Part 3 – Grammatical Range and Accuracy.

Welcome back to my IELTS speaking series looking at the speaking grading criteria. If you haven’t read the previous part of this series on Lexical Resource, you might want to start by checking it out here. Today’s topic is the third criterion, Grammatical Range and Accuracy. So let’s start by defining each part of the criterion – range and accuracy.


What does ‘range’ mean?

To analyse what range means, we can use the example response below.

Examiner: Tell me about your home town.
Candidate: Well, my hometown is Komae, and I still live there. It’s a small area in the west of Tokyo, about 25 minutes from the centre by train. It’s a pretty quiet place- in fact it’s quite dull, but there is a river, which is great if you want to escape from the city sometimes. So all in all, I like living there.

In terms of fluency and coherence, this is a strong answer with a logical structure and well-developed details. It would also score fairly highly on lexical resource, with some less common lexical items such as ‘dull’ and ‘escape from the city’, and some good collocations like ‘pretty quiet’ and ‘quite dull’. However, when we look at the grammar used, it’s fairly simple. All of the verbs are in the present simple tense which, while not wrong, does not demonstrate a wide range. So this example could be improved by including a wider range of tenses as below:

Candidate: Well, my hometown is Komae, a small area in the west of Tokyo, about 25 minutes from the centre by train. My parents moved there to get a bigger place when I was three, so I’ve been living there for about twenty years now. To be honest, it’s a little bit dull, so I’m planning to move. Next year I’m going to look for a new apartment in Yokohama.

So now, from a simple question, the candidate has used a range of tenses to talk about past, present and future. This will score more highly on the grammatical range and accuracy criterion. Of course, it’s not possible to do exactly the same thing with every question, and it’s also not a good idea to do it for every question as the test taker needs to show more of a range – but this is a good example of how candidates should answer questions with an awareness of the grammar they are using.


What is ‘accuracy’?

This may seem self-explanatory – the fewer mistakes you make, the higher your score. This is true, but what it means for the student, crucially, is that they don’t need to be perfect to get the score they need. Let’s look at the grading criteria to see what Cambridge means by ‘accuracy’ (you can find the whole speaking grading criteria here) and some examples to demonstrate.

Band 5:
– produces basic sentence forms with reasonable accuracy
– uses a limited range of more complex structures, but these usually contain errors and may cause some comprehension problems
Band 6:
– may make frequent mistakes with complex structures, though these rarely cause comprehension problems
Band 7:
– frequently produces error-free sentences, though some grammatical mistakes persist
Band 8:
– produces a majority of error-free sentences with only very occasional inappropriacies or basic/non-systemic errors

Now look at the examples below. What score would you give them based on the criteria above?

Example 1
Examiner: Do you enjoy your weekends now more than you did when you were a child?
Candidate: Yes, I think so, because when I was child I think we are less stressful than now. Now usually in the work we are very, very stressful – er, we are very stressed, and at the weekend we can relax, so it’s more enjoying.
(You can watch the candidate here, extract from 2:46-3:11)

Example 2
Examiner: Do you enjoy your weekends now more than you did when you were a child?
Candidate: No, I prefer to be a child again because, er, when you are a child, we just play and you haven’t got any responsibility or job to do, but now it’s so different and difficult.
(You can watch the candidate here, extract from 2:07-2:25)

Example 1 got 6.0. As you can see, although he makes some grammatical mistakes, he manages to communicate using fairly complex structures, and the message is clear despite the mistakes.

The candidate for Example 2 got a 7.0. As you can see, some grammatical mistakes persist (‘I prefer’ rather than ‘I’d prefer’, ‘responsibility’ rather than ‘responsibilities’) but overall, the accuracy is much better than the candidate in Example 1. This doesn’t score an 8.0 because the frequency of mistakes is a little too high.


How can I get my students to improve?

Well, of course you can teach them grammatical rules and structures and you can correct their mistakes. The problem with taking a purely grammatical approach to the teaching of grammar, however, is that students often can’t produce grammatically correct sentences when they speak. This can be the result of teaching grammar as a set of rules with no meaningful context. So what if we tried a different approach to grammar?

Compare these two examples:

Example 1
Examiner: Would you say that your home town is a good place to live?
Candidate: Yes, absolutely. There are a lot of parks and green spaces, so it’s very pleasant. On top of that, it’s got plenty of shops and restaurants. I can definitely say that I’d recommend it to anyone.

Example 2
Examiner: Do you think your country is a good place for tourists to visit?
Candidate: No, definitely not. There aren’t many attractions, so it’s a bit boring. Also, it hasn’t got much good public transport. To be honest, I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.

The structure of each question is quite similar and this is a common question format in Part 1. – using ‘Would you say…?’ or ‘Do you think…?’ So if we look at the two responses, although the questions are different and the speakers have opposite attitudes, the language they use is essentially the same:

Opinion phrase
Yes, absolutely.
No, definitely not.
‘There are’ phrase
There are a lot of parks and green spaces
There aren’t many attractions
‘So’ + modifier + adjective
so it’s very pleasant.
so it’s a bit boring
Addition phrase
On top of that
‘Have got’ phrase
It’s got plenty of shops and restaurants
It hasn’t got much good public transport
Discourse marker
I can definitely say that
To be honest
Recommend phrase
I’d recommend it to anyone
I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone

All of the sentences are grammatically perfect. Some of the phrases are fixed – they don’t change (‘to be honest’, ‘on top of that’) so can be learnt as vocabulary items. The other phrases are semi-fixed and the student can substitute parts of each sentence (the content words) to produce new, grammatically correct sentences. For example:

There are a lot of parks and green spaces
There are a lot of shops and restaurants
There are a lot of cars and buses
so it’s very pleasant
so it’s extremely busy
so it’s not very clean

Using the same process – memorising fixed phrases and substituting words within a semi-fixed pattern – the student could produce the following response:

Examiner: Would you say that your home town is a good place for children to grow up?
Candidate: Yes, for sure. There are a lot of play areas and quiet streets, so it’s really safe. Alongside that, it’s got some great schools. I’d recommend it to anyone with kids.

You may recognise this method of teaching and learning grammar as the Lexical Approach. This approach works well for IELTS (and other standardised tests) because the questions are predictable to an extent, so we can also predict the phrases candidates will need when answering (there isn’t space within this article to go into too much detail, but a simple analysis of IELTS test papers will allow the teacher to recognise common question forms and topic areas). Then, by focusing on meaning and function rather than grammar ‘rules’, students can produce grammatically correct sentences very quickly and easily. This will improve both their range and their accuracy.

Another benefit of learning grammar as a series of lexical chunks is that you can nail the pronunciation much more easily. For example, in the following sentence:

There are a lot of parks and green spaces

We can take the fixed part – ‘there are a lot of’ and drill it with students to produce perfect pronunciation:

There ra ra lodda

Students just then need to add the content words to make grammatically perfect, well pronounced phrases.

More on pronunciation in my next article. For now, if you’re interested in learning more about the Lexical Approach, check out Michael Lewis’ excellent books The Lexical Approach and Implementing the Lexical Approach.

Until next time, happy IELTS teaching!

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