The IELTS interview is based on speaking booklets. These tell the examiners what to say and when to say it. For the most part, examiners aren’t using their own words. They are reading out what is in the booklet. They try to make it sound like a real conversation. But this is actually quite hard. It takes a lot of practice so that they can sound as if they’re having a real conversation with the candidates.
As an examiner, before I call in a candidate, I have to take a few minutes to get ready. This mainly consists of deciding which questions to ask. All examiners are given a booklet at the beginning of each session. There are several different booklets being used at any one time. Depending on the size of the session, all the examiners in a centre may be using different booklets. These booklets are changed regularly. If the people at IELTS feel that too many real questions / topics from a booklet have been made available on the internet, they just change the booklet. This means, however, that I’m often not familiar with the specific questions. I have to read them through first to make sure that I know what I’m going to be asking and what I’m going to be saying.
Part 1 (3-4 minutes)
At the beginning of part 1, I have a standard set of questions. The purpose of these is to make sure that the date, the centre name, my name, the candidate’s name, and the candidate’s number are all on the audio recording. I also have to check the candidate’s identification.
After this, I ask the candidates questions about three different topics. For the first topic, I have a choice between questions about where they live or questions about studying/working. I will say either “Let’s talk about the town or city where you live” or I’ll say “Let’s talk about what you do. Do you work or are you a student?” I’ll then ask the questions in the booklet. Remember, all the booklets are different and the questions about these topics are always slightly different from each other. This means that I often get candidates answering the questions that they’ve prepared for rather than the questions I actually asked.
The booklet then contains another eight topics for part 1. I can’t ask these in order (candidate 1 gets topics 3 & 4; candidate 2 gets topics 5 & 6; candidate 3 gets topics 7 & 8; etc.) If I did that, then I could get into trouble because candidates talk to each other after the interviews and would be able to predict a pattern. So, I have to randomly select these. These are all general, familiar, everyday topics. They are easy to answer as they are often asking about the candidate’s habits, routines, likes, dislikes and experiences. The tenses needed are usually quite simple, but they do give me an idea of whether a candidate is likely to be a band 4/5 or 6/7 of 8/9. The questions are not challenging enough to give me an exact idea of which band. That starts to become clearer in part 2, and clearer again in part 3.
In part 1, I cannot say anything which isn’t in the booklet. I have to ask the questions exactly as they are written down. I can’t comment and I can’t ask any follow up questions, even if I’m really interested in what a candidate is saying.
Part 2 (1 minute preparation + 2 minutes speaking)
In part 2, there are a lot of different topics in the booklet. Again, I’m not supposed to select these in order, but I must make sure that I ask a variety of topics. There are enough part 2 topics that even if I have 20 candidates (the maximum number I can interview in a day), I still wouldn’t need to give out the same topic more than once.
I can only say what is written down for me to read out. If a candidate stops before 1 minute, I say “can you tell me anything more about ….?” That signals to the candidate that he/she hasn’t said enough. They usually look back at the bullet points in the task, and that gives them more ideas to keep on going. If they can’t think of anything more to say, I have two follow-up questions. I then ask these so that the candidate will keep talking a bit longer. I keep a careful eye on the clock because I have to say stop after 2 minutes. Sometimes, the candidates are still talking and it’s hard to interrupt, but I have to stop them. I then ask the follow-up questions before moving on to part 3.
As I’m listening to the part 2 response, I can concentrate on what the candidate is saying and how he/she is saying it. I have to think about the different categories that make up the speaking band.These are:
- Fluency and coherence
- Lexical resource
- Grammatical range and accuracy
Part 3 (4-5 minutes)
Part 3 questions are connected to the part 2 topics. That means that I don’t have to choose anything. This is the most difficult part for the examiners because we have to ask the questions in this part in a way which the candidate can understand but which will stretch him/her. The questions are written down for us, but we have to paraphrase them so that they help the candidate give the best answer he/she can. I already have a very good idea of what band a candidate will get from parts 1 and 2. In this part, I want to know if I can challenge the speaker so that they go up a band.
With a weaker candidate, I will ask the first few questions in the booklet. I may be asking the candidate to compare or explain or discuss. I may have to simplify the vocabulary. If a candidate doesn’t understand my question, that’s because I haven’t simplified the question enough. With stronger candidates, however, I don’t need to simplify. I will ask the later questions on the sheet which may require the candidate to evaluate or speculate. These questions give the candidates the opportunity to display a broader range of the vocabulary and grammar that they know.
In part 3, I’m allowed to ask my own follow-up questions. I don’t just ask what’s on the paper. I have to listen to what the candidate is saying and then ask more detailed questions – trying to elicit speaking which will justify a higher band. This makes this section like a real conversation. I have to keep my eye on the time, though, as this part has to last between 4 and 5 minutes. At the end I say, “and that is the end of the speaking text”. It’s all over, and I switch off the mp3 recorder.
Then, when the candidate has left, I look at the band descriptors carefully. I’ve looked at them so often that sometimes I feel as if I could recite them in my sleep, but reading them through helps me clarify that I’m choosing the right band. I have to do this straight away while I can still remember everything that the candidate said. We’re not allowed to take notes while candidates are talking as it would be distracting for them and we don’t have time to listen to the interview again. So, deciding on the grade has to be done immediately afterwards while it’s all still fresh in our minds. I note down the candidate’s grade and then call in the next candidate.Image: Ambro / FreeDigitalPhotos.net