Cracking the code: Helping students understand the IELTS band score descriptors

Several years ago I embarked on a journey of discovery (or 'uncovery' to more precise) in my understanding and teaching of IELTS. (IELTS stands for the International English Language Testing System and is the world's most popular English language test for higher education and global migration).

Having worked with IELTS candidates for a number of years and seeing how confused or frustrated students got when they didn't understand the assessment criteria, I started paraphrasing and illustrating the IELTS Speaking and Writing band score descriptors in my IELTS preparation classes in order to uncover what had previously been a mystery to students. I started to include clear definitions of the terminology used in the descriptors (e.g. collocation and idiomatic vocabulary) and to use examples from students' test practice to illustrate these definitions.

This journey to uncovery lasted a number of years, and over this time I saw students increasingly able to assess their own and each other's speaking/writing and who knew how to improve their band scores.

IELTS Speaking band score videos

The culmination of that work is my series of IELTS Speaking band score videos. The bite-sized videos are each between 6 and 9 minutes long and focused on a single part of the IELTS Speaking test and a single feature of the IELTS Speaking band score descriptors.

The videos use real, unscripted (unpracticed) answers from students speaking under test-like conditions who have recently taken an IELTS test. This unique feature provides a degree of authenticity to the series that other students find motivating and in many cases can relate to because of a shared nationality with the student in the video or a similar Speaking band score or test experience.

In the following example, an IELTS candidate from Russia (Efim) answers some IELTS Speaking Part 3 questions, and then I explain how Efim could improve his speaking.

I also write a blog post for each video in order to give students more help and advice,. You can find the blog post associated with the video above at

What's next?

I'm going to record and add further videos to the series that will include candidates from countries that I haven't yet included and with band scores that I haven't yet focused on.

And I'll hopefully receive more comments like this one:

“I recently just finished my IELTS test and I got 6.5 for my speaking test! Previously I only get 5.5. Thank you so much for all your videos! All your feedback are really helpful” (YouTube comment)

Further reading:

Issitt, S (2007). Improving scores on the IELTS Speaking test. ELT Journal Volume 62/2, Oxford University Press.

Rust, C., Price, M. and O’Donovan, B. (2003). Improving students learning by developing their understanding of assessment criteria and processes. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education Volume 28/2, Carfax Publishing.

  • Hazel Owen

    What an incredibly valuable resource Pete!! 

    It was really interesting to read about your journey of uncovery, especially the interpretation of assessment criteria in a way that avoids the jargon, and that also links to examples. When I was working in Dubai we used a similar sort of approach (although we weren't using an existing external body's criteria), and made the language such that it could be interpreted by the students such that they could assess each other and themselves prior to submission of a piece of work. We then encouraged students to 'negotiate' (especially with the formative, cumulative work) their understanding of why they had received particular feedback - especially if they didn't agree with it :D There were often robust conversation during which the students often demonstrated clear understanding of the criteria and could therefore identify areas they wanted to focus next. The research study that was conducted alongside the integrated Computer Research Skills and Projects course included comments by students that they felt more comfortable understanding what the teachers were looking for - and in some cases, the 'why'.

    I really enjoyed the video with Efim (and loved the wry smile he gave at the end of his first response). The contextualised, on-target feedback that you then gave, I feel, clearly illustrated the concept of collocation along with areas on which learners could work - especially with the accompanying blog post. A powerful way to support students that also makes the use of technology.

    A couple of wonderings - What would be your key guidelines for interpreting and reframing existing marking criteria if someone wanted to do something similar in a different subject area? And, what would your advice be for anyone else who might want to develop resources to scaffold and empower their students' learning?

    Thanks so much for sharing Pete :D

  • Pete Jones

    Thanks Hazel,

    I've also found that it's very motivating for students if they understand how they are being assessed and how they can improve their scores.

    In answer to both your questions, my guidelines for helping students understand asssessment criteria are to...

    • define all terminology that may not be familiar to your students or that may have a less precise meaning in other contexts
    • script definitions rather than relying on real-time explanations that may end up too wordy, imprecise and/or ambiguous
    • refine your definitions over time
    • use real examples of students' work for illustrative purposes
    • limit the focus of any one lesson to a particular aspect of the assessment criteria
    • provide an overview of the assessment criteria at the start of a course of study
    • focus on specific aspects of the assessment criteria at regular intervals over the course of study