What is ‘discourse competence’ and how important is it in achieving a high level of performance in Part 2 of the IELTS Speaking test?
By Michael Frost
This article will summarise the process and findings of a study published in ‘IELTS Research reports’ in 2015. The research was conducted by Noriko Iwashita and Claudia Vasquez, two experienced professionals in Language Testing. Before moving to the details of the project, it will be useful to clarify the concept of ‘discourse competence’ as understood by the authors.
‘Discourse competence’ has been succinctly defined as ‘the selection, sequencing and arrangement of words, structures and utterances to achieve a unified spoken message’ (Celce-Murcia, 2008: 46). Four sub-areas have been identified, two of which – cohesion and coherence – provide the main focus of the research. ‘Cohesion’ refers to ‘internal properties’, the use of lexical items to establish relationships between ideas. Examples of cohesive devices include conjunctions, reference, lexical cohesion, and ellipsis and substitution. By contrast, ‘coherence’ relates to contextual properties, for instance the use of genre and the organisation and development of thematic content.
How does this relate to the IELTS test? Well, Fluency and Coherence is one of four assessment areas distinguished on the IELTS Speaking Assessment Criteria. Part 2 of the IELTS Speaking test consists of a ‘Long turn’. Candidates are presented with a topic by the examiner, and they then have one minute of preparation time before delivering a two-minute talk. The function of the talk is to describe a person, place, experience etc. to the examiner. For this particular aspect of performance, candidates will be judged not just on the degree of fluency demonstrated but also on the cohesion and coherence of their talk.
The authors studied 58 transcribed IELTS Part 2 speech samples across 3 levels, Bands 5, 6 and 7 (referring to overall candidate scores), with between 18 and 20 samples for each Band. 22 different L1 groups were represented in the study, with a gender balance of 68% males and 32% females (p.8).
A range of research methods were utilised. Quantitative methods were used to analyse 3 types of cohesive devices. The first was use of conjunctions. Four types were distinguished (p.9), as follows: additive (e.g. and, or, in addition); comparative (e.g. whereas, but); temporal (e.g. while, when); and consequential (e.g. because, therefore). The second area was reference, especially anaphoric reference (p.10), the use of lexical items such as pronouns (it, they etc.) to refer to what has already been mentioned. The third area was lexical cohesion, which is the use of lexical items and strategies such as repetition, synonymy and hyponymy (use of words in a more specific semantic field) to establish relationships between items in a text (p.12).
Qualitative methods were used for coherence devices. Two areas were selected here. The first was text generic structure (p.12), and the authors tried to determine the extent to which candidates complied with the conventions of the specific discourse type – description. The second was theme-rheme development (p.14), which refers to patterns of introducing and then appropriately developing ideas to create a unified message.
The authors found a number of small but significant differences between the levels. Firstly, Bands 6 and 7 candidates tended to use more comparative conjunctions (on the other hand etc.), suggesting an ability to produce a more complex description. In contrast, Band 5 candidates were more likely to overuse additive and consequential conjunctions. Furthermore, among higher-level candidates there was greater accuracy of use of referential expressions, and lexical cohesion was more evident, through use of hyponymy; Band 5 candidates tended to over-use repetition. In terms of coherence, the higher the level, the more complex the development of thematic content and use of information (p.38).
Although certain differences in performance could be identified, the authors point out that that lexis related to cohesion and coherence had low frequency compared with total words (conjunctions with 3.75-4.15 per 100 words was the most). Nevertheless, they also state that the infrequency of this type of lexis cannot be disregarded, as a study on non-native speaker teaching assistants in the U.S.A. indicates that a lack of discourse markers can detract from general comprehension in certain relevant contexts, for example when delivering an oral presentation (p.39).
Overall, clear statistical differences were found between Bands 5 and 7, although the authors add that there were also large individual variations between candidates across levels. In addition, it may be difficult for candidates to include discourse devices in the planning stage for part 2, and the cognitive demands of performing the task may limit the use of these devices (p.39). However, the authors suggest that explicit teaching of strategies for achieving enhanced cohesion and coherence (of the type mentioned above) might help to raise greater awareness of discourse competence, which is likely to have a beneficial impact during the test.
Celce-Murcia, M. (2008) ‘Rethinking the role of communicative competence in language teaching’, in E Alcon Soler & MP Safont Jorda (eds.), Intercultural Language Use and Language Learning, Springer, The Netherlands, pp.41-57
Iwashita, N., & Vasquez, C. (2015) ‘An examination of discourse competence at different proficiency levels in IELTS Speaking Part 2.’ IELTS Research Reports, 2015/5.