What is it?
IELTS has until recently been a paper-based and face-to-face exam. We now see more centres offering the computer-delivered version of IELTS though that still involves facing an examiner across a table in the Speaking Test.
Video-Call Speaking (VCS) is now being introduced in certain test centres alongside the traditional speaking test format. Candidates still have to go to the test centre venue but will talk to an examiner through a zoom video link. The examiner is remote; the test taker is not.
Why is it being promoted?
Covid-19 has obviously been a key factor but VCS is not simply a response to it. Over the last ten years or so, the various bodies that organize IELTS (Cambridge Assessment English, the British Council, IDP and IELTS Australia) have been working on the idea of making IELTS more available by offering the test to candidates living in remote areas or in conflict zones. The events since early 2020 have helped speed up this process. The cancellation of exams has led to a backlog of test-takers in 2021 as centres begin to open up again.
Examiners, all experienced in traditional in-person interviews, will be testing from their own homes as long as their equipment for doing so is up to standard. They will be organized regionally to thus avoid problems with time zones. Examiners might have interviews with candidates from the country where they are based or from neighbouring countries.
Is it coming near you soon?
That’s hard to say. The British Council and IDP have carried out trials mainly in centres located in China and India and are now gradually including VCS at some centres in Asia with the plan to extend its reach worldwide. Source
How is it different to the in-person IELTS interview?
Let’s think for a moment about the regular speaking test.
The test taker arrives at the test centre and goes through a brief registration process which basically involves checking identification and leaving all personal possessions such as mobile phones with the IELTS invigilator staff for the duration of the test. The test taker then waits to be called into the exam room by the examiner, is invited in, is asked to sit and the test begins. The test is standardized and there’s so much practice material available that you know what to expect.
Those involved in VCS claim that the switch to a remote link with the examiner makes no difference. Yes, there will be some minor changes in the way the test is administered but, and this they say is the most important point, neither the content of the test nor the interaction between examiner and the test taker will be affected. Let’s look at that in more detail and decide for ourselves.
What really happens in a VCS interview?
The VCS interview takes place in what they call a secure or controlled environment. Let’s take a look at what happens before, during and after the test.
After checks identification, the candidate is taken to an exam room and sat in front of a screen. The invigilator logs the test taker in and he or she is provided with headphones and a video connection using Zoom with the examiner is established by first ensuring everything is in perfect working order by testing volume levels and checking that the examiner will be able to see the test taker clearly. Your ID must be left on the desk for the duration of the test.
It’s worth pointing out that the test taker has no control whatsoever over volume or any other controls. Also, test takers are also asked to keep their hands on the table during the test and not to pick up or play around with the pencil and paper provided for the Part 2 long turn in other parts of the exam to avoid any noise interference.
When it’s all set up, the invigilator leaves the room and the exam starts. It follows the pattern of the traditional in-person IELTS speaking interview. Three parts, around 14 minutes with the only major difference being the sharing onscreen of the test card for Part 2. It will fill more than half the screen and will remain there until the long speaking turn is over. Meanwhile, the test taker has a notepaper and pencil for the one-minute preparation time. The examiner of course has a full view of the test taker during this and in fact, all phases.
Some doubts still exist with regard to Part 2 and the Test Card showing on the screen. The card covers about two-thirds of the screen, The test taker can also see the examiner in the remaining part of the screen. It seems some test takers during trials commented that it would have been nice to have a timer they could see onscreen for the one-minute preparation for example. But that doesn’t happen either of course in the in-person mode, so I don’t really see what difference it would make. The examiner will simply interrupt when the moment arrives.
The official British Council video on VCS advises you to speak clearly and not to touch your face, the screen, items on the table in case that interferes with the sound quality.
Once the examiner ends the test, the candidate has to wait to be collected by the invigilator before leaving the room.
What will it mean for you?
Although IELTS is keen to stress that the differences between the traditional in-person format and this remote version are minimal and in fact, mainly cosmetic. I do believe that there are several key aspects that we should be prepared for.
Let’s ask ourselves these questions:
- How might the technical aspects of VCS affect a test taker (or indeed, an examiner)?
- How might VCS affect communication style?
- How might VCS affect test-taker responses?
- Technical aspects
I’ve already mentioned the headphones and the lack of personal control the candidate has over volume and sitting position. Some may not like that.
Another issue might be sound quality. While every effort is made to ensure good sound quality, we all know that it cannot be taken for granted. Clarity is especially important when it comes to pronunciation and so it does no favours to either participant if they have difficulties because of poor sound, even if it is momentary rather than throughout the test.
The fact that the examiner may not be that familiar with listening to certain speakers may also be an issue. An examiner based in India linking up with test-takers from China, say, might cause difficulties in understanding.
- Communication style
At its best, the IELTS speaking test gives the test taker the opportunity to show off his or her English skills in a controlled yet relaxed environment. At least, that is what should happen even when we all know how nerve-wracking the test might be for some.
Perhaps presenting the test in the VCS format can affect performance.
During trials for VCS, some examiners and test-takers pointed out the lack of warmth at the beginning of the test.
Examiners often try to make the test taker feel at ease before the exam starts with a brief exchange of words even if it’s just a polite “if you’d like to take a seat there, please….”. Online that was felt to be lacking and so examiners are being encouraged to break the ice somehow before the testing begins, perhaps by telling the candidate that the test is being audio recorded or if they feel comfortable with the set up.
Another aspect here is the use or limited use of gestures in the VCS version. Examiners use non-verbal signals to interact with the test taker when they face each other across a table. You can signal for example that the speaker should continue talking in part 2 long turn as well as gesture that the time is up accompanied no doubt by “thank you”. Remotely, these natural cues get lost in the effort both participants make in order to follow what the other is saying. We tend to hang on to the words more and pay less attention to non-verbal communication skills.
That might be positive though it also means the examiner may use more verbal cues as when, for example, a candidate stops talking before they are told to do so in Part 2 long turn. The examiner would have to ask the test taker if they have anything more to say rather than gesturing the same with the hands or through eye contact.
Indeed, lack of eye contact is also a possible downside of VCS.
Depending on how strictly the rules are applied, test takers may find it very frustrating to keep their arms on the table while talking.
On a positive note, there’s no need to wear face masks.
Remote does not just mean physical distance. It can also mean “cultural distance”.
Remember that in VCS, it’s the examiner who is remote, not the test taker who has to go to an authorized centre to present the exam. The examiner will be at home and home might be in the same “region”, however broad that word might be understood or in a neighbouring country or, quite possibly, in the same country as the test taker but in a different geographical location. That all sounds very well and professional examiners should be comfortable testing candidates from any part of the world.
However, the fact that the examiner may well not possess any real local knowledge makes it harder for the candidate to explain local flavour …landmarks, cultural references, typical foods and so on. Let’s look at a couple of examples.
In part one, especially if the examiner asks you to talk about where you live, this lack of closeness, of common ground, means that test-takers need to work on preparing possible descriptions where they are located, enriching their vocabulary by providing context and introducing expressions to make contact with the examiner. Look at this as an example:
I live in a suburb of the city, in an apartment. It’s one of those typical tower blocks you often see in this city and in other parts of the world. You know, 20 floors high and just one of several similar buildings in the same area. All designed by the same architect I guess. I’m not sure if you would like it, but …
The same might apply especially in Part 1 questions such as those linked to local sights, institutions and events. Three recent topics that come to mind are:
Did you enjoy barbecues when you were a child? (If you mention going to the beach or parks to enjoy them, remember that the examiner will need a little context as to where these places are and perhaps what makes them attractive)
Do you remember your first school? (you may need to fill in a little of what type of school it is, its location and so on)
What is your favourite national holiday? (if it’s something very traditionally local, not just New Year, for example, be prepared to give some background detail).
No doubt, all the above advice would be equally valid in the traditional in-person test but in the VCS context, is even more pertinent.
Cultural distance is more difficult for the examiner too so the candidate able to successfully bridge the gap with relevant information will be welcomed.
Any change to a well-established format such as IELTS can be a bit frightening both for examiners as well as test-takers.
Of course, VCS is not exactly the same and yes, it might be a little off-putting for some candidates this notion of the zoom distanced interview but, let’s be honest, the last year or so has forced us to spend a lot of our time communicating like that. It’s not as if it’s a completely new experience. And, it might even be a better way to take the test for some. When online, we are concentrating more on the task, watching and listening more carefully to compensate for all those non-verbal cues we largely miss out on with remote communication.
The key is that extra preparation we need to put in on possible parts one and two topics to help bridge that gap between test-taker and examiner.
So, if and when VCS becomes available at your test centre, be ready and make the most of it.
You can download or listen to the full tutorial below: