In this tutorial, we discuss everything you need to know about the IELTS Video Call Speaking Test with ex-examiner Robert.
For the last couple of years, the Speaking Test has been offered in many centres through a video link. Test takers go to the test centre venue but will talk to a “remote” examiner and not face–to–face across a table. The examiner is remote; the test taker is not.
Examiners are organized regionally and may have interviews with candidates from the country where they are based or from neighbouring countries.
Those involved in the Video Call Speaking (VCS) test 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 the examiner and the test taker will be affected. Let’s look at that in more detail and then decide.
What happens before, during and after the video call speaking test
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 identification checks, the candidate is taken to an exam room and sits 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 note paper 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.
The official British Council video on VCS advises you to speak clearly and not to touch your face, the screen, or 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.
Now then, although IELTS is keen to stress that the differences between the traditional in-person format and this remote version are minimal there are several key aspects that we should be prepared for.
How the Video Call Speaking Test can affect both the test taker and an examiner
- The first issue might be sound quality. While every effort is made to ensure good sound quality, it cannot be taken for granted. Clarity is especially important when it comes to pronunciation and so it does not favour anyone 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.
- I’ve heard of examiners and test takers pointing out the lack of warmth at the beginning of the test, after all, 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 may not be so easy.
- 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 a gesture that the time is up accompanied no doubt by “thank you”. Remotely, these natural cues get lost in the effort both participants make 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.
- 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 likely be in another country, even if it’s a neighbouring one and may not possess any real local knowledge, This makes it harder for the candidate to explain the local flavour, landmarks, cultural references, typical foods and so on.
In part one, especially if the examiner asks you to talk about where you live, this lack of closeness, of common ground, means that you need to work on preparing possible descriptions of where they are located, improving your vocabulary by providing context and introducing expressions to make contact with the examiner. Look at this as an example:
I live in the east of the capital city, in a house. It’s a very smart neighbourhood. It’s what they call a “gated community”, you know, where you need to show your ID to security guards before you enter. We have a big house, two floors, a garden and a swimming pool. I’ve lived there all my life.
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 should be able to successfully bridge the gap with relevant information.
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, in the last couple of years, most of us have spent a lot of 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 parts one and two topics to help bridge that gap between the 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 with sample speaking answers here: