The key to successful communication is to make sure that the person you are speaking to can understand what you are talking about. If you can be easily understood, because your speech is coherent containing natural pauses and fillers, this helps to communicate your ideas more easily and to sound more natural. In the IELTS test, speaking in a fluent and coherent manner is key to communicating your ideas. This blog will explain what fluency and coherence is and will focus on the importance of using discourse markers in the IELTS Speaking test.

Assessing fluency and coherence

When you communicate in an IELTS interview you are expected to be able to talk about yourself and what you do, and to answer questions on a range of topic areas. The ability to respond relevantly to questions and to extend your answers appropriately is assessed by the examiner in all three parts of the interview.

Fluency refers to your ability to keep speaking at a natural speech rate without pausing, repeating, or stopping for extended periods to think of what to say. On the other hand, coherence refers to how you organise and present your thoughts and ideas. Are you able to use appropriate discourse markers and linking phrases, and can you answer questions relevantly?

When you speak you will use pauses naturally, this helps the listener understand that you are finishing a sentence, or starting a new sentence, just like when you use punctuation in your writing. However, if you need longer pauses to think of what to say or to access vocabulary and grammar, this will impact the overall delivery as the listener will lose track of what you are trying to say. By learning some 'stalling' phrases, this will help with your performance.

Understanding more about the Speaking assessment criteria will help with your IELTS preparation journey.

What is a discourse marker?

Discourse markers are used to organise and manage what we are saying using words and phrases to connect ideas and to express how we feel about what we are saying. They are also used to help you think about what to say next using fillers correctly to sound natural in your delivery.

Look at the discourse markers highlighted in the following sentences:

The food I ate last night probably gave me food poisoning, so , unfortunately , I’ve been up all night.

The first thing I am going to do is show you the broken screen, then I’m going to show you how I fixed it and finally, I’m going to teach you how to fix it.

The first sentence expresses uncertainty and sadness using hedging language in the form of adverbs. ‘Probably’ is used as it is not known what made them sick and ‘unfortunately’ is used to show their attitude and feelings about what happened.

The second sentence uses discourse markers to sequence the steps that are going to be presented.

Discourse markers are used to express functions of speech and therefore help to organise what is said, while signalling the attitude of the speaker. They can also be used as a ‘stalling’ device, allowing you some time to think of what to say, for example, 'Let me think about that for a minute...' . It is much better to use a phrase like this, rather than pausing for seconds, or using intrusive fillers like ' umm... | err... '

However, it is important to learn how to use discourse markers appropriately and not to overuse them, so they become noticeable and repetitive like in the example below.

To start with , I really like studying English. Firstly , it is interesting, secondly it is challenging, thirdly I meet new people and fourthly I learn about other cultures. However, I must say that I find it difficult because of four things. Firstly , the grammar, secondly , the punctuation, thirdly ….

Learning a range of discourse markers that can be used when communicating is a very important step to take if you want to become more fluent. You can also use these markers as a stalling technique, allowing you time to think about what to say.

Which discourse marker to use and why?

Which discourse marker should you use and why should you use it? We mentioned that discourse markers express functions of language, so it's important to use the correct discourse marker when you are trying to express a language function. If you did very well on a test you would not start the sentence with 'unfortunately' as this is used to express disappointment or sorrow, you would use a more positive marker to express your joy.

Look at the following table which shows the different speech functions you would use during an IELTS Speaking test with examples of markers you could use.

Function Discourse markers, linking phrases
Sequencing - ordering information First, the first thing, first of all, firstly, the next one, to begin with, moving on to the next reason, secondly, thirdly, subsequently, on top of that, later, after this, finally
Adding information Another thing that comes to mind, also, and, besides, additionally, another good example of this is, another reason for this, and one more thing
Indicating opinion & attitude Unfortunately, however, actually, to be honest, definitely, essentially, frankly, basically, clearly, I'm afraid, if you ask me, sadly, thankfully, in fact, seriously, as a matter of fact
Comparing Similarly, in the same way, equally, likewise, in a similar fashion, if I compare it to my country
Contrasting However, although, instead of, despite, on one hand, on the other hand, in the opposite way, in contrast, whereas
Giving examples A great example of this is, for example, for instance, a personal example is, in other words, a striking example of this, a classic example is, a clear example of this can be seen, such as, illustrated by
Stalling Let me think about that..., that's a difficult/interesting question, I haven't thought of that before, well..., actually, basically,
Result As a result, because of this, therefore, consequently, so, then
Generalising Generally, broadly speaking, as a rule, on the whole, it is often said that..., in most cases, the vast majority of, a small minority of

Use discourse markers when speaking

The table lists a number of functions that are used when you need to express your ideas when speaking to someone. It also includes phrases that can help, when you can't think of what to say. Using these discourse markers instead of meaningless fillers ' err... | umm.. .' or long pauses, will show that you can speak fluently in a natural way.

The use of discourse markers when communicating helps to make you sound more fluent, helps to engage the listener and helps to successfully communicate how you feel about the conversation. Successful communication will help to improve your English proficiency level and to perform at your best on test day.

If you think you are now ready to test how fluent you are, why not check how you are progressing in the Speaking test with an official IELTS practice test with IELTS Progress Check .