How to Improve IELTS
Many IELTS students have the belief that if you read the first sentence (or first two) of the first paragraph and then read the last two this will be enough information to answer the questions that are set. In actual fact for some passages this may just work – but it is too strict and not all passages fit into the same pattern of writing.
Take a look at this opening paragraph from an IELTS reading below:
The infamous Sardar Sarovar Dam on the Narmada River in India was initiated with World Bank loans. It was designed primarily to irrigate 1.8 million drought-prone hectares in the state of Gujarat. Despite the extensive canal and pipeline work, the 20 million people in Gujarat have this year experienced their worst drought for a century.
If we read the first two sentences – as per the general ‘rule’ many students use and then go on to the questions, this is what happens.
The first question for this passage is:
Choose the most appropriate title for Reading Passage 3
A. Drought: Small Scale solutions for a Very Big Problem
B. Water: A Women’s Work
C. Dams: Providing Water for All
D. Drought: An Unsolvable Problem
This is actually a global question which means you need to skim the WHOLE passage to answer it – but using the 2-sentence rule strictly which many students do, I know (because I have used this passage many times) that most students will choose C
Now, if we go back to the first paragraph we can see that the first word in sentence 3 is Despite – this is a linking word used to introduce a contrast and so if we go further and read the 3rd sentence we can see that the answer C is, in fact, the opposite of what the paragraph is telling us namely: that this hugely expensive Dam has not solved the problem of drought. The ‘rule’ about 2 sentences has failed and this is the problem with these so-called ‘rues’ they don’t work in every case.
A word like despite, yet and but, which often occur in the middle of a paragraph, tell us that the truth is the opposite of what the first part of the paragraph tells us. This is a very common convention in writing (one you can use yourself to great effect in your own IELTS task 2) and not realising the significance of this contrast means that you will inevitably get the answers wrong.
This is one example of a ‘rule’ that has somehow become part of IELTS mythology and these restricted ways of working are causing many students to consistently choose the wrong answers. Another strongly held belief is that answers are chronological so you’ll find the answer to question 2 after question 1 etc. this is not always true and leads to a lack of common sense. It is far better to deal with the substance of the passage and also the key words in the questions to find the answer. Far from being ‘short-cuts’ these arbitrary rules simply stop you from really understanding what you are reading and being logical about the process.
So how can we move forward with reading if we stop applying these ‘rules’?
Firstly, spend more time reading and understanding text generally. Read widely. All students that I meet who have achieved high reading scores tell me that they read a lot and enjoy reading. This will also improve your vocabulary. Also think about how reading and writing are connected. How do you plan your writing? You will find if you analyse reading paragraphs that the same patterns emerge. It’s logical. Be systematic and don’t make assumptions which are external to the text – the question and text itself will tell you everything you need to know to get the right answer.
Secondly, notice linking words and other ‘helpful’ vocabulary. In the paragraph above there is a very interesting word that tells you something important – infamous- when I have used this passage with students many of them read this as ‘famous’ – which it isn’t in fact the word means famous for something bad and so straight away we know that there is a problem with this dam. Once we realise this then we can be on the lookout for why this dam is infamous, what are the problems with it and it gives us a whole different interpretation of the paragraph!!!
Here is another sentence from the passage which has caused some issues for students.
While I was there, the newspaper headlines announced the first human casualties.
A ‘Yes No Not Given’ question stated:
Many People have died as a result of the drought
The answer lies in the word ‘casualty’ – is this a synonym for fatality – which would be a death? Many students again put YES. Understanding the word casualty means that you would understand that it is not necessarily fatal, it could also mean injured. Therefore, as we don’t know the extent of the injuries and whether or not there have actually been deaths from the drought, (it is possible but we are not told) we have to answer Not Given.
A good understanding of vocabulary, the interplay between sentences, the role of linking words can all help to make sure that you get the right answer.
Finally, use common sense. A student recently was struggling to find the answer to a question. She was using key words and had chosen the correct ones in the question to find the answer. I could see that all of her key words were sitting in the first paragraph but she was frantically search in paragraph 3. I was a little puzzled and asked why she had started looking here. Because the previous answer was in paragraph 2 she told me so it must be in 3 and beyond. I asked her to have a look at paragraph 1 and immediately she found the correct answer – common sense not arbitrary ‘rules’.
If you need help with IELTS then complete this questionnaire and we can talk on Skype.
Choosing the teacher that will help you best with your IELTS, especially if you are looking to work online or one to one, is a very important decision. There is a lot of choice and you need to know that the teacher you choose is going to help you to achieve the score that you want.
Here are some tips to help you find the person who can help you the most.
Your learning preferences
- Do you like face-to-face study?
- Are you happier with a group of people who can also support you in your study?
- Do you want to go away from your home or work-place for your lessons?
If this is your preference then it is probably best to choose a language school that offers IELTS in small groups or classes. If you are lucky enough to have a few weeks, months, or longer to study then you may consider a school in an English speaking country.
- Do you need one-to-one lessons?
- Do you require some flexibility?
- Do you enjoy working online?
- Do you have limited time to study?
In this case it seems that online training might just be up your street! You can work the lessons around your daily schedule and complete the work in your own time. It also saves on travel time and you can do everything from the comfort of your home or workplace or even both.
- An online teacher may be cheaper but it depends where they are based – if you have a teacher in the UK or Australia they will be paid at local rates
- Sometimes students think that tuition fees for IELTS courses should be less that the IELTS exam fee – this doesn’t make sense. The exam will be taken over a 3 hour period or so but your training could well be several days, weeks or even months and this involves the time and effort of a professional teacher. It is true that the IELTS exam is expensive but then you should expect that the training courses for the exam will be significant too and in many schools these are premium courses
- There is an expression in English ‘You get what you pay for’. If you need a high band then you will need an experienced IELTS teacher
- Factor IELTS training into your overall budget – if IELTS is THE deal-breaker then any other money you have paid to your agent or to a university will be wasted if you can’t get the required score. IELTS is often the golden key so be prepared to get the best support that you can so you can be successful
Your IELTS Needs
- Do you require very high bands 7 or 8? Then find a teacher who can deliver this. Not all teachers have the experience. I know teachers who will not teach above band 6.5 because they don’t feel they have the skills
- Bands 7 and 8 need high level language skills as well as an understanding of the specific techniques and skills required to get such bands
- Large IELTS classes will often go for the level required by the majority of the students in the class which is often band 6/6.5. If you need band 8 you may find that you won’t get a lot of help in a big class
- Do you need more training on a specific area of IELTS like writing or reading? – again in a large class the teacher will probably not focus on any one area so it may be better for you to choose a personal tutor who can help you with more specific things
- If you are looking for an IELTS teacher then ask around, see who your friends recommend
- Look at track records – how do their students do (although no teacher can guarantee your exam result )
- What do they offer you, how do they work, is this good for you
- Can you speak to them first about what you need and want – a good idea as you will get a sense of how they work and if this will be good for you
- If you are looking at a physical school you probably won’t have any choice about the teacher but you can find out about the school’s results
- If you are looking at an online school or agency can you choose the teacher? If not can you change the teacher if you find that you are not very compatible? This may be important in a one-to-one situation
- Look online at any testimonials, if the course is expensive then you may be able to speak to past students to get their story
Choosing wisely means that your money will be well-spent and you will get exactly what you need to be successful in your IELTS. It will probably save you both time and money too – so it’s well worth checking things carefully first.
Make Sure you Know Exactly what you need to do to get the IELTS Band you want.
IELTS Total Check-Up will help you do just that!
Luis called me in May 2016. He was living in the UK and not too far from me, a doctor but unable to practise as such in England. I meet many doctors in this same situation and it can be very frustrating for them. He had already taken the exam twice and not achieved the score required which is band 7.5 overall with a minimum of band 7 in each part. A 3rd test was already booked which was less than a week away! His main issues were reading and writing which were stuck at 6 and 6.5. Speaking and Listening were very good.
As he lived locally, we decided to spend 3 intensive days (from 10.00 to 5.00) together and he would also do extra reading and writing as homework. The reading began to improve quite quickly as there were some techniques, especially around key-words and also cutting down the amount of time spent on reading, which helped a lot. In writing Luis needed to write more complex sentences, use a wider range of vocabulary and less common words as well as eliminate some grammatical errors which were coming from his native language. The ‘interference’ from a native language can be quite a common problem in both speaking and writing and as I was able to identify the cause, he became aware of this and started to notice these mistakes.
Another problem with the writing was a tendency to think in his native tongue rather than in English and this can also be a big problem for many students. The key here is ‘if you don’t know it then don’t use it’ that means that if you have an idea in your own language and try to translate this idea without knowing exactly how it should be expressed in English, then it is very unlikely to come out correctly – think of a way of saying it that you do know or change the idea. Translation hardly ever works and you end up either with something that is not clear or something that is very strange – this is one of my golden rules in writing only write sentences that you know. If you don’t know how to write this idea then find an idea that you do know how to write. Of course if you have enough time then you can begin to experiment with new things but with only 3 days to go this was not possible for Luis.
As we had very little time, the strategy was to keep the basic sentences quite simple and then join them with good linking words, enhance them with adjectives, adverbs and other modifiers and try to find more interesting verbs to replace simple words like ‘have’, ‘can’, ‘is’, etc. Then with the use of the passive and modal verbs (should, would may, might etc.) it is possible to build up a good task 2 which starts to get to band 7. For task one relevant vocabulary for the kind of data and absolutely clarity around what is presented; be it data, map, diagram or process, is the key. Keeping the basic structure simple helps to retain clarity and then sentences can be enhanced with other lexical devices. I had also warned Luis that making a big difference to writing in just 3 days was virtually impossible but that he might just be lucky and have everything come together. On the other hand he didn’t have any choice as the exam was booked and he was prepared to see what he could manage.
We did make quite a lot of progress and he went off to take the exam on the next day.
Although his reading achieved band 7 the writing only got band 6.5, this was not a surprise to either of us as writing cannot be rushed – it really needs lots and lots of practice.
Luis had now returned home for a holiday so we agreed to continue the lessons online. He had a very tight deadline and booked another test – this time we had 10 days! I was still concerned that the writing might take longer but again, there was no choice the test was booked.
My method of working with students online is that I send the work to complete, the students then send me the answers and after checking we meet online to go through everything together looking at mistakes and why these mistakes were made. I also ask students to re-do things if they are far from the score they need – this was the method I used with Luis. He told me that even after only 2 weeks away from IELTS he found it hard to do that very first reading and writing again!
We met every day on Skype and in-between he worked hard at the test material and his writing. Eventually he had a template for both task 1 and task 2 which he used each time adapting this to the questions. Soon the writing was becoming easier to write, contained fewer and fewer errors, gave an excellent answer to the task and contained wonderful vocabulary and pushed all the Band 7 buttons – despite the short time available I felt that this time the band 7 was very possible.
The day of the test arrived and Luis took it. This was the last one he told me – if he didn’t get it he would return to his home country and not try again – a lot was at stake. After the exam he emailed me the following:
Listening, Writing and Speaking fine. I feel happy with them. But the Reading was awful. The heading of the first text was Infants Literacy….. And no idea at all about the meaning of the word literacy…. So you can imagine. A disaster. The second text was about photographs of planets, astronomy…..: I hate that… Difficult because i spent a lot of time with the previous one trying to understand, and I left some questions without answering them due to the lack of time… The third text was ok. But overall with the reading, I will be happy if i reach band 5….! So everything will be useless by now….!
This was very disappointing to hear as the reading scores had been excellent in our practice. However, I have heard this many times from students in the past who had actually scored very high bands so I was not expecting him to get band 5!
The day of the results came and I didn’t hear anything. I left it a few days and still nothing. I was concerned that his prediction about reading might be true. After a few days I emailed and asked how the results had gone. It turns out that there was an investigation so the results were delayed. This happens from time to time it is all a part of the moderation of the exam to keep the results fair and equitable. In the past when this had happened to my students they had all achieved very high scores so I now felt more hopeful (this is not always the case, however, as sometimes the test can be voided and the students have to re-take the exam which is very stressful).
The results took a whole month to arrive and they were excellent!! – Listening and Speaking 7.5, Writing 7 and Reading an amazing Band 8.
It was a ‘nail-biting’ time but worth all the drama in the end.
IELTS is possible for everyone – just keep going, maintain confidence and above all get some support from people who know the exam.
If you are in a similar position and want my help you can give me more information in this IELTS questionnaire and then we can speak on Skype and see what you need to do to achieve your score.
I heard this old Chinese proverb very recently and it made me think about many of the IELTS students that I had spoken to and how they tended to jump from one strategy to the next, mixing and matching ideas and ‘rules’ until they became totally confused.
IELTS is your friend. This may sound strange but it is actually true.
There are people who want to go overseas to continue their education by taking a Master’s Degree or PhD. Other people want to work in the US, UK Australia, Canada, New Zealand. Still others want to educate their children in one of these countries. They all have one thing in common; they need IELTS (or TOEFL, Pearson etc.). Getting a good IELTS score will open up that opportunity so IELTS IS your friend. It is a positive.
In 2012 I worked with a student from Malaysia called Sharifa. Sharifa wanted to go to Australia to do a Master’s Degree. She was a fully qualified child-psychologist and had already been offered a place on a Master’s programme and required an IELTS score at least 6.5 but had to have a minimum of band 7 in writing. When I met her in the early part of that year she was almost there. Continue reading
Some years ago I lived in Indonesia. While I was there it was necessary to learn the language – firstly for living and then later for my job. I was an English teacher at the university so at first my work was all conducted in English. Learning Bahasa Indonesia was not an easy thing as it is not at all related to English and had very different features. It had no tenses – hurray!!
At the beginning of August my youngest daughter Imogen performed at a Proms concert in the Albert Hall in London. She was part of the National Youth Choir. The Proms is a big deal, music concerts performed by some of the world’s greatest musicians in one of the best and most famous music venues in the world.
Here’s a preparation system that should deliver good results if you stick to the spirit of it and adapt it to your situation.
Set aside some time regularly to practise – preferably each day but as a minimum 3 times a week. This does not have to be hours and hours (language is not like chemistry or history –it’s skills-based so little and often works better). Make sure that you can really focus during these times with no distractions.
I know this may sound harsh but I do have a good reason for suggesting this and that is that at the end of the day getting the answer right or wrong often comes down to grammar. Many IELTS students do things upside-down; they start by practising IELTS test papers. They do hundreds of these, every one they can get their hands on. They get a range of scores in listening and reading – they practise their speaking a bit on their phones or with friends (they may use some English at work) they check out model essays and then try to repeat these in their own practice and if the vocabulary and linking words are the same then this will get a good band.