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.

When I start to work with students who have lots of different strategies and ‘rules’, I usually find that they are actually blocking themselves from getting the score they want. The rules are conflicting with each other and what is more they are actually getting in the way of common sense. Trusting instinct and using common sense can often be the way to perform well in the IELTS test, yet often students ignore their common sense because they heard about a rule which said this approach wasn’t possible.

Let me tell you about Sara. Sara was struggling with her IELTS reading. She needed band 7 but kept getting band 6 or 6.5. One of the biggest problems for Sara was headings – she inevitably got them all wrong. One day when we were correcting a heading match exercise she kept telling me how that had been her first answer and then she had changed it at the last minute. In fact one day every single heading answer was wrong, yet for every one she had had the correct answer and then changed her mind. When I asked her why, she said that she had analysed them again and felt that her first answers were incorrect.

I told her that for the next heading exercise she had to go with her first answer and not even look at them again. Guess what? Every single heading was completely correct and from that day her heading matching exercises were always mostly correct.

Another student with a strongly held reading rule was Solomon, he believed that using key words took too much time and it was better to skim each paragraph for the answers. He also believed that reading just the first and last sentences of each paragraph combined with his skimming technique would get him the band he wanted – 7. He worked really hard at his technique and he always felt he had the correct answers yet couldn’t get above band 6. Once we worked on combining his skimming and scanning with key word search he quickly managed to get to band 8. His English was excellent but the rules he was using restricted his common sense and he dismissed correct answers simply because his rules narrowed his reading.

There are some misconceptions in IELTS Writing too. Hera knew that her writing should be interesting and saw many online sites that told her to be creative in her writing and not boring. She decided that being spontaneous would help her to write a great creative essay yet every time she only achieved 5.5 or 6. The fact is that IELTS is not creative writing; it is not story telling but more academic in style and has to be formal and objective. It also needs to show certain features like complex sentences and a range of linking words as well as great vocabulary. To include all of this and still make the writing interesting takes a good deal of both planning and practice. Once Hera began to restrict her language to what she could use well and without errors and focused on vocabulary her writing began to hit band 7 level and with a lot of practice the process became much easier and finally she was able to score 7 in the exam.

These breakthroughs are not uncommon among my students and more often than not the problems they were having were caused by checking too many websites and getting too many conflicting ideas.

I am not saying websites are bad – in fact they are wonderful for most IELTS students who can get more help than was ever available before the internet. I also have things online and I write this post each week to help students be successful. I am just saying that you should judge well. I have been a teacher for many, many years and I know that not all teachers can help all students. There are some teachers that you immediately know will help you and you can learn well and with others this may not be the case. It all comes down to personalities.

Let’s get back to the fox and rabbits in the title of this piece – if you try to go down too many different routes then you’ll end up with nothing useful.

I know that if you find a teacher who really suits you and who you feel is helping you to be successful and get your band then you should absolutely stick with that teacher. Make sure you get all the help and advice you can and ask for this – if they are your teacher they will be very happy to help in any way that they can. They may also recommend other teachers to you to help too – there are a few online teachers that I like to recommend because I think that they give really good advice on certain aspects of IELTS. This complements what I do and doesn’t conflict with it.

The real ‘proof of the pudding’ (the proof of the pudding is in the eating – a proverb meaning that you can only judge the quality of something by trying it) is – if you are getting good results with the strategies and techniques then they are good for you. If not then either they don’t work or you are not implementing them properly – at this stage be careful because you can learn the wrong things as well as the right things. If it doesn’t work for you find something that does – your scores will tell you.

A word of caution – if you have a low band in IELTS and want a high band (say band 5 and you want band 7) it is going to take a long time to do this and the issue here is not your technique but your English which you simply have to improve first.

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