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The key to passing IELTS

posted on Wednesday 19th September

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With 3 million people taking the test each year, IELTS has become the passport to an academic future in English and is the most widely recognised English language qualification in the world. IELTS scores highly in reliability and validity, which is a key reason for its success. It is an extremely efficient way of coping with the huge growth in demand for formal English language qualifications. By creating one standard format (sub-divided into academic and general papers) that tests all levels and all kinds of students from around the world, IELTS is truly global. It opens up new possibilities for academic, professional and inter-cultural opportunities for students from all around the world. Whether it’s for university, an Erasmus exchange, an internship, or brand new job in a brand new country, IELTS represents the standard of achievement in an increasingly global world. Just like any crucial milestone on the path to success, taking the IELTS can naturally be a source of stress. A lot rides on getting that crucial grade.

So how can students be best prepared to get the IELTS test score they need? First thing’s first: decide which paper suits you best. According to the IELTS website, over 80 percent of students in 2016 opted for the academic test. So we know which is the most popular. But that’s not to say you should always follow the crowd. If you want to study at any level below degree level or if you want to receive work-related training, the General IELTS test could suit you better. On the other hand, if you need IELTS for university or a full-time job, go with the Academic test.

Once you’ve decided on your test, the official IELTS website gives some generic advice: first, know the test format, the order in which you’ll take the test, the amount of time allowed, and the number of questions per paper. This will form the basis of how you strategize when you’re in the exam. You can use the time to play to your strengths. Second, practise by getting hold of some exam practise papers. Work through lots of sample exercises, gradually narrowing the amount of time you take over each part until you’re completing the tasks inside of the allotted time. Third, sign up to a language school that offers a good IELTS training course with experienced IELTS tutors. Taking the IELTS is a skill in itself. Some schools know the test better than others, so it is important to find the right school. The cheapest deal isn’t always the best one. Speak to staff at the school in person or over the phone and get an idea of how well they know the test and how they teach it. Finally, find your test location and sign up. A deadline can get you motivated and give you a sense of purpose and direction.

Many students eagerly dive into the vast collection of practise papers, only to become demoralised when their scores don’t rapidly improve. Einstein famously said that the definition of madness is repeating the same action and expecting different results. Simply completing exam tasks won’t improve your score, unless you are a naturally gifted test-taker. For the rest of us, careful instruction is essential. And that means a teacher who knows the test and can teach you how to approach the different parts of the test. There are no quack cures here. Don’t trust anyone who tells you there’s a way to cheat or to game the test. But critical thinking skills, real analytical approaches, and good strategy and tactics can be taught and developed through practise. If you’re not seeing improvement in your test scores, then you need to think about your current approach and test its effectiveness by
changing it.

Each paper has it peculiar difficulties, but I want to focus on the reading test because it’s an area where a lot of students can feel overwhelmed by the scale of the task. The British Council offers some pointers, but the best way of testing any advice is to use it in practise and see if it works for you. Remember that some good advice can become over-generalised or taken too far. Some sources suggest not reading every word of the text, which some learners take to mean that there’s no need to read the text at all. It is not enough to simply scan the text for specific information relating to the questions. You do need to read the text in full. One of the better approaches is to carefully read the questions first and then to work through the questions as you read the text, moving your finger across the page as you read if this helps. Think about synonyms, antonyms, or echoes of the questions as you go, looking back and forth between the reading passage and the questions themselves.

The reading test contains three reading passages and a variety of different question types (there are comprehensive details of the test content here). The passages can vary in both content and form. One of the most common complaints from candidates is that the range of subject topics is too broad and indeed it can feel a little scary approaching a text on polar bear populations levels or mating rituals among exotic birds when you come from a humanities background. Both teachers and learners need to be aware of this range of potential content. Teachers need to encourage students to read widely and to gradually reduce their level of vocabulary support through limited pre-teaching. It ultimately falls to students, however, to take up the challenge. It rather misses the point to complain that the subject areas are outside your comfort zone. IELTS aims to test a variety of lexical areas. Another point is the range of text types that you can be given. You might have to read purely evaluative texts which take account of different research or you might be given a piece containing the writer’s balanced opinion. Try looking at newspaper articles, science blogs, and web pieces to identify the different text types. You also need to get comfortable with ambiguity and subtlety of argument. Real texts don’t always spell out their meaning for the reader, and neither does IELTS.

Now for the questions. There are many question types so read the questions carefully first. It may sound obvious, but try to root all of your answers in the text. For ‘Yes/No/Not Given’ type
questions, it must be clear that the text agrees with the statement for it to be true. There will be synonyms in the text which paraphrase the question. Test the passage against the question by ticking off the key words in the sentence. If each word can be ticked off and the sense is positive, then the answer is yes. If the text says the opposite, then it’s no. You can prove this by looking out for antonyms or negations of the statement in the text. ‘Not given’ is the hardest to categorise. Generally the text will allude to parts of the statement, but unless you can tick off each part of the statement, then it’s not given. For example, the question may state that ‘Children in South America are experiencing improved musical performance as a result of free dancing lessons.’ The passage may refer to children in South America, improved performance, and free dancing lessons. But if the text doesn’t include a reference to improved musical performance then the answer is not given. Many students make mistakes on these questions for precisely this reason: each part of the statement needs to be asserted for the answer to be yes. If it’s not all there, then it’s not given.

Another particularly difficult aspect of the reading test is the multiple choice tasks that students need to complete. IELTS examiners will use ‘distractors’ to make answering the questions harder. These are designed to make you think that you’ve found the answer, when you might only have found several key words. Look at the surrounding text and look out for important quantifiers, e.g., some, most and all. A common mistake is for students to locate the area of the text which contains the answer, but to then fail to find the specific information that answers the question. When students make these kinds of mistakes it is generally a sign that they are rushing through the text because they are worried about completing in time. So remember, it is better to complete three-quarters of the test well, than to do the whole of it badly. Don’t just find the location of the answer – read the relevant passage and pause before choosing your answer. You could even try reading the whole question again just to be sure. In the end, many mistakes are made because students don’t use the full amount of time appropriately.

This is true in general: there are no short cuts. The best way to succeed in IELTS is to develop your English language skills and abilities holistically.