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Tips and strategies for the IELTS test

IELTS has become big business. Every week, all around the world, tens of thousands of nervous people take identical tests, each with a particular educational or migratory goal up for grabs. It is not surprising, therefore, that courses aimed at preparing students for this test have sprung up everywhere. While the quality of these courses varies wildly from school-to-school, there are a number of simple strategies which are included in even the most basic of preparation courses. While it would be impossible to highlight all of the tips and strategies for the test here (some preparation courses run for 100 hours), this article aims to outline the general strategies every candidate should be aware of before attempting the test.

The IELTS test consists of four components; listening (30 minutes), reading (1 hour), writing (1 hour) and speaking (12-15 minutes). The entire test, therefore, lasts for around 3 hours.

There are two varieties (modules) of the IELTS test. The general training (GT) module of the test is used primarily for visa purposes or for entry into overseas high schools. The Academic module is accepted by universities. The listening and speaking tests for each module are identical, while the writing and reading sections are simplified in the the GT module. For the purposes of this article, the more widely taken Academic module of the IELTS test will be discussed.

First, some strategies common to all sections of the test.

General Strategies

Read or listen to instructions carefully. Many candidates are school or university graduates and, having recently sat a variety of examinations, feel that the reading of instructions in exams represents a waste of time. A big mistake in IELTS. Put simply, candidates who do not follow instructions invariably get answers wrong. There is a variety of instructions in the four test components, including ‘answer in not more that 3 words’ or ‘answer using a short phase’. With the former a 4-word answer, however accurate, is wrong. With the latter a complete sentence, however accurate, would also be wrong.

Manage you time. Be aware of the time, and be aware of where you are up to in the test. In the reading test, you have one hour to complete 3 sections, so never spend more than twenty minutes on each section. Simple. In the writing test, ensure you spend no more than twenty minutes on the first task, leaving 40 minutes for the longer, more important second task.

Don’t panic. If it seems like it’s a difficult test section, the chances are that tens of thousands of people taking the same test on the same day find it difficult. The band scores are only calculated after all of the world’s results are collated, and for a difficult test the number of correct answers needed for a particular band score is lower. If you think you had a particularly bad section in your test, learn to forget about it and focus on the next section. The chances are you did better than expected, and there is simply no point worrying about your poor listening test while you are answering the reading questions.

There follows one or two further tips and strategies to help you prepare for each component of the test.

The Listening Test

People are often most worried about the listening test because, unlike reading and writing, it’s a one-shot deal. There’s no opportunity to re-listen to the recording so if you miss it, it’s gone forever. This is why pre-listening preparation is the key to success here.

Use your time wisely. You are given around 30 seconds to read each section before listening, and the same length of time to check answers to each section after listening. Don’t waste this time. Use the time before listening to read instructions and questions and, very importantly, predict. Predict what you are going to hear, who will be talking, where they are talking and why. Predict the answers. Predict the part of speech (noun, verb, adjective, adverb) or try to guess the answer based on your general knowledge and clues given in the questions themselves. At the end of each section, use the ‘checking time’ to see if your predictions were correct, guess answers left blank (never leave blank answers in IELTS), and check your spelling, capital letters and grammar.

Underlining. It’s a very good idea to underline the key words in questions. The process of underlining helps you to listen for these keywords and prepares you, perhaps on a subconscious level, to identify these words in rapidly spoken dialogue.

Transfer answers carefully. At the end of the listening test you will be given ten minutes to transfer your answers to an answer sheet. Do this very carefully. Use the opportunity to check spelling and grammar, and guess unknown answers.

The Reading Test

A difficult question carries the same number of points as an easy question, so don’t waste time on one tricky question. Leave it, do the easier ones, then come back to it later.

Read the instructions and questions first. As you read the questions, again underline keywords and try to think of similes (different word, same meaning). The words in the text itself are usually a paraphrase of the question words.

Depending on the type of question, use scan reading and skim reading techniques. Scanning involves running your eyes up, down, left and right over the text (not reading each line) to search for a word or phase or specific piece of information. Imagine the way in which we find a number in a telephone directory. Skim reading involves reading every line quickly, ignoring ‘grammar words’ and unknown words. Using this method we can quickly develop a general understanding of the text, which is useful for summary-type questions, or questions which require an understanding of the entire text or the writer’s point of view.

The Writing test

In part one, you are expected to spend 20 minutes writing a description of a graph, table, process or combination of the three. In the second part, you have 40 minutes to write a 250-word academic style essay. Stick to the times.  Part two is longer and more important, and requires a full 40 minutes, so make sure you move on at the right time.

Part one is all about description of data, and comparison of data. Suggesting causes or reasons for the data or trends is a waste of time. Always try to compare data you see, rather than simply listing the information in front of you. Be especially careful to take note of the dates and times in the data, and use the correct tense.

In part two, analyse the question carefully, brainstorm your ideas first, then decide how to structure the paragraphs before you begin writing. Stick to the topic, and try to leave at least five minutes at the end to check your work. Having an awareness of the weaknesses in your writing enables you to use this checking time more effectively, as you can check for the kind of mistakes you have made in the past.

The examiner is looking for four things when he or she grades your writing: The content (did you answer the question?), the grammar (is the grammar correct, and is there a wide range of grammatical structures?), vocabulary (is the vocabulary appropriate, correctly spelled, and is there a wide range of words?) and cohesion (is the essay well structured, and have you used a variety of linking words effectively?)

Success in the writing test requires practice. Practice writing tests are essential, as is the need to learn from mistakes you make. If you are lucky enough to have a teacher helping you prepare, make sure you analyse corrections they make in your practice essays, and try not to make the same kind of mistake in your next attempt.

In the second part of the test, try to present a balanced argument. Show both sides of the story. If you are asked for your opinion, try to show both points of view before making your opinion clear in the conclusion.

Finally, write neatly and clearly, and make corrections using a single line through the error, as opposed to a scribble. There is no score for legibility or tidiness, but poor handwriting may put the examiner in a ‘bad mood’, making him or her more likely to give a lower score for a borderline essay!

The Speaking Test

Success in speaking tests comes through practice and confidence. Confidence is the key, but often confidence only comes after a considerable amount of practice. Remember that it is a speaking test, so speak as much as possible and never give one-word answers to questions. In part 2 you are expected to talk on a given topic for one to two minutes, after one minute of preparation time. Prepare wisely by writing as many notes as possible (keywords to remind you what to say), thus minimizing the risk of ‘going blank’ during the speech. Try to talk for the full two minutes until the examiner asks you to stop, thus demonstrating you ability to ‘keep going’ and improving your score for fluency. Part three contains more abstract questions, while the first two parts are all about you, and familiar topics. Listen very carefully to the questions, especially in part three, and respond appropriately. Don’t talk about yourself in part three.

The examiner is grading you on four aspects of your spoken English: your fluency (ability to keep going), your grammar (range and accuracy), vocabulary (range and appropriacy) and pronunciation. Prepare by studying grammar and vocabulary but try not to worry about grammar too much in the test itself, as thinking about the correct grammatical form will almost invariably result in a decrease in fluency.

The day of the test: last-minute preparation

IELTS is a long, tiring test. So, make sure you sleep well the night before and have a good, hearty breakfast. Research has shown that protein rich breakfasts are good before an exam, and carbohydrates should be avoided. Don’t drink too much coffee! Never do last-minute revision on the test day, as you may find something new and panic; last-minute revision is almost always counter-productive. The best things you can do in the hours before the test are speak English to family and friends, or re-read your old, corrected essays. Nothing more.

Arrive early at the test centre, allowing time for unexpected traffic delays. Get to know your surroundings so that you feel comfortable, and sneak a peek in the exam room so you know what to expect. While waiting, speak English to the other candidates in order to keep your brain switched onto ‘English mode’.

Remember that the IELTS test isn’t such a huge deal. If you don’t get the score you need, you can take it again and again (until your money runs out, anyway). Prepare thoroughly, practice as much as possible  and take the test day step-by-step, and you’ll have that band score you need in no time.