Monday, 30 April 2012

How to get the best out of your practice tests book - plus congratulations to Charline!

In my last post (here) I mentioned how one of the great things about being an English teacher is the huge pleasure I get when one of my students achieves their goals.  Today I was delighted to get an email from Charline in Switzerland who had some lessons with me and some of my fantastic colleagues, and has now passed her BEC exam with flying colours.  It really does make it all worthwhile!  Well done, Charline - you've made my day!

Today I've been thinking about exam practice tests - and in particular IELTS practice tests, as I'm helping a class and some one-to-one students to prepare for IELTS exams.  Lots of students buy books like this one: 

which are really quite expensive, and I feel that many people don't make the best use of the materials.  The most obvious thing to do is to work through the different Listening and Reading tests, checking the answers in the back as you go.  The problem with this is that you may not learn all that much from doing this - and there's a danger that you will get very depressed and demotivated if you don't get as many marks as you hoped.  Another problem with the way people use these books is that many students don't bother doing the Writing or Speaking tests, if they don't have a private teacher to give them a proper IELTS score.

If all that sounds like you, you've fallen into the trap of mixing up 'testing' and 'training'.  Unless you are doing the exam within the next couple of weeks, your focus should most definitely be on 'training', and in some ways you might be better off buying a book which contains more than just practice tests - there are hundreds of them out there, and if you email me I can make some recommendations.

However, let's think about how you can use a book like the one pictured above, to get as much value as possible for your time and money.  I'm going to assume that you have only bought one book of tests, and that you are taking the test in about two months.
  1. There's more than one way to skin a cat, as they say.  Don't use all of the tests in the book in the same way - there are several different approaches you can try, and each of them will teach you different things.  With the Listening test, you don't have to do it like in the real exam, hearing it only once.  You can listen to each section again and again before you look at what the answers should be. You can listen once, check your answers, then keep listening until you can actually hear the correct answer.  The transcript at the back of the book is a also fantastic resource - you can read it at various points in the process (with or without the help of your dictionary) - after you've heard the recording once, after you've checked your answers, even before you listen for the first time (this is especially useful for building confidence if your level is lower than about 4.5, or for the difficult Section 4).   Perhaps the most important point of all is that you can use the recording, the questions and answers and the transcript as a source of information - about the topics which come up in IELTS, and about useful vocabulary and phrases which you can use yourself in your own writing and speaking.  Make lots of notes in your notebook.  It's the same with the Reading test - of course you need to do some of the tests with a time limit, especially if you've a tendency to be a slow reader, but you don't have to check the answers immediately - why not change to a different colour pen or pencil and give yourself extra time to see if you can improve your answers?  You'll be able to give yourself one score for the questions you got right in the time limit, and another for your answers that you got with extra time. You can also vary the point at which you allow yourself to look up words in your dictionary - of course we all know you can't use a dictionary in the exam, but you're not in the exam right now!  You're still at the learning stage, and it's fine to use a dictionary (but don't look up every single word or you'll go crazy).
  2. Remember that an 'official' IELTS book will help you get into the evil minds (;-D) of the people who write the test.  Don't just do the tests without thinking - don't ever just accept the answer which is given in the back of the book (even if you got it right!) without analysing what the IELTS examiners were testing.  This insight is really, really valuable - even though you won't have time to analyse anything in the exam, you can learn such a lot at this stage.  Can you work out which types of questions you always get wrong? One incredibly useful thing you can do with both the Listening and the Reading tests is to make what IELTS Simon calls a keyword chart - I've adapted this slightly and called it a 'related language chart' (email me if you want an example).  If you do this, you'll see that looking for 'synonyms' is quite tricky - what is a noun in the question might correspond to an adverb in the text, and a lot of students miss this.  If you make at least one or two related language charts you'll start to see how the examiners use the English language to write the questions.  Once you start getting answers right, through careful analysis of how the questions relate to the answers, you are on your way to the score you need.
  3. Don't ignore the Speaking and Writing tests - even if you haven't got a teacher who is prepared to give you a score.   You really will benefit from writing out the tasks, even if no one but you will see them, and if you know another learner who is doing IELTS, see if you can have a look at each other's work - it's so much easier to spot someone else's mistakes than your own!  By the way, you shouldn't be trying to memorise anything for the Speaking test - the examiners want to hear natural English and will mark you down if they think you are only coming out with sentences you have learnt by heart - but you can make notes and lists of useful words and phrases, as well as ideas about what to talk about.  
  4. Don't write on the book in pen - at least not at this stage!  Ideally, do all your writing in your notebook for now, but if you really prefer to write on the actual pages, get a soft pencil and a really good rubber, so that you can easily rub out anything you write.  If you do that, you can easily use the book again just before the test if you need to.  It's a really good idea to re-do tests you did a few weeks ago - of course you'll probably get a much higher score than you would if you had never seen it before, but it's a great way to reinforce your learning.  

These are just a few thoughts I've had today about how to use the book - I'll add more as time goes on, but I'd love to hear your ideas.  Email me or leave me a comment!

Friday, 27 April 2012

Why I love being an English teacher

A friend of mine who is a solicitor is thinking about a career change, and she is considering the possibility of teaching.  This morning she came to visit INTO Manchester where I work, to sit in on an English for Academic Purposes class and see what we do.  Afterwards we went for a coffee and had a long talk about teaching English, and I told her that if I were to become unexpectedly rich (which isn't likely!), I would still want to do the work I am currently doing.  I would undoubtedly travel more in the holidays, but there's no way I would want to retire from teaching for a very, very long time.  

My conversation with her got me thinking about the reasons why I love my job so much.  Here are my top three, in no particular order:
  1. You learn something new every day.   Actually, this one does deserve to be number 1 on my list, as it's the reason why I never get bored.  Today, for example, I learnt about two beautiful cities in China, when two of my students each gave a presentation about where they come from, accompanied by amazing pictures and video.  I also learnt about the stellar career of Jose Mourinho - and the amazing fact that the teams he managed remained unbeaten at home games for, if I remember correctly, about 8 years!  I was also able to try out some new ideas about ways of teaching IELTS reading, which definitely need further refinement - I know with 100% certainty that there is always more to learn about being a teacher.  I also think that the day you think you know it all is the day you should think about giving up teaching!
  2. You meet such interesting people.  This morning I had the privilege of spending time with four people from China, one from Indonesia, one from Vietnam and one from Oman (as well as my solicitor friend from Stockport!).  This afternoon I had a couple of extremely enjoyable hours with my lovely student from Madrid - it just doesn't feel like work!  Each of these students comes to their English lessons with a background and history I initially know next to nothing about, and finding out about them is such a pleasure.  Even a fairly ordinary conversation about food or business is fascinating when you are talking to people from another culture, whose world view might be completely different to mine.
  3. Helping people achieve their goals is an amazing feeling.  Ultimately, learners are the ones who have to do the hard work of learning, but as a teacher I can give them help, advice and encouragement, and it's deeply rewarding.  Even when things don't go as planned for a student, it's still very fulfilling to be the one to help them develop and put into practice 'Plan B' - but nothing beats the satisfaction I feel when someone I have taught gets the exam success they had been hoping for!
I'm lucky to do what I love, and love what I do!

Monday, 23 April 2012

IELTS Reading: confessions of an IELTS teacher

I've been teaching IELTS in Manchester on and off for about four years now, and although IELTS is in many ways a difficult and sometimes frustrating examination, I do enjoy preparing students to take the test.

However, it's time for a confession - in all those four years of teaching IELTS, I've always been very nervous about my own ability to get full marks in the Reading test, if I had to do it with a strict time limit.  I've never had any worries about the Listening, Speaking or Writing (well, maybe a few worries about Writing Task 1 until I discovered IELTS-Simon's wonderful method here), but I've always found a reason not to do a whole reading test under exam conditions, just in case I didn't get full marks in the time available.  I felt that I would be so embarrassed, even if no one knew about it except me....

Well, today was the day I faced my demons - I finally ran out of excuses and worked alongside my lovely students while they did a practice test themselves.  It took me 22 minutes in all (the students have 60 minutes), and I got full marks.    

I learnt such a lot from this experience, and will be a better teacher as a result.  The main thing is that I mustn't let my perfectionism stop me from doing things.  I felt that I would be a 'bad' teacher if I didn't get full marks in the test - so I let my fear of 'failure' stop me from having a useful learning experience, whatever mark I got in the test.  If I hadn't got a good mark in the test, it would have motivated me to improve my own reading strategies, and that would also have been really useful to me as a teacher.   As it is, I'll now be much more confident to share my own tips and strategies with the students - I was a bit hesitant before, as I'd not really tried them out under pressure. 

So, this is how I got full marks today in the IELTS Reading test - it worked for me, and if your own strategies aren't getting you the score you need, maybe it's worth trying it out:
  1. I quickly read the whole text before I even looked at the questions.  
  2. I didn't underline anything in the text at this stage, because I didn't know what would be important, but I did try to focus on noticing the key points in each paragraph.
  3. I then looked at the questions one by one, and was fairly easily able to go to the right part of the text because I roughly remembered the main points of each paragraph.
  4. I answered each question in turn, but when I got stuck on a question (three times in all) I did the rest  of the questions in that section and came back to it a few minutes later.  In each case, answering the other questions gave me a bit more useful information about the whole text and I was able to answer the difficult question correctly.
There are many other techniques and strategies which different people find helpful - you just need to find a way which works for you.

Thursday, 19 April 2012


Pronunciation is really, really important - there's no point in speaking with beautiful grammar and perfect vocabulary if people can't understand what you say!  You don't have to sound like a native speaker - there's nothing wrong with having a Chinese or a Spanish accent! - but you do have to have good enough pronunciation so that other people can understand the words you are saying.

YouTube is a great place to go to help you work on your pronunciation.  I really like 'Jennifer ESL' - she has lots and lots of videos but you could start with this one: 

You can work on this at home, at your own speed, but make a note of anything you don’t understand and ask me in class, or send me a message through this blog and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.

Does anyone else know of any good online resources to help learners with pronunciation?

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

The joy of subtitles

I'm enjoying the last couple of days before I'm back at work after the Easter break, and I was very glad that today was a 'film study day' in the city centre which I had enrolled for.  The film we studied was called 'Good night and good luck', and it was a great film, definitely worth watching.  We had two very good teachers during the day, and they provided lots of interesting information between the different sections of the film over the course of the day.

I was very shocked, however, when I found I really couldn't understand the first 15-minutes of the film.  No, it wasn't in German, Spanish or any other language that I supposedly know.  It was in English - but it was American English, and the acoustics in the room were not great.  I thought I was the only person in the group who couldn't hear the dialogue, or who was not really understanding what was going on. Luckily, other people were also having a problem, and for the rest of the day the film was shown with the English subtitles as well as the audio track.  

What a relief!  It made the film so much more enjoyable, not having to struggle to catch every word which was said.  Of course, I did gradually 'tune in' to the American accent, so by the end I probably wasn't reading the subtitles very much, but it really took the pressure off.

As you know, I really, really recommend that language learners find television programmes which they enjoy, and watch them regularly.  As with reading, it's so important to find programmes which you actually like - although you may feel that you should be watching the news, or documentaries about politics or current affairs, if you don't enjoy them, you won't watch them - or won't watch them regularly enough to benefit from them.  If you are learning English in the UK and enjoy programmes which other people consider to be rubbish, like Britain's Got Talent, or Coronation Street, or Hollyoaks, ignore what anyone else thinks and watch them - but remember to turn on the subtitles (in English, of course), to make the whole experience more enjoyable and less stressful.  It also means that you can see how an unfamiliar word is written, and look it up in the dictionary.

If you don't have a television set, try watching English language movies on your laptop with the subtitles in English - or if you really think that is too hard for you, why not use subtitles in your native language for the first half of the film (until you know the characters, and what is going on), then switch to English for the second half?  

Remember, the most useful language learning strategies are the ones which you actually do - NOT the ones you think you SHOULD do, but never feel in the mood for!  Even if you are studying hard for IELTS or another language exam, you can still enjoy at least some parts of the language learning experience.  

I'd be really interested to hear your recommendations for good TV programmes and films for learners of English - please comment below, or email me:

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Language learning in Edinburgh!

Steve and I have just got back from our lovely holiday in Edinburgh.  We chose to go there so that we could see the newly-acquired pandas, but didn't realise that we needed to book weeks in advance and couldn't get any tickets....oops.  Luckily, there was a fantastic science festival on, so we went to four different events and had a great time.

However, the highlight of the holiday for me was our visit on Wednesday morning to the Yakety Yak Language Cafe - this is an organisation which arranges friendly and informal language speaking sessions, and Steve found out about the German in Edinburgh here.  We had to get up terribly early and walk an awful long way to get there for 9am, but it was really, really worth it.  It takes place in a German cake shop, and two groups of learners with different levels of German drink delicious coffee and chat in German with a native speaker.  Steve and I were in separate groups and both had a great time - I was very happy indeed to meet a lovely German guy called Christian who has lived in Edinburgh for nine years and works as a nurse as well as being a great German teacher!  I've been really enjoying my German reading and doing lots of it, but hadn't had the chance to talk to a real live German, so I was delighted to find that a lot of the fluency I had lost has come back to me. This proves that, for some types of learners at least, reading really is an easy and painless way to improve speaking, especially when you have forgotten a lot of what you had previously learned.  Why?  Because reading for pleasure in your second language really does remind you of a huge amount of vocabulary which you half know, or almost know, with very, very little effort on your part.  

It takes time to find the right books, magazines or websites - for me it has to be novels - but it's worth taking that time, because it really will make a difference to your vocabulary.  And, as those of us who work with IELTS know only too well, vocabulary, and lots of it, is the key to doing well in language exams - and all other situations when you need to use a foreign language under pressure.

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Patience is a virtue - for language learners

Yesterday I wrote a post about overhearing a bad-tempered, impatient English teacher practically bullying a Turkish-speaking student into buying books he didn't want (and maybe couldn't afford), and the experience has got me thinking a great deal about the character traits which are an advantage or a disadvantage when it comes to teaching and learning a language.  Today I want to think about patience, from the perspective of the language learner.

Firstly, learning a language takes time.  Lots of time.  Lots and lots of time.  Even learning enough of a language to visit a country as a tourist does not happen overnight.  Learning enough English to achieve an IELTS score of 7.5 (which some of my students have needed in the past to do certain Master's degrees) takes an awful lot of very hard work, some of it quite tedious.  Many aspects of learning language are great fun, but most people (myself included) do not particularly enjoy doing endless practice exams, over and over again until the exam techniques and strategies have become so automatic that the required score is within our grasp.  You really do need to be patient if day after day you get a disappointing score, and also very determined to keep going and keep trying.  

Secondly, it's very hard to define what it means to 'know' a language, or 'speak' a foreign language.  I have a degree in German, and I am happy to say that I can read pretty much anything in German and know what it means.  There are, however, many things 'wrong' with my German.  For a start, there are several sounds in spoken German that I find very difficult to reproduce, and the result of this is that I have a very noticeably English accent when I speak German.  For another thing, although my 'passive' vocabulary is excellent - I can understand almost everything which is spoken or written - my 'active' vocabulary is horribly limited - I just can't remember enough vocabulary quickly enough to speak with the fluency and accuracy I long for.  But compared to my knowledge of French, Spanish and Italian.... well, my German is brilliant in comparison.    If I compare my knowledge of one language to another language I know, or my language to someone else's ability in that language, I can only make myself miserable.  Language learning is a journey, not a destination.  If you aren't prepared to patiently enjoy the journey, and laugh at your mistakes and forgetfulness, you are in for a disappointing ride.  

Finally, 'learning' a language is not like learning to do many other things.  I remember needing to teach my son how to put on his school tie when he was five years old - although he found it difficult for the first few minutes, within half an hour or so he could knot his tie perfectly, and nineteen years later he can still do it perfectly, even though he now rarely wears a tie.  Most people never forget how to tie a tie, lace their shoes or ride a bike.  It's also true that you never totally forget the language you have learned in the past, but sometimes it gets buried very, very deeply in your memory, to the point that you feel it is totally gone.  However, if you patiently work through some beginners' books, you will find that things start coming back to you - slowly at first, but more quickly as time goes on.  If it took you three years to get to a certain level in the past, you will almost certainly get back to that level in a fraction of the time - but it will come slowly at first.  In an ideal world you would never stop practising your languages, and you would never lose your fluency and accuracy.  In the real world, life moves on and what was your priority one year will be pushed aside the next, often for very good and exciting reasons.  You can do anything you want with the free time available to you, but you can't do everything - there are only so many hours in the day.

So I've stopped fretting about my 'terrible' French, Spanish and Italian, and how much German I've forgotten.  Because Steve and I are planning to be in Berlin for three months in 2013, German has become very important to me again, and I'm really, really enjoying reading novels and an advanced coursebook - now that I've stopped being impatient with myself about how much I've forgotten!

Friday, 6 April 2012

The importance of being patient (and polite)

Steve and I went to London yesterday to see two amazing art exhibitions - one by Yayoi Kusama at Tate Modern, and the other by David Hockney at the Royal Academy.  Inbetween the two, we went to the foreign languages bookshop formerly known as Grant and Cutler, which has been swallowed up by Foyles.  I was having a very happy time browsing among the German books and then the IELTS and other English as a Foreign Language books, when something happened to spoil my enjoyment. 

I could not help but overhear a disturbing almost totally one-sided conversation between a middle-aged English teacher and her equally middle-aged Turkish-speaking student.  She spoke to him as though he were a small, annoying child, and the conversation went something like this:

Teacher: Look, this is the book you need.  
Student: Very expensive.
Teacher:  No it's not.  Look, it's only £27.  The one I had to buy was this one with the CDs and that costs £58.  
Student: I not sure.  I ask my friend.
Teacher: No!  The course is finished in three weeks.  You need to buy it today!  And you need a dictionary.
Student: I have dictionary.
Teacher: No you don't.  
Student: In my room.
Teacher: What?  A monolingual one?  No, I think it has Turkish in it too.
Student: Yes! Turkish and English!
Teacher: No, that's no good.  You need one that's only English.  Look, here's one.  It's really cheap - only £10.  
Eventually they went to the till, at which point the teacher got the shop assistant to give HER the points on HER Foyles loyalty card, without asking him if this was ok, and she jabbered away at the assistant about this and that during the whole transaction.  They came away from the till, and this is what she then said to the poor guy:

'I can't believe you didn't say 'thank you'!  I've TOLD you in class so many times that you have to say 'Here you are' when you hand over the money, and then 'Thank you' when they give you the book.  I can't believe you haven't learnt that yet - you sounded so rude!'

I was very, very tempted to say something to her, along the lines of 'How can you expect him to say anything at all when you never shut up?  How can you accuse him of being rude when you are so rude to him?  What sort of impression of English teachers will he take back to his home country?'  

In the event, I said nothing, but I felt very sad that a member of my own profession could be so rude and insensitive to a student who seemed like a very humble and polite guy.  

I very much hope that I have never spoken to a student with so little respect and patience.  It has got me thinking about the character qualities needed in language teachers and language learners, and I will return to this subject in my next post.