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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!