Thursday, 24 May 2012

Getting ready for the IELTS Speaking test

My fantastic and super-intelligent student M is worried about her forthcoming IELTS Speaking test, so today we spent three whole hours working on preparing for Part 2.  I printed out a collection of speaking tasks which I found here.  We picked out the tasks which looked most difficult and she just worked so hard, ploughing through them one after another.  

What really struck me was how much better she did when she was talking about something she felt genuinely enthusiastic about.  There's absolutely no reason why you have to tell the truth in the exam - the examiner will neither know nor care whether you really use the bus instead of your car to help the environment - but when you are inventing things which are not true for you, and doing this under extreme pressure, it's very easy for your language and ideas to be very general.  We have a great word in English to describe something which isn't absolutely terrible but is a bit bland and boring: wishy-washy.  I came to the conclusion that when you are talking about something you have no real feelings about, you can end up sounding a bit wishy-washy, and getting a wishy-washy score.

Do yourself a favour: print or write out as many examples of Part 2 tasks as you possibly can NOW, and spend as long as it takes to think up an interesting answer to every single one.  If you really have to lie, that's fine, but make it an interesting lie, complete with interesting and believable details.  Go through your vocabulary book and  your Ideas Book and make a note of  useful vocabulary for the task - in particular phrases - which will show the examiner what you are capable of.  

As always, don't forget to look at the superb free lessons provided every day by IELTS-Simon (no, he doesn't pay me to say this!) - his blog posts about speaking are here. There isn't a better IELTS resource anywhere.

The other thing you absolutely MUST do is work with a timer - on your mobile phone? - to practise making notes for a minute, then speaking for between one and two minutes (aim for two).  If you can bear it, record yourself and listen to the recording.  Can you hear any errors?  Is there any hesitation or repetition?  Try working with a friend and see if you can spot each other's mistakes.  You might think it's not much fun, but you'll be so glad you invested this effort if you get the score you need.

Of course it's always possible that you will get a Part 2 task that you couldn't possibly have anticipated, but the more you practise quick thinking and rapid planning, the better prepared you will be to cope in that situation.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

How to improve your score in the IELTS Writing test

Many of the students I work with are looking for the one key to getting a high score in the IELTS Writing exam.  The fact is, there's isn't one single factor which will guarantee you get the score you need, but there are a few do's and don'ts which are worth remembering.

While you are preparing for the exam: 
  • Do focus on making your language easy to understand.  If your teacher is always writing question marks on your essay, you are not making your meaning clear.  If the examiner does not understand what you are trying to say, you have failed to communicate your message and you cannot get the high score you are hoping for.  
  • Don't get obsessed with linking words and phrases.  Of course you do need to use these effectively in order to get a high score, but you won't get a higher score by using unusual or obscure words and phrases.  You definitely won't get a high score if you put them in the wrong place. Learn to use a small range of linking devices correctly.
  • Instead, do work on developing a really wide range of ideas and opinions about all the common IELTS topics.  Read the newspapers and your coursebooks, listen to the news, watch YouTube videos and, most important of all, make an ideas book.
  • Don't try to memorise long lists of model sentences out of an IELTS book. Of course you need a range of good vocabulary to get a high score, but it's better to find a few good phrases then use them as soon as possible in your writing until you are really familiar with them, and sure that you are using them correctly. Then repeat the process with a few more.  
On the day:
  • Do make sure you only spend 20 minutes on Task 1.  You cannot get a good mark overall if you do not spend enough time on Task 2.  
  • Don't panic if you don't fully understand the question.  It's not the end of the world.  Read the question carefully several times, and if you really, really don't understand it, don't just give up.  Make the most sensible guess that you can and take the opportunity in the introduction to clarify what you think the question means.  This will make it less confusing for the reader, who will understand where you are coming from.  You will still get some credit if you write a good essay.
  • Do jot down your ideas and make a quick plan before you start writing the essay.  A lot of the marks are for how well organised your essay is, and it's very difficult to do this as you are writing.  
  • If you do get to the end of your essay and suddenly think of a really, really good idea you should have put in the second paragraph, don't just put it in the conclusion.  Leave a space after the end of the conclusion, write down your great idea, then link it to where it should have gone in the essay by using a long arrow.  

I hope these ideas are useful - good luck with your preparation!

Thursday, 17 May 2012

How reading the news can help you to get high scores in IELTS - or just improve your English in general

If you are serious about improving your English, especially if you are preparing for a test like IELTS or one of the Cambridge ESOL exams, you need to be regularly practising your speaking and writing - what we could call output.  But you also need to make sure that you are getting enough input - that you are taking in enough  of the right sort of English, through your eyes and ears.  

Although a large part of your exam preparation should be in the form of practice tests, you need more than that. Chatting with friends, both face-to-face and on the internet, is a great way of practising your informal speaking skills, but you need more than that.  Reading about your favourite fashions or sports on websites is an excellent way to improve your reading skills and give you the vocabulary you need to talk with your friends (and the examiner) about your everyday life and the things you love. But you need more than that.

To get really high scores in exams like IELTS, and to pass exams like Cambridge Advanced, you need to know a bit about the world.  Not just your world - you need to know about what goes on in the world as a whole.  I don't mean that you need to know and remember a huge number of specific facts about current affairs.  What you do need is a general understanding of other people's lives and experiences, so that you can talk and write about things of which you have no direct experience.  

I'll give you an example.  If you are reading this, you are a literate, educated person, but to write an essay about the problems of illiteracy you need to be able to imagine what it would be like to have little or no education, to be unable to read and write. It's much easier to write about the less familiar topics if you have got into the habit of thinking about what happens outside your own family and social life. Newspapers, or news websites, are the place to find this type of information.

I'm going to make two suggestions about how to read the news to improve your English (I'll talk about listening another day):
  1. If you live in the UK, buy the newspaper called the 'i' every day.  It's only 20p, and is a shortened version of one of the high quality newspapers called the Indpendent.  I know that Metro is free, but the type of English used in Metro isn't as good as the language in the i.  The first two pages are full of very short articles (about 50 words each) on the hot topics of the day from around the world.  If you look through these and read about half of them, you will get lots of new vocabulary and ideas for essays (don't forget to add all your new ideas to your Ideas Book).  If you flick through the next 20 pages or so, you will find lots of longer news articles - and you could pick one or two a day and read them quite closely, making a record of the useful vocabulary and ideas.  After that there's pages about the day's television, fashion, technology, cars - all sorts of different 'general interest' topics.  Then come the business pages, so if you are studying for IELTS with a view to doing a Master's degree in Business, you can make sure that you are aware of all the latest developments.  Finally, there's lots about sport, and some great crosswords and other puzzles.  You don't have to read it all, but commit yourself to spending a certain amount of time on it, and do it regularly.
  2. If you don't live in the UK, or don't want to buy the i, do the same but use the internet.  You can use websites by the Guardian or the BBC, or have a look at this website which lists the top ten news websites for English language learners. Read the headlines, and choose one or two articles a day to look at more closely. I do this for my German, using the German version of Yahoo. Sometimes I don't feel like it, but I always enjoy it once I actually start, and it's a good habit which has really helped me.
The most important thing is that you develop a daily routine (or at least a routine you follow on a few set days of the week) and follow it as regularly as you clean your teeth! You can make a real difference even if you only spend half an hour a day.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Ideas for IELTS Speaking and Writing

Students complain a lot about the IELTS exam.  A lot of complaints are about how hard it is to do the Reading test in the time available, but even more people complain about how hard it is to think of ideas for some of the Writing Task 2 essay topics, and the Speaking Part 2 talk.  Without some good ideas, it is very unlikely that you could get a high enough IELTS score to be accepted onto a postgraduate course.

A really good way to overcome this problem is to begin an Ideas Book as soon as you possibly can, and add to it regularly.  You can do this on your computer, in a Word document or Excel spreadsheet, or use a folder or A4 notebook.  

It's very simple - basically, you list all the topics you can think of (especially difficult ones) in your document or spreadsheet, or allocate a whole page to every topic in your notebook or folder.  Then, over a period of time, you write down all sorts of ideas, opinions and useful vocabulary relating to that topic. 

There are lots of different places where you can get ideas.  If you go to an IELTS preparation class, you will certainly do lots of activities which can be a good source of ideas.  Your teacher will probably give you lots of handouts, and you can make a note of anything useful which you talk about in class.

Even if you're working alone, you can still find lots of good ideas, from websites or from the test practice books which you are using. For example, if you do the practice reading test called 'Nature on display in American zoos' from the IELTS Trainer (p140), don't just heave a huge sigh of relief when it's all over and forget all about it as quickly as possible - use some of the ideas from the text for your Ideas Book. In the case of this text, I would add the following to my page entitled 'animals':

Goals of zoos: recreation, education, advancement of science, protection of endangered species, captive breeding programmes.
Problems: animal welfare - some zoos in the past did not provide adequate care
Funding: public (municipal funding), private financial support, admission fees

Even this small amount of information (which took me less than five minutes to find and write down) would be enough to help me write a really good essay about whether zoos are a good thing or not.  

Your Ideas Book is also a great place to note down past IELTS questions about the various topics, and your ideas about how to answer them.  Look, for example, at IELTS-Simon's question and suggested answer about a wild animal from your country.  Write out the question and your own answer (or notes) on your 'animals' page.  

If you're studying for the IELTS exam, or any other English exam where you might have to speak or write about a range of topics, why not try an Ideas Book?  Email me if you want any help or advice about this!

Sunday, 13 May 2012

IELTS Writing Task 2 and other academic essays: what not to write...

I'm not having the best of days - we just bumped our car into a friend's car and damaged both vehicles - an expensive mistake!  I'm feeling a bit grumpy, so I'm going to blog about some of the things which I think don't sound good in academic writing.  Feel free to disagree with me, as some of them really are a matter of opinion.
  1. Don't be over-dramatic.  A lot of students use memorised phrases like 'One of the most controversial topics today is ....' or '..... is hotly debated around the world'.  This is fine for genuinely dramatic topics which really are the subject of heated debate, like perhaps global warming, but if it is something like 'is it a good idea for children to have pets?' then these phrases sound silly.  If you use phrases like this because you don't know what else to put in the introduction, follow the formula taught by IELTS-Simon, to write a fairly general sentence about the topic of the essay, and follow it with another sentence which sums up your whole answer to the question.  Good examples of his techniques are here, here and especially here.
  2. Be careful with all sentences memorised from books.  I feel a bit bad writing this, but please be extra careful with books produced by people who are not native or near-native speakers.  One of my lovely Chinese students obviously had her doubts about some Chinese IELTS books she had at home, as she brought them into class and asked me to check if they were suitable for her to study from.  I'm sorry to say that they were FULL of mistakes, and also contained an awful lot of very unusual vocabulary which you really don't need for IELTS (a long list of different precious stones, for example).  Anyway, to get back to my point about what not to write, don't memorise and write things like 'every coin has two sides'.  We just don't use this phrase - we do have the saying 'two sides of the same coin', but that really means the opposite of what people mean when they say 'every coin has two sides'.  You don't need to use phrases like this at all - you need sensible opinions, with good examples, expressed in clear, simple, accurate English, with a few basic linking devices.  That's it!  
  3. Avoid 'sweeping statements'.  These are statements where you over-generalise about things which you can't possibly be sure about, especially when they could cause offence to people (remember, examiners are people!).  Always, never and all are dangerous words!  I'm also thinking of things like 'women should stay at home with their children',  'people in the UK do not care about old people' and 'it is immoral to get divorced if you have children'.  I have read all three in essays handed in for me to mark, and they are not acceptable in academic writing.  Don't get me wrong - you are entitled to think whatever you want, but in academic writing you have to express your ideas more carefully, and in particular avoid racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination.  By the way, putting 'in my opinion' before an offensive comment doesn't make it acceptable in academic writing!  
  4. Don't use 'he' to refer to people in general.  It is no longer acceptable in academic writing to use language which excludes one half of the population.  It can sound clumsy to always write 'he or she' 'his or her', so the easiest way to avoid sexist language is to make things plural - instead of 'the teacher must encourage his or her students to read widely', just say 'teachers must encourage their students....'  
  5. Don't use abbreviations.  You all know this, but it's so easy to forget!  So no 'what's more', 'etc', and 'don't'...  It's not a big thing, but sticking to this rule shows that you understand and respect the conventions of academic writing.
  6. Try to avoid mixing up British and American spelling.  In IELTS it's fine to use either, but try to be consistent - all British or all American, rather than a mixture of both.  I must add that some tutors at university have terribly strong feelings about British v American spelling - I personally don't think it matters, as long as you are consistent - so you need to check what the 'rules' are at the university or college where you are studying.
I hope some of these pointers are helpful - you may not think that some of these things matter, but there's no point in annoying the IELTS examiner!  I'll be in a better mood next time I write....

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Useful language for IELTS Writing Task 1 - describing trends

Many students - and even some IELTS teachers :-D - find Writing Task 1 of the Academic Module very difficult.  I did too, until I discovered the brilliant IELTS-Simon's advice about how to approach it.  His method is very simple and extremely effective - you can find the relevant part of his website here.  Most other books and websites make the whole matter far too complicated.  

They also give the impression that the only way to get a high score in this part of the test is to use incredibly complicated language, and this is simply not true.  You need to have a relatively small amount of vocabulary at your fingertips - that is, ready to use without having to think too hard about it.  You need to use it in the appropriate places, and you need to use it accurately.  

Perhaps the most useful area of vocabulary to learn for IELTS Writing Task 1 is how to describe trends.  You often have to describe a line graph with several lines moving up and down over a period of time, and there are two easy ways of doing this - the 123 method, and the ABCD method.

Here's the 123 method:




The price 
The population
The number of ....

went down


went up


the same

To avoid repeating the same type of sentence over and over again, you can also add in some sentences using the ABCD method:





There was a




in price
in the population
in the number of ...

You don't even need to memorise all of this vocabulary if time is short and you are struggling - the most important thing is to learn a few of these, but learn them thoroughly.  Learn a way of saying that the numbers go up, that the numbers go down and that the numbers stay pretty much the same, plus a couple of adverbs (123 method) and adjectives (ABCD method).  

Learning a few phrases really well, so that you can use them confidently and accurately, will help you focus on the really important part of Task 1 - understanding what the data means, then identifying the most important trends in your general overview paragraph, and describing the trends in more detail in the rest of the report.  

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

What not to forget on the day of your IELTS exam...

My students at Manchester Victoria College have their IELTS exam tomorrow - good luck!  Here are some of the reminders I gave them today:
  • Make sure you know EXACTLY how to get to the IELTS test centre, and assume that the traffic is going to be very heavy (unless you're walking there!).  Plan to get there about an hour before the deadline - you can always have a cup of tea in a coffee shop if you get there quickly, and if the bus is stuck in traffic you won't be stressed.
  • Be careful in your choice of clothing - you're not allowed to wear your coat, or a top with pockets.  Wear a few layers so you will feel comfortably warm but can quickly strip off if you overheat!
  • If you're doing the whole exam in one day, bring some food and drinks - you won't know the time of your speaking exam until the day so you don't know how much time you will have to get some lunch.  
  • And while we are on the subject of food, try to have some breakfast on the day.  I know that most people don't feel like eating when they are nervous about the exam, but your brain will work better if you give it some food first :-)  If you can't face your normal breakfast, maybe you could have some fruit and yogurt when you arrive at the test centre?
  • In the Listening, don't waste time worrying about anything you miss - keep listening and try really hard to keep up with the questions, even if you can't get every answer.  Don't give up in Section 4 - yes, it's difficult, but there are always a few easier questions even in this part of the test.  At the end when you are transferring your answers, be VERY careful to check that you are putting the right answer against the right number on the sheet - I know it sounds insultingly obvious, but many students number their answers incorrectly, purely as a result of exam nerves. Don't leave any of the questions blank - you will get nothing if you write nothing, but a guess may just be right.
  • In the Reading, don't panic and start trying out new strategies at this stage - use the techniques you've been practising in class.  Don't forget that each of the three passages has a mixture of easy and difficult questions - if anyone tells you that the whole of passage three is difficult, they are mistaken.  Spend twenty minutes on each of the passages, and transfer your answers to the answer sheet as you go - you don't get any extra time for this at the end of the test.  I personally know three students who got a Reading score of less than 2.0 because they forgot about this on the day, and one of the three tried to quickly carry on writing after the time was up and got into trouble with the invigilator. Again, don't leave any blank spaces on the answer sheet, especially if the questions were multiple choice.
  • In the Writing, focus on being clear and as accurate as possible.  If the examiner doesn't understand what you are trying to say, you will not get a great mark.  Don't spend more than 20 minutes on Task 1, and don't forget that students who put in lots and lots of numbers without making comparisons and a summary/overview get low marks.  In Task 2, spend five minutes thinking and planning, and then put most of your effort into the main body paragraphs - your introduction and conclusion only need to be a couple of sentences each - if you run out of ideas try to include examples of what you are talking about.  Use the last few minutes to check for silly mistakes - like missing plurals or third person 's'.
  • In the Speaking, smile and make eye contact with the examiner - they are only human, after all!  Don't forget to include the words if and because as these words will make you use more advanced language without even thinking about it.  Don't be afraid to say 'Sorry, I didn't catch that' if you didn't understand the question, and if they ask you a really difficult question you can say 'Hmm, that's a really difficult question'!  
I really hope that the exam will go well for you but if you feel it went badly, don't despair.  Very many people need to take the exam a second or even third time to get the score they need, and if you did very much worse than you expected you could even consider taking some extra lessons... :-D

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Last minute IELTS revision

In my last post I talked about getting ready for IELTS when you still have a couple of months ahead of you.  Today I've been working with students who don't have anything like that amount of time available for revision - they are doing their tests within the next ten days.  

If time is getting short, you need to focus your attention very carefully on the most essential things.  It goes without saying that all IELTS teachers will have their own ideas about what is essential, but these are the things I think are worth doing in the last few hours of revision time.  
  1. Speaking: IELTS-Simon quite rightly says that most of your focus should be on preparing for the second part of the test, by planning ideas and language for some of the very common topics - have a look at his advice here and act on it. However, if time is getting REALLY short, and you are down to the last few hours, I suggest that you make sure you are ready for Part 1.  True, it's not where you get the most marks, but it's a good idea to make a strong and confident start to the test, and it's not difficult to work through the typical Part 1 questions and get your answers ready.  If you make a mess of the answer to 'Do you work or are you a student?' it will knock your confidence and make you even more nervous.  There's lots of videos on YouTube which will give you a really good idea of the questions you will face - have a look at this one for a start.  Whatever you do, smile at the examiner, make eye contact with him or her, and don't forget that it's ok to say 'Sorry, I didn't quite catch that.  Could you repeat the question please?'  Finally, remember the magical power of if and because!
  2. Reading: Try and find one IELTS Reading passage that you haven't seen before, or if you really can't find one have a look at the 'official' samples here (the downside of this is that the passage only has a few questions, not the normal amount).  In any case, have a go at your chosen passage - time yourself for 20 minutes if you have a proper passage with the 12 or 13 questions  (if you're using the samples don't bother timing yourself), then check your answers.  If you stop here you're wasting a massive opportunity to help yourself - as I said yesterday, the value of the practice tests is that you can learn so much from your mistakes.  What did you get wrong and why?  Is it something that can be quickly fixed - like not having read the questions carefully enough?  Compare the language in the question with the words in the text and remind yourself that the words will be related in meaning, but rarely are the same words in both.
  3. Listening: If you still have access to a Listening test you haven't done before, do it - but make sure you use the transcript afterwards to really check where you went wrong.  Otherwise, try and find something interesting to watch in English on television or the internet, using English subtitles if necessary.  It's very important to 'tune in your ear' to English, particularly if you are not living in an English-speaking country and/or are living with people who speak the same mother tongue as you.  Relaxing with a really good film in English is actually quite a good use of your time!
  4. Writing: This is where IELTS-Simon is really valuable - his advice is better than anything you'll read in a book.  Learn his Writing Task 1 four paragraph method - paraphrase the question, give an overview of the most important information, then add two paragraphs with some details.  You can find out more information about this here, where he talks you through his thinking process about how to approach a task.  For Task 2, why not think about adopting this quick and simple method for writing introductions and conclusions - a strong start and finish to an essay always make a good impression.  If you have time, read through as many of Simon's plans and sample essays as possible - they will give you lots of good ideas.
Only you can know exactly what your particular strengths and weaknesses are, so some of these things may not apply to you, but maybe some of the ideas will be helpful.  Good luck!