Every student wants a great score in the IELTS test.
They spend hours and hours in a training centre. They bury their head in huge lists of IELTS vocabulary (whatever that is). They recite perfect answers again and again and learn the perfect phrases to use.
But on the day of the test they find they are completely unprepared. They have no idea what to say or what to write. They leave the exam centre feeling dejected.
What went wrong?
For most students it comes down to one thing. Their general English is just not good enough.
Most students take the test with nothing more than luck on their side. If they had taken the time to improve their English skills they would find the test a lot easier.
I have outlined below a few steps you need to take to ensure a much better chance of a great score in the IELTS test.
Follow them closely and you can’t go wrong.
The first thing we need to look at is your general English. Is it good enough? It must be at a decent level to stand a chance at getting a good score in the test. Do not be one of the students that hope that luck will help them out. You need to take action and improve your general English.
Have you taken a mock IELTS test?
This is exactly the same as a real IELTS test. You take it under the same test conditions, but it is unofficial. But you are only checking your ability to take the test.
You can take a mock test at an IELTS training centre with an experienced teacher. Of course you will have to pay some money. But this could be money well spent. You can get a very strong sign of your ability to take the test under real conditions.
How did you do?
Now is the time to be honest with yourself. If you were able to answer all the questions in the test well you can move on to step 8 down the page.
But maybe you didn’t do very well at all. Much less than you expected. That’s okay. At least you know where you stand in the IELTS test.
Maybe you need to brush up on some areas of your English. It could be that your listening skills are pretty good. But your writing needs some work. And you made some grammar errors in the speaking part of the test.
But you might need to brush up on ALL areas of your English.
Do not be disheartened. Better to face the facts of your English ability.
The worst thing to do would be to say to yourself that on the day of the test everything will be different. The questions will be easier. Or the examiner will like me.
Do not cheat yourself! Don’t fool yourself that with just a few weeks of IELTS English lessons you can breeze through the exam. Many training centres convince thousands of students every year that this is possible. The students receive their test results and are usually disappointed.
It can take months to see any improvement in a student’s English. Don’t think that you can improve your English skills in a short period of time because you can’t.
It takes time.
Be honest with yourself. If your English level is lower than you expected, accept it and take action.
1. FIND A GOOD TEACHER
Welcome to the first step. Congratulations you have made the right decision.
Time to be positive.
A good teacher can help you improve your general English. He can isolate all the areas that you need to work on and give you the right guidance to get there.
Yes, a private teacher costs money. Often more than a school or training centre. But think about this. In a good private teacher you are also getting your very own personal English coach.
He knows you. He understands you.
Far more than any training centre teacher can understand you.
In a training centre you could be one of 200 students that the teacher has. How can he really know anything about your English level?
The truth is he can’t. He only knows a little about you.
With your own private English teacher he will get to know everything about you. He will understand your English level in a very short period of time. He will know all the errors and mistakes that you repeatedly make. He will know the way you mispronounce certain words and the spelling errors in your writing.
You need to know everything about this. It can help you improve and get better.
Then you can smash the IELTS test.
Finding a teacher is easy. You are only a few clicks away from finding the teacher you need.
Do not worry about your teacher being a native English speaker. I have met many native English speakers who have a poor range of vocabulary. They also use terrible grammar, have bad spelling and atrocious pronunciation. They are perfectly capable of destroying the English language.
I have also met many non-native English speakers who can speak English fluently. They have a very broad range of vocabulary. Near perfect grammar and great pronunciation.
All you need is a teacher that can point out where you are going wrong and help you improve.
When you find your teacher tell him that you want to take the IELTS test.
Tell him that you want to improve your general English.
The first thing he should do is give you a speaking and writing test. He needs to see where you are going wrong and how to help you.
From these tests he can determine your level and the main errors that you make.
After that you need to work with your teacher and make a checklist of all the mistakes that you make. Go over these thoroughly. Do not be discouraged if the list gets bigger and bigger.
Trust me when I say this — Mistakes are good. They are your best friends.
There is a well-known saying that goes: Keep failing forward.
This is what you need to do with your teacher. Find all the places in your English where you fail — the mistakes and errors — and correct them and try again. Maybe you repeat the same mistake, but if your teacher keeps pointing them out you will learn to stop doing it.
You will gradually improve but this takes time. Be patient with yourself and practice every day.
This is the first stage and you are now on your way to crushing the IELTS test.
2. BUILD YOUR VOCABULARY
IELTS English classes in training centres love huge lists of words. They often hand out these great lists of vocabulary that you just have to remember.
These words are vital for the IELTS test, the training centre says.
How do they know? Is there really a secret list of fantastic English words that can help people pass the IELTS test?
Of course not.
They are not IELTS words. They are English words.
It’s the same with all the IELTS books that are published every year.
1000 IELTS words you need to know today!
This is ridiculous.
Yes, a good range of vocabulary is necessary for the IELTS test. Yes, the examiner is impressed if you are able to use more complex and longer words in the test.
But you need to know these words in context.
You need to be able to use these words the right way.
There are many English words that look the same — they almost have the same spelling. Words such as beautiful, beauty, beautify.
The beginning of these words all have the same root — the same key part — and that is beaut. (And even that is a word in its own right).
But all three of these words are used differently. Each one is an adjective, a noun and a verb. If you use one in the wrong way then that is not going to do you any good in the test.
My example above is very simple but there are thousands of other words like this. That all share the same root and look and sound similar.
The examiner is listening for these errors in the speaking test because many students make this mistake.
I have seen many students poring over one of those IELTS vocabulary books. A look of determination on their face as their eyes go down the page and their lips recite each word in turn.
This is a waste of time.
They learn words such as sycophant and erudite. They know how to spell the words and they know the meaning. But they have never seen the word used in context. They have never read a sentence where these words are used in context.
This is what you need to do now.
By all means use an IELTS vocabulary book. But you need to start doing some work with this vocabulary.
Often the book arranges the words in categories. The words appear under general topics or themes.
So you might have a list of words about technology. Now take each one of these words and write it down in a notebook. This notebook is your vocabulary notebook. You will be using this a lot.
Write the word down and next to it write the meaning in English. If you have to write it in your own language so be it. But it is better to write everything in English.
Then under the meaning write a sentence using the word in context. A good dictionary should provide an example sentence. If not then your teacher should help you.
Write the word.
Write the meaning.
Write an example sentence.
Let’s look at an example. From the category of technology. In your vocabulary notebook you might have something like this:
- Telecommunication — noun.
- Meaning: the transmission of information such as words, sounds or images, often over a great distance.
- Example sentence: The telecommunication that we use today can help us communicate with people all over the world.
Continue doing this with any new words you find.
Yes, it is boring and laborious. You will get tired of doing this every day. But it is not hard work. It is just work. And in time, your vocabulary will grow and grow.
You need to work on your vocabulary every day. Build your word power. Understand the meaning of these words but more importantly how to use them.
3. OPEN YOUR MOUTH AND SPEAK
In the beginning, whatever topics you are capable of talking about, talk about these topics with your teacher.
Make sure you have speaking lessons with your teacher where you only use English. If your teacher says any words you don’t know let him explain the meaning of these words in English.
It is a bad habit to use a dictionary on our smartphones. Do not translate any new words from English to your own language. Try to do everything in English. You will learn faster.
So to begin with you might talk about easy topics such as family, your friends, your hometown. Your teacher should give you new words to use, new phrases and sentences. Write them down and revise them. They are useful to you.
Do not think about IELTS topics or questions. There is no such thing as an IELTS topic. There are just topics. Just talk about whatever you can with your teacher.
If you are a football fan, talk about football with your teacher. If you are able to introduce and describe the game of football you are doing well. Maybe you can present a line of argument about football. The advantages and disadvantages of playing football or being a football fan. You can list all the things you like and dislike about football and why.
If you can do all of this and you are only asked questions about football in the IELTS test then you would score high.
But you need to talk about other topics.
The way you present lines of argument — certain phrases and sentence structure you use — you are learning all of this just by talking about a subject you like. All you need to do is use different vocabulary from different topics.
That is where your vocabulary list comes to help you.
Start to talk about topics in your vocabulary list. Talk about wildlife, art, politics, education, religion. Talk about economics and poetry. Try to discuss architecture, design, fashion.
Use your vocabulary lists that you have created and try to talk about all of these topics. You can use similar phrases and sentence structure from your more familiar topics — family, your friends, your hometown. Then use the new learned vocabulary from your lists of words.
This is hard at first but it will get easier. You have to keep pushing yourself.
Whatever words, phrases and sentences your teacher gives you in your speaking lessons you must revise. Go over them again and again, speaking the words out loud.
It is difficult but you must practice all the time.
You can use a mirror. When you are at home try to talk about topics you talked about with your teacher while looking at a mirror.
You need to get used to using these strange words and sounds so they become familiar to you. So they start to sound natural.
After some time you should have a broader range of topics that you can talk about. Maybe not perfect but you are getting there. You are improving.
A good idea is to make small presentations in front of your teacher. Talk about a topic for one minute. Practice until you can do a full minute with ease.
This will give you more confidence.
Push yourself to do longer presentations. Aim for two minutes or even three.
This is great practice for you and the IELTS test.
4. READ, READ AND READ SOME MORE
Read every day.
Read things you like to read. You don’t need to read IELTS reading topics. In the beginning read about things you like to read. If you like basketball read about basketball. If you have an interest in gardening read about that.
When reading about things we want to read we forget that we are reading. We just want to read because we enjoy it.
That is the stage you need to reach.
But by reading about things you enjoy or have an interest in you are still improving. You are still learning. You will find new words; you are becoming aware of sentence structure and phrases. You are reading English grammar but you are not studying English grammar. You are experiencing it.
Your teacher can help you find articles to read. No matter what subject you like there are thousands of articles for you to read.
Just as with speaking, once you get used to reading things you like move on to more challenging topics. Read about other subjects. Start with simple articles and make an effort to understand what you read. Take notes of new words and phrases. They are useful to you.
And all those lists of words in your vocabulary notebook? Start to look for articles to read that match the same category. If you have a list of words about architecture look for articles about the subject too. Read the articles. You will find the words from your vocabulary list appearing again and again.
Your teacher should help you. He should give your articles with exercises attached. Reading comprehension questions to check that you understand the article.
A good source of reading material and exercises is BreakingNewsEnglish. This has thousands of articles for you to read. All with many exercises added to help you. All divided into different levels from easy to difficult.
Do these exercises and show your teacher. And if you get some of the answers wrong, don’t worry.
Remember: Fail forward.
Do the exercise again and try to improve each time.
Another benefit of reading is that it helps your writing. All the great writers read a lot. They read every day because they know it can help them with their writing.
The same is true for you. Read and read and read. It will help you learn new words, help you with sentence structure, help you with English grammar. And it will help you with writing.
Outside of your reading classes with your teacher you should read all the time. Read English news articles, read English websites. Read anything you can get your hands on. It will all help you in small ways.
5. WRITE ABOUT EVERYTHING
Writing can be hard. It feels unnatural — even to a native English speaker. But as with anything else, the more you do it the easier it becomes.
In the beginning just write what you can. Write what you want to write.
A good thing to do is to keep a journal. Have a notebook just for writing. Write things in it every day. Your thoughts, things you did that day, how you feel about anything in your life. Just try to write.
Don’t hold back. Open up your mind and let all of your thoughts down on to the page. Write about things that make you happy or sad. Write about things that make you angry. Write about everything.
Show your teacher. He will help you correct any mistakes you have written. Take note and write the correct sentences in your notebook.
When you feel more confident your teacher can introduce the four main ways to write an article. These are expository, descriptive, persuasive, and narrative. These are the four main styles of essay writing. Study these and do exercises on them. Keep doing it, this is very useful. Not only for your general English but for the IELTS test too.
In the IELTS writing test you will have to write two articles. Your teacher should help you learn how to write articles and essays. Learn the five paragraph technique for essay writing. You will not have to use this in the IELTS test but it will help you to structure your article in the test.
And just as with speaking, you can use your vocabulary lists to help you.
Take a group of words in the same topic and try to write an article about it. Try to use the words in the correct context. Show your teacher and he can help correct any mistakes you make.
Another good idea is to take one of the reading articles and rewrite it in your own words. Take the general ideas and thoughts and try to write it as if they are your own ideas and thoughts.
Notice now that whatever you read is helping you with your writing. The vocabulary lists are informing how you speak and write about things. All the skills are informing and helping each other.
Write something every day, no matter if it is just a small piece of writing. If you only write a hundred words a day it is still helping you.
6. NOW LISTEN HERE!
Improving listening skills is difficult.
It is not like reading or learning vocabulary. With other English skills you can see the words you are trying to read or write. In speaking you know what you are trying to say. Your teacher has taught you how to pronounce these words.
But with listening it is much more intangible. You are trying to hear words and make meaning of them. It has a different kind of feeling.
Listening is a difficult thing to teach too. All your teacher can do is tell you what you heard and repeat difficult words or phrases until you can magically hear them yourself.
In listening you have to wait until your brain and your ears are aligned. They get accustomed to the sounds they hear and then you finally start to recognise the sounds as words, as phrases. As full sentences.
Your teacher can help you with some of this but as I said before it is not very easy.
But you can practice listening by yourself. In fact, that may be the best way to do it. With no distractions around you it might be easier to concentrate on the listening task when you are alone.
BreakingNewsEnglish is good for reading skills but the exercises also have listening too. You can listen to the recording and read the article at the same time. Or just listen first then read if you want that extra challenge.
Also these links:
Then there is always the World Service provided by the BBC. This has been going for many years.
Watching movies can help with listening as can listening to English pop songs. Podcasts too are very helpful especially for more advanced students.
When trying to improve your listening it is very easy to give up or lose faith in what you are doing. It’s not the same as other skills where it seems like you are actively doing something to learn.
You read and read and read — and then you find it gets easier after making so much effort.
You write every day, have entire speaking lessons with your teacher — you feel that you are physically doing something.
The rewards come and it seems more tangible, a little more real.
But with listening it is almost as if you are waiting for something to magically arrive in your ear.
The sounds seem a little familiar but everything goes too quickly. Just as you are scrambling around inside your brain for the word the speaker has said a hundred more words.
Then the sounds become more and more recognisable. They become more real, more physical. Then you are able to pick them out and see them as words. Words that you have written in your vocabulary book. That you have written down in articles. In reading and when you are speaking to your teacher.
It takes a little extra effort but if you persevere it gets better.
Don’t give up because you are making progress each day. Maybe just a fraction of progress but it all adds up.
At this stage your English level should be improving. Maybe you have seen real evidence of a shift in your English level. If you have worked at improving your English every day then all your skills should be much better than when you first started.
Now you can use all the skills — reading, writing, speaking and listening.
You have to be patient with yourself. If a friend seems to have better reading skills than you or someone else in your class can speak better do not be discouraged. We all develop at different rates.
Do not compare yourself with others. Just compare yourself with yourself. If you are improving that is all that matters.
Maybe it is time to do another mock IELTS test?
How did you do?
Again be honest with yourself. Was there a marked improvement? If not, then what English skill do you need to work on? Do not cheat yourself. If you are not ready for the test you have to do some more work.
But maybe you are ready. If so it is time to move on to the next part.
7. TEST SKILLS, NOT ENGLISH SKILLS
If your general English level is up to speed now may be the time to attend an IELTS class at a training centre.
In a class like this they will go through exercises that are very test related. You will write essays in the IELTS format. Have speaking classes where you have to talk about a particular topic — introduce it or present opposing lines of argument about it. It could be where you describe a person or a hobby. There will be reading classes where you dissect meaning from the article and write down your answer.
It is at this stage that you will be learning skills related to the IELTS test.
Now you will learn ways to introduce your thoughts in speaking and writing. You will read many IELTS articles from previous tests.
But you should know this. If you have studied hard to improve your general English all of these IELTS test skills should be quite easy for you.
The main thing that lets anyone down in the IELTS test is their level of general English.
If you have a decent English level you will be just fine when it comes to the test.
However, I will give you one piece of advice about the IELTS test.
The most important thing you need to know is that you must understand the questions in the test.
In the speaking test you need to understand exactly what the examiner is asking you. This is where many students fail. They simply do not know what the examiner is asking them.
Some students listen to the question but they can only understand some of it.
For example the examiner may ask: What do you think are the advantages and disadvantages of large shopping malls?
The poor student understands the first part — what do you think — and he understands the last part — shopping. But the rest he doesn’t know at all.
So you know what he does? He guesses.
He assumes the examiner asked what do you think about shopping?
What a great question! He loves shopping. He goes shopping all the time.
And so that is what he talks about. He talks about where he goes shopping and what he likes to buy and who he goes shopping with every weekend.
Of course he has not answered the question at all. And so he does that part of the test very badly.
But for the smart student — you — all the hard work of trying to improve your general English has paid off. You understand every question in the speaking test and you are able to answer clearly and fluently.
Another thing that other students do in the test is to learn scripted answers. They learn entire answers by rote and then just use one of these answers in the test.
This is a terrible idea. The examiner knows when a student is doing this and will usually interrupt the student to force him to give a different answer.
You must answer the question — every time. With your own thought and ideas.
If your general English is at the right level you should be able to hear the question correctly then answer it clearly.
You should be able to read the writing prompts and write an article directly related to the prompt.
Everything in the IELTS test revolves around giving the right answer to the question — and that comes down to reading and listening comprehension.
8. WHAT IS THE IELTS TEST FORMAT?
The final stage is to make sure you understand the format of the IELTS test. If you attend classes in an IELTS training centre they should explain the test format to you clearly.
But in many training centres they go over this very quickly. Or the students are not paying attention. Every week thousands of students take the IELTS test with no real understanding of the test format at all.
This is really quite stupid — and lazy.
You can check the test format for yourself at the British Council. They outline very clearly what each part involves.
You must take the time to read this and understand it.
Forewarned is forearmed.
Come the day of the test and you will know exactly what to expect.
And because you worked hard on your general English you are at the right level to do well in the test.
That is it. The eight steps are very simple.
If you follow them all closely you will have no problem when it comes to the IELTS test. Of course you will have some pre-test nerves. But as you have made great efforts to improve your general English you know that you are not relying on good luck or the ‘right questions’.
Remember: There are no short cuts to passing the IELTS test. No magic pill. It just comes down to working on your English skills first. Make sure your English skills are up to speed and you will be just fine.
Everything is in place and you are on your way to getting a great score in the IELTS test.