The Problem with IELTS and TOEFL

Something I have seen many times is students in an IELTS or TOEFL class and completely out of their depth.

They sit in the class and labour through the exercises, barely able to comprehend what is going on. Every time they come across a new or strange English word they pull out their phone. They tap the letters into whatever translation app they are using and make a note of it in the margin.

Effectively, they are trying to cram two years of studying into a month. Then the date of their test looms thirty days ahead and they rely on a wish and a prayer to get through it all.

It is painful to observe. The days go by and the student’s face takes on a deeper level of panic.

Why Does This Happen?

Often it is because the parents have not made any prior planning. They know their son or daughter has a ‘big test’ but it is sometime in the future.

Then they remember the date of the test and enroll the poor son or daughter into the local training centre for IELTS or TOEFL.

Don’t leave things to the last minute

It really is a last-minute decision to improve their child’s English in time for the test. In a month. Maybe six weeks.

The student has to cram a ton of vocabulary, reading, writing assignments and everything else between all their regular studying. It is not a good way to study anything let alone English.

The student has almost no time to do any revising or self-study so the results on the day of the test are often dismal.

What Needs to Happen?

The student often has to improve their general English long before they consider any classes in IELTS or TOEFL. Instead of relying on the test-based class to fill in all the gaps that the student may have in their understanding of English, they should prepare well by ensuring that all of their English skills are up to the necessary speed.

Students need a longer and more regular studying habit

The student needs a long period of time so they can go over what they studied in class. Time to reread any articles they read in class and make notes of the vocabulary. Time to write and rewrite articles so they get the right sentence structure and grammar.

By doing this, the student can then enter the test with a much more confident mindset. They walk into the hall or room with the attitude that says “I have spent many months preparing for this. I have done all the required work.”

I am not saying that the student will not experience any test-day nerves—they will. But it’s better than doing the test and hoping that the Test Fairy is smiling down on them that day.

Much better than signing up to IELTS classes because the training centre has good advertising.

General English First—Test Classes Later

Enrolling a student in a class where they are out of their depth is just unfair to everyone. It’s frustrating for the teacher who may have to halt the class to explain something to the student. Or the more advanced students feeling they are being held back. At worst, it could shatter the confidence of the poor student himself.

We need to see the student develop and grow and gradually improve ALL the English skills at the right speed.

Many IELTS classes I have seen use only IELTS based exercises. IELTS for reading, IELTS topics for speaking and IELTS for writing and listening.

Unfortunately, real English is not like that and so the student doesn’t really grasp how to write or speak in a natural way. He reads things where he is looking for keywords or answers and listens to listening exercises doing the same thing.

He may speak using IELTS phrases—those magical words that all IELTS examiners love. Apparently.

If the student had a better command of general English much of the test would be no problem at all for him. There is no such thing as ‘IELTS English’ – there is only English. And that is what the student should learn first.

The test-based classes might offer certain skills but this is fine-tuning. Let’s get the main parts—English skills—ready first.

So What to Do?

Find a Teacher

Ideally, if the student can afford it, find a private tutor.

Failing that join a class in General English.

But a good teacher is necessary to isolate which areas the student needs to work on. Often students from the same country make the same mistakes in English. But the teacher should be able to isolate issues that the individual student may have.

Find a good teacher

If it is a smaller class—or the student is fortunate enough to have a private class—then the teacher can learn something about the student’s personality. In a larger class, this may take some time to find out.

The student may be shy and as such the teacher will need to use certain methods to help the student gain confidence. Or he may just regard studying English as dull and something associated with school. A different method of attack is required here too.

Do a Mock IELTS or TOEFL Test

The student should take a mock test to check where they are in terms of test performance. Some training centers provide this service. Then there are the less scrupulous centers that just tell the student their English is nearly ready for the test. All they need are a dozen or two test-prep lessons—step right this way…

But by doing a mock test, the student can get a clearer view of what they need to do. They should not regard it as only brushing up on their vocabulary or speaking. They need a clear evaluation of all the skills and what they need to do to improve them.

A good teacher should be able to provide a mock test for the student.

The General English Class Begins

The student bites the bullet and accepts that they have to improve their general English first. There is no magic pill or spell—it just comes down to some work. Not really hard work, but work nonetheless.


I have met students who cannot express themselves to any clear degree. If they encounter any complex question or topic, they are lost. Obviously, they need to broaden their vocabulary in order to describe or explain things.

I have also met many students who try to solve this issue by going over huge great lists of English words.

These words are just that—a page full of words. Often with no meaning provided and certainly no context. I do not understand what purpose this serves.

Because the student has no real understanding of the vocabulary list in their hands, they often make mistakes. For example, a student might say “the class is cancellation”.

If more attention were spent on learning the vocabulary, these errors might occur less frequently.

What the Student Needs to Do

The first thing the student should do is make use of a dictionary. Too often they rely on translation apps which only translate the given word and provide nothing else.

Use a dictionary!

By using a dictionary the student can find the real meaning of the word in detail, plus the dictionary should provide two or three example sentences so the student can see the word used in a variety of correct contexts.

The student should have a vocabulary notebook and write all the necessary words in it. Find the meaning of the word and write it down in the notebook. The act of writing will help the student memorize the word.

The teacher could then give some homework and ask the student to make their own sentences.

From this point, the student will then see a little progress.


I find it amazing how few students actually enjoy reading. I think they just regard it as work and related to school.

When I was a kid, I could not get my head out of a book. But then this was a time when there were no smartphones or social media…

Adopt a daily reading habit

Of the students I have met that love reading I have noticed one major difference. They were all highly capable of expressing opinions, they all had a wide variety of thoughts in their minds and they had a broader world view.

They asked questions, and they were curious about the world we live in.

These students were a joy to teach.

But many students pay little to no attention to reading in English. As a result, their English suffers, and they have a limited vocabulary.

I get it. I know that the kind of reading material students usually read holds little interest for them. They find the articles and material they are forced to read to be boring.

What the Student Needs to Do

The student—with the help of the teacher—needs to read things they enjoy reading. Test-prep articles can put any person to sleep so I don’t know what it does to the average teenager.

The teacher should find out what interests the student has and encourage them to read about that. So if the student likes basketball, read about basketball. If the student expresses an interest in flower arranging, read about that.

It’s common sense. The student is now reading more from a position of enjoyment and it becomes less of a chore.

But the teacher should also encourage the student to read in a wide variety of reading material. This could mean reading articles, but also short stories or news or jokes.

I think even reading extracts from movies can help along with song lyrics.

For someone who has their test in a few months, they may wonder why they are learning the lyrics to a Maroon 5 song, but their ability to read in a wider context will help them greatly.

Another good thing to do is to read out loud in class.

Now the class is both a reading and speaking class. The student becomes accustomed to the sound of their own voice reciting all these strange sounding English words and this is an incredible boost to their confidence.


Writing can also present a problem for students.

I have found that a useful exercise to do is to introduce the idea of journaling. Once they understand what they have to do many students take to this with great enthusiasm.

The teacher just needs to go slowly with this.

Students must be motivated to write

A good place to start is to make simple lists. This could be lists of things the student eats every day. So the student writes what they had for breakfast, lunch and dinner. They are using vocabulary for food and any associated verbs for food nouns.

The next step could be to write what they do every day.

After that, they could write a one-sentence journal where they just write one sentence every day. Then on to two sentences, three, one paragraph.

Of course, some of the things they write may be very private and they may not wish to share with the teacher. But the actual act of regular writing will help them in a big way. Plus, it is about their own life so it should be relatively interesting.


The student needs to express themselves about familiar topics before tackling more complex ideas. This becomes a much bigger issue if the student bypasses improving their general English and just going on to an IELTS class.

Speak about all topics – not just IELTS topics

The topics in part two and three of the IELTS speaking test cover much more difficult subjects and so the student often runs into difficulty.

No point in running before they have learned to walk.

The teacher could use certain categories covered in vocabulary and make that a talking point. If the student studied vocabulary about plants, flowers and trees then they should attempt a conversation in the same subject.

The student may use sentences they recall from reading exercises. This should be encouraged. It would be impossible to say something completely unique every time. Also, sentence structure and the use of correct grammar forms learned in reading classes may also be an advantage in speaking.

And as with reading and writing, the student should practice talking about their interests. They forget they are speaking English and just wish to express themselves.

In the IELTS or TOEFL test, the student will not get much chance to talk about things they find interesting, but by talking about their free-time activities they are gaining confidence and that is half the battle.


The teacher should only speak English in every class, so the student practices their listening skills in every lesson.

But there are other things to do.

There are many options to practice listening

Podcasts are available in every known subject. The teacher should help the student find a podcast they can listen to that they enjoy.

And also songs. I know it sounds like a dreadful cop out to do the ‘English Songs’ lesson but for lower level students this is a great resource to use in class.

We can now put any song lyrics that the student may have studied in reading classes to use in the speaking class. Good fun too. Providing everyone is into Maroon 5.

Listening classes—like all other classes—should not be based only on awful test-prep lesson plans. The student can improve listening skills in a variety of ways. Podcasts, songs and even watching a short scene from a favourite movie can help.


What I am trying to emphasize here is the need for ESL students to work on their general English. For many students who wish to take the IELTS or TOEFL test, it would serve them well to improve all the general English skills before doing any test-prep classes.

Many students—or more likely, their parents—regard test-prep classes as a kind of fast-track course to success in the test.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

By placing an emphasis on test-prep classes the cart is most definitely before the horse. And then the horse ain’t going nowhere.

General English first—then the all-precious IELTS or TOEFL class.

The student will gain far more from doing it this way. They will be able to communicate more effectively with their new Canadian or Australian classmates and teachers too.

2 thoughts on “The Problem with IELTS and TOEFL”

  1. Thank you for emphasizing the need for students to improve their general English before the dreaded tests. Your suggestions were great and I would emphasize fun easy reading (off the academic topics). I tell my university students to read popular fourth grader’s novels to fill in vocabulary gaps they never knew they had. These gaps add to the burden of comprehension at higher levels.

    1. That’s a great idea, Leona. I shall have to copy it!

      I have had to teach IELTS classes where all the reading material is based on the test. It’s not enough for the student.

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