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Strategies for Teaching IELTS: Part One – Where to start?


continuous learning assessment

Image courtesy of Colin K on Flickr

Stephen Greene is a teacher, teacher trainer and materials developer with nearly 20 years’ experience. He has taught people of all ages and abilities all around the world, including in Taiwan, Poland, Rio de Janeiro and the UK. He is now based in Curitiba in the south of Brazil where he writes a blog about bringing up a bilingual child at headoftheheard.com. This is the first article of a three-part IELTS series, exploring the basics of helping your students through their IELTS exam.

As with most things in life, the key to a successful IELTS course is in the preparation. If you have a clear idea of what you and your students need to do from the outset then you are far more likely to help your students achieve their goals than if you have no plan at all. Likewise, as the expression goes, first impressions last, so if you can impress your students in the first few classes, then they are more likely to trust you for the rest of the course.

It is important to have as much information at your disposal as possible before the course actually starts. This will help you to prepare properly and show your students that you really do know what you are talking about. I have added a number of questions for each of the points listed below, but the answers will often depend on your own context. Where possible, I have included some links which might help you to start finding your own answers.

Know the exam

If this is the first time your students have attempted the IELTS exam then they are likely to be very anxious about what it entails and what they will be required to do. Some questions students might have include: How many papers are there? How does the scoring system work? Which is the most difficult part of the exam? What’s the difference between the General exam and the Academic one?

As well as knowing the ins and outs of the exam, you will also need to know how students go about taking it. Questions they might have include: Where is the nearest exam centre? When are the exams being held? When is the registration deadline? How long does it take to get the results? How much does it cost?

The official IELTS site has some excellent information for both teachers and students, as does the British Council site.

Know your students

It isn’t always possible to find out a lot of information about your students until the course actually starts, so you will probably need to do some fact finding in the first few classes. As well as the usual information about the number of students in the class, their ages and backgrounds, some questions you might want to ask yourself include: Have they taken the exam before? What score do they need? Why are they taking the exam? Where do they hope to study after the exam? What do they hope to study?

Know your timetable

There is a lot to cover in an IELTS course, so make sure you have enough time to pack everything in. While your school might have its own natural rhythm, this might not fit with the dates of exams in your local centre. Questions to ask include: When are the exams? How long is the course? What do I need to focus on?

Find your local exam centre and get in touch to find out their exam dates and requirements.

Know your material

Whatever course you are running, you will need to be very familiar with the material you are using. With IELTS, this is even more key as time is such an issue. As well as a coursebook, you might need to use extra material, such as practice tests (which you can find here) or online material. Some questions to answer include: Is the material relevant to your students? Where can I find supplementary material? In my next article (on the blog next week), I’ll be sharing some of the free online material I use in my classes. Specifically, I’ll explore lexis, Part One of the Writing paper and the Yes/No/Not given questions commonly found in the reading paper.

This article was originally published in the July 2014 issue of the Teaching Adults newsletter. To learn more and subscribe, click here


Something old, something new … Part 3

Exam takerMarilena Chirculete takes a look at the revised Proficiency exam and shares her classroom ideas to help students prepare for the new exam format. This is the last one of a series of blogs on the topic.

For the revised Cambridge English: Proficiency. We have already delved into the Reading and Writing components, so today’s post consists of ideas on preparing the Listening and Speaking papers. Enjoy!

Approaching the Listening Paper

The Listening paper has not suffered great changes. It is only Part 4 that became a straightforward multiple matching task; there are 30 questions (instead of 28) to be answered during 40 minutes of recording.

This type of task presents students with the difficulty of solving two tasks at the same time, as both of them refer to the same recording. While listening to a speaker, they have to focus on several statements to figure out which one relates entirely to him/ her. What teachers have to stimulate in their students’ abilities is distributive attention. Here are some ideas for the classroom.

  • For slower students, in the beginning ask them to solve Task 1 the first time they listen and Task 2 the second time they do so. However, this way, they will have no opportunity to go back on their answers. It is, therefore, important to encourage “multi-tasking”, as the exam draws closer.
  • A useful activity might also be staging seemingly real-life social interactions, light conversations. While two students carry out the dialogue, another one has to match a list of several statements to either one of the two participants in the conversation. For a successful task, it is important that you prepare a specific outline of the conversation for the two students to follow. This way, you may manage to develop active listening in a friendly manner, and at the same time enhance distributive attention. As students master multitasking among statements regarding two participants in the conversation, enlarge the chatting crew to three and even four members. The benefits are two-fold: students improve both their speaking and their listening skills. Two birds, one stone!
  • Another idea would be to use the actual tape script. Assign the roles of each speaker to random members of your working group. They will become the team of ‘actors’, while the others will be called the team of ‘spectators’. Hand out the statements included in both tasks for the ‘spectators’ to become familiar with. Allow up to a minute for the ‘actors’ to get into character and to feel comfortable reading the script at a natural pace, as if they were using their own words. Each ‘actor’ takes the floor and delivers the speech, as the ‘spectators’ try to find a match for both Task 1 and Task 2 in the list of statements. This activity ensures that students are fully engaged in the listening process, they perceive it as real and lively and, most importantly, they understand that intonation and overall tone may also offer clues towards the statements that are best suited for each speaker.

Approaching the Speaking Paper

This part of the examination is the one that changed the least. It is shorter by three minutes, on account of reducing the individual stages.

The main difficulty usually encountered by candidates is speaking endurance. Nervousness may deter them from gathering their thoughts on the given topic and rendering a speech worthy of level C2. At this level, everything matters, from posture, to fluency, stress, suprasegmentals, variety and complexity in organization. Fortunately, students already have a comprehensive grasp of the English language, so the teacher’s job is to help them brush up on their spoken discourse.

  • Help students become aware! One way would be to record students, play the recording back and ask them to assess their own performance.
  • As follow-up, I recommend that students do the same thing at home, by using a device: the mobile phone. It may come as a shock to some students that the camera on their mobile phone might as well be their most objective assessor. By solving a Speaking task in front of the camera, not only do students become aware of their voice inflexions, pauses and facial expression, but they recreate an uncomfortable, rather stressful environment in which they must try to control their nervousness. Keep yourself in check!
  • Also, organising debates in class, in which arguing a viewpoint is essential, will most certainly increase students’ confidence in speaking publicly. Arguments make the discourse go round!
  • What has been tremendously successful among my students is staging talk-shows, in which all the guests need to approach the same matter from different angles, thus becoming aware of the variety of approaches they might use in the real Speaking test, in order to make their speech more complex.

This being written, let’s gather as many useful ideas as we can! Do you have any tips and tricks on preparing students for any of the papers and challenges of the Cambridge Proficiency?


Something old, something new… Part 2

Exam takerMarilena Chirculete takes a look at the revised Proficiency exam and shares her classroom ideas to help students prepare for the new exam format. This is the second part of a series of blogs on the topic.

Let’s continue our stroll through the changes of the new and revised Cambridge English: Proficiency examination. I have tackled the issue of the reformed Reading and Use of English Paper in a previous post but what lies ahead regarding the Writing Paper?

Approaching the Writing Paper

Students will spend only one hour and a half, instead of two hours, on this paper due to the fact that the minimum word count will be reduced from 600 to 520. There will also be less variety, in that Part 1 will only be a compulsory discursive essay, while for the second part candidates may have to choose an article, a report, a letter or a review. Good news on this front, therefore, less text types to prepare for! Further on, I am going to focus on the newest type of task, which makes for Writing Part 1.

Writing Part 1 – what’s in two texts?

Thankfully, the Proficiency examination is usually not the first Cambridge English examination students have sat. This is the reason why they may already be very familiar with what is required of them.

Part 1 has always been the compulsory one, much like in figure skating – there are certain tricks the assessors must notice in the candidate’s performance.


The new Part 1 is a follow-up to that former Use of English task which dealt with summarising, organising information and evaluating its merits, as they are now offered by two texts of around 100 words each.

Naturally, candidates will need help pinpointing the essential information in a text and analysing it compellingly. Encourage them to use highlighters in order to stress out significant information, whether it is presented in a contrasting or complementary manner by the two given texts.

‘So, what makes an idea essential?’, your students might ask. Well, both texts are linked by a common topic, theme or subject. Whenever an idea is brought to the table by both of them, that is when students need to pay attention. The arguments may be divergent, of course, even if related to the same aspect and the dynamic between the two texts may not always be transparent. It is the students’ task to make connections, to identify the two ways in which an idea is presented.

‘What next?’, I hear students ask. Once they have broken the message of both texts down into main points and have found the connecting/contradicting viewpoint in between each pair of ideas, it is time to finally get down to the writing. What is extremely important for students in this part 1 is that they understand they must be first excellent readers and only afterwards excellent writers.

Teachers now face the challenge of having to train students to select the main pieces of information and to also use them successfully in their own written discourse.

  • Help students disintegrate a piece into its basics, into the main ideas and then reintegrate them into their own frame of thought.
  • Play detective games, where students must first identify the relevant information offered by the witnesses, then present the two sides of the story, only to conclude with their final pleading – the moment when they weigh both versions of the truth and give their own view and interpretation. There’s your piece! Now, write it down!
  • Individual or group projects are also useful in this respect; cut-outs offer the possibility of recycling what’s given into one’s own project.

Careful with the language! Accuracy and appropriateness are both of the essence. What is paramount, other than a high flexibility and versatility of language use is signposting its functions. A writing task will always ask students to comment, argue, recommend, suggest, persuade, and so on.

Make sure your students have the right tools at hand: language for making recommendations, for instance, or language for persuading. These are the “buffer”-words that will allow their writing piece to function. Concrete arguments and ideas are merely the material that revolves around the way this raw material is put to good use.

Obviously, there also needs to be diversity amongst this kind of preparatory statements. If you are trying to teach language for suggesting or recommending, set the scene for it. Ask students to picture themselves in a therapist’s office. What would they tell the therapist to make his/ her job more difficult and what would they reply, as therapists, to the requests of the patients? What would they recommend and, most importantly, how would they introduce the ideas and smoothen their way into communication?

And finally…

Writing Part 1 is challenging because of its very essence: focusing on both the WHAT  and the HOW. The greatest novelty in the revised Proficiency examination is the fact that there are two steps to solving the task: reading comprehension and relaying information in a discursive piece, while also analysing and interpreting.  It is, however, the chance for students to be personal, to weigh in their own thoughts, too. The candidate gets to feel like a true contributor to a matter of interest, therefore, as a final word of advice, ask your students to speak their mind and to think critically, with every opportunity you might have in class.

In the next post I will be looking at strategies to help students prepare for the Speaking and Listening papers. Details of the changes to the Cambridge English: Proficiency 2013 exam can be viewed here. View the title on our online catalogue.


Something old, something new…

Exam takerMarilena Chirculete takes a look at the revised Proficiency exam and shares her classroom ideas to help students prepare for the new exam format. This is the first part of a series of two blogs on the topic.

The time has come for those involved in the Cambridge English: Proficiency preparation process to face the latest challenge: preparation for the revised (and abridged) version of the examination which is to be released in January 2013. On celebrating its centenary, the Proficiency exam revolutionises tradition. Training students for such a prestigious certificate is never facile. However, the one aspect I admire in the new Cambridge English: Proficiency is that it seems to keep a much more logical and coherent transition from the Advanced level examination.

New in the revised Proficiency, paradoxically, are the very deeply rooted tasks of lower level Cambridge exams. Nevertheless the question remains: up to what extent and how are teachers and students expected to adapt? Vast as the field may be, in this blog I will focus mainly on the key changes and on what they entail in terms of exam preparation, and will introduce some guiding tips and ideas for teachers to employ in class.

Approaching the Reading and Use of English paper

Paper 1 – Reading and Use of English will consist of 7 parts, out of which the first four test candidates’ grammatical and vocabulary prowess, then the next 3 parts are dedicated to Reading items. There will be 53 questions to be solved in 90 minutes, so your students will need extra practice in managing time successfully, while still maintaining accuracy, attention and thoroughness.

The Reading Component

There is another element of surprise insofar as there are no similar tasks throughout this paper. Thus, reading comprehension tested through multiple choice items is now reduced to a single part, but multiple matching will be introduced to Proficiency. Does this sound familiar, by any chance? Anyone who has prepared students for the Cambridge Advanced will have felt their heart skip a beat. That’s right, multiple matching strikes again! Multiple matching The challenge of this task resides in the discipline and strategy one employs when solving it. The task presents candidates with a text divided into several sections. A list of 10 questions/ statements requires them to find the correlation to each one in a section of the text. Teachers ought to make students aware of the importance of a strategy which should be practised before the actual examination. There are a few stages to help with the task:

  • First, advise students to underline the key information in the 10 questions. Not all the words in the question are relevant and the danger they present is that they might even distract attention. Highlight significant concepts!
  • The next step would be to actually begin reading. It is not a matter of in-depth reading. Skimming should be enough and a close reading should be used only when in doubt between two sections.
  • Remind students that multiple matching does not also imply multiple reading. Their attention should be undivided. Recommend taking each section at a time in the attempt of answering as many questions as possible through a particular fragment, provided that the key words underlined in the questions have palpable contextually synonymic counterparts in the suspected section. No over-interpretation!

The Use of English Component

Of the 5 parts currently constituting the Use of English paper of C2 level only 3 will be kept: the open cloze, the multiple-choice cloze, and word formation. The gapped sentences are history! I expect that those of you who have prepared for the Cambridge Advanced feel the breeze of the revised Proficiency examination, which becomes less of a mathematical configuration (remember trying to find the one word that fits all three contexts?) and less of a poetic quest (students will be happy to know that comprehension questions are out of the way), but more of a test of skilful language use… which is why the key word transformations are back.

Key word transformations

The key to solving this type of task is the key word itself, which must remain intact, however structurally changed the original sentence may need to be. The challenge is two-fold: the meaning must remain the same as in the given sentence while, at the same time, the grammatical changes ought to be correct and natural. So how can you help students tackle this task?

  • Exposure to the language is a main aspect, since it develops flexibility in using it. Take every opportunity to show or elicit from students the various ways a statement may be rephrased in.
  • Practice makes perfect, it is generally argued and it is quite true here. Practising this kind of exam task will increase students’ dexterity in this respect.
  • Last, but not least, encourage students to challenge each other. Being given a certain sentence, a student could come up with a word to be used in rephrasing the given statement. This way, teachers are able to stimulate active processing. Essentially, the first student tries on the shoes of the test builder, by fully grasping the principles behind this type of exam item, while the other student takes on the responsibility of solving the puzzle.

In the next post I will be looking at strategies to help students prepare for the Writing, Speaking, and Listening papers. Details of the changes to the Cambridge English: Proficiency 2013 exam can be viewed here.


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