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Strategies for teaching IELTS: Part Two – Overcoming the challenges

shutterstock_257788978Stephen 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 joins us on the blog today for his second in a series ‘Strategies for teaching IELTS’.

In my first article in this series, I looked at some of the things that are important to consider before the course starts in order to hit the ground running and develop some good momentum. In this article, I’ll explore how to help your students with some key areas, specifically lexis, Part One of the Writing paper and the Yes/No/Not given question commonly found in the Reading paper.


There are two types of IELTS test; the Academic Test and General Training Test. 80% of candidates take the Academic Test and if this is the case for your students then lexis will hold the key to getting a good grade. If candidates are comfortable with academic-type language, even if they don’t understand every detail, it can make all the difference. Of course, there is so much language that could be deemed ‘academic type’ that it is impossible to teach every lexical item that could come up in an exam. There are, however, a number of strategies we can use to maximise the amount of time we have available:

  • Encourage students to use a lexical notebook. I have found that students who take a little bit of time to organise their lexis in this way improve their language very quickly.
  • Create a lexical wall in your classroom and add, or get your students to add, useful lexis from each class. Alternatives to this might include a blog, wiki or a notice board.
  • Focus on certain areas of language that are vital, for example conjunctions, lexis to describe trends (see Writing Part 1 below) and formal versus informal language.
  • Expose students to academic language outside the classroom. There are a number of free resources, for example from the BBC, that you can ask your students to use in their own time.

If your students are taking the General Training Test then the first three ideas from the list above are still vital for expanding their lexis and ensuring a better result.

Writing Part 1

There is no getting around it, but for most candidates (and teachers), this can be a very boring question. It can also be a challenge because a lot of students rarely have to write anything like this even in their own language, never mind doing it in English. It also demands that candidates can both identify important pieces of information, and write about them. Some useful strategies I have used for this question include:

  • Make the data relevant. Find raw data about the cities or countries where your students come from. A lot of countries will have the equivalent of the UK’s Office for National Statistics which will be relevant to your students.
  • Ask your students to carry out surveys with people they know to gather data, and then write about it.
  • Focus on the very specific language that your students will need. The main area is the language of describing trends and one thing I have found very useful is to show how one phrase can be used in two different ways. For example, if you introduce unemployment rose sharply you should also highlight how students could alternatively say there was a sharp rise in unemployment.
  • Expose students to good practice. I use the Daily Chart from The Economist magazine, which provides up-to-date and relevant graphs for students to describe.

Yes/No/Doesn’t say

From my experience, this is the question that causes the most problems for a number of reasons: it is an unusual question type; candidates can spend a lot of time trying to find information that isn’t in the text because they don’t trust themselves; the questions themselves are often purposefully misleading. There is no silver bullet for answering this type of question, but there are a few helpful hints that we can give.

  • Yes/No/Not given questions are usually looking for the writer’s opinion. True/False/Not given questions are usually looking for facts from the text.
  • The questions usually follow the same order in the text. This means if you have found the information for questions 7 and 9, the information for question 8 is between those two. If you can’t find the information then the answer is probably Not given.
  • If you don’t know the answer, guess Not given because you there is a good chance the reason you don’t know is because it isn’t in the text.
  • Look carefully at the question, especially for words like often, always, sometimes because these will sometimes make the difference between True/False and Not given.
  • Give students a text and ask them to write their own Yes/No/Not given questions. By going through the mechanics of writing this type of question, candidates often get an insight into how to answer them in the exam.
  • Ask students to underline the information in the text that they think provides the Yes/No answer. This will make feedback easier as well as helping you identify why your students are making mistakes.

I hope these tips prove to be helpful in preparing your students for the IELTS exam. Just focusing on these tricky areas will not be enough, but I have found that this is a good starting point, after which the rest becomes easier. In my next article, I’ll be looking at some strategies we can employ just before the exam.

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

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Get ready for the 2015 Cambridge English: First exam

Open water by mountain rangeSage Stevens, Assessment Support Manager in the Assessment Materials division of ELT at OUP, looks at the main changes to the 2015 specifications of the Cambridge English: First exams. Sage will be hosting a webinar on this topic on 23rd May.

As many of you will be aware, the specifications for Cambridge English: First (FCE) and Cambridge English: Advanced (CAE) are changing in 2015. For those of you feeling somewhat at sea about just how these changes will impact on your teaching I will be hosting a webinar which will hopefully leave you feeling less ‘Lost at Sea’ and more ‘Fancy a swim?’. In other words, I hope to help navigate you through the changes so that you can prepare your students with confidence to sit these examinations in 2015 and beyond.

I am an Assessment Support Manager in the Assessment Materials division at OUP, but prior to this role I was a writing examiner for Cambridge ESOL CAE, FCE, BEC (Vantage) and others for a number of years.

I hope to share with you my experience in assessment and also my knowledge of Oxford’s new preparation and practice materials for the Cambridge English: First exam from 2015, which I have been actively involved in developing.

My webinar on the 23rd May will cover the following areas:

  • An overview of the main changes to the 2015 FCE exam. This will include looking at how the previously separate Reading and Use of English papers have been combined into one, without losing any of the integrity of the separate papers.
  • We will then focus in a bit more on changes to the Writing and Speaking papers. We will explore what teachers and candidates can expect with the new format, word count and rubric for the Writing paper, and we’ll look at the changes to interaction patterns and stimuli in the Speaking paper.
  • Throughout, I’ll be using examples of activities from the new editions of Cambridge English: First Masterclass and Result Student’s Books, and the Online Practice material that accompanies these courses – all designed to help you to prepare your students successfully for the tasks in the 2015 exam.

The webinar will be vibrant and informative. Participants will have the opportunity to put forward their views, participate in polling activities, and answer questions to ensure that the information is understood and clear. I look forward to meeting you!

To find out more about the changes to the Cambridge English: First exams, register for Sage’s webinar on 23rd May.


#qskills – Should I teach only grammar when my students have only written tests in exams?

Today’s question for the Q: Skills for Success authors: Should I teach only grammar when my students have only written tests in exams?

Colin Ward responds.

We are no longer taking questions. Thank you to everyone who contacted us!

Look out for more responses by the Q authors in the coming weeks, or check out the answers that we’ve posted already in our Questions for Q authors playlist.


Webinar: Prepare your Foundation-level students for IELTS success

Older man interviewing young womanNick Thorner explores the challenges of preparing Foundation-level students for IELTS from his webinars on 21 February and 7 March entitled ‘Prepare your Foundation-level students for IELTS success’. Watch a recording here.

In my experience, what really worries students about the IELTS exam isn’t their grammar or their vocabulary – it’s having nothing to say. They worry about tricky Speaking Part 3 questions such as: ‘What can governments do to promote international cooperation?’ or Writing Part 2 topics with a word they haven’t studied before, such as ‘obesity’ or ‘rehabilitation’.

Often students have never thought of such questions and topics, and even if they have, they’ve never tried to discuss them in English. And of course their IELTS score suffers as a result: I find that when students are less confident or don’t have great ideas their pronunciation becomes flat and they start hesitating or repeating ideas.

The fact is that knowledge itself, or at least the confidence that comes with having it, underpins a successful IELTS performance. But do we teach students knowledge, or even how to access knowledge and express it?

I think too often the texts and materials we work with have arcane topics that don’t challenge our students to think, respond or engage personally. IELTS lessons should be a window on the world that will fill students’ minds with ideas and provoke them to respond at every turn, making them confident and enthusiastic candidates.

In my upcoming webinar, I’ll be showing you how you can help your students to build the confidence they need to express world knowledge and discuss it. I hope you can join me.

Nick ThornerNick Thorner is co-author of Foundation IELTS Masterclass. He lives and works in Oxford, where he has been teaching IELTS courses for several years. He is also an experienced IELTS examiner.


#EFLproblems – Learning English Beyond the Exams

Disappointing exam resultsWe’re helping to solve your EFL teaching problems by answering your questions every two weeks. This week’s blog is in response to Raef Sobh Azab’s blog comment regarding the challenge of motivating students who are in an exam-focussed environment. Stacey Hughes from the Professional Development Team discusses how to take English beyond the focus of exams.

One major problem is that the educational system in my country is mainly exam-based. Most teachers, students, and even parents do not care at all about the quality of learning. They are mainly concerned with passing the exams. L1 is all the time used in class, real life English is not stressed, language skills are not practised at all, learning aims are not achieved, and private lessons given to students at home or in private centers are the norm. This is really frustrating for some teachers who are keen on improving their teaching skills and eager to get their students engaged in the learning process, thus, achieve a real progress and taste the beauty of language.”

Certainly, one way to ensure students are exam-focussed is to make exams central to the course. Constant reference to exams either by the teacher, parents or institution will show students that passing the exam is the goal.

But how can we make English communication skills the goal?

1. Determine personal learning goals

The first thing is to find out from students what their personal learning goals are. Do they want to just pass the exam or do they actually want to learn to communicate in English? Do they want to be able to listen to music, watch films, or search the web in English? Do they want to be able to go to an English speaking country and speak with people there? Do they want to be able to get a job where they use English to communicate via email or telephone? Or maybe they want a job that allows them to travel – in this case, English may be useful.

Help students find an intrinsic reason to learn English – one that is important on a personal level. It also must be said that there may still be students who don’t really want to learn English, and for whom passing the exams is the only goal. However, if the exams are based on reading, writing, listening and speaking in English, then maybe they will see that improving these skills will also help them pass the exams.

2. Use English as the classroom language

Create the expectation that for the time that English lessons are going on, they will be conducted in English. This change may take some time for students to get used to, so take it slowly. Maybe you could aim for half an hour at first and then build on that. Make sure you reassure students that, during the last 5-10 minutes of the lesson, they can ask questions in the L1 if they didn’t understand. Make your instructions clear and make sure you use examples, visuals and, if necessary, written support on the board to accommodate students who aren’t confident in trusting their listening skills. Finally, encourage students to use English when speaking to each other and praise them when they do.

3. Make sure each lesson has a clear communicative aim

Instead of an aim such as, to learn the present perfect, make the aim, to talk and write about things I have done before. This shift in focus lets the students know what the communicative purpose is for learning the tense – how it can be used in real communication. Scaffold tasks so that students have lots of support. So, for example, you might do a Find Someone Who… type exercise in which students have to ask each other, “Have you ever…”Write the kernel on the board, brainstorm some endings and write them on the board: …walked for more than five miles, …eaten foreign food, …run a marathon… Keep these on the board during the discussion phase so that students can refer to them for support. Stronger students will be able to make up their own, so this is an example of an activity which could work well in a mixed ability class.

4. Don’t make exams the only focus

There are lots of ways to bring in on-going assessment and even self-assessment to show students that each stage of the lesson is important. Listen to students during tasks and tell them if you think they are doing a great job at speaking in English – give them an “A” for the activity. Create a check list that students can use to self-assess: I can talk about what I’ve done. I can ask someone if s/he has ever done something. I can write about what I’ve done. (etc.). Ask them to assess themselves honestly and set review tasks if students feel they can’t really do that yet.

5. Take learning out of the classroom

Ask students to set some realistic personal language goals that are not part of the course: respond in English to a blog post, listen to a song and copy out the words, look for information about a favourite subject in English on the web – there are many possibilities.

Breaking out of the exam-based mentality can be difficult. While it is still important for students to do well in exams, there is nothing to stop them from having their own personal goals for learning English. Even if their goals don’t ‘count’ towards a grade, for the student, they may be even more important.

Invitation to share your ideas

We are interested in hearing your ideas about teaching English beyond the exams, so please comment on this post and take part in our live Facebook chat on Friday, 6 December at 12pm GMT.

Please keep your challenges coming. The best way to let us know is by leaving a comment below or on the EFLproblems blog post. We will respond to your challenges in a blog every two weeks. Each blog will be followed by a live Facebook chat to discuss the challenge answered in the blog. Be sure to Like our Facebook page to be reminded about the upcoming live chats.


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