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Strategies for teaching IELTS: Part Three – Get ready for exam day

webinarpicStephen 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 final article in a series ‘Strategies for teaching IELTS’.

In the first article in this series, I discussed some things to consider at the very beginning of an IELTS course, and then in article two I explored how to tackle some of the more problematic parts of the exam. Here, I will look at some strategies you can use at the end of your course to make sure your students are as prepared as possible for the exam day.


It is important that students have at least one full mock before the exam day. Make sure you find some practice tests – such as the free ones which support IELTS Masterclass on the OUP website. When you set up the mock, it’s a good idea to imitate the exam conditions as fully as possible. This will help prepare students for the real thing, and it will give them a sense of how important timing is. Students need to realise that the Listening, Reading and Writing papers take 2 hours 40 minutes – with no breaks in between! When you run the full mock it is a good idea to use the answer papers like the ones that will be used in the exam. When a student is working quickly and misses a question out to come back to it later, it can be very easy to forget about this when completing the answer sheet. This can mean that all of the remaining questions have the wrong responses.

For the Speaking paper, as well as conducting mock tests, make sure students get to watch an example of somebody else taking the test. Outside of language exams, students rarely have a spoken test so many are understandably nervous about what the whole procedure entails. You can find examples of spoken IELTS tests on YouTube.

On the day

Discuss what students should do on the day of the exam. Here’s what I advise my classes:

  • Get to the exam centre early – this gives people time to calm down, find their room, have a bite to eat and make sure they are not rushing due to traffic problems.
  • Use English before the exam – listening to a podcast, reading a book or having a conversation in English before the exam puts students in the right frame of mind.
  • Prepare for a long exam – As mentioned above, students will have to sit in the exam for over two and a half hours, so they should make sure they have had refreshments and visited the bathroom before the exam starts. Candidates can ask to leave the room to go to the bathroom, but this will take up valuable time.

At the exam centre

This may sound obvious, but make sure that students know where the exam centre is and how to get there. In many cities it is possible to sign up for the exam in a different place from where it actually takes place, so point this out to students if necessary.

Go through the regulations with regards to the identification that candidates need to provide, highlighting the fact that they must have the same identification that they provide when enrolling. To ensure a high standard of security, centres are required to take photographs of candidates and scan their fingerprints. Reassure students that all images are dealt with according to the local laws and that there are procedures in place for candidates who might be uncomfortable having their photograph taken in the presence of other people. If you or your students would like more information about the security procedures on the day it is best to check with your local centre. I’d suggest talking about these kinds of logistical things before the very last class, as this will give you and your students the chance to find out the answers to any difficult questions.

I hope you have found this three-part IELTS series useful, and I wish you and your students the best of luck in preparing for the test.

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

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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


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

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Six ways to boost classroom participation: Part Six – Motivate your students with cognitively-challenging tasks

students critical thinkingZarina Subhan is an experienced teacher and teacher trainer. She has taught and delivered teacher training at all levels, across the world. She joins us on the blog today for the final article in a series focused on boosting classroom participation. Last week, she proposed improving listening skills as teachers to better support your students. This week, Zarina introduces cognitively-challenging tasks to engage and involve your students.

“Think for yourself and let others enjoy the privilege of doing so too.” Voltaire

When students are busy in an English class thinking about how to go about saying something, they can become weighed down by the need to produce perfect linguistic patterns. So they focus too much on accuracy, rather than really communicating. So how can we get them to communicate if they don’t have enough language? We set tasks at a low language level. This can, however, create another problem: these kinds of activities can fail to challenge learners cognitively. Although our students cannot yet express complex thoughts and ideas in English, they can of course do so in their native tongue (and possibly in other languages too), so the activities we give them need to bear this in mind.

One way of making lessons more intellectually stimulating is to introduce more variety. A new report in the UK by the Sutton Trust touches on research in cognitive psychology by Bjork and Bjork, which found that varying the types of task, practice and context of learning improves later retention, even though it makes learning harder in the short term. In other words, we can stimulate students with new and alternative ways to practise language, rather than sticking to the same type of activities.

It’s also useful to look at Bloom’s Taxonomy, which has helped teachers to monitor the level of difficulty of task types for many decades.

Have you tried applying Bloom’s Taxonomy in class? Here are a variety of activities based around the different stages of learning. They all use the same text – a blog entry written by an events organiser, taken from International Express Elementary. Download the text, then try out some of these activities for yourself.

Activity 1: Remembering

Remembering is the basic level of cognition, and this is a good stage to deal with new language. For example, if we look at Claudia Oster’s blog (exercise 5), the comprehension questions below the text are at the basic level of thinking because the answers can easily be found in the text and involve a simple referral and repetition. As the questions asked are cognitively unchallenging, any new language found can be easily dealt with at this stage. This is where the teacher is helping students to start with an equal footing – by establishing the main theme of the text and ensuring all students have understood new key words.

Activity 2: Understanding

Once your students have completed the above activity, you can move them on to the understanding stage: the second level of cognition. So, to return to Claudia’s blog, exercise 6 encourages students to skim the text looking for examples. In this case, they need to identify the expressions with do, have, make and take, and use these to complete the word maps on the previous page (exercise 3). Because the students have a second chance to understand the context, identify and select the correct examples, they will have moved up a level of cognition.

Activity 3: Applying

The next stage is applying, which involves using given information in a new context. This is dealt with in exercise 7, which asks students to consider additional collocations to the ones in the text. They have to choose a correct verb, where some of the phrases are from the text or similar to them, but others are new.

Activity 4: Analysing

Analysing involves comparing and questioning differing ideas. You could go back to the quiz (exercise 4) that appears on the previous page to Claudia Oster’s blog, and ask your students to analyse how stressed Claudia is, according to the quiz. Here is answer key:


Activity 5: Evaluating

In the evaluation phase of cognition you could ask students to decide if Claudia is going to burn out from her stressful job. Ask students to look at the advice given in exercise 1, and get them to decide on four pieces of advice they would give her. Ask students to work in groups, and get each group to evaluate the other’s advice in terms of how realistic it is and whether Claudia would be likely to act upon it.

Activity 6: Creating

Creating is the stage where something new is formed, designed and produced. To round off this series of activities, why not get your students to write a questionnaire? Ask them to work in groups of three or four to carry out a class survey of whether people find their work stressful. They must produce six questions with multiple choice answers. Encourage them to carefully consider what the responses might be in order to create good multiple choice options.

Make sure different group members taken turns at doing the actual interviewing. If you like, the others could video or record the process – or simply listen. You could ask learners to record the results in a graph, write a short paragraph, or present them to the class, depending on language level.

I hope the above has shown that it is possible to design cognitively-challenging tasks that boost understanding, and make learning interesting for students of all levels!

This is the final article in my series of six ways to boost classroom participation. I hope you have enjoyed the series, and if you have missed any of the previous articles, please visit the OUP website to catch up.

Zarina Subhan is an experienced teacher and teacher trainer. She has taught and delivered teacher training at all levels, across the world (Greece, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Nepal, Ethiopia, Sri Lanka, China, Peru and the UK, where she is from). Since 2000, she has been involved in Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) materials writing, training trainers and teachers in facilitation techniques and teaching methodology. Zarina now spends her time divided between teacher training, materials writing, trainer training and presenting at conferences.




http://bjorklab.psych.ucla.edu/pubs/EBjork_RBjork_2011.pdf Willingham, D. T. (2008).

What Will Improve a Student’s Memory?. American Educator, 32(4), 17- 25.


This article was first published in the November 2014 issue of Teaching Adults. To find out more about the newsletter and to sign up, click here

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Six ways to boost classroom participation: Part Five – Get better at listening

shutterstock_271719515Zarina Subhan is an experienced teacher and teacher trainer. She has taught and delivered teacher training at all levels, across the world. She joins us on the blog today for the fifth article in a series focused on boosting classroom participation. Last week, she explored asking better questions and improving questioning style to allow for different learning styles in class. This week, Zarina focuses on improving your own listening skills as a teacher.

“Are you really listening…or are you just waiting for your turn to talk?” Robert Montgomery

Last week in the previous article in this series, I explored how you can get more out of your students by improving your questioning technique – but it’s just as important to work on how you listen and respond to their answers.

In an average, busy lesson when the teacher has planned a set of activities, it is easy to ask questions of our students, knowing what the answers should be. This sometimes results in ‘half listening’ to their responses. Students often answer with a lack of confidence in themselves, so they speak quietly, or purposefully mumble certain vocabulary that they feel they can’t pronounce properly. As teachers, we sometimes fill in the gaps of what we have heard, or think we have heard.

This may appear to save time in the short-run, but it does not build the trust required to help students gain confidence. In the long-run, students who don’t fully trust their teacher and lack confidence in their abilities in another language take much longer to answer oral questions or offer opinions. It is in this kind of situation that a language lesson can often seem like a monologue and lack that important two-way communication. We therefore need to practise active listening.

What is active listening?

We can demonstrate that we are listening actively by the way that we respond to what someone is saying.

  1. First, how can we respond more positively to correct answers?
    If we just accept the answer as correct or acceptable and move on, we haven’t let the student know what we heard. Instead, show that you think the answer is a good one, by saying things such as “Exactly!” “Well done, you really thought about that” “Just what I was looking for”. Ask the rest of the class “Did everybody hear x’s answer?” then ask the student to repeat it, adding “What you said is really important, I’d like everyone to hear it.” This values an answer, boosts confidence and gives recognition to those who give it a try. It should also encourage others within the group to get involved too.
  1. But what do you do if you can’t hear, or don’t understand what a student is saying?
    Don’t move on after guessing what they meant, thinking that you are saving them from embarrassment. Tell them you couldn’t hear their answer and ask them to repeat it. If it’s the meaning that’s the problem, when they repeat the answer then it is useful to rephrase their response and ask them “Did you mean _______?” Surprisingly, rather than dying of embarrassment, the student will probably realise you actually want to know what they mean, and try to communicate their idea differently. If you follow with an apology for misunderstanding them (and state that you now understand what they mean), rephrase if necessary or restate the answer for the rest of the class. This demonstrates that you are willing to work with them on an answer and that you are truly interested in understanding their response.
  2. What can we do if students are struggling to answer?
    Students may try very hard to answer a question or give an opinion, but struggle to get their idea across in another language. In such cases we need to try to piece together and summarise what they are trying to say, with their consent. This illustrates that the message being conveyed is more important than accuracy of language and that inaccuracies don’t make an idea or opinion invalid. So if they stumble over whether to include an article or not, for example, quickly add “That’s right, we say on THE street,” then bring them back to the content of what they were saying. “So what was happening on the street?”
  3. How can we explore students’ answers in more detail?
    It’s also important to check that the thought processes behind students’ answers are correct – in fact, this part is actually more important than the final answer! We can do this by asking questions such as “Tell me why you think that?” or “Where did you find that answer?” This also has the benefit of helping students who have been struggling to come to an answer, because they will hopefully be able to follow the thinking behind their classmate’s answer.

In summary, teachers who listen actively do so by clarifying and rephrasing their students’ answers, and reflecting on their students’ thought processes. By concentrating on the thinking behind students’ answers, not just the answers themselves, we can foster a more trusting relationship between ourselves and our students, giving them greater confidence, and reducing their fear of making mistakes. After all, active listening leads to active communication, which should be every language teacher’s goal.

This article was first published in the October 2014 issue of Teaching Adults. To find out more about the newsletter and to sign up, click here


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