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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


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Topic knowledge and IELTS success

Girl on sofa with laptop and papersLouis Rogers, author of Skills for Business Studies and an EAP teacher, discusses whether topic knowledge and fluency is key to performing well in IELTS testing. He speaks on the subject at this year’s IATEFL.

Prior to the internet we had limited sources of information and limited access to it. Therefore if we wanted to access the information we had to develop ways to store it in our minds so that we could easily access it at a later date. With the internet we have fast access to a range of information and we have such instant access to the internet that we do not need to exert such energy on encoding it in our minds. According to Sparrow et al ‘No longer do we have to make costly efforts to find the things we want. We can ‘Google’ the old classmate, find articles online, or look up the actor who was on the tip of our tongue. When faced with difficult questions, people are primed to think about computers and that when people expect to have future access to information, they have lower rates of recall of the information itself and enhanced recall instead for where to access it’. For example, when participants in the study were asked to think of the Japanese flag many would think of a computer rather than try to picture a flag.

How is this all relevant to the IELTS exam? Many students express concern at not knowing anything about a topic. In particular, they worry about part 3 of the speaking test and part 2 of the writing. They fear facing something they feel they have nothing to say on. There could of course be a number of reasons for this. It is not necessarily the case that students commit less general knowledge to memory. Some studies such as Moore, Stroup and Mahony (2009) found that some of the IELTS topics were perceived too Eurocentric in nature. If students feel the topics are not related to them or they have never considered them, then they undoubtedly will feel disadvantaged when encountering them. To a certain extent this lack of confidence could make students hesitate, repeat ideas and even have a flatter pronunciation.

Creating materials and activities that challenge students to think and respond personally in common IELTS areas could help reduce some of their fears. IELTS lessons can provide an insight into some of this knowledge and give students the confidence to respond to such topics.


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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.


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Style and Substance: Teaching EAP at Advanced Level

Lecturer assisting students during classJulie Moore, co-author of the recently launched Oxford EAP Advanced / C1 level, looks at how to prepare students for the challenges of postgraduate study.

A proportion of students arrive on an EAP course with an already very high level of general English, especially those planning to study at postgraduate level. In the class I taught this summer at Bristol University, for example, all the students arrived with a score of 7.0 at IELTS. Yes, they were good, and some of them were clearly very smart cookies, but that didn’t mean they were quite ready to cope with demanding postgraduate courses in law or economics which require a really high level of language skill.

Academic style

One of the most obvious areas in which many of these students fall down is the style of their writing. They may be able to write about simple, everyday topics relatively clearly and fluently, but their style is often far from academic. Their first attempts at writing are more akin to a high school essay, full of short simple sentences, rather informal language and awkward fixed phrases and formulae learnt in high-school English classes.

The task of making their style more academic involves a two-pronged strategy.  Firstly, they need to look at just what it is that academic writers do that makes them sound academic. By analysing specific features in reading texts, they start to get a feel for what academic style is all about. You might, for example, take a short section of a text which you’ve already worked with and get students to first underline all the verbs, then identify and classify the subject of each verb. Chances are they’ll find lots of impersonal, non-human subjects, often expressed as noun phrases – recent research findings show…, more flexible working practices allow… – or where people are subjects, they’re more likely to be presented as a general group, expressed through a plural noun: consumers, critics of this approach, the majority of hospital outpatients, etc.

The next step is to work on transferring these features to students’ own writing. This will involve some nitty-gritty language work on, say, constructing noun phrases, a key feature of academic English that recurs through several units of Oxford EAP Advanced/C1 in the form of academic language boxes followed by practice activities. This process of raising awareness followed by practice helps students to develop the skills to move from:

As new media develop so fast, we are bombarded by a huge amount of information and we don’t even have time to filter them.” (example from a student essay)

To:

With the rapid development of new media, the public are bombarded by a huge amount of information, from news media, TV, social networking and online advertising, which is becoming increasingly difficult to filter.” (edited version rewritten in class)

Content

But style is nothing without substance. At this level, students really need to be challenged cognitively as well as linguistically. In an academic context, what you say is as important as how you say it. So it’s vital to give students real content to work with, not just in receptive tasks, but in productive activities as well. You can’t expect a student to produce an intelligent, well-argued piece of writing if they’re simply coming up with ideas off the top of their head.

Academic writing is not about personal opinions and experiences, it’s about drawing on academic arguments backed up by evidence from sources, and that means writing and speaking tasks based on meaty academic input. For this reason, the writing and speaking modules in Oxford EAP Advanced/C1 all build on authentic input sources on a wide range of topics, from drugs in sport to teamwork in academic research.Students work with these in a structured way towards an output task (an essay, a summary, a discussion or a presentation), incorporating evidence from these sources to support their points at every stage, just as they will be expected to do in their postgraduate studies.

And of course, the added bonus of challenging students intellectually is that it should not only prepare them for their future studies, but also make it more likely that the language they encounter will stick. The deeper mental processing required by these higher-level thinking skills has been shown to aid language acquisition, which makes really stretching these students at the top end a win-win situation.

To find out more about Oxford EAP C1/Advanced, watch Julie Moore’s video interview.


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Preparing for Standardized English Language Tests

Students sitting an examHow can you help your students prepare for standardized tests? Lawrence J. Zwier, author of numerous books about the TOEFL iBT, offers his view.

Certain principles of test preparation are just common sense. For one thing, it is good to expose students to the form of a test before they take it. A practice run through any standardized test lessens the chance that structural surprises will skew the results of the test. This is especially true with items like the “reading-to-learn” questions on the Internet-based TOEFL (the iBT), whose format is not 4-option multiple choice. A test-taker who expects this different format won’t be so easily thrown off his or her pace. For another thing, preparation increases confidence, and a confident test-taker is more likely to show what he or she can really do.

If you are a teacher but NOT in a formal test-preparation school, can you have any role in helping students get ready for standardized tests? You definitely can. One avenue is through discrete-point preparation—targeting vocabulary and syntax in ways that mirror tasks on the IELTS, TOEIC, TOEFL, or whatever. First, get a test-prep guidebook for the appropriate test from one of the major publishers. Examine the sample items. Then look at your course syllabus and at the textbooks you use—especially your reading and grammar books.  Is it possible to give students exercises in a test-like format? For example, if you know some of your students will take TOEIC and your class is working with present perfect verbs, formulate some of your tasks as TOEIC-like items: “They have lived here _____ 2009,” followed by four possible options including “since”.

Another area in which any teacher can advance test-readiness is through good contextualized teaching. With the 2005 introduction of the iBT, standardized testing took a turn toward contextualization. If you go to toefl.org, the TOEFL-related site maintained by the Educational Testing Service (ETS), you’ll see a relatively global approach to test preparation. Students are advised to engage in real-life language-learning activities that have relevance to TOEFL preparation. Mix this contextual approach with the more discrete, local slant that you find in guides to the various tests. Widening the universe of test-prep activities can only help. The more connections students see between life and testing, the more smoothly they will move through training and testing into the jobs or academic admissions they aspire to.

Lawrence J. Zwier is Associate Director for Curriculum at the English Language Center, Michigan State University, USA. He is the author of numerous books about the TOEFL iBT and many ESL/EFL textbooks and is a frequent presenter at TESOL and other conferences.