How to Prepare for IELTS
What is IELTS?
IELTS (International English Language Testing System) is a standardised proficiency test taken by millions of people every year who want to live or study in the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and Ireland.
General or Academic IELTS
The General IELTS is for people who want to live or train below university level in an English-speaking country, the Academic IELTS is necessary for undergraduate or postgraduate university study and to obtain a student visa. Different university courses will require different grades, usually between 6.5 and 7.5.
The Listening and Speaking papers are the same for both the General and Academic tests.
There are 4 parts to the test.
Listening (40 mins) 30 minutes of audio with 40 questions, and 10 minutes to check your answers and write them on the answer sheet.
Reading (1 hr) This includes 3 passages and 40 questions.
Writing (1 hr) This includes two pieces of writing.
Speaking (11 – 14 mins) There are three parts to this test.
The Listening, Reading and Writing papers are taken on the same day, with no breaks in between the papers.
The Speaking test is usually held on the same day, a week before or a week after the other papers.
It’s a good idea to start your preparation by taking a whole practice test. You can find several free practice tests here. It’s also a good idea to take practice tests regularly throughout your preparation, to practice your exam skills and to evaluate your progress.
Create a Study Plan
IELTS say on average it takes 3 months of preparation to advance by half a point, obviously this depends on how much work you do. You should create a flexible study plan to organise your time effectively and check your progress.
Topics & Vocabulary
The IELTS test includes a large range of different topics. The examiners claim that IELTS topics are topics that 99.9% of test-takers are familiar with and will have opinions about. These topics can include a range of subjects such as Education, the Environment, Art, Family, Health, Technology, Work, Communication, Food, Exercise, Society, Crime, Business, Culture, Entertainment, Language and others.
Keep a Vocabulary Notebook
It’s a good idea to start keeping a vocabulary notebook to note down new words and phrases connected with different topics which you find from reading, listening and studying.
In conjunction with, or in place of, your vocabulary notebook, you might like to try using a vocabulary learning app. like Quizlet. You can use this to make your own vocabulary flashcards, you can then test yourself regularly using the different test formats it offers.
Use a Good Dictionary
When you find new words, you shouldn’t just rely on translation apps to find their meanings. Use a good dictionary such as the Cambridge Learner’s Dictionary, so you can check words in context, check pronunciation and look up word families.
The Reading texts in the IELTS exam are quite long (up to 950 words), however you will only have about 20 minutes to read and answer questions on each text in the exam so it’s important to practice reading quickly (skimming and scanning, as well as reading for detail).
You should read often and read a variety of texts. News articles, although often quite short, are good practice if you read articles on different subjects. Not only will this help you learn key vocabulary for a number of topics, it will help you gain some understanding of different topics, which will help you predict text content in the exam.
However many words you learn, you will always find words and phrases you don’t know. In an exam you cannot look up the meaning of these words, so it’s very important to practice guessing meaning from context. When you find a word or expression you’ve never seen before, try to guess what it means from the sentence or any pictures around it, before you use a dictionary.
Using a Tapescript
One problem learners have when listening to native English speakers stems from the fact that English is a stress-timed language and so we tend to ‘swallow’ certain words and syllables, which makes it difficult to hear them, and emphasise others. Usually the words which are difficult to hear are grammatical (function) words. Shadowing is useful to build up your awareness of this. Just practicing listening with a tapescript will help.
Listening regularly to a variety of communications (speeches, conversations etc.) on a variety of subjects is good practice. As with the reading, news and current affairs sources will help you build your vocabulary and awareness of topics.
The IELTS test uses a variety of native-speaker accents, so it’s important to listen to speakers from the UK, America, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. A good website for authentic English listening practice with a range of accents is www.real-english.com.
Before you listen, think about the topic and the kinds of things you might hear. Use any titles, introductions, or accompanying pictures available to help predict possible content. Then think about any questions you might have about the subject (the questions can be as simple as ‘What’, ‘Where’, ‘When’, ‘Why’, ‘Who’, ‘How’). Listen and see if you can answer your questions. After listening a couple of times, try listening again with the tapescript, subtitles or closed captions. Then note any new keywords in your vocabulary notebook.
Reading for Writing
Reading really helps you improve your writing, so read a lot and often. If you are taking the Academic IELTS exam, it is particularly important to read more formal texts, such as news and current affairs (rather than opinion pieces or fiction).
Formal v Informal Writing
You will find that internet chat rooms usually use much more informal English and therefore are unlikely to be very helpful to practice your writing.
IELTS Test Samples
It’s a good idea to look at IELTS writing samples and to analyse the writing. How is the text laid out? How many paragraphs does it have? What does each paragraph contain? How is the text started and finished? How does the text answer the question? What kind of vocabulary does it use? What kind of grammatical structures does it use? What grade did the text receive? Does it have the examiner’s comments?
Planning and Checking
You should practice writing test questions and time yourself. Always, always, always plan your writing. For the exam we suggest you spend 5 minutes planning your writing – a good plan actually saves you time when you write. It’s important to practice writing plans, because 5 minutes isn’t very long. You should always spend 5 minutes at the end checking your writing. It’s a good idea, when you’re doing this at home, to put your writing aside when you’ve finished it and re-read it a day or two later. Doing this helps you see any mistakes you’ve made. Make a note of the kind of mistakes you usually make (using prepositions? Punctuation? Subject-Verb agreement? etc), so you know what to work on and what to look for in the exam.
Sample Test Videos
You can find a lot of videos of IELTS Speaking tests on YouTube. You can usually watch these with the Closed Captions (CC) on to help understand.
- Note the questions the examiner uses.
- Pause the recording and think about what you would say.
- Listen to the student. What vocabulary do they use? What grammar do they use? Do they make mistakes? Is their pronunciation clear? Do they often pause and hesitate? How long do they have to speak for?
- Look at the grade they got. Can you see why they got that grade?
You can practice your speaking using a recording and transcription programme like Otter.ai. Use the questions you’ve noted from the videos you’ve watched or the practice tests. Time yourself. It’s a good idea to read & listen back to your speaking. What kind of mistakes did you make? How could you make it better? Try recording the same answers again a day or so later, is it better?
Shadowing is very useful, especially for grammatical fluency. Shadowing helps you with rhythm and intonation as well as helping fix word order in your mind.
You can find some good pronunciation practice at BBC Learning English.
You can practice your spoken grammar using Shadowing.
It’s a good idea to get a good grammar practice book like ‘Grammar In Use’ for explanations and exercises.
Although there is a lot of work you can do on your own to prepare for the IELTS, it can be helpful to take classes. Tailor Made Teaching offers IELTS classes tailored to you, your specific needs and preferred ways of learning. Get in touch to ask about one-to-one or small group classes.