Teaching IELTS: Understanding the Test & Planning Classes

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What is IELTS?

IELTS stands for International English Language Testing System and is a globally recognized assessment tool to measure English language proficiency for work or study purposes. 

What began modestly in 1980 with a few thousand candidates per year, has grown into the standardized test that millions of English as a second language students aim for. In 2019, around 3.5 million IELTS tests were taken at over 1,600 IELTS test centers worldwide.

The test comes in two versions: Academic and General Training. The Academic version is for those wishing to study at undergraduate or postgraduate level at an institution where English is the language of instruction.

The General Training exam is designed for those wishing to work in an English speaking country.  

Approximately 75% of all IELTS candidates opt to take the Academic test.

Related: The Best Teaching Programs in Japan 

IELTS Test assessment and structure

Both versions are assessed using the same criteria. The test taker receives an overall Band Score based on a scale from 0 to 9. Descriptors for each point on the scale indicate the capabilities of the candidates language skills. 

For example, someone who scores an overall Band 7 is described as a GOOD USER who has “an operational command of the language, though with occasional inaccuracies, inappropriate usage and misunderstandings in some situations.” I use the example of Band 7 because it is typically the minimum score required to be accepted for study in many English-speaking universities. 

Comparing the Band score to the CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages), our Band 7 student would be on the borderline between B2 and C1. 

Bands and descriptors are of course, simply guidelines or indicators of potential. The overall Band score itself is the average taken from a total of four scores which correspond to the four parts of the exam, namely:

Reading

60 minutes duration with 40 questions in total on either 3 texts (Academic IELTS) or 4 (General Training).

Listening

40 minutes duration with 40 questions based on 4 listening activities (same for both versions).

Writing

60 minutes duration with 2 questions (a description of graphic data and an essay in Academic IELTS; a letter and an essay in General Training).

Speaking

Face-to-face interview with the examiner. 14 minutes duration divided into 3 parts ranging from general questions to a 2 minute talking turn to a discussion based around the individual talk (same for both versions).

Both the writing and speaking parts are assessed according to 4 criteria which include: 

  • Grammatical Accuracy and Range of Vocabulary
  • Task Achievement or Task Response
  • Cohesion and Coherence to the writing set
  • Fluency plus Pronunciation and Intonation to the speaking test criteria 

Related: The Best Teaching Programs in Korea 

Teaching IELTS 

There is no magic formula but, no matter what you are teaching, the more you know about the subject, the more confident and comfortable you should feel. 

So, spend time on the following:

  • Do the test yourself. Under IELTS exam conditions. Check your score in listening and reading. Write Task 1 and Task 2 essays for Academic and General Training IELTS. Look through examples of Speaking topics. Try speaking to yourself for 2 minutes on several of them. 
  • Go first to the official sites (www.ielts.org; www.britishcouncil.org; www.ipd.com ) and read about IELTS.The best idea is to start off  by becoming thoroughly familiar with the format. Then go on to the band criteria upon which the scoring system is based as well as the skills the test measures and the ways it achieves that.  But also learn about the history of IELTS and its current role in the academic world and that of migration and work. 
  • There is a vast amount of IELTS resources online and in print.  Teaching IELTS, similar to teaching anything else, is a question of knowing your subject inside out, identifying the needs of the students, and choosing the materials wisely.
  • IELTS teaching does not occur in a vacuum. We need to share our experiences and discuss what went right or wrong. This is especially crucial if we are teaching online or as a private tutor. Joining a community where teachers can meet to exchange views and tips is highly advisable. 

The IELTS class

There is no set standard when it comes to IELTS classes – group size will vary and you may be teaching one-to-one or online. 

However, the ultimate goal will be the same. Each and every student will be focused on taking IELTS and they will be motivated. 

Now, of course, it is vital to plan your classes in view of this end product. BUT do not overstress the exam itself. Class time is the time to instill learning. There is a time and place for testing but do not use up too many class hours on it. 

The key to success with IELTS is planning. As a teacher, having probably chosen an IELTS course book as a basis, start accumulating extra materials to supplement it from a variety of sources. Build up a bank of listening, reading, writing and speaking activities on a range of topics that correspond to the bulk of IELTS exam subject matter.

I would suggest basing classes successively around these chosen key topics and practice all four skills. 

As an example, let’s take the general topic of Education which frequently comes up in all four exam components. What follows are some suggestions as to how the topic might be handled in a series of IELTS sessions.

Teaching IELTS Listening

There are listening strategies you would need to work on in class such as listening for gist, specific information or to understand details as well as paying particular attention to the ways these skills are tested in IELTS. 

If anything, particularly at first, give the students plenty of time to read and or discuss what they are going to listen to beforehand. This will give them the chance to think about what they have to do to be expert listeners. Of course, practice under exam conditions later, in class or at home, will also be important. 

It is also important to expose your students to a variety of accents. Remember that there may be speakers from the UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the USA used in the exam. 

As we know, it is always best to put everything into context. 

There are many podcasts, including TED talks and others from sources such as a favorite of mine the UK’s Guardian website on the subject of education from all angles. The choice is yours: you will know which would best suit your students. Work on listening strategies and vocabulary. Students at the IELTS level like nothing better than acquiring new vocabulary or new ways of saying things.

Teaching IELTS Reading

As with Listening, Reading Skills such as skimming and scanning and the ability to make predictions based on topic knowledge and making inferences are all fundamental. Being able to guess the meaning of unknown words in context, and realizing  that comprehension does not mean we have to know the exact meaning of every word in a text are all well-established skills practiced in the second language classroom. 

As with listening, give the class time at first to work with these skills.  Once again, in the context of education, there is a wealth of material you can use from newspapers or magazines to exam style reading passages in published texts. Start out with material relevant to your students’ experiences. Work from the known to the less known. 

Teaching IELTS Writing

Not uncommonly, writing is the area that students need the most help with as well as teacher intervention in the form of practice activities, provision of good models and constructive feedback. 

Encourage students to write something every day, from complex sentence construction to paragraphs to IELTS essays. Make them share and co-evaluate what they write, just as you might when they speak. It is often these encounters that provide the opportunity to go over errors in syntax and choice of lexis. And, get students to re-write what they have done. 

These tactics are valuable whether students are preparing for either of the IELTS versions. Of course, spend the time you feel necessary on Task 1 for the Academic test (describing data presented in graphic form) and the letter writing in the General Training option. 

Choose topics from official IELTS sources on education and work on them. 

Teaching speaking

Directing the class towards specific practice on the 3 parts of the Speaking Test is a necessity. 

Class time should first be devoted to practicing Part 1 that deals with more personal topics before moving on to the two-minute individual talks candidates have to give in Part 2 and the follow-up discussion between candidate and examiner in Part 3. 

There are plenty of education-related IELTS Speaking topics available. 

Take a look at this possible class sequence:

  1. Listening: Prepare the groundwork through initial discussion and use this podcast. It’s from two Australian teachers talking about the importance of science in education. 
  2. Reading: Class can read something on the role of the humanities in school. Here’s an example

Again, prepare the text, the pre-questions, the vocabulary to explore before the session. 

  1. Writing: We can go straight to an IELTS writing topic. Here’s one example:-

Some people say that History is the one of the most important school subjects. Other people think that, in today’s world, subjects like science and Technology are more important.

Discuss both these views and give your own opinion.

  1. Speaking: class members give their own short talks on a series of aspects related to education. 

Teaching students in IELTS classes comes with its own challenges. Students often feel that they have learned sufficient English to successfully communicate in most situations and feel that they are not learning new things anymore. The teacher must ensure that in every session, certain objectives must be met. This is particularly relevant when it comes to aspects such as collocations, phrasal verbs, idiomatic expressions

Make your students part of the teaching process, as auto and co-evaluators of their own and others written and spoken contributions, as presenters of grammatical points. Enjoy the challenge.

As the founder of IELTSPodcast, Ben started his journey as an English educator in 2006. Ben and his team of teachers provide students with expert advice, twice a week to cover the writing, reading, listening and speaking sections of the IELTS exam.

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