IELTS, standing for the International English Language Testing System, is used to measure English ability in four main areas – listening, reading, speaking, and writing. There are two different types of paper – academic and general, and why you are taking the IELTS exam will define which paper you need to take. If you want to attend a university or college in Australia, New Zealand, the US, Canada or the UK, then you will need to take the academic paper. And as each course or university may vary in its requirements it is important to check what score you need before beginning to study for IELTS. On the other hand if you need IELTS to attend work experience or school in the above countries or if you want to emigrate to them then you need to take the general training paper, and again it is important to check which band score is required before you begin your studies.
The first thing to do is to figure out which paper you need to take, and what score you need to achieve. The listening and the speaking is the same for both the general and academic papers, but the reading and the writing are quite different so it is important to focus your studies and practice on the correct paper. Once you have worked this out you can begin to study properly.
Break your studies down into sections – don’t think of it all as one big difficult test, but as four smaller ones. Try to work out which sections are your strong ones and which are your weak, and then you can focus more study time on the areas you find more difficult. However, make sure that you do not neglect any areas so continue to do some practice even on your stronger sections.
The Listening paper:
There are about 40 questions in the listening paper, with about ten questions in four different sections. Section 1 is an informal conversation between two speakers. Section 2 is an informal monologue. Section 3 is a formal conversation with up to four speakers – usually in an academic setting. And section 4 is a formal academic monologue usually a talk or lecture.
To improve your score – get hold of as many practice IELTS listening papers as you can – buy or borrow practice books, search the internet for free practice questions, and do as many different tests as you can. Look at the style and type of IELTS questions, and get used to their little tricks. Also do dictation – listen to parts of the IELTS test and try it down, you can play it again and again, and do it sentence by sentence – and this will really help improve your listening ability. If you don’t hear an answer guess, with a multiple choice question you have a 25% chance of getting it right!
The Speaking test;
This is in the form of an interview, and generally lasts about fifteen minutes. The first section is informal questions about yourself – where you live, hobbies etc. In the second section you are given a card with a topic on it, an dyou haev to make a two minute speech about it – then the examiner will ask you a couple of questions. The last section is more difficult and generally focuses on answering questions about controversial or important issues in society.
To improve your score – find a teacher or someone with good English that you can practice interviewing and speaking skills with. Get hold of past tests and questions and practice them together. Try to find sample IELTS examinees on the internet or in your books and see how they did. And keep abreast of current topics – read the newspapers, or watch news on television. Think of as many different possible topics as you can and try to think of something you can say about them all. Speak confidently and clearly even if you don’t feel it. Examiners will mark up for confidence!
The Reading test:
This section is different for the general and academic papers. The academic reading test has much harder reading paragraphs and questions so it is important to train with the correct paper.
To improve your score;
Get hold of as many practice tests as you can – look at the different types of questions and see which you find easier and which harder. Try to do the easier ones first – you don’t need to answer them all in order. Improve your vocabulary – when you do this don’t just learn the meaning but learn the grammatical structure and synonyms (words with a similar meaning) as well. Train yourself to answer the questions quickly as one of the most common problems with the reading test is running out of time – use a timer when you practice.
The Writing test;
For many students the writing test is the most difficult. Both general and academic involve two parts. For general it is an essay and a letter. For academic it is an essay and a report. But you only have one hour to do both. The essay is worth more marks, so although it is always second you can choose to do it first – you should spend forty minutes on it, and twenty on the letter or report, so if you are careful it doesn’t matter which you do first.
The letter or report should be 150 words, and the essay 250.
To improve your score;
For the letter or report learn some stock phrases that you can use in any letter or report of a certain type. Practice speed writing with different past IELTS questions that you can get hold of. Use a stopwatch, and if you can get an English speaker to check over your practice ones. Practice till you can write 150 words in twenty minutes – if you don’t write enough words the examiners mark you down.
The essay is usually quite a difficult topic – much like those in section three of the speaking test. Plan your essay before you write it – just jot a couple of ideas down, and it will help with your essay structure. Find some sample IELTS essays and look at their style – make sure you use paragraphs, and linking words such as firstly, in conclusion etc. And practice – practice planning as many topics as you can find, practice writing as much as you can, and practice writing quickly. You only have forty minutes to read the question, understand it, plan it, and then write 250 words. It’s not long.
The most common word I’ve used in the above quick overview is PRACTICE – this is what it really comes down to. Practice so much that you know exactly what to expect, what type of questions, how long it should take you to answer them, and cover as many different topics as you can so that you don’t find yourself sitting in the exam thinking I know nothing about this. And if after all that practice you still find yourself in your exam thinking ‘I know nothing about this’ then just make something up – any answer is better than none. Good luck!