It’s the beginning of a new year (in fact, it’s a whole new decade) and this is the perfect time to make some resolutions about IELTS.
Almost everyone who visits this website is trying to improve their IELTS score in some way, and I want to offer a list of ideas that can really help you to get better. Of course, it is important to note right away that there is no magic fix. You cannot suddenly jump from band 5 to band 8… Remember: IELTS is a test of your English skills, and English is a difficult language to learn.
But the list that I’m going to present to you contains some genuinely useful ideas for improving your score. These are all things that you can start doing today and which will give you an immediate benefit. These are not in any particular order. I highly recommend that you do all of them, but let’s start with one that should perhaps be first…
1. Make a Study Plan
Before you do anything else, I really think that it is important to make a study plan for IELTS. The reason is basically that a study plan can help guide you and motivate you. Studying a language is difficult and it’s common to become disheartened and lose motivation. However, a good study plan can keep you on track to success.
When making an IELTS study plan, you should remember that it is important to make it personal and realistic. These are absolutely essential. It must be personal because only you know what is best. You know your own ability and your own schedule. But it also must best realistic. Don’t expect to become perfectly fluent in English in a short period of time or learn how to write a band 9 essay. These things take a tremendous amount of effort.
Your study plan should tell you how often to study and what kind of things you want to do. You need to take into consideration your strengths and weaknesses, and always think in terms of progression towards an ultimate goal. For example, you might have a list like this:
- Monday: Listen to podcast, revise vocab list, practice present continuous, write task 1 essay
- Tuesday: read article, learn 20 words, review prepositions, writing task 2 essay
That seems like a lot and maybe it is. It depends on your schedule and your habits, of course. But you also need to make sure that your plan includes some targets. Try penciling in some practice tests and see if you can meet your goals. Maybe you are currently at band 5.5 in writing and you want to get to band 6.6 within six months. If this is the case, you should check your score periodically.
Here is a guide to making (non-IELTS) study plans.
2. Do Practice Tests
While we’re on the subject of practice tests, it is worth emphasizing that this is a really important part of IELTS practice. I always tell people that IELTS is a test of your English abilities and that is true. A native speaker would find the IELTS speaking test really easy. However, it is also an exam and there are some definite factors that you need to consider.
Every exam has its quirks and you need to learn about IELTS before you book a test date. There are certain test types that would prove tricky even if you had a really high level of English. Doing task 1 of the academic writing test would also be challenging unless you were familiar with the style. I see many fluent speakers attempt this but do poorly because they added their own opinion.
Doing practice tests can help you get used to the style of IELTS as well as the timing of the exam. It also tells you what your current level is, which is really important to know. If you have to get a band 7 for immigration purposes but you can only score 5.5 on each practice test, then you know that you need to work a lot harder to achieve your goal.
Just remember one thing: There are lots of bad IELTS sites online that provide fake tests. These can actually be helpful in some ways but you should definitely be wary and true to find reputable ones. You can also try getting the Cambridge IELTS book series, which contain authentic past test papers.
This is a practice test from the official IELTS website.
3. Stop Learning Lists of Vocabulary
This may seem counterintuitive, but I don’t think that it’s useful for people to learn English but studying vast lists of words. Yes, it’s the quickest way to build a big vocabulary, but is it really helpful? I doubt it.
People who study English in this way might do well on certain language tests, but they probably will not do well in IELTS and definitely will not have good conversational or writing abilities. The problem is that you are learning lots of words in an unnatural way. This doesn’t help you at all when it comes to using them because your brain has processed them in a list.
It is much better to learn language in context, or at least through shorter lists when some additional collocations added. By collocations, I mean groups of words rather than single words. Take, for example, the word “fascinating.” It means “very interesting.” But how can we use this word in a sentence? Note that it is similar to other words that are used different but have similar meanings:
When we learn words in groups, we don’t need to think so carefully about which word form to use or which preposition needs to follow it… Instead, we already know it because that’s how we learned it:
- She finds ancient cultures fascinating.
- She has a fascination with ancient cultures.
- She is fascinated with ancient cultures.
4. Find a Speaking Partner
I have said before on this website that it’s really important to get a speaking partner in order to prepare for IELTS. There are several reasons for this, but chief among them is the fact that speaking English every day is essential. It gets you used to making the sounds of the language and gives you practice in both regular and exam form English.
If you find a speaking partner, you can have someone to practice English with each day and this will give you a big advantage. Think of learning a language like running a race. The more you run, the better you become. Of course, there are other important factors as well but it’s still utterly indispensable to practice often.
There are many ways to go about finding a speaking partner and of course you don’t need to limit yourself to just one. Just remember to speak often and make the most of these opportunities. It also helps to match with someone whose English level is similar to your own.
5. Read and Listen Regularly
This may seem obvious, but it’s worth stating here because people don’t necessarily do it as much as they should. If you want to pick up a language, you need to read and listen in that language regularly. There is so much that you can learn from doing this that it would be crazy not to.
I’m not talking about just doing IELTS reading and listening practice. While that is important, you should also just do daily practice with other non-IELTS materials. For example, you can read the BBC News app each day and listen to a podcast about something that you find interesting.
One important thing is to find something that is enjoyable to you. If it is boring, you probably won’t learn much. Even if the thing you use is not related to IELTS in any way, it will still contain language that you can learn from. There will still be grammar, pronunciation, or vocabulary that you can absorb. It helps to hear or read this stuff when used by a native speaker.
When you are making your daily plan (see #1 above), you should list the things you are going to read or listen in advance and make sure that you have time to do it. For additional benefit, you can make notes as you read or listen in order to take in even more information than normal.
6. Have a Language Notebook
I expect that most of you already have one of these, but if you don’t, it’s time to start. A language notebook is exactly what it sounds like: a notebook that you use to record language that you learn. You might even have several of them: a vocabulary book, a grammar book, an essay structure book, etc.
In any case, you should have at least one notebook that you use to write things down in. Then, you should make time to return and revise it when you need. This will really help you to improve because often we learn things and do not return to them. This causes them to leave our short-term memory and then get forgotten.
It has also been shown by various studies that writing things down by hand is a great way to embed them into our memory. Students who take hand-written notes in lectures remember far more than those who take no notes or who used digital devices to record notes.
7. Use a Variety of Sources to Study
This may seem like strange advice, but I think it is very important. Many IELTS candidates think that there is a perfect formula to study IELTS and they look for which teacher or book has it. Unfortunately, there is no such formula.
What you will find when you look on the internet, talk to people, or buy different books, is that there are many different interpretations of what is needed to succeed at IELTS. To be honest, many of the famous ones (Jay, Liz, Simon, etc) have really fantastic ideas but you should not just stick to their course. You should use a variety of sources to study.
This is because, as I have said before, IELTS is a test of your English skills. If you stick with one teacher, you might end up learning rigid structures for essays and a particular set of vocabulary. However, there will be lots of other stuff that you miss out on. There is no one perfect essay for IELTS. There are many things to consider and many ways to approach essay writing.
You should look at different courses, read different books, and speak to different people. At the end of all that, you will develop your own ideas and style. This is beneficial because many IELTS candidates just copy what they see online and the result is a dull, uninspired, and derivative performance in the test. That’s ok… but it’s not going to get you a very high score.
8. Use a Writing Correction Service
When it comes to the IELTS writing test, practice can only help you to a certain extent. Without direct feedback from a qualified professional, you are simply going to repeat the same mistakes over and over…
Thankfully, I offer a writing correction service that gives you full corrections, lots of advice, and a sample band 9 answer for just £10. It also features a 24-hour turnaround.
The reason that it is so important is that without it you cannot reasonably be expected to score highly for writing. I regularly encounter people who score 8 or 9 for reading and listening but just 6 for writing. Getting a 7 seems impossible to them and they don’t know why. The IELTS test results don’t come with feedback, sadly.
For this reason, I provide people with total feedback on their writing and that tells them what they need to improve. Often, it’s a matter of bad punctuation, incorrect tense use, mistakes with articles or prepositions, or weak, unsupported ideas. I help people by pointing out these problems and suggesting improvements. This usually helps boost their score in a very short time.
You can find out more here.
9. Read Sample Essays
This is another tip for people who want to get better at IELTS writing. If you want to know what a good essay looks like, try looking for sample ones online. However, keep in mind the following things:
- Many unqualified people post these essays online and they contain mistakes.
- Just because one person used a grammatical or structure feature successfully, doesn’t mean it can always be used.
- Don’t copy what you see; just use it for inspiration.
- There are many possible ways to write a great essay.
Having considered all that, it can really be useful to check out other people’s writing. Avoid the ones you see posted on Facebook as these are mostly bad quality. Instead, find a native speaker who is very experienced with IELTS. You can see some of my sample essays here.
10. Stay Motivated
Finally, it is easy to get obsessed with IELTS and then to become disillusioned with it. Almost every day, I meet people who feel it is impossible to reach their target score. They develop bad habits like taking shortcuts. Their attitude negatively impacts their abilities.
It is important to stay motivated throughout your IELTS journey. This is also a personal thing and I cannot really tell you how to do it, but I will suggest a few things that may help. First of all, you need to visualize success. Keep a picture in your mind that tells you it can be done. Everyone has within them the capacity to learn a new language, even if it takes a long time.
Don’t be discouraged by setbacks and delays. English is complicated and IELTS is hard. But you can keep going and succeed in the end as long as you don’t give up.
Finally, try to make it interesting. This might sound impossible, but it’s not. I have seen people learn languages very quickly because they had something that motivated them. One of my friends learned Korean quickly because he fell in love with a Korean girl; another learned English because she needed to make money for her family and knew that she could get a great job. That’s the importance of motivation… but when you actually study, remember to keep that at the forefront of your mind. Use materials that are interesting to you when you study as well. Practice listening by using football podcasts if you love football, or cooking shows if you love cooking. There really is something for everyone. Whatever your passion in life is, use it to study English.