I’ve been teaching IELTS for nearly ten years and every student I encounter has the same question: They all want to know how to prepare for the IELTS exam. Of course, there is no one simple answer to that question. The exam is a test of your English and you must bring up your overall language ability in order to do well. However, it does help to look at the different parts of the exam and think about some things that you can do to prepare.
I live and work in rural China where there are almost no foreigners around. All my Chinese students complain that they have no one to practice their speaking with. Yet I look at them and say, “How many students are in your class?” The answer is always about fifty.
Practice is so important for the IELTS speaking exam. In order to adequately prepare, you must speak English often. It doesn’t matter if you are speaking to an American or a Brit – you just need to be speaking. So get out there and make some friends who want to be language partners. Sure, it’s awkward and embarrassing at first, but that’s the key to success! Fight through the initial difficulties and get enough practice.
When you are speaking English, make sure not to lapse back into your native language. This is a bad habit because it allows your brain to be lazy. When you force yourself to speak English you are improving your language. Even if you make lots of mistakes, you are still learning and getting better. But if you turn and speak to your partner in your native language, you learn nothing.
There are online forums and Facebook groups that can help you meet people from around the world to partner with and practice your English. You may also want to reach out for language partners who want to learn your language. By helping someone learn your language, you may get valuable practice with theirs.
You don’t just need to work with a partner, though. You can practice alone at home, too. I have a handy video that gives you some advice for improving your speaking score even when you’re on your own. It focuses on getting better at pronunciation:
IELTS students are often very eager to boost their writing score, and yet confused about how to do it. “There must be a magic formula!” they say. But no, there isn’t. There are structures you can learn, and many guides to deciphering questions, but like the speaking exam you have to simply practice in order to succeed.
When it comes to improving your writing skill, feedback is absolutely essential. When you talk to someone, you can read their expression and tell if they understand you; however, when you write it is much more difficult to know if you have made a mistake. In order to do this, you need to get someone who knows how to correct your essay.
I would recommend reading lots of sample essays and working out how the author answered the question and why they used certain structures and language. If you are unsure, reach out and ask someone. Asking is the best way to learn something new.
Finally, remember to practice all parts of the writing exam. Don’t neglect things like describing maps because they are less common… Even if you spend less time on the less common tasks, you will be well-prepared for the IELTS exam.
Prepare for IELTS Listening
IELTS students love preparing for the listening exam because it’s the most fun one to practice. You can watch movies and TV shows or listen to podcasts and music. You can even just watch videos on YouTube! These things all help you. No joke!
However, although all listening is useful, you do need to do some targeted practice. That means you should get some practice papers and do some real test examples. That way you will be prepared for the IELTS question types and topics. Remember: there is no substitute for experience.
Whenever you do practice listening, remember to engage in active listening. This means asking questions about what you hear. This website was originally founded to use TED Talks for this purpose. Check out our huge selection of free lessons with fascinating TED Talks featuring IELTS-style questions to help you prepare for your exam.
Don’t forget to practice listening to all kinds of accents. The “I” in IELTS stands for “International”, and that means it’s not just British accents. You’ll hear Americans, Australians, New Zealanders, and South Africans speaking on the listening recording. Get used to these accents by listening to different sources. Check out the news from each country – it’s really interesting!
Finally, we come to the reading section. While all reading practice is useful, the key difficulty in the IELTS exam is that you have such limited time. Therefore, slowly appreciating a novel isn’t going to help you very much in the real exam. You need to challenge yourself to read quickly and gain important information.
Think about the key reading skills you need: skimming, scanning, and reading for detail. When you read the news every morning on the BBC app or whatever else you prefer, challenge yourself to blare through the article and answer pre-defined questions like, “What was it about?” “Who were the people mentioned?” “What did those people do?” and so on.
Trust me, this will help.
Beyond that, get used to figuring out vocabulary from context. Using a dictionary is great sometimes, but you also need to be able to gain a word’s meaning from what is around it. Focus on its part of speech and then piece together its meaning from the sentences before and after it. The faster you can do this, the better. Even native speakers come across words they don’t know!
The IELTS exam asks you to look at a reading passage that is approximately 1,000 words, so try to find articles of about this length and practice speed-reading them. But you can also look for other stuff. Sit down and read a book! It’s fun and relaxing, and it will help. Sure, it’s very different from doing actual exam practice, but you’re still figuring out grammatical structures, finding meaning from context, relating pronouns to the right source, and so on. In the end, all practice is good practice.
IELTS requires a lot of effort, but it is worth it. You should look at each section of the exam, but remember to focus on the ones that you find most difficult, and try to improve your skills. I always advocated a “two-pronged” approach to exam preparation. That means doing some basic English practice as well as specific exam skills. Follow this approach, and you will advance very quickly.
One last note: Don’t expect immediate results. Language-learning takes time. If you want to go from a band 5 to 7, it can take a year or more. Yeah, some people do it quicker, but it really can be a difficult and time-consuming process. Set realistic goals so that you don’t get discouraged.