How to teach IELTS: A complete guide for teachers
With the test centers in 150 countries and over 2.5 million annual test takers, International English Language Testing System (IELTS) is the world’s most popular English language test for higher education and immigration. Over 9,000 educational and government institutions, and employers worldwide accept the IELTS grades.
With the numbers increasing each successive year, you can only imagine how bright the career prospects for IELTS teachers are. If you’re looking for building a career in the education field, teaching IELTS might be exactly the opportunity for you.
Often the pay scale for IELTS teachers exceeds the average income in a country. So, the potential to earn is high. In addition to the obvious benefits, entering the field of IELTS instruction will open the world to you. And, if you love to travel, you will enjoy excellent mobility as the demand for IELTS teachers is quite high around the world.
How to teach IELTS
While there are no real preliminary requirements for IELTS teachers, often an English degree and teaching experience at some level are recommended. You may require a CELTA or DELTA degree in some countries – both of these are credentialing courses for those who teach English as a second language.
Before we head on to how-to’s and why’s, let’s quickly take a look at the IELTS test format.
Aimed at non-native English speakers, IELTS is offered in two versions:
1. Academic IELTS – geared for those who wish to study in English speaking countries at the undergraduate or postgraduate level or work in capacities where academic knowledge of English, such as reading and writing is required.
2. IELTS General Training – suitable for those wishing to migrate to the English speaking countries for schooling or below degree level education. The focus is more on assessing survival skills than the proficiency in the English language.
Most people take IELTS Academic to support the overseas study or work application. IELTS is conducted worldwide 48 times in a year, and there’s no limit to the number of times one can appear for IELTS.
About the test components
IELTS is conducted in four stages:
1. IELTS Listening – a 30-minute test where students are required to hear recordings of native English speakers and answer the questions.
2. IELTS Reading – an hour-long test that includes a reading of long texts and answering questions based on understanding.
3. IELTS Writing – a 60-minute test with two writing assignments where students demonstrate their thoughts and opinions.
4. IELTS Speaking – a 14-minute, in-person test where examiner may ask anything about work, family or activities students enjoy.
When you dive into the full test format, you’ll find that IELTS is not a pass-or-fail test. Each section is scored individually on a scale of 0 to 9, suggesting the test taker’s proficiency at different levels. A ‘0’ would mean that the student is a beginner. A ‘9’ would indicate that the student is fluent. The composite score evaluates the student’s overall performance.
Preparing to teach IELTS
To best prepare to teach the material, you should first familiarize yourself with the test, which includes taking the test yourself and practicing different sections to make certain you’re fully up to speed with the type of knowledge your students will need to master.
Also, this guide is for those who have taken IELTS at some point in time and taught English in a real capacity – because you need to learn the IELTS before you start to work with the students and promise them to help achieve a high score.
Your class might have students with different English language proficiency levels
You might have students with different ability levels. Some of them would be beginners while some would have already tested the waters but need to inch up their band. So, before you begin to work with your students, it makes sense to receive their test scores and break them in groups.
For students who have never tested, you’ll want to administer a practice test, which will allow you to assess where each student is and what work needs to be done to get them to the level they have selected as their goal. Depending on what they plan to do with their test results, different visa programs have score criteria that need to be met.
How to Teach IELTS Listening
IELTS Listening is the first portion of the test and is what it sounds like – listening to the audio recordings of conversations or speeches and then answering questions about what was being talked about.
The 30-minute test involves listening to four recordings, which can be:
1. General Conversation – a recording of a conversation between two people.
2. General Speech – a recording of a monolog or single person speaking.
3. Academic Conversation – a conversation in an academic environment.
4. Academic Talk – a recording of a typical University level lecture.
Each of the four recordings is about five minutes in length. Students need to answer ten questions about each recording. The questions could be in different formats – multiple choice, fill in the blank or fill out the answers on a diagram.
At the end of the test, students are given extra time to go back and fill in any answers they missed due to time constraints while listening to the recordings.
Here comes the tricky part – preparing students for IELTS listening.
Realize that the type of English being used varies. Students can expect to be tested with recordings of British, American, New Zealand, and Australian speakers, to name a few. The speech patterns are distinctly different, making it difficult for those who have little real world exposure to regular English speaking.
Here, you play a crucial role. As IELTS instructor, not only do you help students with the accents but you also need to keep them motivated.
More often than not, the test anxiety keeps their mind pre-occupied and kills their confidence. More than 90% of the time goes in thinking “what if I fail,” “what if I score lower than others,” “whether or not I’ll be able to make it,” “where will I land.”
They waste their precious time and energies. And, with what? Useless thoughts.
As a guide, you’ll need to be pro-active. Some of Your students will need extra practice to prepare for IELTS test. How can you help?
Teach them to learn to listen
All test components are interconnected. Before anyone learns to read, speak or write, they need to get to listen.
How do you go about it?
How do you go about it?
• Play recordings from different geographic locations
Accents can be the most difficult portion of the listening test. It’s important that students become well acquainted with wide-ranging accents as much as possible. Play different recordings and stress where the same word is pronounced differently in different accents.
For example, the word “niche” is pronounced
“neesh” in the British accent, and
“nich” in the American accent.
Similarly, the word “tomato” is pronounced as:
“toe-may-do” in the American accent, and
“two-mart-o” in Australian accent
Make students practice a lot so that they stop being confused with the sounds.
• Help them with the sounds, contexts, and spellings
There are many words in the English language that have same sounds, different spellings or same spellings, different meanings or same spellings, different sounds. Take a look at the following examples:
More than them you need to put conscious effort in helping them with the sounds, contexts, and spellings.
2. Monologs and dialogs
Four recordings, two conversation types – monologs and dialogs with increasing difficulty level. The accents can be different. Therefore, each recording poses different challenges to the listeners.
Outside of the linguistic factors, there are other challenges that listeners could face. It’s easy to keep attention when listening to a conversation. Monologs can be a bit stuffy and boring. However, conversations can sometimes include more relaxed usage that can easily confuse new listeners.
As IELTS instructor, you can begin by testing your students for both types of recording. It is essential to understand where students are prone to making mistakes and how you can correct them.
So, what do you do? How do you help them?
• Assist them to become active listeners
Though the conversations are more relaxed and engaging than monologs, you might miss on important information. How? Look at this discussion:
Speaker 1: Hey! Let’s catch up tomorrow.
6 pm. Gregory’s, 44th Street?
Speaker 2: Have you been to Fika? Their Scandinavian snacks are just amazing.
Speaker 1: No, but I’m sure Fika would be great. Can we go there some other day?
Or let’s just try it tomorrow.
Speaker 2: Great! See you, then.
Realize that the speaker two was confused with the venue but later agrees to meet at the same place. Often, we half-listen and reach a conclusion even before a conversation ends, which is one of the biggest reasons for wrong answers.
#Tip: If a student tends to have more difficulty correctly answering questions during a conversation, pinpoint each question and ask why they believed the answer they marked. This will allow them to highlight where they are gleaning the wrong information, which is often a matter of missing appropriate words.
• Teach how to skim information
Skimming is a technique to read fast. What happens is – a reader picks the keywords, big ideas, occasions, dates through a piece of text. The point is to not go into details, rather get a general idea.
You can apply the same technique when taking the listening test. The students can look at the questions ahead of the recording. There’s a gap of 1-minute and 30-seconds between the recorded clips, which means students can skim the questions and pinpoint the essential information in the clips.
However, you will need to take your students through it. Handholding is necessary in the beginning as they try to understand what to pick and what to miss. Work through practice tests, and apply the tricks:
i. Know the questions before the recording is played.
ii. Look for keywords and phrases.
iii. Have an ear for days, dates, time, years and events.
iv. Remember the names.
v. Try to catch the big idea/gist.
3. Tips for writing different test types
While you’ll already have explained to your students how to develop an ear for details, you may also want to provide them with some useful exam hacks to score better.
i. MCQs: When attempting multiple choice questions, it’s obvious for them to assume that there’s only one right option, which may not be the case. They might be required to select multiple answers for a single question. The idea is to read through the instructions carefully and check how many responses are needed.
ii. Matching: As a test taker has to match the information, these questions put a student’s ability to pick and connect info to check. Two skills – critical listening and analysis – play a vital role. The former is about training your students for the detail – tone, and information while the latter is about comprehending the emotional intention.
iii. Diagram labeling might seem the easiest, but it’s the trickiest of all. How? Let’s look at this:
Let’s assume you have to label the diagram along with the length, width and height measurements.
What mistake students make is while writing the measurement, they forget to mention the unit. For example, if the height of the box is 20 centimeters, it’s important to mention centimeters. When discussing the mock test results, focus on these points.
How to Teach IELTS Reading
What’s on the test?
As you know, this section of the IELTS consists primarily of reading comprehension and then answering a set of questions, just like any standardized test. With three passages and 40 questions, this hour-long test is designed to assess myriads of reading skills spanning – reading for detail and gist, and the ability to identify the purpose, argument, and opinions.
The passages can be from anywhere – newspapers, textbooks or magazines, in any style – narrative, descriptive, factual or argumentative. The question may be multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank, true/false, and summarizing. The passages are not identical in length, and there may not be the same number of questions devoted to each section. It’s important that students are taught how best to manage their time so that they have more confidence in completing each section.
How to teach IELTS Reading
When you start to train your students for IELTS reading, the first thing you can do is make it feel less overwhelming. Reading comprehension, like any other skill, is mastered with practice. However, as an instructor, you can make it less challenging and more rewarding by breaking the skills into sub-skills and helping students take small steps to achieve the bigger goal.
Outside of the psychological training, you need to equip your students with the technical skills to face the ground reality – which, in this case, is scoring high on IELTS reading. Here are some tips to consider when working with students to improve their IELTS reading scores:
1. Train the brains to read faster
Speed reading is one of the most valuable skills that your students will use throughout their lives!
However, before you start to work with them, it makes sense to know where they stand currently. On an average, an adult can read 200-300 words in a minute. And, you can train them to read up to 300% faster.
Yes. This is possible. But you need to understand that reading faster is not about skipping the chunks of texts and reaching straight away to the conclusion. Rather it’s about saccadic eye movements in a sequenced way. You fix your eyes on a particular area within the reading space and take a quick snapshot of the text, picking out seemingly important words, phrases, and ideas. You scan the content with such movements and comprehend.
The idea is to read more in less time and to understand faster by reducing the fixation time. It’s also about spending less time on easy texts and mastering harder material at a quicker pace. This makes a world of difference in the reading performance.
Here are some tried and tested techniques that you can teach your students:
• Skim reading
Skimming is reading what counts and ignoring what doesn’t. Simple.
The idea is you read for a particular purpose, which, in this case, is to answer the questions. Teaching your students to skim read will allow them to pick out the most important words and phrases from a passage and ignore the extraneous. Because your students will have the ability to see the questions for a-minute-and-a-half before attempting the test, they can use it as a marker for how to read the material. Few tips to help them skim read:
Because your students will have the ability to see the questions for a-minute-and-a-half before attempting the test, they can use it as a marker for how to read the material. Few tips to help them skim read:
i. Ask them to read the headline and the first sentence of each paragraph to get an idea of what answers they can fetch from where.
ii. When reading, your students will often come across words that are unfamiliar to them. During practice tests, advise students to write those words or phrases down to learn AFTERWARDS. But during the trial, unknown words should be disregarded to aid in concentration on the information that is known.
iii. Skimming helps comprehend and identify the gist faster, which includes locating the primary information faster.
• Scanning Skills
You look for particular information and get going. That’s it.
Unlike skimming, scanning is just about locating the information – categorically, chronologically, alphabetically or however. Skimming is browsing to identify the gist. When reading faster, skimming and scanning go hand-in-hand. As an IELTS instructor, you can train students to scan the page to pick out important words from the questions.
For example, if a question is asking about a specific date, it’s simple enough to scan the page to find that time and then thoroughly read that portion of the text for a better understanding and eventually answering the question.
Tips to help students scan the text:
i. Train them to look up for specific dates, events, names and places.
ii. Assist them to use indexing to search for something in an alphabetically-arranged list.
iii. Scanning is about locating an exact information and has nothing to do with getting the gist of the text.
2. Comprehension skills – Train students to read between the lines
The real reason that the reading portion of the test is administered is to judge the student’s understanding. While scanning and skimming can help answer straight forward, factual questions, it sometimes doesn’t suffice. Students need to be able to identify what the main idea is and determine whether statements are fact or opinion. They should be able to draw inferences from the material and come up with reasonable conclusions based on what they read.
Comprehension includes the ability to:
i. Read between the lines
ii. Connect the dots
iii. Interpret the opinions presented
iv. Predict reflections
• How to teach comprehension skills?
i. Choose a text and ask students to read and highlight the phrases and portions they think that shell out crucial information. Understand that these sentences and parts can be different for different students.
ii. Conduct a discussion around important and not-so-important, supporting each argument with a logical reason.
iii. Help them visualize the story told in the text, and explain why certain parts are more important than the other.
iv. Revisiting the texts that have already been discussed in the class helps in getting insights into students’ progress.
3. Take control of the time
Though you’re not expected to push your students to devote more than reasonable hours towards IELTS preparation yet instilling a sense of responsibility is important. After all, they have to crack the exam and be there where they want to be. But this doesn’t need to be stressful for them. It’s all about managing the time effectively.
Time management often involves prioritizing the tasks and juggling. And, in this context, it’s needed at two places:
i. One, when studying for the exam; and
ii. Two, when attempting the exam
Helping students make a routine and prioritize school and exam preparation is a personalized service to them. How to attempt the exam is a common area of focus on which you can train them in the class.
• How to teach time management skills?
The reading section includes 40 questions, which can seem like a lot of material to cover in a short period. Following are the tips you may find useful when teaching how to make the most of their time on the exam:
i. IELTS test takers can view the test questions for one-and-a-half-minute before the text is displayed to them. This is when they get the clue about what to look for. Utilizing that short time can prove to be beneficial.
ii. Students should be taught to answer the easiest questions first. Have them skip questions they don’t readily know the answers to and keep moving forward to respond to the questions they can.
iii. They can go back to the more challenging questions later and use the text to answer them. This tactic allows them to successfully answer a greater portion of the test questions if they run out of time to reply all of them.
How to Teach IELTS Writing
What’s on the test?
The 60-minute pen-and-paper IELTS Writing test assesses a student’s ability to state their thoughts in writing cohesively.
It includes two assignments with the first one asking them to explain the information presented in a chart, table, diagram or graph and describe how something works. The second assessment is an essay, expecting test takers to give their opinion or to write persuasively about a given social or economic issue. The use of formal English language is recommended when answering both the assignments.
How does marking happen?
It’s important that your students are well aware of the marking rubric for the writing portion of IELTS. Understanding what impacts the score will help them prepare for the test and submit optimal essay samples.
An examiner will mark the test manually using the scale from 0-9 depending on following criteria:
1. Task completion
It’s important to attempt and complete both the tasks to score well. Students are advised to spend no more than 20 minutes on the first activity which is interpreting a graph or table and explaining how something works. The second activity is exhaustive and therefore, demands a major portion of the time.
2. Grammar and Spelling
The grading takes into the following factors:
- the accuracy of the grammar
- range and complexity of the language
- sentence structure
The writing needs to drive the point home efficiently. However, there are times when the selection of vocabulary hits a sentence harder than the grammatical errors, especially when people try to write like a native English speaker and want to use complex words. Simon Corcoran, an IELTS examiner-turned-teacher, suggests in his daily lessons that there’s nothing advanced or complex about choosing inappropriate or exaggerated words that no English speaker would use.
3. Coherent Thought
Does the essay make sense? The examiner will determine whether the ideas put forth are cohesive, sentences support the central theme and paragraphs are organized well. The marking is based on the fluency and sequencing of facts, information, and ideas.
4. Overall Response
Did the student answer the question? The instructor will score depending on whether the student fully delved into the subject matter. Did they give a full response or miss key points? Did they offer an opinion that’s easy to pinpoint or was there a lack of real ideas in the essay?
How to teach IELTS Writing
IELTS Writing test assesses students on their proficiency in the English language, and the clarity and fluency when writing a message or sharing an opinion.
There are no shortcuts to excel at this as this is a test of all they’ve learned in communicating adequately. Right from the use of nouns and pronouns, logical connectors and conjunctions, sequencing and sentence structure to contexts and references, it’s a test of everything.
Few important things for you to consider when helping students prepare:
1. Structure matters – a lot!
An essential aspect of forming good essays is in creating the proper structure. The test takers are expected to present ideas cohesively which shows their hold on the language and sense of style.
As an IELTS teacher, you need to introduce them to different writing forms and types. Along with this is needed training on writing conventions.
For example, each piece of writing should at least cover what, how, why, when and where. Each paragraph should have a central theme or idea. When the student needs to move to the next idea, it will mean a new paragraph.
There’s no single set structure except that a write-up is a journey that starts with introducing the readers to an idea and ends at a conclusion.
What you need to teach your students:
- Writing an appropriate headline
- Incorporating writing conventions
- Joining sentences
- Connecting two ideas
- Writing complex
IELTS examiners give considerable weight to long, complex sentences that make use of conjunctions, subordinate clauses, and pronouns.
2. Writing skills
Because both the activities in IELTS writing test are poles apart in the form of structure, tone, and utility, it’s important you make them practice different styles and sounds. You will need to work with students to best plan out the content and organize their thoughts.
i. Write enough: 400 words in 60 minutes – a 150-word description of a diagram or data and a 250-word opinionated article. The biggest challenge that IELTS test takers face! Not writing enough attracts a penalty of 0.5.
The ability to write enough and relevant is gained over time with practice, but there are certain tricks that you can pass on to them. Tell them how to break the write-up into different segments – thesis, background, main idea, summary and future prediction. Division of words is equally important.
ii. Talk about contextual writing: Context is the hero when it comes to writing. Students are expected to explain circumstances, draw inferences, and connect different ideas in the same framework to show the bigger picture.
iii. Teach paragraphing: The opening paragraph should state the thesis or idea. Subsequent sections should back up that idea with facts and further thoughts. The final paragraph should offer a full conclusion to the essay. Each section should contain its main idea, and they should follow a set order.
iv. Proofing Skills: Even native speakers should proofread their writing before submission, which is twice as important for students taking the IELTS. Have students practice proofing their essays before handing them in each time. They should be looking for grammar and spelling mistakes. They should also be looking for errors, such as using the same word repetitively.
How to Teach IELTS Speaking
What’s on the test?
Administered in person by an examiner, IELTS speaking is a three-part series test, each part lasting between four-five minutes. The first portion includes some fundamental questions about home, family, education, interests.
The second part tests the English speaking abilities of the test takers. They are asked to speak on a given topic for two minutes. A question and answer round on the same subject then follows in the third part.
How to teach IELTS speaking?
Students will often need a good deal of practice with the speaking portion of the test because it’s difficult to form the words without prompting, which is what a good part of the test asks students to do. Here are some key things you can do to help students excel:
1. Have them practice talking about themselves
The first question in the speaking portion is often difficult. Students don’t know what information is directly relevant to the question and may answer too little or not enough. It’s important to be descriptive, but your students don’t need to be overly academic or use a lot of advanced vocabularies. One-word answers aren’t advised either. Students are expected to respond to the question and then add a few details.
Help them develop answers to questions so that they’re more comfortable with the detailed response.
Examiner: Do you live with any family members?
Test taker: No.
This is not a good way to answer the question. Examiner expects a detailed reply. One of the possible answers could be:
Examiner: Do you live with any family members?
Test taker: No. My mother and father live about a mile from my home, but I visit them often. My brother and his wife live in the United States and only come home occasionally.
2. Help eliminate empty words
Speakers often use filler words to help them grab onto the next idea. Work with your students to remove such words to help them speak more coherently.
- Point out when they add “umm” or extra words that they don’t need in a sentence.
- Include mock tests to help them get more comfortable speaking in English and remove the extraneous words.
This primarily works in the second portion of the test where students are asked to talk about a given topic.
British Council suggests more IELTS teaching resources helping you with the preparation materials, using which you can work with learners of different levels.
3. Routine discussion
To master speaking, it’s important that students practice often. Have set discussions using English only to help them better develop their vocabulary and pronunciation. Test their ability on a set schedule and record the results so that they can see their achievements and have a good grasp of how much further they need to go before the test date.
4. Practice previous years’ question papers
IELTS questions do repeat. “It is a great favor if you make students go through the recent papers and attempt to familiarize with the question types,” says Simone Braverman, an IELTS expert, on her IELTS preparation blog. She says that it’s wrong to assume that IELTS questions never repeat. In fact, the Speaking test has the best chances to get the same questions as before.
With these tips, your students will achieve optimal proficiency with lots of practice. As a teacher, you’ll be able to put them on the path that allows them to reach their goals of studying and living in the country of their choosing. Teaching IELTS can be a rewarding career path, both financially and emotionally.