By Sam McCarter

29 January 2014 - 13:07

'Most students obviously need to practise for the exam itself, but it is essential that students do not just do exam practice.' Photo (c) Mat Wright
'Most students obviously need to practise for the exam itself, but it is essential that students do not just do exam practice.' Photo ©

Mat Wright

What is the benefit of letting students be creative while they prepare for an exam that's crucial to their careers? Following his British Council seminar in Bournemouth yesterday, teacher and author Sam McCarter answers why creativity may be better than rote memorisation.

What is IELTS?

IELTS stands for the International English Language Testing System exam. There are two versions: academic and general. The exam assesses candidates' language competence on a scale from 0 – 9. Four main skills are assessed and graded: listening, reading, writing, and speaking. A global score is also given, which is the average of the four main components' scores. For example, 6,7,7,7 will give a global score of 7.

Why is it important?

Higher education institutions, professional bodies and some immigration services use IELTS as an assessment of English language competence. So it's a 'high-stakes' exam. Each institution sets its own requirements for the global score, and some specify minimum scores for specific components, e.g., at least a 6 or 7 in speaking or writing.

What should students look out for when preparing?

Most students obviously need to practise for the exam itself, but it is essential that students do not just do exam practice, because the focus is on assessing language ability and use. So it is important for students not just to keep taking the exam again and again without seeking to improve their general linguistic competence.

And how long does it take? There isn’t really an answer to this question. Some students spend a week, some spend a year to achieve the level they require. Students need to check what score band is required by the institution or the professional body that they are intending to attend or become a member of, and then think of the time they need to reach to achieve that level. It goes without saying that they need to be realistic about how quickly they can progress.

What does it mean to be creative in the context of the IELTS classroom?

Creativity is often associated with producing a painting or sculpture or writing a novel, or with designing in fashion or engineering or indeed in all aspects of life, but it is not something that automatically springs to the minds of IELTS teachers or students.

Yet, in an IELTS classroom where students are preparing for the academic version of one of the writing tasks (Task 2), being creative, as well as learning what it takes to be so, can help them be flexible and increase their speed. Helping students to use their creative side is about giving them the opportunity to express themselves by teaching them how they bring together, or synthesise, ideas, evaluate them and come up with something ‘new’ for themselves and perhaps other people. This is a concept of creativity in the widest sense.

What prevents students from being creative?

Some factors may be time restraints in courses, which might be 16, 20 or 25 hours long; the desire to have a certificate rather than what it means, i.e., the focus on ‘certificate acquisition’ rather than language acquisition for its own sake; the belief that it is not possible to be creative on the part of the students and the teacher; the learning of ‘exam and language rules’ that are learnt for their own sake rather than for manipulation; and not knowing what is expected in the exam.

What are the downsides to lack of creativity?

Students (and teachers) are held in a straitjacket, which is frustrating, stifling, hinders progress and perhaps even leads to ‘language fossilisation’. Then, no matter how hard teachers and students try, they come up against a brick wall; progress in language acquisition stops, and so does success.

What impact can bringing creativity to the IELTS classroom have for students and teachers?

A little creativity can help students engage, progress, and ultimately succeed in achieving the score bands required. If we, as teachers, aim to turn students into independent learners and users of the English language, we are equipping them not just for the exam, but for their future careers and lives.

In most English-speaking universities, students are required to find things out for themselves. Preparing for the IELTS exam through rote memorisation may therefore create unsuitable habits. That doesn't mean we should set aside rules and expectations. In fact, knowing those well should give the teacher and the student flexibility – in a way, you can use the straitjacket to give freedom and prepare for success.

How can students inject creativity into that part of the exam – and how creative is too creative?

First of all, it’s important that students know what is expected in the exam, i.e., not just learning the types of questions in all components of the IELTS exam, but how the different components are linked. Here are some specific strategies:

  1. Give students the opportunity to create their own Writing Task 2 question and the opportunity to choose the best.
  2. Set strict time-limits and stick to them – this helps students concentrate on the task.
  3. Hone in on one aspect of Writing Task 2 in stages – understanding the task, generating ideas, organising the answers, planning the essay; then, writing the introduction, topic sentences and a conclusion.
  4. When students are comfortable with the writing process, you ask them to write in groups of three and make sure that each of their answers is different, but with the same meaning.
  5. Give students a word such as 'technology' and ask them what words they associate with it, what phrases come to their minds, what types there are, what effects technology has on our lives (good and bad), what solutions there are to the problems, what the future holds. Triggers like this can be used for any situation for teacher, student and writer.
  6. As part of this, ask students to create a list of phrases related or unrelated to a theme, such as technology and growth, technology and health, transport and poverty and ask them to come up with links between the two terms, such as cause-and-effect relationships. Then get the students to compare each other's associations and expand.
  7. Ask students to come up with ideas in a ‘perspective chain’, e.g., associations of a personal, familial, social, local, regional, national and international/global nature. This chain, like many of the creative strategies, helps students bring together and control their ideas. The ideas are perhaps there, but they are not classified, so students often don’t know how they can ‘create the links’ – an important part of the creative process.

What are the long-term benefits of learning to write creatively – beyond the exam room?

The long-term benefits for students being allowed and encouraged to use their creative streak to write is a greater enjoyment of using English in all four skills, not just writing. Learning what the ‘rules’ are and what is expected of candidates gives them the flexibility and spontaneity to react to the questions in all four components of the exam.

Creativity is a step towards being an independent learner and user of English and a step towards flexibility, spontaneity and success in the IELTS examination.

Find out more about IELTS, including how you can book, or, if you are an English language teaching professional, reserve a seat at one of our seminars in the UK.

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