There’s no reason why students at a lower, pre-intermediate level can’t start preparing for the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) exam. Following their recent British Council seminar for teachers, IELTS experts Jo Tomlinson and Fiona Aish tell us what to be aware of and how to plan carefully.
There are issues with teaching IELTS to lower levels (B1 or even A2), but these can be dealt with effectively if teachers take time to prepare and stage classes.
One of the most important problems is that students don’t have the range of grammar and vocabulary they need to score highly in IELTS, and this affects all papers. Often, the grammar and vocabulary the students do have comes from a general English setting, which, although useful, has limited effectiveness in IELTS. Additionally, these students may have accuracy problems which are exacerbated when trying to stretch their language into more ‘academic English’.
These issues can be overcome by providing targeted language practice in the IELTS classroom. The test concentrates on certain areas of grammar and vocabulary, and these need to be taught explicitly in the classroom, hand-in-hand with item practice that exploits those language items. Using a grammar and vocabulary book that has been written specifically for IELTS training can be a great help in doing this.
Students often lack understanding of why they are doing tasks and what they are being tested on. Although true of every level, this particularly affects lower-level students. The Task 1 writing is a good example of this. Students don’t really understand what the purpose of the task is and they tend to describe, rather than summarise.
As teachers, we need to try and make the tasks more meaningful. Explaining the explicit links between IELTS and academic English can be really useful, as this helps students understand the 'why' and 'how' of IELTS.
Meaning can be given to tasks by putting them in real-life situations too. Ask students to imagine they are working in a company where the boss’s time is precious and they have two minutes to explain the data to him or her. Does the boss want a step-by-step description or the critical information? Role-playing can help students separate description from summary at the lowest levels.
Motivation and level awareness
Lower-level students often start an IELTS course with high levels of motivation, since succeeding in the test usually contributes significantly to the achievement of their future goals such as entering university. However, many students are not fully aware of their true level of English and how much they will need to improve to achieve a good IELTS score. Realising this, together with the amount of time needed to improve, can have a negative impact on motivation.
It is important for students to have an idea of how much they need to improve, and, more importantly, how they can do this. One way to find out students’ strengths and weaknesses is to use a diagnostic test. Teachers can use the information to set small, manageable goals for students, which in turn can help maintain students’ motivation, as well as give them an insight into their level while they steadily improve their ability. School managers and directors can also use the results of diagnostic tests to help with course design and streaming classes into specific levels.
Students often concentrate on doing practice tests as they think repeated practice tests will improve their performance. Although test practice can be useful, repeated practice at lower levels without language work rarely improves their IELTS performance, and students should be discouraged from this approach.
At lower levels, students need to concentrate much more on increasing their vocabulary and grammar knowledge. It would be more beneficial to test students regularly on the vocabulary and grammar they have been studying in class. Then they can move on to applying this knowledge to small sections of the test before attempting a whole practice test. Full practice tests can be introduced to students when they have enough language and test awareness to be able to see their progress.