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Teaching English as a second language is one thing, and having to teach English for IELTS adds a whole new dimension to the subject matter.

Many people take the IELTS Exam to provide proof of their English skills for either immigration or academic purposes. Several post-secondary institutions, governmental bodies, and private corporations recognize the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) results as confirmation of an English proficiency level for countries like New Zealand, USA, Canada, and Australia.

Asking where to start teaching for the IELTS writing or speaking is not an uncommon question. One of the reasons being the fact that IELTS candidates vary so much in ability and experience. There are a lot of online IELTS resources that serve as great guides and support for teachers and I would like to share some strategies that have helped me along the way.

My typical and previously successful approach is to start with how IELTS writing is marked.

Here are the reasons why I start with the marking criteria:

1) Seeing the problem – a distinct approach to essays

Even though the IELTS exam is an international test taken globally, it imposes the Anglo/Australian writing standards which are not universal. This means that students need to unlearn how they write essays because this is not how they will need to write for IELTS.

2) Find a solution by looking at the grading criteria

All IELTS essays are marked with a fixed set of marking criteria. – and there is a public version of these criteria. Why not introduce candidates to it? If they know what they need to do, then they can/might be able to do it!

Some Common Problems IELTS Teachers Face

Problems in IELTS teaching vary according to your students’ ability and background. Here are a few common problems that I have encountered in my time as an IELTS teacher.

1. It’s Not All About Grammar and Vocabulary

Very often when I ask students what the four marking criteria are that they’re marked on, few can give me the correct answer. The two most commonly mentioned criteria are grammar and vocabulary. What is interesting here, is that grammar and vocabulary only account for 50% of their mark. This shows that students often undervalue the importance of coherence, cohesion, and task response.

2. It’s Coherence and Cohesion and Not Just “Organization”

I am fairly fearless in introducing teacher/meta language to my students. I really think it can help to give things their proper name. Coherence (the linking of ideas) and cohesion (lexical linking) are two precise skills that need to be learned – they count for 25% of the mark. 

I believe there is a real problem if students just think of “organization” – a very imprecise word. If they do that, then they may lack some of the skills that will get them that 25%, such as:

  1. The organization and progression of ideas.
  2. Each paragraph has a controlling idea.
  3. The linking of sentences.
  4. Using referencing.

3. Grammar Needs to Be Varied and Accurate

I also tend to insist on the grammatical range and not just accuracy – it really isn’t (just) a simple error count. More than that, many students need to be encouraged to use the grammar they know. Also important to note is that – there are rare rewards for people prepared to use “if clauses”.

4. You Have to Answer the Question

This is another important point. The Task response is 25% of the score. The question must be answered – but also in a fairly specific way. Under task response, candidates need to identify a clear position and maintain it throughout the essay. They also need to extend and support their main ideas and not generalize too much. These are concepts that candidates from some backgrounds find “different” – not what they are used to.

Pro Teacher Tip: Provide Students With Valuable Resources

It is so easy for students to be overwhelmed with the number of resources available online. To some extent, this can become counterproductive for their preparation. I would recommend that you compile your own resource list of IELTS writing tips and lexical resources that students can make use of. This will help them continue their exam preparation in a structured manner.

IELTS preparation is often very stressful and serious. Amongst the preparation, it is important to remind students that they’re improving their skill in a second or third language, which is amazing. Always try to introduce some fun methods that they can use to reinforce their language skills in their everyday lives.

IELTS Exam-Teaching IELTS

IELTS Speaking – Where Do I Start?

My best advice for approaching  IELTS Speaking would be to start with part 1. Mainly it’s important to let them know what to expect and the best ways to deal with it.

Some important aspects that I like to focus on are:

1. Mindset, Attitude, and General Approach

Remember, a calm and relaxed student makes the best IELTS candidate!

First and foremost, one of the most important parts of the exam is your student’s mindset and attitude towards it. Your student will be calm when they know what to expect from the exam.

2. Teach Them the Exam Format

By doing this, they won’t be caught by surprise doing the exam. The following is very important information to share with your students:

How long is the exam?

  • 10 – 15 minutes.

How many parts are there?

  • Part 1 (4–5minutes) Here the student needs to answer short questions from the examiner about themselves and their daily situations.
  • Part 2 (3–4minutes) Your student will give a 1 – to 2-minute talk, based on their own experience, on a simple topic provided by the IELTS examiner.
  • Part 3 (4–5minutes) This will be a discussion about some general but more abstract topics with the examiner that are related to the Part 2 section.

What is the test like?

There’s only ONE examiner, who will ask the student questions and they record the entire exam session. It is very important to let your students know this as a lot of students are often surprised by the fact that they are recorded during the exam and this might affect their performance.

What’s the general approach to the test?

Your student should follow the examiner’s instructions and listen carefully. Practice with them to make sure that they always speak clearly and answer only the questions that they are asked. Be careful about adding additional information. Examiners will know if candidates have memorized answers and this will count against them. So DON’T MEMORISE ANSWERS!

How will the test be marked?

The speaking test is marked using a 9-band scale, as the entire IELTS test. The examiner will be listening to 4 features of your language:

  • Fluency and coherence
  • Vocabulary
  • Grammar and accuracy
  • Pronunciation

What if your student doesn’t understand the examiner said?

The main rule: teach them NOT TO PANIC! If they don’t understand something, it is okay to ask the examiner: Sorry, could you repeat the question, please?

What if your student is not sure about their answer?

 Tell them that there is actually no RIGHT answer. And they should learn some hesitating structures that will count in their favour such as:

  • I really can’t remember but …
  • I’m not sure what I think about it…
  • On the whole, it seems that…
  • Let me think…
  • It depends on it…
  • I tend to think that…

What should your student do if they make a mistake?

Remind them to act as a figure skater: get up and CARRY ON. Errors are inevitable. Embrace them. Or, correct yourself quickly and go on. But don’t make a point of correcting themselves in every single mistake.

Should you say less or more?

MORE is always better. That’s called EXTENT. The more extent there is to an answer, which means if an answer is reasonably long, the better! But remind the student of typical answer lengths for each Speaking section.

Can your student make up an answer when they don’t know?

Yes, absolutely. It’s ok not to tell the truth; no one is going to check that. The candidate should only answer the questions appropriately and develop. However, they should not go off-topic, as they will lose points for that. They should give relevant explanations, examples, or opinions, depending on the question.

What if your student is very stressed and keeps hesitating?

 Remind them to try and fill their “errrrm” thinking pauses with appropriate fillers, such as “Well, I’ve never thought about that…”. etc. or NO sound at all.

What if your student can’t think of anything to say?

Remind them that Part 1 is always about them. The should focus on their own experiences and not be shy to share how they feel or their opinions about the topic.

Don’t forget the accuracy! This is another important aspect of the Speaking exam, even in Part 1. So you should always draw your exam candidate’s attention to it.

Here is an activity to help your candidate improve accuracy.

ALWAYS listen carefully to the GRAMMAR in the question: it will help you decide which tenses to use and how to form your answer.

How old were you when you left school? –

The accurate response would be: I was only 15 when I left high school but I went back to college two years later.

Here are some questions your student can answer to practice and improve their accuracy. They should always aim to give a full and appropriate answer.

  • If you could change anything about your high school, what would it be?
  • What’s your favourite subject?
  • When did you first learn English?
  • Do you prefer being taught in a small or a big class?
  • Are you planning to take any exams shortly?
  • Have you ever been in a school play?
  • Has your government made any recent changes in schools?
  • Would you like to add any school subject to today’s school curriculum?

The purpose of Part 1 questions is to hear the students answer questions on a few simple topics to find out whether they can sustain a conversation about themselves and everyday situations.

This part is typically perceived as the easiest one, as talking about personal topics is usually easier than talking about more abstract topics.

Prepare your test taker to hear questions on the following topics:

  • Description of place of origin.
  • Daily routine.
  • Work and employment.
  • Background education and childhood.
  • Family structure.
  • Public transportation in your home country.
  • Forms of building in your home country.
  • Typical occupations in your home country.
  • Typical landscapes and weather in your home country.
  • Plants and animals.
  • Your personal likes and dislikes.
  • Preferences in terms of reading material/films/mu.ic/games/entertainment/art/internet/pets/shopping.
  • Hobbies, interests, and pastimes.
  • Celebrations, holidays, and festivals.
  • Languages and linguistic proficiency.
  • Newspapers, media, and TV.
  • Etc., as this is not an exhaustive list.

Remind your student that the questions in Section 1 of the Speaking exam will be clustered around one or two of these topics.

So for example, they may get 10-12 questions about Plants and animals, and 6-8 questions about Your personal likes and dislikes.

Encourage your students to structure their practice activities around these topics, they should build vocabulary based on them, and enlarge their lexical resources as much as possible. Many students are taking IELTS as a way to boost their career advancement. That being said, it is important to make sure that students can talk about themselves professionally, talk about their daily duties at work, and use terminology from their profession.

As much as they are preparing for their IELTS exam, they should also remember that they are preparing to integrate themselves into an Anglophone environment professionally, so their preparation should always have this goal in mind.

Teaching IELTS Speaking SUMMARY

It is important to encourage your student to

  • Answer the introductory questions briefly.
  • Make sure they can talk about their hometown and studies or work.
  • Build phrase lists and topic collections.
  • Try to give a full answer. The examiner wants to listen to them speak, so it is essential to keep talking.
  • Listen to the question forms and the words that the examiner uses. These will help form their answer.
  • Do not memorize any answers. They will lose marks for this.
  • Answer each question directly. Don’t talk about something unrelated to the examiner’s question.

Teaching IELTS is a big challenge but with the right methods, you will be able to prepare your students for a successful IELTS exam. What are some challenges that you have faced as an IELTS instructor?


Written By
Ben Worthington is from Northern England and for the past 15 years, he has lived outside the UK in a few different countries and has taught English as a second language to international students. His passion for results pushed him to focus on students preparing for the IELTS exam, and in 2012 he set up IELTSPodcast, providing students with weekly podcast episodes and tutorials to help them pass the exam.

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