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Overcoming anxiety About the IELTS test

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Overcoming anxiety About the IELTS test The impact of being nervous during the test can be major

Cristina, a nurse in the Philippines, asked:
“Does lacking confidence affect the speaking test score?”
Here’s my reply:
The speaking module of the IELTS test probably creates more tension for test takers than the other, paper-based modules (listening, reading and writing).

It’s likely that a lack of confidence and the related anxiety that candidates can feel will result in them not performing as well as they could in the speaking test.

Reasons for anxiety
Here are some reasons why candidates lack confidence and become nervous about doing the speaking test:
  • As candidates are examined individually, they can feel like they’re in the spotlight. In other words, they think that the examiner – who is a native speaker of English – is watching them very closely, and is actively looking for and finding all of the language errors that they make. This fear of looking incompetent by making language errors in front of the examiner can raise the candidates’ tension levels significantly.
  • Candidates are expected to give prompt and detailed answers to a series of questions in English – which is nearly always not their native language. As well, they have to do so for almost a quarter of an hour. This can really put a lot of pressure on candidates to perform well.
  • Candidates often do the speaking test after having waited nervously for several hours.

A long waiting time can result in candidates spending the time thinking about all of their fears about doing the speaking test and imagining that they won’t do well. They become nervous as a result.

  • Candidates may be upset because they didn’t do well in the listening, reading and/or writing modules. They therefore fear that they’ll repeat their poor performance in the speaking test.
On the other hand, they might now be thinking that they must do well in the speaking module to make up for a poor performance in one of the other modules.
Either way, they will feel anxious.

  • Candidates may be naturally shy and not feel comfortable talking with a stranger.
  • Candidates may not have prepared well for the IELTS exam. They therefore fear that their weaknesses in the language will become evident before a real person in a face-to-face conversation which they cannot control or walk away from.

This is a different situation from the listening, reading and writing modules, where candidates have the relative comfort of being anonymous and not feeling judged by someone. Why? They never meet the person who assesses their language abilities.

Effect on fluency

A lack of confidence can definitely reduce a test taker’s score for Fluency and Coherence.
Fluency is about saying things easily, i.e., speaking smoothly and continuously with little or no pausing, repetition and correction.
To be fluent, you need to be confident in your ability to use English vocabulary and to put words together in a grammatically correct way.
If you’re not confident, you may tend to speak slowly, give short or limited answers, repeat or correct yourself, or pause often. Any of these behaviours risks lowering your Fluency and Coherence score.

Effect on coherence
Coherence refers to the ability to present and link ideas together in a logical way in order to structure your answers to the examiner’s questions.
A lack of confidence leads to anxiety, which can make it more difficult for you to understand the examiner. You may therefore misinterpret questions, or you may answer questions without understanding what you’re supposed to be talking about. Either way, it can result in confusion for both you and the examiner.
If anxiety often affects the way you order and link your ideas, your score for Fluency and Coherence will be lowered.

However, anxiety will result in your mark for Fluency and Coherence being reduced greatly if:
  • your coherence breaks down (i.e., your answers often don’t relate to the questions the examiner is asking); or
  • you’re often unable to get across your basic message.

Effect on grammar
Anxiety may result in you using shorter and less complex grammatical structures, affecting your score for Grammatical Range and Accuracy.

Effect on vocabulary
If your anxiety results in you using a limited or safe range of words, your score for Lexical Resource will be reduced. Lexical Resource refers to how many different words you use and how appropriate your word choices are.

Effect on pronunciation

The Pronunciation score could also be lowered by anxiety if you speak less clearly or hesitate often because of nervousness or unnecessary anxiety.

Overcoming IELTS anxiety
There are many ways of helping you become more confident about doing not only the speaking test, but all modules of the IELTS exam.
The following study hints will help you in the months leading up to the IELTS exam:

  • Become familiar with the test as early as possible. The skills being tested in the IELTS take a period of time to build up. Cramming is not an effective study technique for IELTS.

Remember, with an average band score of 5.8, the average Thai candidate could need up to seven months, or even longer, of full-time study to get an overall score of 6.5.

  • Use your study time efficiently. Study when you’re fresh and, after you’ve planned a timetable, make sure that you keep to it. Set goals and ensure that you have adequate breaks.

In the IELTS exam, each of the four modules (listening, reading, writing and speaking) carries the same weight. Study each skill carefully, but spend more time on the skills you feel that you’re weakest at.

  • Be aware of the exact procedure for the test. Be very clear on the order of each module, its length and the specific question types. There are many resources available to help you practice these skills.
  • Having a study partner or a study group is an excellent idea. Your fellow students in an IELTS preparation course may raise issues and suggest solutions that you hadn’t considered.
  • Prepare and practice the same types of questions that you’ll be asked in the exam. The more practice you do, the better you’ll perform on the day of the test.
  • Get to know and really understand the IELTS scoring system for each module very well. To do this, you’ll definitely need the help of someone who specialises in teaching IELTS and is involved in IELTS testing.
  • Seek help from teachers, friends and native English speakers as much as possible. Especially valuable are any comments and suggestions from a teacher who is both a native English speaker and an expert in the IELTS exam.

If you prepare properly for the exam – especially with the help of a trained professional who understands the testing system – your confidence should increase and your overall score should improve.

This article was written by David Park, a highly experienced IELTS teacher. Ajarn David teaches at Paradigm Language Institute.

If you have any questions about IELTS that you would like Ajarn David to answer,
or if you wish to do an IELTS preparation course, write to:

IELTS is owned by Cambridge ESOL, the British Council and IELTS Australia.

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