Paradigm Language Institute

The right IELTS Exam Preparation is essential

Monday, October 21, 2013

If you’re like the large majority of Thai candidates doing the academic version of IELTS (International English Language Testing System), you’re aiming to get an overall band score of 6.5 or 7.0.

To get an overall band score of 6.5, you’ll need three band 6s and at least one band 7 in the individual language skills (listening, reading, writing and speaking).

A score of band 7 in any of the language skills represents an excellent level of English. To get band 7, you need:

  • well-developed English grammar, vocabulary and language skills;
  • a good knowledge of test-taking strategies; and
  • well-organised test practice to develop your test-taking skills.

Unfortunately, most Thai candidates don’t get what they want. In 2010, the overall average for all Thai candidates was 5.8. Only 14% of Thai candidates gained an overall score of 6.5 (the lowest score allowed for study in most master’s programmes), while a mere 11% achieved a higher score.

The most interesting point is that 73% of Thai candidates got an overall score between 4.5 and 6.0 – well below what candidates need to do post-graduate studies at overseas universities.

Why is there a gap between the score candidates want and the one they actually receive?

Little preparation

Thai candidates often wrongly believe their English is good enough for university studies.

One reason for this belief is they have managed to pass English tests at high school or university. However, there’s usually a huge difference between the level of English needed to pass at Thai schools and the level of English needed to study at foreign universities.

Confident they already have a satisfactory level of English, an estimated 80% of Thai candidates do little organised preparation for IELTS. Their preparation is restricted to reading test brochures and various websites. Others may briefly try some practice activities in a course book.

Not enough time

Of course, there are candidates who recognise that formal, organised preparation would help them. Unfortunately, candidates frequently underestimate how much time they’ll need to prepare.

Candidates usually decide to study in another country a year or more before their overseas course starts. They often spend months talking to different university agents about course options.

Despite that, most Thai candidates only start preparing for IELTS less than four or five months before taking the exam. However, the preparation time they actually need is often much longer.

IELTS research has found that around 300 hours of full-time study is needed to lift a candidate’s overall band score from 5.5 to 6.0. However, even more study time is needed to move a candidate from 6.0 to 6.5, or from 6.5 to 7.0.

(The full research report is at . Go to page 9 – “Making the Grade: Score Gains on the IELTS Writing Test.”)

With an average 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. By “full-time study”, I mean around 18 hours of class time a week.

Wrong preparation

The best way to do well in IELTS is to develop your overall ability to use English. In other words, you need to

develop your grammar and vocabulary, as well as your listening, reading, writing and speaking skills. Sadly, however, too many candidates think they just need to do as many practice tests as they can. This is not the best way to prepare for the exam.

If you don’t develop your grammar, vocabulary and language skills, your band score will not change.

It won’t matter how many IELTS practice tests you do, nor how many test-taking skills courses you attend. There’ll be no significant improvement in your overall IELTS score without basic language development.

Stages of preparation

There are two preparation stages.

Stage 1: Language development. First, improve your ability to communicate in English by working on your grammar, vocabulary and the four language skills.

Stage 2: Test-taking skills development. Once your English is at a high enough level, concentrate on learning the many test-taking strategies and skills. Doing plenty of practice tests in the second stage will help make the test-taking methods automatic.

How to prepare

Not getting the band score you want can be an unpleasant surprise. Fortunately, you can avoid bitter disappointment and costly delays.

To do well, follow these three steps.

Step 1: Establish your current level of English. Get your language level assessed objectively. Take expert advice from people who specialise in IELTS.
Step 2: Allow enough time. Realistic planning is essential. The sooner you get your language level assessed, the sooner you can start appropriate preparation for the test.

University agents will inform you that you must take the test as part of the university application process. However, they may not make it clear enough just how long it can take to get your language skills up to foreign university-standard. It takes much effort to increase your proficiency level.

In fact, most university agents are not able to determine how much preparation time you’ll need. You should therefore take the initiative and get your language assessed by IELTS experts when you start talking to university agents.

Step 3: Have an appropriate preparation programme. To maximise your chances of success, your programme of studies must include a mix of:

  • Language development (grammar, vocabulary and the four language skills).
  • Test-taking skills development.
  • Private study. There are many things you can do. For example, read English newspapers and magazines, develop and review your vocabulary, listen to English language TV and revise your course work.
  • Practice. It’s essential to use English in order to improve your English. Take every opportunity to use English both inside and outside the classroom.

The most effective way to prepare for IELTS is to do a mix of private study and custom-designed IELTS preparation courses. Good courses focus on the development of your language skills and, at a suitable time, your test-taking skills.

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 IDP: IELTS Australia.

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