IELTS practice and preparation from the British Council: Road to IELTS
The posts on this blog will help you get the best possible score in IELTS. They have been written by British Council IELTS experts, IELTS authors, teachers and successful candidates. This blog is a perfect complement to Road to IELTS, the British Council's official IELTS preparation product.
‘I have no experience of the subject, so how can I respond?’
I often get this question from candidates. They worry they do not have knowledge of some of the topics that examiners might ask them about, for example a favourite building, an eye-catching advertisement or a memorable trip. Maybe you feel the same way?
The first thing to understand is that IELTS is not a test of knowledge or experience. If you do not have the knowledge or experience of a specific area, that’s not a problem. There are no correct or incorrect answers expected in the IELTS speaking test.
Checked and trialed
The first point to remember is that all IELTS questions are checked and trialed many times all around the world to ensure that they are fair and equal no matter where the test is conducted. You might have heard that Cambridge Examinations can spend two to four years in testing their exam questions! So you can be 100% sure that there is an effective way of answering the question whatever your level of knowledge.
This means you must avoid irrelevant answers – sometimes it seems candidates assume that if they don’t know anything about a specific topic they can talk about a different but similar topic. That is a dangerous tactic. If your the examiner consider your answer irrelevant, that specific response cannot be used to assess your speaking test score. As a result, you will generate no marks.
So, how can you respond if you do not know anything about a specific subject being asked about? Let’s look at two options.
Option 1: look for an alternative way to answer the question
One option is to admit that you do not know much. This is an opportunity to use some signposting language that helps your listener understand what you will say next. For example, assume you need to talk about an eye-catching advertisement. Start by saying ‘That’s an interesting question, I have never thought about that before, but ….’ Then start talking about any advertisement you can remember (after all, what’s eye-catching to one person may not be to another). You could describe the advertisement from foreground to background or from left to right, highlighting the key features.
Option 2: speaking from the others’ experience
Another option is to talk about an experience that a family member or a friend might have had. You can do this if the topic is to talk about a memorable trip you have made, for example. You may not have had the chance to make any trips, but you recall your father talking about his favourite journeys. It’s OK to tell the examiner you do not have any experience of this theme. But maybe you would like to share your father’s experience. Doing this, you are still following the instructions and sticking to the topic.
If you’d like to see candidates putting these strategies into practice, log in to the British Council and Clarity’s Road to IELTS, here.
Being successful with English, in IELTS and beyond, means finding a way to make using the language a regular part of your life. Learners often feel frustrated and lose interest in studying vocabulary when they find study materials rather boring and not connected to their own interests, but more interesting materials can be difficult to find and even more difficult to understand. In this post, we’ll discuss how you can use technology to solve these problems, increase your vocabulary, learn collocations, and have fun, too.
Podcasts are short audio programs produced on a variety of subjects. And conveniently, they can be downloaded using a podcast app on your phone. They’re great for language learners because you can find podcasts on almost any topic you’re interested in. Even better, some podcast apps make it easy for learners to follow along.
Pocketcasts, available for both iOS and Android, is a podcast app that helps with this by letting you play the recordings up to 50 percent slower. You can slow recordings down until they’re clear and easy to understand, and speed them up as your listening improves.
YouTube is another great source of material for language learners. Like Pocketcasts, you can change the speed of the playback to your advantage. Adjust how fast the videos plays by clicking on the gear icon on the bottom of the video.
In addition to adjusting the speed, another way you can study on YouTube is by turning on the subtitles. You can use these subtitles (when available) to study in several ways — besides using them to check the spelling of unfamiliar words, you can turn down the video’s sound and narrate the video yourself by reading the subtitles out loud. Feeling up for a challenge? Want to improve your listening skills? First, watch part of the video without subtitles and write down what you hear. Then, compare the transcript you wrote with the subtitles.
Be precise in the right context
Many candidates don’t get the IELTS results they want because their vocabulary are only wide enough to express general ideas, but not wide enough to speak precisely about a given topic. Using the study methods mentioned above makes finding technical vocabulary in its appropriate context easier, and will help you say exactly what you mean.
You may have read one of our posts about nine commonly asked questions for the Listening module. In this post, I am going to discuss some common questions candidates have asked us about the Reading module.
1. What if I don’t know about the topics in the reading passages? The topics in IELTS are of general interest and come from books, magazines, newspapers, journals and so on. They will not be so difficult or technical that an educated person can’t understand them. It is sensible to spend some time reading the kind of text you are going to see in the test — especially if you are not familiar with Western culture.
2. How many different types of question are there? There is a whole range of question types, including multiple choice, short-answer questions, sentence completion, table completion, yes/no/not given, classification and others. Confused? If so, you really need to find out more about these task types. Some of them can be difficult — especially Yes/No/Not given. If you don’t understand these task types before you go into the examination hall, you are very unlikely to do well in IELTS. Start by going here.
3. Should I start by skimming through the passages? Skimming and scanning skills are important in the Reading test, but it may be better to read the questions first. One thing is always true — the questions are easier to understand than the passages themselves. By quickly looking at the questions (it won’t take more than 45 seconds), you can get an idea on what to look for in the text, which will save time later.
4. Do I have extra time at the end to transfer my answers to the answer paper? No. In the Listening module, you are given time at the end to transfer your answers, but not in the Reading module. You need to write your answers on the answer paper as you work through each section.
5. Should I spend the same amount of time on each section? If you are aiming for a high band score (above 7), it’s a mistake to spend the same amount of time on Section 1 and Section 3. The going gets a lot tougher in the last section and a lot more attention to detail is required than in the previous passages. If you aim high, you have got to be confident enough to go through the first section quickly as it tends to be more straightforward. Judging from my own experience, 8-10 minutes would be the maximum time you should spend on your first run on Section 1.
6. Do I get more marks for correct answers in Section 3? No. There is a total of 40 questions, and there is one mark for each question, no matter which section it is in.
7. If I get an answer wrong, do I lose a mark? No. You will not have a mark deducted, you will simply fail to gain one. This means that if you are not sure of the answer, there is nothing to lose by guessing. Who knows, you might get it right!
You might be surprised to hear that grammar is one of the four criteria used to assess your IELTS Speaking test performance and that it carries 25% of the points.
Many test-takers assume grammar in speaking is only about accuracy and not making any mistakes. This is only half the story. Making errors is natural, and IELTS understands this: even IELTS Speaking Band 7 expects that ‘some grammatical mistakes persist’.
To avoid mistakes, it helps to think about the tenses you use, and ensure these tenses relate to the questions being asked. So, if the question asked is What did you do at work today?, a key word here is did, which is in the past tense. So your answer should be in the past tense too, e.g. I wrote a report.
However, grammar is also about showing a range of grammatical structures. This means going beyond simple sentences (e.g. only using the simple present), and using a variety of tenses and grammatical features.
How can you demonstrate a wider range of grammar in your speaking?
Let’s look at an example Part 2 prompt: Describe your favourite film. Think about what tenses you might be able to use, and how, in response to this prompt. Aim for variety!
You might have thought of some of these tenses:
Simple present – This movie is the biggest ever in my country.
Simple past – I first saw this when I was very young.
Present perfect – I’ve seen this film maybe 30 times.
Present continuous – At the start of the movie, a village is being terrorised by bandits.
Practise this process with other Speaking Part 2 prompts. The prompts include points to talk about, so read these carefully as they give you an indicator of the tenses you can use in your two minute talk. Remember you do have a minute to prepare for that section in the real test. Here are two examples.
As Part 3 of the Speaking test is a broad discussion, you also have the opportunity to demonstrate a range of grammar. Depending on the specific question, you might use some of these:
Comparatives and superlatives (e.g. more than… less than… the most… the least…)
Conditionals (e.g. If I do this, then this will be the outcome…)
Modal verbs of speculation (e.g. might, could, will probably)
Useful grammar practice resources
To find out more about these grammatical devices, look out for the British Council’s Johnny Grammar apps, such as Word Challenge, or ClarityEnglish’s Tense Buster, which is available here with the British Council’s official IELTS preparation product, Road to IELTS.
There is also more info on grammar in the Speaking test in this video:
IELTS Grammar - Improve English & prepare for IELTS Speaking - YouTube
As ever, practice is the key. Applying what you’ve learnt above may seem difficult and daunting at first, but with continued effort you will improve confidence and effectiveness.
When I have a new IELTS class, the first thing I want to assess is their exam skills. So I ask them to read and complete some IELTS Reading tasks. Almost always the questions go to one side, and the candidates focus on the text and read it word by word from beginning to end. I can always see some students panicking about words they don’t know. Meanwhile the minutes are ticking away and no answers are being noted down…
In the Reading test, time is precious. This post focuses on three key strategies that can help you save time, and improve your band score.
1. Focus on the questions
It’s essential that you make the questions the priority rather than the reading passage. Start by reading the questions so that you know what information you need to look for when you turn to the passages. As you find the information, note it down straight away. That way, you are using the time available in the most efficient way. The alternative is to read the passage, then read the questions, then go back to the passage to look for the information you need — but hat doesn’t make sense when time is limited.
2. Don’t worry about unknown words
Okay, you’re into the questions and you’re doing well… Suddenly, you see a word you don’t know and you start to panic. Calm down! The key here is not to worry and not to allow unknown words to distract you. Remember that even native speakers see words that they don’t know from time to time. As long as there aren’t too many of them, they do not stop you from understanding the passage. In any case, you’re already taking the test, so it’s too late to look the word up.
Your first strategy should be to ignore the word. Can you understand the sentence anyway? For example, it is easy to understand this sentence (with the unknown word shown by XXX):
Among the animals threatened by climate change are elephants, XXX and polar bears.
Your second strategy is to guess the meaning of the word from the the other words around it. So in the sentence above, it is easy to guess that XXX is a kind of animal. If you are asked to name three animals that are threatened by climate change, it is reasonably safe to include XXX, even if you don’t know the word.
If neither of these strategies works and you are still stuck, just move on to the next question and come back later if you have time. Time wasted on answers you don’t know is time lost on later answers that you might get right.
The IELTS Listening test sets out to show which candidates can listen effectively, and which can’t. One of the ways of doing this is to set traps — and see whether you fall into them. You need to know about these traps and how to avoid them. In this post we will look at one of the most common traps: the distractor.
Examples of distractors
Distractors are most often seen in dialogues, where a speaker says something, and is then corrected by the other speaker. That means you hear the same piece of information in two versions. One is correct and one is incorrect, and if you are not listening carefully, it’s easy to write down the wrong one.
Let’s look at three examples. Can you answer the questions?
Question: The man ordered _____ T-shirts.
Man: Hi, I’m calling to confirm a delivery of thirty T-shirts to my apartment in Waterloo.
Woman: I see… let me have a look. Oh, we only have one order for Waterloo, sir, and it’s for thirteen shirts, not thirty.
Man: Ah, yes! Did I say thirty? Sorry. I meant thirteen. It is thirteen shirts.
Question: What is the correct postcode? _____
Man: Where do you live, Lynda?
Lynda: Unit 15, Maximilian Way.
Man: That’s in Whitfield, right? I have a cousin who lives in that area.
Lynda: Yes, Whitfield.
Man: And the postcode is double seven double five?
Lynda: Not quite — you’ve got it the wrong way around. It’s double five double seven.
Question: What is Lynda’s date of birth? 25th _______
Man: Just one more thing — your date of birth — but I can get that from the card. One moment…
Lynda: Look. I’m afraid you haven’t copied it down correctly. I was born on 25th September 1990.
Man: What have I written? Oh yes, I see now. I’ve got the 25th of the eighth month, but that would make it August…
Analysis of the distractors
It’s not difficult to find the answers when the dialogue is written down in front of you. But when you are listening — and remember you only hear the audio once — it is much more confusing. Notice that the examiners tried to confuse you in three different ways:
In dialogue one, both words (“thirty” and “thirteen”) are repeated several times. Remember that they sound very similar.
In dialogue two, the wrong answer is given first, followed by the right answer; in dialogue three, the right answer is given first, followed by the wrong answer. This means you can’t predict the order in which the answer and the distractor will come.
In dialogue two, instead of saying “seven-seven-five-five”, the man says “double seven double five”, giving you one more thing to think about — at exactly the moment the examiners are trying to confuse you.
So a distractor often comes with an extra spin: easily confused words, or words said in an unusual way.
Now you know about distractors, you will at least be expecting them when they come. There is really only one way to deal with them effectively, and that is to do as many practice tests as you can. Probably the best way of doing this is through Road to IELTS, the British Council’s official IELTS preparation product. The Practice Zone section of Road to IELTS includes over 20 listening tests. Click here to find out more.
In the IELTS Speaking test you will be asked questions about different aspects of your life: your hobbies, where you live, your occupation. How important is it to answer truthfully?
The first thing to understand is that the IELTS Speaking test is not a normal conversation. You are not there to exchange information socially, or to get to know the examiner. Your sole objective is to show how well you can speak English. As soon as you realise this, it becomes obvious that each question you are asked is an opportunity — and to take advantage of those opportunities, you need to plan in advance.
To illustrate this, let’s look at possible answers to a simple question that you might get in Part 1: “Where do you live?”
You could simply answer “In Dubai.” This may be true, and after all, it does answer the question. But it gives the examiner no clue to your level of English, so you will not score any points.
Alternatively you could answer: “I’m currently renting an apartment here in Dubai. The district I live in is about 10 minutes from the business area. I like it there because…” This may or may not be true — who cares? The important thing is that you have taken the opportunity to display your level of English.
There are several topics for Speaking Part 1 that are quite predictable (home, family, job, hobbies, etc.). Prepare some impressive phrases and expressions like the ones above that you can use when talking about them.
In Part 2 you will get a topic card with three prompts. For example, you might be asked to describe a close friend, and to state:
when you met him/her
what you have in common
why he/she is so special to you
These prompts (which always follow the same format) allow you to prepare a structure for your answer. So, for example, you can decide to make three points for each prompt: “There are three things that we have in common. First… And there’s another thing that I’d like to talk about… But most importantly of all…”
Structuring your answer in this way not only allows you to prepare useful language in advance, it also makes your answer more coherent and easier to follow.
In part 3, you will be asked questions about the topic, following up on your short talk. Here again, there are expressions to learn which can be used in an answer to almost any question:
“Yes, I’ve often thought about that…
“That’s a big question today…”
“Yes, just the other day I was reading an article about that…”
This functional language not only sounds impressive in itself, it also gives you a little extra time to work out what you are going to say. (That’s why native speakers use these expressions.)
Learning phrases and expressions like these is useful and legitimate, just like learning standard phrases for emails (“Thank you for your prompt reply”) or for essays (“It could be argued that…”). It does not mean preparing complete answers and learning them by heart. Examiners are trained to spot this, and if they detect you doing it, you will get no marks at all.
“In Academic Writing Task 1, it is very important to start by providing an overview of the data. If you don’t do this, you will lose points.” — Simon Cockell, Sultan Qaboos University, Oman
In this post we will look at what this means, and how you can use your data overview to get your IELTS Writing test off to a flying start.
What is Academic Writing Task 1?
Let’s start by going back to basics. In IELTS Academic Writing Task 1 is a “writing task of at least 150 words where the candidate must summarise, describe or explain a table, chart, graph or diagram.” Here’s an example (taken from Road to IELTS).
The graphs above give information about computer ownership as a percentage of the population between 2002 and 2010, and by level of education for the years 2002 and 2010.
Summarise the information by selecting and reporting the main features, and make comparisons where relevant.
Write at least 150 words.
What is an overview of the data?
An overview statement will summarise the purpose of the graph(s) in one or two sentences. You can see how this has been done in the question in the task above: The graphs above give information about computer ownership as a percentage of the population between 2002 and 2010, and by level of education for the years 2002 and 2010.
However, you will get no marks for simply repeating the words in the question. You need to put the overview into your own words.
How do I start?
Spend some time looking at the graphs. Look at the labels on the X-axis and the Y-axis. Make sure you really understand the information that is being displayed.
Start the overview statement in the present tense, like this: This chart shows… The information in the chart illustrates…. The graph compares… The diagram explains…
Follow this with a summary of the purpose of the graph that is clear, complete and concise: These graphs show the growth of computer ownership by education level between 2002 and 2010, and compare this with the growth of computer ownership overall for the same period. In both cases ownership is expressed as a percentage of the population as a whole.
Practice exercise 1
Read the four data overview statements below. Then go to this article and match each statement with one of the four graphs in the report. (Answers below.)
A. This chart shows average per capita wealth levels per country in four bands ranging from wealth levels lower than US$5,000 to higher than $100,000.
B. This bar chart compares the projected percentage growth in the number of millionaires in 19 countries from now to 2019.
C. The pie chart shows the current distribution of global wealth by region.
D. This chart ranks the richest eight countries (from Switzerland to Singapore) by average per capita wealth.
Practice exercise 2
Now write an overview sentence for each of the two graphs below. You can see suggested answers at the bottom of the post. The graphs come from Clarity’s Practical Writing.
Certain tasks in IELTS are more predictable than the others. For example, we know that in the Listening module there is always at least one part related to education and academic knowledge. The Reading module in General Training also features topics that are fairly predictable, and there is no reason to not prepare well for them.
English for life
Section 1 is almost always based on two to three short texts related to using English to go about everyday business in life — booking a hotel room, looking for information in an advertisement, instructions on applying for a driving license. Are you used to using English in your daily life? If yes, the first section should not be too much of a problem for you.
Section 2 is also predictable, with at least one text about work. For example, I have seen texts about dealing with office politics in the GT module. There are a lot of words and metaphorical expressions in the workplace that have very specific meanings — understanding them, and you will answer the questions a lot more confidently. Without using a dictionary, can you be sure about what these words, found in the General Training Reading module, actually refer to?
Section 3 always features a long text that is a lot harder than the previous two. What’s worse, the topic of the text can just be about anything, ranging from marine animals to harvesting coffee beans. Do you aim to get a band score of at least 7 in Reading? If you do, you must start reading texts related to the topics mentioned above. Make sure you don’t lose marks or waste time unnecessarily!
Here are just a few of the questions candidates have asked us about the Listening test. Some of these you may have wondered yourself…
1. I would like to know: would my answer be marked wrong if I write each and every letter of word as capital; for example there is blank in which I have to write seventeen and I write it as SEVENTEEN. According to IELTS Listening Advice from IELTS, ‘You may write your answers in lower case or capital letters.’
2. What are the differences between the Academic and General Training Listening tests? There is no Academic Listening or General Training Listening — there is only one Listening test. There are, however, different papers in the Reading and Writing tests.
3. Can I write my answers in short forms / acronyms? No. Abbreviations will not be accepted. So if the answer is, for example, New England, then don’t simply write NE.
4. What happen if I spell a word wrongly? You don’t get the mark. It’s as simple as that. There will be no half-a-mark deduction. However, answers in the Listening test rarely involve long and difficult words.
5. Can I choose which variety of English to be included in the Listening test? Accent X is really difficult to understand! Unfortunately, you can’t. And IELTS Listening tests always involve more than one accent, with varieties including Received Pronunciation, General American, etc. It is therefore a good idea to practise not just from one source, but instead multiple.
6. I am afraid of the answers with numbers — I don’t know if I should write them as word or figures! Either will work nicely: 2 or two.
7. Will I have the question paper in front of me while listening? Yes, you will. First, listen carefully and note down the answers quickly in the appropriate slot. You will then need to write your final answers more clearly on the answer paper.
8. Can I write during the pauses between section and section?
Yes, these are your golden opportunities to highlight the keywords and to get a gist of what the recording will be about. It is not an exaggeration to say that how you use these pauses will decide the band score you will get in the end.
9. What are the differences amongst the four sections? The first two sections are about using the English language to get by in a English-speaking country. It can be about anything, ranging from, for examples, getting a call from a car dealership to booking a restaurant table. The second section mostly involves a floor plan or a map which you will need to study carefully. The third and fourth sections are primarily related to academic subjects, with the last one generally harder than the rest.
Get more for free
You can read more key facts and information of the test from the IELTS Study Guides. Sign up for them here.