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A student asked me the following question:

"In the reading test I always spend too much time on the first two sections and never reach passage 3. How can I change this habit?"

I think the student already knew what my answer would be:

"You need to be more disciplined and force yourself to keep to a time schedule in the test."

Remember:

- Spend 20 minutes on each passage.
- Miss any questions that seem too difficult.
- Move on if a question is taking you too long.
- Get to the end of the test, and return to the questions you missed.

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Many students write to me because they are worried about strange or difficult questions they have found (usually for writing task 2).

I think you need to remember that it's impossible to prepare for every topic or question that might appear in the exam. You will go mad if you try to do this!

The solution is to make sure you "know what you know". Focus on the common topics that appear regularly, not the strange topic that your friend found on a website.

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Too many students (and teachers) waste time worrying about the 'complex structures' aspect of the grammar score in the writing test.

From what I've seen when marking essays, 99% of students are able to write sentences with more than one clause, using words like and, but, because, while, which, if... to connect ideas. Therefore, they are able to meet the requirement for 'complex structures'.

On the other hand, many of the same students are not able to produce frequent error-free sentences (band 7), and it's rare for me to see essays in which the majority of sentences are error-free (band 8).

So, if people can't produce error-free sentences, why are they worrying about complex structures? In most cases, the key to a high grammar score is fewer mistakes, not more complex sentences.

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Sometimes the part 2 task looks difficult but there's an easy way to answer. Here are three examples:

1) Describe something that you collect.

Most students panic because they don't collect anything. But this question is easier than you think. If your hobby is listening to music or reading books, just tell the examiner that you collect CDs or novels. You could talk about your "collection" of clothes or shoes. Everyone has a collection of something, even if you don't call yourself a collector.

2) Describe an important decision that you made.

Easy. Just talk about the subject you chose to study or the career you decided to pursue. If you moved to live/study in a different country, you could talk about that.

3) Describe an important letter you received.

Use the answer you gave for number 2 (with a few small changes). Talk about the letter you received confirming your place on a university course, or confirming a successful job application.

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Here are three types of linking (cohesive devices) with some examples from last week's 'maps' answer for types 2 and 3.

1) The 'normal' linking words that everyone learns

and, but, because, while, whereas, by contrast, however, furthermore etc.

2) Using pronouns and determiners to refer to a previous idea

- three main modifications were made... These involved
- there were three bus stops... These were
- the addition of a bus station... This bus station
- the car park, which was situated... this original car park

3) Using synonyms or paraphrasing to connect ideas

- some changes were made... three main modifications... the changes
- the hospital's transport infrastructure... the hospital's vehicle access
- at the intersection... at the junction
- parking facilities... parking areas... car park... area for parking
- public... visitors... members of the public

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Let's return to the 'small families' question below:

In many countries today, people in cities either live alone or in small family units, rather than in large, extended family groups. Is this a positive or negative trend?

Here's my essay skeleton (using the plan that I wrote here):

..........

Introduction
It is true that cities are seeing a rise in smaller families and one-person households, while the extended family is becoming a rarity. In my opinion, this is a negative development.

Paragraph 2, topic sentence
As families become smaller, the traditional family support network is disappearing, and this can have a negative impact on children as they grow up.

Paragraph 3, topic sentence
The trend towards people living alone is perhaps even more damaging because of the psychological effects of reduced human interaction.

Conclusion
In conclusion, I believe that individuals thrive when they are part of larger family groups, and so it is worrying that many people are choosing to live alone or in such small family units.

..........

Note:
It's a good idea to practise writing essay 'skeletons' because they force you to produce a very clear, coherent essay structure.

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The following situation often confuses people:

  • The question asks you for a date
  • The speaker gives a day, month and year (e.g. 16th July 2019)
  • But the instruction tells you to answer with one word and/or a number

I agree that this is confusing. However, my advice is simple: write 16th July as your answer, without the year. This is the answer that the IELTS people want.

So, make sure you write the day (number) and the month. Only put the year if the question asks for it (e.g. which year...?) or if the instruction allows you to include more than one number.

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Read the following passage and choose the best title.

The modern English alphabet is a Latin alphabet consisting of 26 letters, each having an upper- and lower-case form. It originated around the 7th century from the Latin script.

English is the only major modern European language that requires no diacritics for native words. Diacritic marks mainly appear in loanwords such as naïve and façade. Informal English writing tends to omit diacritics because of their absence from the keyboard, while professional copywriters and typesetters tend to include them.

As loanwords become naturalised in English, there is a tendency to drop the diacritics, as has happened with many older borrowings from French, such as hôtel. Words that are still perceived as foreign tend to retain them; for example, the only spelling of soupçon found in English dictionaries uses the diacritic. However, diacritics are likely to be retained even in naturalised words where they would otherwise be confused with a common native English word e.g. résumé rather than resume. Rarely, they may even added to a loanword for this reason, as in maté, from the Spanish yerba mate but with the é to distinguish from the English word 'mate'.

(Source: wikipedia.org)

Choose the best title from the list below.

A)  The English alphabet
B)  The use of diacritics in written English
C)  Disappearing diacritics in the English language
D)  How loanwords have entered the English language

Note: Did you work out what the word 'diacritic' means?

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Here are some sentences that people wrote in the comments area below last Saturday's lesson. Can you find and correct the mistakes?

  1. I wanted to say you some informations is not correct.
  2. The festival holds on the 24th of December every year.
  3. I ask you to correct this article and be reposted for your next magazine.
  4. At on onset, I would thanks to you that you published a article.
  5. I suggest you employ staff from all over the world. Because native well know about their country.
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You don't really need to impress the examiner with 'less common' vocabulary in part 1 of the speaking test. However, without trying to show off, I used some nice words and phrases in the answers that I shared yesterday:

  • I'd like to think that = I hope
  • in ten years' time = ten years from now
  • I can't imagine changing profession (imagine + ing)
  • essential
  • field of work
  • research is being done
  • is published in English
  • see more of the world (see the world = travel to many countries)
  • it would be nice to
  • travel extensively
  • at some point
  • when I'm retired
  • make progress
  • in terms of my home life
  • what technologies come along (come along = appear / emerge)
  • in the next decade or two

Notice that I tend to highlight collocations (groups of words) rather than individual words e.g. "make progress" (verb + noun collocation) instead of just "progress".

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