When you prepare students for the IELTS exam, this is likely to be one of the questions they will ask you. They are under both time pressure and financial pressure to get the necessary score – they have a deadline in order to start their desired university course and they are not able to spend limitless money on English classes.
Let’s consider the student who wants to study on a Master’s programme, for example at a UK university. Most universities ask them to get a 6.5 in IELTS, this equates to C1 level of English, or an ‘Advanced’ level. If the student takes the test and they get band 4, this suggests their level is A2/B1 or something like ‘pre-intermediate’ in general English courses (see here for a comparison of the IELTS band and CEFR). There is obviously a huge difference between A2 and C1. In a language school of general English courses, they would need to go through Pre-intermediate, Intermediate, Upper-Intermediate, and Advanced courses. Each of these levels if often about 120 hours, so that would be 500 hours of lessons. Realistically, this can only be achieved over 1 year or more of intensive training, and more likely over several years.
It’s therefore important for teachers to be honest when they are approached by students for help with preparing for IELTS. If their general level is much lower than that required, it’s a very long journey for them. Many students believe there are some tricks to taking the IELTS, some secret key that will unlock the higher bands, if only they could find the right teacher. But IELTS simply offers a snapshot of a learner’s language level. An advanced user of the language will get 6.5 or higher. With a pre-intermediate level, they will get something like a band 4. If there were easy tricks to fool the exam, it would stop being used by governments, companies, schools and universities to determine someone’s language level.
How to help students raise their exam score
The better IELTS preparation courses recognize this reality and are quite clear about it. For example, the book “Complete IELTS” from Cambridge University Press is graded at different levels. One aims to take students from IELTS 5.0 to IELTS 6.5, for example. The method is the same as for general English – integrated work developing the 4 skills as well as explicit work on developing grammar and vocabulary. Thus, the same work that teachers do in General English courses to raise a student’s level also applies to IELTS preparation courses. The contexts may be slightly different (more academic, and more work on writing) but the methods are similar.
There may be students who can improve in a shorter time. Imagine an advanced user of the language who is unused to taking tests in English and doesn’t know anything about the IELTS exam. They need a short course to help familiarize them with the test and give them some key techniques to maximize their score and avoid common pitfalls. This might only take 10-20 hours of tuition as their basic language level is sufficient.
Similarly, there could be a student who is basically an advanced level user of the language and can score 7 on speaking and listening. But it’s possible that they have no experience of reading academic texts or writing academic essays and they score poorly in reading and writing, perhaps band 5. In this case, it’s possible to teach some techniques for reading difficult texts and answering comprehension questions as well as how to write essays (paragraphing, topic sentences etc.) There might be some vocabulary work needed on academic words that they are not familiar with. A relatively short course (20-40 hours) might get them to the desired average band score of 6.5 since their basic language level is again sufficient.
But these students tend to be the exception. Most have weaknesses across the 4 skills and need a lot of work improving range and accuracy of grammar and vocabulary.
It depends on the student
The most honest answer will be that the amount of time required depends on the student. Like with any skill, some students are better and quicker at learning languages than others. A focused, linguistically able student with time to devote to study outside of class may be able to move from IELTS Band 5 to Band 7 in a relatively short period of time, whereas a less motivated, less able student may need much longer even to just move from Band 6 to Band 7.
The first step then will be to assess the needs of your learners. You need to find out:
- What is their goal? (Which band score do they need?)
- What is their current Band score? (How far do they have to go?)
- Do they need to focus on all 4 parts of the exam or are some areas stronger than others?
When we have answered these questions, we can then decide between the 3 types of course:
10-20 hours: a short course to familiarize them with the different parts of the exam and some key techniques to maximize their score.
20-40 hours: a medium length course with the content of course A but also with some extra focus on key areas of weakness – this will depend on the students but could be extra work on essay writing for the writing test or skim reading for the reading test.
40+ hours: a long course devoted to genuinely raising the English language level of the students across all 4 skills, with considerable work on improving their grammar and vocabulary. This will need to be a very long course if their level is well below that required.
The important thing is surely to be honest with the student from the outset. Whether they are studying in a group or studying one-to-one, they will soon become disheartened and disillusioned if they don’t see the immediate and dramatic improvement they were hoping for. Schools and teachers need to help students be realistic about setting goals and the timeframe to achieve their goals. They need to be transparent about what learners can achieve in a short exam preparation course and honest about how long weaker students will need to reach their goal.
If you are interested in knowing more about Teaching IELTS course or what this could mean for your career, enrol in our online one to one Teaching IELTS course with tutor support from Tim Brown here or get in touch to find out more.