As the age of students taking the IELTS exam has been lowering in various contexts for some time, this blog post tackles the timely challenge of preparing older teen learners for exam success. I am going to share my top 15 practical tips based on my IELTS exam preparation teaching experience. This will hopefully offer some helpful advice for upper-secondary (learners aged approximately 15 to 17) English language teachers embarking on this challenge.
Tip 1: Take the test before you teach it
My first suggestion is for upper-secondary English teachers to take the exam themselves before starting to teach IELTS preparation. This gives a very realistic idea of what students experience on the exam day. Students in my IELTS classes ask about the skills tested in the exam but are also keen to hear all about the exam process and procedures on the day from start to finish. I have even been asked whether test takers can leave the room during the exam and if they can eat snacks during the various IELTS papers!
Tip 2: Diagnose students’ needs
A useful next step is to have upper-secondary students to take a mock IELTS exam in their very first lesson, based on a past paper. This gives a realistic picture of students’ actual scores and shows both you and them what needs to be worked on. Also, as you become more familiar with IELTS task types, you will get an idea about which ones students find challenging and can then really focus more on these in preparation classes.
Tip 3: Feed in academic topics
I suggest that IELTS preparation teachers try to engage students with more academic topics. Older teenage students might be very interested in a particular topic, such as using technology and fashion and some teens might seem to be not really interested in anything! To try to reach them and spark their interests using TED Ed Talks to build schemata and enable them to notice academic discourse in use by working with the audio transcripts as reading tasks. This authentic material provides a meaningful point of entry into topics ranging from science to global issues, which then helps motivate teens to tackle these topics with confidence during the IELTS exam.
Tip 4: Prioritise written style
Another important point often neglected in general English classes which needs to be prioritised in IELTS preparation is raising learners’ awareness of register, appropriate style, and genre. In my experience, teen students tend to write as they speak unless they have been exposed to academic writing in their school studies in English, and this is a problem for the IELTS Writing paper. It also shows the importance of moving beyond grammatical and lexical range and accuracy and focusing on coherence, cohesion, and paragraphing within texts. It is a good idea to expose learners to a variety of written authentic texts and enable them to notice, record and reuse features of formal writing in practice activities, such as enjoyable writing role plays, to heighten their sense of both audience and writing purpose.
Tip 5: Do timed activities
Even when not practising an exam component, have students routinely do activities that are clearly timed. This is very useful exam training and by setting clear time limits (and sticking to these) for each task in class teachers can help move teens on in their learning and make genuine progress. It also enables teachers to maintain a brisk, upbeat lesson pace which is engaging and motivating for this age range.
Tip 6: Incorporate global skills
As well as developing students’ exam skills, it is essential to focus on so-called global skills such as critical thinking, self-evaluation, note-taking, time management and memorisation. These crucial skills will help older teenagers with their tertiary studies, which is also a key goal for an upper-secondary IELTS preparation teacher.
Tip 7: Intersperse peer feedback
Pair checking is a ‘staple’ of communicative English language classrooms and we can extend this to help students to give peer feedback on each other’s writing and speaking. Use the IELTS public band descriptors for productive skills, so that the teens become aware of what they need to do to achieve their target score. Students can use these descriptors as reference points to give feedback to each other and formulate their top three actions. A teen-friendly spin would be to use the public descriptors in a ‘two stars and a wish’ activity or the feedback ‘sandwich’: positive point-constructive point-positive point.
Tip 8: Develop reading strategies
In IELTS Reading, test takers only have an hour to answer 40 questions. When teen students see the lexical density and length of sentences in IELTS reading texts, they often feel intimidated. To tackle this, train students to read the questions first, then understand what they need to answer and highlight the key words. In most cases, these are paraphrased, so systematically focusing on expanding lexical range in lessons is important as well as teaching concrete reading ‘attack’ strategies to show teens how to read a text. This involves demonstrating with a projected text as a whole class, using think-aloud techniques to make reading strategies explicit and routinely having learners justify their answers to tasks during plenary feedback.
Tip 9: Train students to paraphrase
Students need to be able to paraphrase well in both the IELTS Writing and Speaking papers, which shows how they can use language to communicate. Sometimes, upper-secondary teenagers simply ‘copy-paste’ chunks instead of paraphrasing. For example, they tend to start answering speaking exam questions using memorised chunks and in the writing exam, they memorise set templates and reproduce these. Therefore, scaffolded modelling and demonstrating as well as learner-directed practice of paraphrasing should be regularly ‘trained’ in IELTS preparation classes.
Tip 10: Differentiate task support
Students in the same IELTS preparation class are not necessarily at the same English proficiency levels and may also be at different levels within the four language skills. Try to differentiate and individualise tasks, remembering that students need different IELTS scores for different major subjects at different universities. I give different tasks often in my IELTS classes, for example when doing a jigsaw reading, a less proficient student can be paired with a more proficient student who offers support to their peer with text comprehension. This also stretches the more proficient student to practise their text paraphrasing skills for a real, communicative purpose.
Tip 11: Make mock tests valid
Face validity i.e., is it a good / valid test and content validity i.e., does the test measure what needs to be measured are both crucial in IELTS exam preparation classes. These can be attended to by focusing on past papers and analysing these collaboratively via noticing tasks, for example, reading races are a great way to make this analysis active and dynamic for teens (as well as helping them work quickly!) In this way, students see how they are progressing with the actual questions from the actual test within an exact time limit.
Tip 12: Flip the IELTS classroom
Flipped classroom approaches to IELTS preparation are very useful for teachers who do not have many English lesson hours with their teen students. By having the students do more receptive and mechanical practice exercises at home, they get more time to have communicative, meaningful practice with individualised feedback during lessons. Another upside is that students can learn more at their own paces by consolidating weaker areas at home and importantly for teenagers, missing a lesson then becomes much less problematic.
Tip 13: Revise and review
As teen students often have lots of school homework at upper-secondary, they might not have enough time to review their IELTS preparation lessons. You should include time for revision and reviewing during actual lessons such as by recycling previously encountered topics through personalised tasks and lexis review activities such as Kahoot quizzes on their phones to keep them really engaged.
Tip 14: Turn it into a game
You could also add game-like elements to upper-secondary IELTS preparation classes. For example, one of my favourites is when I give students topics from the IELTS Speaking exam and they work in groups to brainstorm their own speaking questions about these topics. Next, we project each groups’ questions on the board (students write them on their computers and I use Google Docs for synchronicity). Then, we number the questions and students roll dice to nominate each other, so according to the number on the dice, the nominated student answers the question, and the others give peer feedback.
Tip 15: Remember ‘perfect practice’
Teachers often say that the best thing IELTS preparation students can do after getting feedback from teachers is to practise, practise, practise… But rather than saying that ‘practice makes perfect’, think about the importance of ‘perfect practice’! For example, some teen students believe they should do a mock IELTS practice test every day, which is unrealistic and making the same errors in each mock test is counterproductive. Instead, they should be encouraged to space out practice tests by doing these after a series of lessons on a certain part of the IELTS exam. They do a practice test based on this area, get concrete feedback on the area, notice, and record their main errors in the area, have some follow up lessons on the area and finally take another practice test with a specific focus on the target area. IELTS practice therefore becomes strategic and cyclical.
To sum up…Hopefully, these 15 top tips will give you practical ideas and inspiration for your IELTS and other ELT exam preparation classes with older teenagers. It would be great to find out about how your classes go if you try the tips in the face-to-face and/or online English classroom. Please post your feedback in the comments below and good luck with your IELTS classes.
Melih is a Cambridge Delta-qualified English language teacher based in the United Kingdom and has a particular interest in teaching English language exam classes. He also specialised in IELTS exam preparation for his Cambridge Delta Module 3 extended assignment.