All About the IELTS [Episode 319]
Interview with Ben Worthington, Creator of IELTSPodcast [Show Summary]
Ben Worthington is an IELTS master, and he talks in great detail about the various sections of the test and how to prepare for them, as well as what to do if you can’t seem to break out of the score slump you are in. He also shares some details about his IELTS Podcast.
All About the IELTS [Show Notes]
Our guest today is Ben Worthington. Ben hails from northern England, but has lived in different parts of the globe. In 2006, he started teaching English as a second language. In 2012 he launched the IELTS Podcast to help students ace that exam. Today the IELTS Podcast provides free resources and three different levels of paid courses. Let’s learn more about the IELTS Podcast and get some expert tips on how to succeed with the IELTS exam. That score is critical if you are applying to English language universities and graduate programs, and you’re worried that English fluency, or the lack of it, could prevent your acceptance.
How did you get into IELTS prep? [2:00]
I used to be an English tutor in Spain, and then drifted into teaching English there. I started off doing classes with teenagers and then did business students, but eventually I found my niche with IELTS. I enjoy preparing students for that – it’s more of a challenge and there are more motivated students.
Can you give us an overview of the IELTS exam? [3:16]
It stands for the International English Language Testing System and was developed in Australia in the 1970s to test students’ English abilities. The British Council got involved and it became the IELTS test and now is used not only for getting into university in Australia, the UK, and Canada (also being more accepted in the US), but can also be used on visa applications as well.
There are four parts to the IELTS – speaking, listening, reading, and writing. On the listening and reading sections you can get between 0-40 points. There are 40 questions there, and you are either ticking the boxes, completing the sentence, or answering a multiple choice question. The speaking and writing sections are marked by an examiner – the speaking portion is in front of another person in three parts – part 1 is softer questions to get the student relaxed to give the best illustration of their ability. In part 2 you get a cue card with a prompt like, “Describe a childhood friend” – how you met them, what you liked to do with them, etc. You have two minutes to prepare your talk and then you talk about the points on the cue cards. Part 3 is follow up questions from the examiner to that, like, “Why do you think friendship is important?” – more abstract. For writing there is a general test and academic test. For the general portion in task 1 you have to write a letter – maybe a cover letter, letter to a friend, etc. For task 1 in the academic piece you have to describe something like a flow chart. Part 2 for both tests is taking a side or arguing both sides of an issue like democracy or climate change, which can be a real challenge. The test looks at skills beyond just the language.
Who should take the IELTS, the TOEFL or the PTE? [10:41]
Do some practice tests on each one and go for the one that resonates with you the most.
Can you tell us about the scoring? What is a good band? [11:54]
Generally speaking most places are looking for a 7, however if Canada needs a lot of computer engineers they might lower it to meet the quotas. Also, a really prestigious university can ask for 8 across the board.
Do people from different regions of the world have more difficulty with specific sections of the exam? [14:01]
What I am seeing is generally countries that are more open culturally like Latino, Spanish, or Italian countries have less difficulty with the speaking portion. Broadly speaking people from Asian countries don’t really excel in the speaking part because they are often quite nervous about losing face.
In 2010 IELTS released the last statistics about all the countries and which scored the highest and lowest, and those highest across the board were the countries you’d expect – Scandinavia, Germany, the Netherlands, and at the lower end, less developed countries.
When do you recommend people start preparing for the test? How much time do people typically need? [16:48]
It depends on the ability of the student. A Swedish or German student might be around 6.5 already based on their previous education, so maybe they can get to a 7 in a month just by getting familiar with the exam, and adapting their writing to a more academic style. But if a student is just barely getting a 6 or 6.5 and they want to get to a 7, they need at least 2-3 months.
What does the IELTS Podcast offer in the way of prep for the IELTS? [18:29]
I started by interviewing a lot of other tutors, as I did struggle a bit when I was getting into it, and I realized I could keep on learning from the experts and help a lot of students as well. I started by asking about common areas where students have issues. Sometimes we have a pronunciation expert, or feature someone with a very specific body of knowledge to share. Eventually I started my own episodes talking about paragraphing or punctuation – like a 30-minute tutorial. Overall it has really expanded, as we now offer an essay correction service and have a YouTube channel.
What courses do you offer? [20:25]
We started with essay correction and then it evolved into a PDF which had everything I was saying, so we built up the writing course from the all corrections we were doing, which just made sense. We also did tutorials. The main course is the writing one, which includes essay corrections and a guarantee to a band 7 or you get a refund. We also have a course on speaking confidence, and one on reading. We haven’t really developed the listening one as students don’t really seem to need that.
Do you have any free resources for IELTS prep? [22:12]
Yes. On our site there is a jumbo PDF to download that is full of sample essays, strategies, sample questions, and you can use that to get started, and also get on the email list as we send out tips and links every couple days.
What are your top tips? [23:28]
My favorite one is to maximize prep time on the areas where you are losing points. Figure that out by taking a few practice exams and see what areas are consistently weak. Then zoom in on those areas and focus your studies there until you can get to your target score.
I was watching one of your videos and in the one that I saw, you distinguished between language skills and exam skills. Can you dive into the distinction and its implications for exam prep? [28:19]
A lot of students struggle with academic writing and what they will do is take the conversation in their heads and put it down on paper, so writing with contractions, for example, when you need to use more formal language for the writing piece.
Many students come to the exam and think they can write a really intelligent answer. The examiner doesn’t care about the quality of the idea, it is the quality of the communication, and how the idea is expressed. It’s better to go with a basic idea that is expressed well than a super amazing idea that will trip you up when you try to write about it. Play it safe and go with one that is easier to communicate.
Some coaches also do not go over basics like where to focus your eyes when talking. Also, if you think about it, the writing exam is really a reading exam as you need to really comprehend the question to answer it properly. The speaking exam is really a listening exam because you need to listen so carefully to answer the right question. You have to develop the confidence to go in and show the examiner you are a capable candidate about questions you’ve never been asked in another language (and maybe not even in your native language).
What would you have liked me to ask you? [37:35]
In preparing for the exam, give yourself time. What I see so many times is a student saying I’m going to take the exam in two weeks. They won’t get the score they want, and they’ll take it again and again and again, thinking maybe they’ll get lucky. Instead they get stuck at 6.5. Doing test after test after test is just not good for so many reasons – it’s nerve-wracking, expensive, and time consuming. There is a much healthier way to do this. Take a step back, find the weak points, and work on those particular sections. Don’t do a 13-hour study session with 20 coffees and have that be it for the week – do an hour a day. Be kind to yourself and give yourself the time and patience to improve, as it will be a much more enjoyable experience.
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