Written February 11, 2008.


An Email From A Chinese IELTS Student in Holland - Page 1


XXXXX > wrote:
Dear Mr Green,
I am an oversea student and I am studying in Netherlands now. I will take part in the IELTS test again after one month. In January, I have taken the test in Holland and got the result: listening 5, reading 6, writing 5.5, speaking 6. Unfortunately, the overall score was 5.5.
At the monment, I have no idea how to prepare the test, because I just have one month and I have to get 6 band. Especially, for writing, I have done a great deal of practices; for listening,I have listened the Cambridge IELTS books (1to6),while I still do not have obvious improvements in the two parts.
Could you give me some advices to improve my writing and listening skills?

Meanwhile, I have other question for you: Should I prepare the speaking and wrting topics that have appeared in China? I mean, I do the preparetion for IELTS test in Netherlands, Is the same as in China? Does the IELTS test in European countries relative with  it in China?
Thank you very much
Kind regards


My Reply


I feel a little sorry for someone like you who has tried so hard but still finds it difficult to make progress. Probably your methods of study are the reason. Also, you are probably trying to do everything in a short time and with the attitude that English is an academic subject rather than a communication tool that is interesting and enjoyable to use. Understand that real improvement in a foreign language takes time and depends quite a lot on your attitudes towards that language.

You seem to be a typical IELTS student from China. I'm guessing that you are a recent high school graduate who went to an ordinary high school in China, with just an average English teacher (who was only about a 6.5 to 7.0 IELTS level him or herself) and with little or no experience of having a 外教 . You were probably above average in English at school but you were not the best in your class and English wasn't your favourite subject. You never had any experience of using English in real life. And before you started preparing for the IELTS test, you were about a 5.0 or 5.5 IELTS level. You must understand that a typical IELTS student like you needs 6 months to a year of solid English study to get to a real 6.5 level. 

Before one can speak, one needs to hear a lot, and before one can write, one needs to read a lot. You need time to get a lot of listening experience and you need time to get a lot of reading experience. Not only that, everything you do should proceed step-by-step. That means that you master the basic things before you try to learn the more difficult things.

Let's look at your situation in more detail. Firstly, since you are in Holland, you are not exposing yourself to as much English in your everyday life as someone would in say, England. Try to get more input of English in your everyday life such as English language newspapers, English language radio & TV, using English to buy things (not typical in Holland) and using English to converse with your friends & the people you communicate with on an everyday basis.
Speak as much English in your everyday life as possible. That especially means with your fellow IELTS students. Tell me the truth, are you mostly speaking Chinese with your Chinese fellow students? I thought so. Make friends with and spend more time with the non-Chinese speaking IELTS students. All of the suggestions above will improve your English output.
Let's look at your study methods. How many of the points in my suggestions on this page,, have you done or do you do?
Before I write any more, I see that you made several minor English mistakes in your email, mistakes that are, more or less, 'markers' or 'indicators' of a person at around Band 5.0 or 5.5 level but not really 6.0 or above, especially considering the fact that you made so many of these mistakes.
These mistakes are:
Finally, you wrote, 'Does the IELTS test in European countries relative with it in China?' That should be, 'Is the IELTS test in European countries similar to that in China?' (or, ' ... similar to the test in China?') This last error is rather serious - confusing the 'do' verb and the 'be' verb. This is a high school student's mistake, the mistake of someone who really has not used English very much. This kind of error makes it more likely that you think of English more as an academic subject rather than a tool of communication. The more you can have the attitude of actually liking English and actually using it as an everyday communication tool, the easier it will be to improve.
Don't get me wrong - your email is actually quite good because it communicates clearly and it actually feels like someone at the 6.0 or higher level who is writing.  But those errors, which are  called 'systematic errors' because you probably repeat them as a habit, are a little too frequent (= there are too many of them). My website actually points out some of those errors at different places on the website so this also indicates that you haven't really read a lot of the contents on my website. Read as much of my website as possible because: i) I frequently point out common errors; ii) Reading any English is good for reading practice; iii) It will increase the vocabulary that we know is possible in the Speaking test right now; and, of course, iv) These are the most likely questions that you will get in the test.
In answer to your questions

You specifically ask how to get a better Listening score and a better Writing score. That is, you ask for the best study methods for the next one (!) month. 

For your listening, you need more, and better listening exercises than you have been using up to now. You should, as soon as possible, put some cash into your purse and go to the best bookshop in your city to buy the following English teaching textbooks: New Headway or New Interchange. (Click on the links for more information. Note: Since I first wrote this blog page, I have been rather shocked to discover that the New Headway listening tapes in Beijing cost more than 300 for just two tapes!) These books are British English, are especially suitable for IELTS students and are often used in long-term pre-IELTS preparation classes. If you choose New Headway, buy the Pre-Intermediate, the Intermediate, and the Upper Intermediate texts (and the Advanced text, if it is not too difficult), and don't forget to buy the the CD's or cassette tapes! Then, you start going through the textbooks to the sections where there is a listening exercise. Of course, the best listening exercises should include a little quiz for you to answer while you listen or just after you have listened. Move through the 3 or 4 books, starting with the easiest book, as fast as you can. If you buy New Interchange, buy all 3 books and do the same. 

How do the two different books compare? Well, although I have all 3 New Interchange books in my library, I only have New Headway Elementary and New Headway Pre-Intermediate but I have looked at the others in a bookshop. My guess is that New Interchange 3 is about the same level as somewhere between New Headway Intermediate and Upper Intermediate. That means that parts of New Headway Upper Intermediate and almost all of New Headway Advanced are even more advanced than the most advanced of the New Intermediate books, Book 3. However, if you're aiming for a 6 or 7 in the IELTS test, you probably don't need to be as advanced as New Headway Advanced and it's probably too hard for you at the moment, with only 1 month before your test.

For your writing, I suggest you first try to find a native English speaker (for example, your teacher) who is willing to spend time reading and correcting your essays. (Please don't ask me. No time.) Next, you should revise your study of cohesive linking devices (assuming you have already studied this topic). See HERE for more on this topic. 

Have a long list of typical IELTS Writing test questions available.

Then you should go through the Reading passages, i.e., the Reading exercises in the textbooks you just bought but you start your reading from the most advanced of the books you have, not from the easiest! There are two aims of your study here: i) To learn how to write like a native English speaker by reading good examples of writing and ii) to increase and improve some basic ingredients that you need in order to write by reading more, ingredients such as vocabulary, grammatical usage, expression usage, exposure to different questions and different ideas, and general knowledge. Here, I am suggesting a blended program of both reading and writing together. As you read, look for examples of writing that could be adapted to become an IELTS essay for one of the questions on your list. What do I mean by, 'could be adapted'? I mean you recognize that the article you are reading is similar in some way to a good answer to an IELTS writing question or you recognize that there is something new in the article that you could copy and use in an essay, such as a new way to begin or end an essay, a new way to begin a paragraph, a new expression or just a new word to use. Especially look for reading passages that include examples of someone writing his or her opinion. Also look for reading passages that have a similar basic topic to one of the essay topics on your list. Maybe you could wait until you have collected a few good 'new things' and then use them all together in an essay, from your list of essays. Then get someone to check your essay for you. Basically, the idea is to improve your Writing by learning from examples of native English speakers' writing.

Since your main aim in reading here is to find good things to improve your own writing, it's probably not necessary to do any reading exercises in the text book, that is, to answer any quiz questions. But it would be a good idea to do these review quizzes! 

You should also understand that the best reading articles will be those in the most advanced textbook you have, i.e., Headway Upper Intermediate (or Advanced) or New Interchange Book 3. This is because, at that level, they often have reading passages that deal with topics that are very similar to IELTS Writing Task 2 topics. 

To repeat; unlike your new listening study program, here you should start with the most advanced reading and work backwards through your three or four texts towards the easiest ones. You are not actively trying to improve your reading in this program but instead, using these reading passages to find good 'models' of language for you to copy or adapt.

As for the question about the topics in the Speaking & Writing tests in Holland and in China: Yes, I think the Speaking test in Holland will use the same pool of topics & questions as in China but I suspect that examiners in China are using 4 different sets of Part 1 topics (10 topics per set, some reproduced in other sets but with slightly different questions) and it's possible examiners in Holland are using fewer than 4 sets of Part 1 questions. The range of possible Part 2 & 3 topics is probably the same as in China.

For the Writing topics, I don't know to what extent you can predict the questions because I don't keep track of the real IELTS Writing tests. My guess is, it is close to random - you cannot easily predict what topics will come up in the next tests. Just try to study past, real topics, the more the better. Those Cambridge Series are very close to examples of 'real' past topics. The Specimen Tests Writing questions are also good examples. Any good textbook for IELTS Writing has a long list of topics. Of course, there are people in China who have collected past real topics, but be careful of the standard of English of some of these people. Maybe there is some predictability in the Writing test topics or questions but I have not had time to study this so, as I said, I really don't know.

Returning to a more general discussion of your IELTS study: 


Focus on just communicating naturally (and fluently) when you speak to your speaking partner. At the same time, try to include good examples of English that you would use in the Speaking test - examples of 'showing your best English' to the examiner.  Don't worry too much about grammar when talking to your speaking partners - focus on grammar at another time, in other ways, especially by speaking to the people on the 'Side by Side' recordings. Use 'Side by Side', Book 3 and especially Book 4 for improving your grammar, as well as improving your overall dialogue ability. Pay particular attention to the 'subjunctive mood'  of English grammar (虚拟语气), especially the use of the word, 'would'. Also, spend time improving your knowledge of and ability to use Complex Sentences, Cohesive Linking Devices and higher level grammar. These are vital for getting a 6.0 or above in the Speaking test. 

I think that's enough to keep you busy for the next month!


a Go to Page 2 to see her test result