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Read below to find out how you can improve in all 4 IELTS Skills.

Failed Your IELTS Exam? – Here’s How To Improve Your 4 Skills

Last updated: December 2018

i) Improving in Writing

Writing is probably the most difficult sub-test for IELTS students. It's the skill that students fail the most. As mentioned above, I've encountered many students over the years who got stuck at 6.5 despite taking the test many times. The reason for this is that such students don't really know what's expected of them in order to get their required score.

You see, for Listening and Reading, there's only one correct answer. Your answer is either right or wrong. If you have practice test papers, you can find out the answers and if you got a question wrong, you can easily find out what is the right one. However, for Writing and Speaking, there's not one correct answer. Everybody is going to write and speak differently. As a result, IELTS has a set of criteria that examiners go through in order to give you a mark.

Students need to be familiar with these criteria if they want to know how to get the score they need. While I wouldn't be able to give you a detailed analysis of these criteria (I can only do so in my classes where I have much more time), here are some quick Writing tips on how to improve according to these criteria. I'm going to focus here on Writing Task 2 because it's worth two-thirds (2/3) of the total Writing score so it's more important.

I'll be listening the criteria below for the "7" Band. Whether you're aiming for 7 or lower or higher, this will help you understand what the examiner is looking out for in your writing.

For Task Response, you need to make sure that you're addressing all parts of the task. That means if there are "two questions" in your essay question, you need to answer both of them and give equal space to both questions. Also, if the question calls for a position, it needs to be stated clearly in the essay - preferably in the introduction and the conclusion of the essay. Lastly, for every main point you write, you need to ensure that you support the main point by using reasons or examples. The examiners are look for in-depth points and arguments, not superficial points. They are looking more for the "quality" of your points (i.e. how well supported each point is), rather than the "quantity".

For Coherence and Cohesion, you need to make sure that you have the correct structure for an essay: an introductory paragraph, body paragraphs and a concluding paragraph. Also, there's a need to use "cohesive devices". These are signaling words like "firstly", "for example", "furthermore", "because", "as a result", etc. They make your writing more understandable to the reader.

Lexical Resource is another term for "vocabulary". The first thing you need here is a good "range" or variety of vocabulary. You can't be repeating the same phrases always. Furthermore, you ought to include some "less common" words and phrases. A good way to understand what this means is to use "topic-specific" vocabulary. That means that if you're talking about a specific topic, you use words and phrases which specific to that topic. For example, if your essay is addressing the topic of "Work", you could use vocabulary like "work-life balance" or "job satisfaction" or "redundant" or "perks", etc.  Lastly, it's important to also show awareness of "collocations". This is a word that not many students know about. Collocations are natural word combinations. For example, you would say "put pressure on someone" and not "give pressure to someone". The verb before "pressure" that you should use is "put" not "give". That's just the natural combination.

For Grammatical Range and Accuracy, the main area most students fail in is in producing "frequent error-free sentences". This requires students to write many or most of their sentences without an error! That's challenging for many students! However, students need to realize that being grammatically correct is important in IELTS. In real life, you can get away with a lot of grammar mistakes in your writing and speaking. This is because people are still able to understand you with all your grammar mistakes. However, the IELTS examiners do not just need to understand what you say/write, but they are also looking out to see if you have made too many grammar mistakes.

An important note on improving one's grammar: As you can see, there are a lot of criteria that one needs to fulfill in order to do well in the Writing portion of the IELTS. Though my years of experience in teaching IELTS, I should mention that I believe that the first two criteria above (Task Response and Coherence and Cohesion) can be easily learned through good books and even good online materials. However, the third (Vocabulary) and fourth (Grammar) criteria - especially the fourth - is where students struggle in. For example, let's talk about grammar. A student can learn English grammar for many years, but more likely than not, the student's grammar would still contain a lot of mistakes. Many of my students are extremely surprised when they attend my grammar and vocabulary classes where I point out and teach them the 12 most common grammar and vocabulary mistakes. They end up realizing how many grammar and vocabulary mistakes they've been making their whole lives.

You see, it's extremely difficult to improve in one's grammar because most students are in an environment where grammar mistakes in writing and speech are tolerated. Nobody corrects your grammar - even if you live in an English-speaking country - because it's rude to do so. And people understand you even if your writing or speech contain a lot of grammar mistakes. The result is that for most IELTS students, bad grammar has become a habit. It's an extremely hard habit to overcome.

Because of all this, it's very difficult to correct or improve one's grammar through reading and learning about grammar. This is why many students are stuck at 6.5 for Writing (and even Speaking). Before you improve your grammar, you need to know where you're wrong so you can correct your grammar. But most students are totally unaware of the grammar mistakes they make. That's why ultimately you can't improve much in your writing just by practicing and writing essays over and over again. You need someone to point out your grammar mistakes and correct them because most students won't be able to do so themselves.

ii) Improving in Speaking

Speaking is very similar to Writing in that both are productive skills - you are producing language. Because of this, there's not one correct answer and the reason a lot of students don't improve much when practicing (their Speaking or Writing) is that they don't know what their mistakes are and how to correct them.

Like Writing, there's 4 criteria for IELTS Speaking. In two of them (Vocabulary and Grammar), the criteria is almost exactly the same. Let's look at these two:

In order to do well in Speaking, you need to use a range of vocabulary, topic-specific vocabulary and collocations. And you also need to not make too many grammatical mistakes. I've already discussed this above in the Writing section so I won't do so here.

However, one of the main differences is what I've highlighted above: "idiomatic vocabulary" or "idioms". What are "idioms"? They are expressions whose meaning is different from the literal meaning of the individual words. So, for example, the idiom "it's raining cats and dogs" doesn't mean cats and dogs are coming down from the sky! Rather, it means that there's a lot of rain.

Using some idioms is OK for Speaking and not for Writing because Speaking is generally more "informal" than Writing and idioms are used in a more informal context. You wouldn't want to use idioms in your essay as the essay is a formal piece of writing. However, you can use them in Speaking.

In fact, if you want to get 7.0 or above, you NEED TO use "some idioms". Not many students realize this. But do note that you only need to use "some". Maybe 3 to 5 idioms throughout your whole Speaking test would be a good number. This is not a rule - just a rough guideline. You aren't expected to use an idiom every few sentences. That would be very unnatural because English speakers don't even do that. However, it's necessary for students to use "some idioms".

This is another reason why just "practicing" will not help you improve your score. If you don't realize that you need to use some idioms to get 7.0, you'll never get 7.0 no matter how good your Speaking is.

Practicing a lot, however, is good for one area and that is "Fluency". Let's take a look at the criteria for Fluency and Coherence:

As you can see, Fluency is about speaking at length without noticeable effort - i.e. you don't have too much hesitation or pauses. This is the area where practice and repetition will help a student. The more you practice, the more fluent you'll become. You will be able to speak a lot and there won't be pauses in your speech. As important as this is, do note that you could do well in your Fluency, but do badly in your Grammar and Vocabulary. In order to get 7.0, you need to be at a 7.0 level in all the criteria, not just Fluency. That's why to truly improve and get 7.0, it's not enough just to focus on practicing as that will only improve your Fluency.

The criteria above also includes Coherence/Cohesion. This is very similar to the Writing criteria. What you need to do is to use "cohesive devices" or "signaling words" to make your speech easier to understand. The last criteria is pronunciation. The criteria doesn't say much and to be honest it's not something you need to focus on. Most students would have decent pronunciation and if you don't have good pronunciation, it's not easy to change it so quickly.

In conclusion, let me end with the best strategy to improve your speaking. As a teacher, I'm not a big believer of getting students to practice a lot of speaking because, as I mentioned, practicing and repetition isn't going to going to get you your 7.0 if you don't reach a 7.0 in Vocabulary and Grammar. So what I tell my students is that you need to write out and prepare a good answer first, then practice it. Why "write out" the answer first? Because you'll never be able to just spontaneously include idioms and spontaneously correct your grammar mistakes. Writing helps you to pause and think about your grammar and think about including idioms and think about including "signaling words", etc. Prepare by writing out the answer. After you've done so, then start practicing it and increasing your Fluency. This method may take time, but that's the only way you'll truly improve your Speaking according to the IELTS criteria.

iii) Improving in Reading

Reading and Listening are both receptive skills. Unlike with Writing and Speaking, you don't produce any language - you're just receiving and understanding the language. Because of this, there are fewer things to worry about and improving in both Reading and Writing requires a different strategy.

The typical method of improving in Reading for many students is doing Reading practice tests over and over again! That can help to a certain extent, but it's not going to help you improve a lot. That's because you're not actually learning much when you do practice tests repeatedly. You're "testing" yourself to find out your level; you're not learning and getting better (see above).

Here's my method for improving in your Reading. It requires more work than just doing lots of practice tests, but through this way you're actually learning something and improving.

Firstly, do a practice test the usual way - give yourself 1 hour only. Write down your 40 answers on a sheet of paper. After this, don't look at the answers yet. Rather, give yourself another 1 to 2 hours to go through the Reading test again and challenge yourself to improve in your scores. If you need to use a dictionary, do so. Write your answers down in another sheet of paper.

You may wonder, "Why would you give yourself an additional 1-2 hours. So what if you get 40/40 after that additional time? After all, in the exam you don't get that much time - you only get 1 hour. Furthermore, you can't use a dictionary in the exam!"

You're totally right in that you only get 1 hour in the exam and you can't use a dictionary. But the purpose of the above method isn't to "test" yourself. It's to learn. If you don't know a word and you don't use a dictionary, you won't be learning and improving your language. Also, the purpose of giving yourself 1-2 additional hours is to give yourself extra time so the lack of time cannot prevent you from getting the correct answer. You will then challenge yourself to really understand the passage and see how to get the correct answer - without going to the answers straight away.

You see, most students are very lazy. After they do their Reading practice test in an hour, they go straight to the answers. The result is that they do not challenge themselves to understand how to answer IELTS reading questions. They say to themselves, "Oh, I didn't get that answer correct because I didn't have enough time and had to rush the answer." That's the problem. You're not truly learning how to answer IELTS Reading questions if you don't spend much time trying to find the answer. You need to go through this process of figuring out how to answer any IELTS Reading question first. That's the first step. After you know how to answer IELTS Reading questions, then you can work on your speed.

The only way you're going to really know how to answer IELTS Reading questions is through challenging yourself to find out the answer by yourself. That means you don't go to the answers straight away. Look, if it takes 5 hours to get 40/40, it's better than getting 28/40 in 1 hour. Why? Because then you are starting to understand how to answer IELTS questions. If I give you 5 hours and you can't get close to 40/40, that means you're probably not trying hard enough and you've not reached the level of understanding of how to answer IELTS Reading questions. You're most likely doing something wrong. You can't have 5 hours and not get close to full-marks. It means you're missing something or you're just too lazy to really focus and concentrate.

So this is the method I teach my students. Not all use this method because it's difficult and it takes a long time. Most are too lazy to use this method. And if you're too lazy to spend too much time, you won't improve much. If you really take the time to use the above method, you'll start to understand how to answer IELTS Reading questions in a way you'd never learn just by testing yourself always.

iv) Improving in Listening

Here's my suggestion for how to practice Listening. The typical method is to test yourself and just listen to the recording once (like in the exam) and then check the answers. Just as my suggestions for improving your Reading above, I'm recommending that you do things differently.

Firstly, you do things the normal way: listen to the recording once and write your answers. However, just like for Reading, do not check your answers straight away. Allow yourself to listen to the recording again for 1-2 times. If you want 3 or 4 or 5 times, then feel free to do so. I've explained my rationale for this method above. This will challenge you to really get the correct answers and not just lazily look to the answers for your answers. It'll force you to listen really carefully. It'll help you to improve. Again, listen as many times as possible till you're confident of getting close to full marks.

If the above is too difficult still and you don't get close to full marks even though you've listened to the recording many times, then make this slightly easier by using a program on the computer or app on your mobile phone to slow the speed of the listening. There are free apps available out there that you can use on your mobile phone. They allow you to slow the speed of the recording down to "0.9" or "0.8". Yes, this is not the speed that you'll hear in the exam, but as I've already said, you're here to improve and learn, not to test yourself. You improve by challenging yourself bit by bit, not testing yourself. So use the above two strategies (listening to the recording more than once and/or slowing down the speed of the recording) to improve step by step.