Myth and legend, or, Don’t believe everything you hear about the IELTS!…

My post for today comes, yet again, from one of my students. They are great sources of inspiration for me to write this blog, nearly everything I have to say comes from trying to help them get the score they need. I hope their stories can help and inspire you too. Anyway to the point, I was talking to someone yesterday and she happened to make some remark about how IELTS examiners are biased towards Chinese accents and how some people were going to another country outside of China to take a retest to get a better score. I queried this immediately and upon further discussion I decided to write this post to lay some of these “myths” to rest. This was not the first time I had heard similar things from my students, not by any means, I have heard many IELTS “myths”, most of the originators of these cock and bull stories have no business being IELTS teachers if this is what they “teach” their students.

In fact when I tell them the truth about these stories they express incredulation and surprise, how could this be true? My teacher told me this, it must be correct! However, when I refer them to the official IELTS assessment criteria, and to the official IELTS sites by the British Council, The University of Cambridge, and to the many other well respected online teachers, who all say the same thing as me, they begin to see things differently.

So, let’s get to the point, what are these myths and why are they exactly that, myths? The following items are collated in no particular order from several sources, students and teachers alike.

One, “there is a “correct” answer in the speaking test”.

Well, no, not at all, IELTS is not a truth test, the examiners are only interested in the language  you use to answer the question (see the criteria above), not the actual question as such.  This means you can make things up and lie if you wish, no one will know or care. For sure, you have to address the topic of the question but that is all. I know many students like to find the current questions on the internet and prepare answers for them but this is generally a mistake for reasons which I have mentioned elsewhere in this blog.

Two, “if I sit IELTS many times I will get the score I want”.

Errr, no. I had some students who had taken the IELTS, 2, 4, 6, in one or two cases, 10 times, somehow hoping that their score would magically improve and one day they would get a 7. Upon being questioned, I discovered that their preparation was the same as it had been for every test. When I told them that it obviously wasn’t working and that they needed to change, they seemed surprised. However, they couldn’t argue with my logic that getting the same score every time indicated that their study plan was ineffective. When they changed their plan, they changed their score. So, what I now say is, don’t take the exam until you are ready, when your teacher says you are ready, prepare properly and you will only need to take IELTS once.

Three, “I only need a month or so to prepare for the IELTS, I don’t need to study for a long time”.

Wrong, unless your English level is already a strong intermediate/upper intermediate then one month is certainly too short a time for preparation. I cannot count the times I have had students book lessons with me with only weeks, sometimes days, to go before their test, having virtually no preparation whatsoever! Cramming intensively for exams is an old student trick, we have all done it, however, the exams I crammed for were in English and I was only memorising a subject. Trying this tactic is almost always bound to failure because your language skills cannot be increased in such a short period of time. You may be able to learn the techniques and strategies of the test, that is possible, but to increase your English in only a month or whatever is simply unrealistic!

Four, “you need a British accent to do well in IELTS!”

Again, no. All that matters is your pronunciation and that you show a wide range of pronunciation features as like to natural, native speech as possible. If you can be understood, and you can sound natural, you will be fine. Check the criteria for more information on what this means.

Five, “I have to get the examiner to like me/ the examiner didn’t like me/ wasn’t friendly”.

Now, the examiner is following a script throughout the test, and are not allowed to go off script while talking to you, they are allowed to grade their language a little in Part 3, but in general they have to be consistent in their approach. If they like you or not does not enter into it. Examiners are monitored regularly for fairness and consistency and if they don’t maintain eye contact with you  it doesn’t necessarily imply anything, they have to watch the time, listen carefully to what you say and do their paperwork, so don’t read anything negative into this.

Six, “I have to use formal language in the speaking test”.

Not all the time, in part 1 and 2, you can and should use some idioms and colloquial expressions, in part 3 it is possible to use some more formal language as these are more serious, abstract questions. In my view, “nevertheless, moreover, undoubtedly, etc”, but the trick is not to overdo them. You certainly do not want to have your entire speaking test filled with these overly formal words and expressions, it will sound odd and you may lose marks because of it. See the criteria for a band 5 Fluency and Coherence score below.

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Seven, “I should just study IELTS practice materials to get a good score”.

Not a good idea, whilst using IELTS materials in your study is a good idea, only using IELTS materials is a bad one. What I mean by this is that your general all round English ability needs to quite good before you consider taking the test. You need a good knowledge of grammar and vocabulary to do well and this takes some time to develop, it is estimated that most students need around 200 hours of guided study to improve by one band score. so once your English at the required level then you can apply for the test.

Eight, “I don’t need a tutor, I can prepare for the IELTS myself”.

While this may be true for some exceptional individuals, in general terms, you will do better if you have some guidance at the very least. Even if it’s only having some help with your writing and speaking, which you can’t really estimate for yourself. Having a tutor who can guide you and give you feedback will be of great benefit to you.

Anyway, there you are, just a few of the common myths that surround the IELTS, there are more of course, but my final tip for you is that if you have a teacher who tells you any of these things are true, then you should drop them and find someone else. Remember, if in doubt, go to the criteria and the official websites and guide books from the British Council or the University of Cambridge. Once again, if you have any questions, drop me a line.