Examinations – whether in an academic situation, hospital, for your car license and many other situations– will always leave someone in trepidation! Sometimes in our quest to change our lives for better, we have to surmount some tests along the way and IELTs are no different. I still remember when I took my first test (yes, I’ve done it twice) and it wasn’t exactly a walk in the park. In May 2016, without knowing where my journey would take me, but knowing I needed a change, I took the test and even though the scores weren’t exactly bad (overall score of 7.0), I felt I could have done better. So, where did I go wrong?
English, just like any other language is prone to change, tricky and sneaky. We all have accents (I know, most people think it’s only the British who do), but we all have a way of speaking that identifies our inherent regions. Speaking a language is tricky and if the accents aren’t what you are used to, sneaky. I have to say that the first time I sat for the IELTs test, I hadn’t bothered to practice and didn’t read the test manuals, in essence, I went in blind as a church mouse. That was my greatest mistake. It’s English, how difficult could it be? Funnily enough, it’s not difficult, but rather tricky. How you ask. I’ll explain my experience. In May of 2016, I went in cocky, relishing the coming exam and thinking how I had it all figured out. The results okay, because I knew I could do better.
LISTENING – 6.0
READING – 7.5
WRITING – 7.0
SPEAKING – 8.0
Looking at my scores, I realized my greatest weakness was the LISTENING section. What was I missing? What had I not done properly? Looking back, I discovered my expectation had been that the two people having the conversation would lay out all the answers without any twists and turns. Yes, the sequence of the conversation and the questions is in tandem, but one person will ask something that will get you scrambling to see if you missed another question, or will bring up another topic that is different from the questions that you have in the paper and that will throw you off the plot and leave you lost. That’s why it’s imperative for you to go through the questions in those allocated 60 seconds (I believe) before you begin your listening test. You may get lost (I did the first and second time), but if you have been following the conversation, I’m quite sure you’ll be able to guess an answer (and may end up guessing correctly). Remember, there are no wrong answers in IELTS
In READING I discovered that I had forgotten all about synonyms (a word having the same or nearly the same meaning as another in the language, as happy, joyful, elated, etc.). Trust me, this is something you don’t want to miss because you’ll end up wasting your time looking for the same word in the essay when it’s a different word but with the same meaning that has been used.
In the essay: The farmer was using basic machinery to cultivate his plants and the produce was abysmal.
The question: The simple equipment the farmer was using made his harvest ABYSMAL.
Be on the look-out for such small things because if you don’t know, you’ll miss the bigger picture and end up going through the entire essay (some have as many as 6 – 10 paragraphs). Again, check the questions first before you begin the exam as this way, you can skim through the essays looking for the answers. This works far much better because you know which answer you need to find immediately, rather than re-reading again to find the solution to the problem.
WRITING is fun, truly, you are given a topic and told to put your thoughts on paper. No limitations, just you and the paper talking to each other (yes, I love writing J as you can deduce). There is a simple cardinal rule when it comes to writing – the topic, an outline of your ideas, the body, introduction, conclusion and finishing touches. The topic is already provided, so what do you need? You need to imagine yourself in that moment, in that world and write as if you’ve lived it before. It helps if you can provide examples to back up your suppositions of the stand you’ve taken. Also, be very careful of the words you use, if you aren’t sure of the spelling, please don’t use that word. Use words that you are absolutely sure of and make sure your handwriting is legible (avoid scrawling your sentences and write like a grade 6 student. I’m quite sure no one wants the hustle of stressing over a word which they can’t make out when they have probably 20 other papers to mark). The first section requires 150 word which is a basically full first page and almost a quarter of the second page. The second part is 250 words which fill up both pages. Understand what the topic is about, allow yourself two minutes to come up with a story line (you are required to write a letter to your friend describing your holiday and something that captivated you. Think of a place you are familiar with, what is this place? When did you travel? How was the place? What stood out for you?). Use descriptive words (beautiful, marvelous, wonderful culture, noisy, crowded), claim the story and make it your own. Again, be conscious of the number of words you are supposed to write for each section. Do not over-think it, keep it simple and let your sentences flow continuously and in sequence.
SPEAKING is where you get to meet with the examiner and let me tell you, it’s a daunting experience. You are in tether hooks the whole time, with butterflies swimming in your stomach. The trick is to take some breathing exercises before the exam. Find a quiet place and relax your mind. Don’t try memorizing or cramming anything, instead, think of it as going for an interview for a job you applied for. You want to make the best impression as much as possible. Body language matters because if you are jittery, it makes you sound unsure in the tape recording. Be confident, sit calmly and avoid fidgeting in the chair. If anything, place your hands on your lap and maintain eye contact with the examiner. Listen to the question being asked carefully and respond slowly and precisely. Don’t try to impress the examiner by using words which you cannot pronounce properly (this is not the place to practice this, you can do that later in front of your mirror J). You want to make sure you have a continuous line of conversation as you would be having with another person. Again, there’s no right or wrong answer, the examiner is just looking to see how your thought process works, your understanding of everyday mundane life.
Question: What do you think of public transport?
Respond giving examples. I think the use of public transport is great because it allows us to travel to our destinations at an affordable rate. Not everyone can afford a car and if we had to walk long distances we would…….
The more confident you are about what you are talking about, the better you get at answering the questions. Try as much as possible to relate things to what you do daily and what you observe and base your answers on this.
Finally, I did retake the IELTS but the GENERAL TRAINING in August 2017 and my scores all averaged the same:
LISTENING – 8.0
READING – 8.0
WRITING – 8.5
SPEAKING – 8.0
This gave me an overall score of 8 which felt pretty amazing. I was asked what are the tricks to make this happen, and I can honestly say it’s believing in yourself, praying to God for guidance and be confident in what you are doing. Also, I believe in the old adage that practice makes perfect and the more we exercise our capabilities the more we grow in strength. For most of us, English is a second or a third language, but that should not deter you from getting to your goal. In your everyday life, instead of speaking your dialect (Swahili, Hindi, Tagalog etc.), opt to express yourself in English. One of thing I noticed is that some people have the habit of doing a direct translation of their language to English. When you do this, you mess up the past, present and future tenses. Try and watch more English programs and movies as this will help with your enunciation. Read magazines and newsletters or even simple books like The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemmingway, Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie, Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White and much more. This will help you achieve a continuous and fluent flow of constructing sentences when writing and also in speaking because you’ll understand better how to form and align words in your mind. Don’t be scared to pronounce words out loud, because I discovered while reading, that even though I do pronounce the word perfect in my head when spoken out loud, it tends to come out wrong. It took me a while to pronounce the word distort because I kept missing the S .
Never fear the unknown because it’s only by been audacious that we transcend our capabilities. All the best to all the other IELTS candidates and I hope through my rambling monologue I have helped someone somewhere on their road to a better future.
7th September 2017.
Skill Select Client.