The Truth about IELTS Training

March 2016

With the IELTS exam being so essential for study overseas and with the enormous numbers of people in China taking the test, there has been a great proliferation of both books and schools catering to this need. However, this has created a problem. There has also been a proliferation of less than comprehensive approaches that exploit the intense pressure on students. Many schools claim to offer guaranteed ways to pass the test (a pass being 6+ for all intents and purposes). They do this by embarking on a tedious rendition of memorising stock language and by continually recycling past papers. This may work, up to a point, but it is certainly not the optimal way to score a good grade on the IELTS.

The only person who can truly guarantee a pass is the learner. So much comes down to the motivation, dedication, and persistence of the learner. Yes, if he or she turns up to class all day and every day, the rote method of studying to the test; revolving around tedious and uncommunicative fill-the-gaps; instruction as opposed to learning; and exercises as opposed to activity, will just get you there. But you can get there twice as quickly, with half the effort, and with twice the enjoyment, by understanding one simple attitude:

“It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare; it is because we do not dare that things are difficult.” ~ Seneca

Tackle the hard things and the benefits will pay off. In the context of learning a second language, the hard thing is speaking. So few schools really make speaking a priority. Whether that’s because they don’t have teachers proficient enough (in most schools instruction is not in given in English); or whether it’s because the teachers or the school are not enthusiastic or adventurous enough (see Seneca quote); or whether it’s because most IELTS schools want to drag out the tuition time, they do not put speaking where it should be: as the main focus of any IELTS course.

Why is speaking so important? There are two main reasons:

1. Making speaking a priority is the most efficient way to progress in a second language because getting good at speaking naturally raises the other skills: writing, reading, and listening. However, this principle is not necessarily true the other way around. An ability to read well does not imply improved speaking or listening ability, and an ability to write well does not mean spoken errors will be reduced or pronunciation or fluency improved.

2. Speaking is the one skill that cannot really be practised alone (and I don’t mean parroting, which can be a useful exercise). Class time is expensive and therefore the best use of this time is in speaking. No wonder then, that so many schools relegate speaking and instead focus on the more passive disciplines of reading, writing, and listening: things that very often can really be done at home or after class. Most schools know all too well that time is money. That’s how they stay in business — by essentially wasting time on the non-essentials. By guaranteeing results through a drawn out, dull, and tedious method, schools can then justify their high tuition fees. The “guarantee” is that if you fail, you can go through it all again. In other words, Einstein’s definition of insanity.

The truth is, there are no shortcuts. The route to good English is not just for schools to teach speaking, but for students to take personal responsibility for their learning. It’s far more satisfying that way and ironically, it’s easier — once you overcome the initial affective barriers of shyness and commitment (see Seneca quote).

The shortcut formulaic approach to IELTS is a like building a house on foundations of sand. It is a temporary fix that belies the real need to learn the language and to be proficient in it. Reality demands proficiency and thus the cheat sheet and machine school approach cause more pain for the individual in the long term. The students arrive in the country of choice and cannot truly communicate, cannot understand the lectures, cannot participate in the tutorials, struggle with the text books, and then fail the assignments and exams.