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How can subject teachers help students boost their IELTS band score?

As proof of English language proficiency, some higher education institutions will accept evidence that students have obtained academic qualifications through instruction in English. However, many do not, and students will often find themselves needing to demonstrate proficiency in the form of an IELTS certificate, typically showing band 6.5 or 7 score.

It seems particularly frustrating when a student manages to meet all the academic requirements through English-medium instruction, only to be let down by their IELTS score. And yet this happens with surprising regularity. Immersed in their academic studies, students seem to lack time and motivation for ongoing IELTS training, perceiving it as less relevant, urgent, or engaging. What can subject teachers do more to mitigate the problem?

First, much of the work we already do in academic classes helps improve IELTS performance, and could perhaps be emphasised more. Take, for example, visual literacy skills, critical in the IELTS information transfer task (part 1 writing) and required throughout the paper. Academic textbooks offer a treasure trove of visually-presented data, which students could be encouraged to practise describing and analysing. What’s more, the academic topics themselves often overlap with the kind of world knowledge expected of IELTS students. Science, geography, psychology often broach contemporary issues like the obesity, migration, or crime respectively, which IELTS candidates must understand to grasp questions and understand texts.

I also suspect opportunities for language development go begging in academic classes, mine included. In history lessons I’m forever telling students to use brief, bullet-pointed notes instead of sentences. I also accept accept one-word answers so as to focus on key information. By contrast, IELTS examiners always looks for extended, complex sentences. Are my efforts to maintain clarity of thought creating an environment inimical to English development? In the pursuit of academic learning, we mustn’t miss opportunities to highlight and encourage the production of language useful for IELTS.

And so, with both academic competencies and language skills in mind, here are seven suggestions for subject teachers who’d like to help students boost their band score.  
  • Share a marking code between departments that can be used to flag issues relevant to IELTS (e.g. P = Punctuation, SS = simple sentence, IL = imprecise language)
  • Use IELTS question styles when reviewing learning, like summary completion tasks and True, False, and Not Given tasks.
  • Flag any lesson keywords that could be useful in general academic English (factor, pattern, ally) and discuss their various uses.  
  • Write up lesson questions in skeleton form (What/happen/we/mix lead nitrate/sodium chloride?) and have students write it and respond in full.
  • Have students describe visuals from textbooks to a partner, who can try to draw them. Encourage students to identify key information from data themselves.  
  • Share any media stories relevant to learning topics when opening lessons and encourage students to take stances on any issues.
  • Inform IELTS specialist staff when you are covering topics related to IELTS topics so that they can relate IELTS training to them.

Crucial to supporting IELTS development across the school is promoting awareness among all staff of the demands of the IELTS exam and of what the band 7 English looks like. If subject teachers know what candidates have to do, they’ll likely find ways to support them.

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About Nick Thorner
Nick Thorner is an English and humanities teacher at Kings Education, Oxford, where he helps train students for entry into the UK university system. Nick has also co-authored two IELTS coursebooks and is author of the professional development title Motivational Teaching.

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