So, this post reflects on some of the IELTS challenges that graduate applicants face. The 24-30 age range has a learner profile with significant differences compared to high school or even undergraduate students. Students in this category can have conversational English, and often use the language for professional purposes, so a 6.0-7.0 IELTS grade can seem easily attainable. Unfortunately, the exam presents a greater challenge than many of them expect.
Effectiveness vs accuracy in IELTS Speaking
Imagine a 25-year-old professional who had pretty good high school English, continued to study English at university and now speaks to clients in English, usually to make international calls to new contacts, and writes emails in English two or three times a week. They decide to take IELTS and assumes that the journey to passing will be relatively short.
But instead they find that IELTS quickly reveals their weaknesses. For example, when studying for the speaking exam they try to tell a story about a journey they took, or an experience they had, and they find it difficult to combine the past simple and past perfect tenses accurately. Equally, they find that their vocabulary, although adequate for business purposes and making casual conversation, isn’t wide enough to cover all the topics used in the speaking exam. After a month of IELTS study, they realise they need to improve their English in a deeper and more basic way than they had anticipated.
This scenario is very common, and it points to a truth that a great deal of everyday communication isn’t very accurate. In reality, native or even proficient speakers of English won’t correct the errors of people they’re speaking with – it’s embarrassing and often unnecessary if they can work out the speaker’s meaning. In fact, native English speakers often excel at decoding the meaning of people using English around them. This includes adjusting to local accent and general errors made by one nationality or another. This lack of corrective feedback means that English language skills tend to degrade over time in casual users, without the speaker really noticing the deterioration.
Also, it is important to place IELTS as one of the Cambridge Assessment English courses and exams. These originated to test European learners, so one of the testing objectives was to focus on the small errors made by European speakers when they translated directly from their own language. For example, prepositions are tested heavily in B2 First, partly because European languages use them slightly differently. This legacy means that the IELTS mark scheme rewards a high level of accuracy in basic grammar.
Exam skills and IELTS
Another problem that older students face with IELTS is their lack of language exam skills. This applies particularly to the reading and listening sections of the IELTS exam, where fresh and well-practiced language exam skills really help. For example, students who are accustomed to the range of question types in multiple-choice reading exams have an advantage in IELTS. Some of these question forms are not intuitive, and it can take precious time to work out how to answer them.
For the listening exam, listening for detail in a monologue is a particular skill. Much listening done in everyday life, such as in meetings or telephone calls, allows the listener to interrupt and check their understanding is correct, or ask questions which prompt the speaker to rephrase their point. But exam listening isn’t like this; it demands a level of concentration which requires practice.
Also, both the listening and the reading exam favour people who do a lot of sustained listening and reading. In fact, full-time study is a place where people must read and listen for long periods at a time. For many professional people, listening passively for longer periods is something they do less often than high school and university students. In a similar vein, reading emails, articles and reports on topics in English about which the reader has professional knowledge and interest requires a very different skill set to trying to understand an article on a new topic full of new ideas and new vocabulary.
Professional people and vocabulary range
One of the features of IELTS, and most other Secure English Language Tests, is the range of topics used for the speaking exam. IELTS requires speakers to answer questions and engage with the examiner on three. This penalises students who are accustomed to using English in one professional area, as depth of vocabulary is not tested. It’s common to see business people in their late twenties who are usually comfortable in English suddenly find they can’t talk about ‘art’ or ‘photographs’ with their usual degree of fluency.
The solution for this age group? It’s really to remember that both studying for IELTS and taking the test becomes more expensive the longer they’re pursued. My recommendation is to take the test seriously and make a three-month plan, involving studying on a preparation course and buying self-study materials such as course books, with a test date booked at the end. The alternative, a slow start which turns into an extended period of six months or more, becomes progressively more expensive.