I don’t know anything about that subject.

One common complaint that IELTS candidates make is that in the writing task they often don’t really know anything about the subject they are asked to write about. Very often the question asked, especially in Writing Task Two, seems to be asking for specialist knowledge that some IELTS candidates feel that they don’t have. The subject of the question might never have crossed their minds before.

Look at this question:

Cheap international flights lead to increased levels of tourism. Some people feel that this is a positive thing for the visited country but others do not.
What are your opinions on this issue?
Continue reading “I don’t know anything about that subject.”

Don’t wear phrases out.

I was talking to a group of IELTS teachers about my post Thinking on your feet and they asked whether I had made it clear that some words and phrases should not be overused. I don’t think I made this clear. Sometimes it is possible to just answer a question.

When someone asks you your name, you don’t have to think about your answer. It is not an interesting question. There is a simple answer to the question. Just answer the question! Continue reading “Don’t wear phrases out.”

Thinking on your feet

When you are having a conversation, you don’t always know the answers to questions and sometimes, you might not know what to say next. In lots of conversations, you will have to pause for a moment to collect your thoughts and plan your next words. This is perfectly normal and natural in your own language but it can cause IELTS candidates to panic. They think they are in danger of getting a lower IELTS band score for their speaking exam because they don’t answer all questions immediately. Continue reading “Thinking on your feet”

Google is your IELTS friend

Looking up definitions in an English – English dictionary forces you to understand meanings in English. Sometimes, translation is quick and easy but can miss out vital information: information which will increase your English knowledge and help you to get the IELTS band score you need. A good dictionary should give a word definition, pronunciation and word type. Other information is a bonus.
Google Dictionary is a fantastic online dictionary. Simply type in the word that you don’t know and you’ll get instant results that are easy to understand and follow

1 Pronunciation: a phonetic transcription of the target word is given and this can be played over your headphones or speakers. The transcription is for American English but pronunciation variations are often highlighted.

2 Synonyms: a list of synonyms is given. This is particularly useful as it breaks these down into word type e.g. Google Dictionary gives synonyms for “paddle” as both a verb and a noun.

3 Definition: the definitions given are comprehensive and clear.

4 Grammar: the different forms of verbs are displayed. You can spot any irregular verbs easily. The verb sing shows the following:
sang past tense; sings 3rd person singular present; sung past participle; singing present participle

5 Related Phrases: this is very interesting to a learner of English. It helps to extend the understanding and use of the target word. The related phrases are linked to their own definitions. The word study is linked to case study and study group. There are other related phrases.

6 Usage examples: these link to external sources. This provides lots of extra reading practice for your before your IELTS exam.

7 Web definitions: these offer alternative definitions of your target words.

All in all, Google Dictionary is a great study tool. It has a clean, simple interface and is always available when you are online. It is a fantastic complement to your book-based study dictionary.

Bookmark the address: www.google.com/dictionary. Try to use this fabulous tool regularly.
Read about pronunciation for the IELTS exam here.

Why are words so confusing? The answers.

If you read this post, you probably have already thought about the incorrect sentences given and know which words are incorrectly used. Here are the sentences again with an explanation of what is wrong after them.

1. Strong coffee doesn’t effect me at all.
Effect is a noun but in this sentence, the auxiliary (do) precedes it so a verb is needed. Affect is the verb which is often confused with the noun effect.
Strong coffee doesn’t affect me. subject + auxiliary + verb
Strong coffee has no effect on me. to have an effect on something.

2. There are strong economical arguments for having high taxation at the moment.
Economical is an adjective that means something gives good value or return in relation to the money spent or resources used. It also means something does not use many resources or much money.
e.g. My car is quite economical. Its doesn’t use much fuel.
Economic is an adjective which relates to the economy or the study of economics. In our sentence above, the context suggests we are talking about the economy (high taxation) so economic would be the correct adjective to use here.

3. He was so busy to do his homework.
So is often incorrectly used instead of too. To make this sentence work, so busy needs to be followed by that+clause e.g. He was so busy that he couldn’t do his homework. Too+adjective is followed by the full infinitive e.g. He was too busy to do his homework.

There is a difference between these two sentences:
It is so hot.
It is too hot.

so hot : this suggests it is very hot
too hot: this suggests that the heat is excessive

4. Do you think there is an opportunity of life on Mars?
Opportunity suggests that something is possible because the circumstances are good or right for something to happen e.g. The party was a great opportunity to meet new people. The opportunity to meet people is there because you are at the party.
Possibilitysuggests that something might be true or might happen. It is often followed by of or that e.g. Do you think there is a possibility of life on Mars?

5. I was standing besides the IELTS examiner.
Besides means in addition toe.g. Where are you going besides the cinema?
Beside means next to e.g. I was standing beside the IELTS examiner.

When you find a word that you mistake for another, make sure you look it up in a dictionary or on Google. Try to use the word in a piece of writing or when you are speaking. We can only learn how to use a word correctly if we try using it!

Planning your writing

One common mistake that students make when writing in English is that they put pen to paper before they have really thought about what they are going to write. They read the question and start writing. This is really not a very good strategy. Even the shortest piece of writing should be planned. The problem is, lots of students really don’t know how to plan.

How to plan your writing

The first thing to do is read the question carefully. Identify keywords and underline them.

Make sure that you have identified exactly what you are being asked to write. This task identification stage applies to all types of writing. You should do it even when you are writing a letter or an email in your own language, especially when you want to make a good impression.

Look at this question:

You are advised to spend no more than 20 minutes on this task.

You tried to book a course at City of Bristol College. You received confirmation of your booking but the course listed in the confirmation was the wrong course. Money has been deducted from your bank account.

Write a letter to City of Bristol College and explain the situation and why it worries you. The course starts in one month. Find out whether you need to reapply for your course and how to pay for it. Also, request information about term start and end dates.

You should write at least 150 words.
You do NOT need to write your address or the college address.
Start the letter as follows:

Dear _________________________

Can you answer these questions? Try to answer them without looking back at the question.

1 What are you writing?
2 How long have you got?
3 How many words should you write?
4 What are your concerns?
5 What other information would you like?

If you can answer these questions easily, you have started to plan the content of the writing task. If you can’t answer the questions, perhaps you haven’t read the writing task carefully enough. It is very important that you practise understanding writing tasks and make sure that you can quickly identify what the task type and the core content needed to answer the task correctly.

1 What are you writing?
A formal letter. Do you know what this is and how to structure it?

2 How long have you got?
You shouldn’t take more than 20 minutes on a task one writing task. If you take longer than 20 minutes, you might find that you do not have enough time to answer writing task two properly. You need to write answers to both tasks to get a good IELTS band score for your writing.

3 How many words should you write?
The minimum number of words needed to answer this question properly is 150. If you write fewer than this, you may score badly as you need to write at least 150 words to answer the question properly.

4 What are your concerns?
They seem to have booked you on the wrong course and debited your bank account for it. The course starts soon (in one month) and you need to know what to do next.

5 What other information would you like?
You would like to know the course term dates.

Now you must think about the structure of the letter. All pieces of writing can be divided into three clear parts.


Do you know what to write in each of the writing parts listed above? Why not think about it for a minute before reading the next part. It is very important that you can identify which parts of your writing go where.

This should explain why you are writing your letter.

Read this post to find out about starting and ending your pieces of writing.

This should express your concerns and worries about your enrolment.
You should also ask about the course term start and end dates.

You should say what you expect to happen and thank the college for their time.

The above procedure may seem very simple and obvious but it is incredible the number of IELTS candidates and English language students there are who do not plan their answers to writing tasks at all. A lack of planning can lead to a disorganised answer that does not contain all of the information required to answer the question effectively. If you don’t answer the question effectively, your IELTS writing band score won’t be as high as you need.

Planning can be as simple as reading the question, understanding the question and then identifying which parts of your answer go where in the written task. The most important thing is to delay putting pen to paper for a few minutes so that you know what you are going to write and where you are going to write it. Make notes of your ideas and thoughts. Write down language you could use in your answer.

The most important thing is to practise. Find examples of writing tasks and plan your answers to them. Never spend more than 25% of available time planning but always make sure you do it.

Coming soon. A model answer to the writing task above.

Was that a good interview?

In “Why does the examiner keep asking me questions?” we looked at how giving full answers to interview questions is very important. Most IELTS candidates try very hard to perform well in their interview and really want to know what the interviewer thinks about the interview, once it is over.

The question is :
is it okay to ask the examiner for immediate performance feedback?

An IELTS teacher told me a very sad story the other day. Her student needed a IELTS band score of 6.5. The candidate was weak but had worked very hard. The IELTS teacher felt that the student needed more time to prepare for the exam but the student had personal deadlines and needed to take the exam as soon as she could. At the end of the IELTS interview, the student asked the IELTS examiner if her interview performance had been acceptable. The examiner told her not to worry and that she had performed well. The student was very happy.

Time passed and the results came through. This student had achieved a overall band score of 5 in the IELTS exam but had a 5.5 in the IELTS speaking exam. The teacher thought that this IELTS band score was a true reflection of the student’s level of English but also thought that the student must have put in a superb performance to achieve a 5.5 in the IELTS speaking exam.

The student was devastated. She felt that the IELTS examiner had given her false information and should not have “lied” to her about her speaking exam performance. The teacher had to spend a great deal of time pointing out the following:

1 The IELTS examiner does not know what band score you need so asking whether your speaking exam performance was good (or bad) is relative only to the performance itself. If you ask for your grade directly, the examiner will not give it. The examiner needs time to reflect at the end of the speaking exam before giving you a speaking band score.

2 The IELTS examiner is not going to comment negatively if you have performed badly. The examiner may think that your level of English is low but you have performed exceptionally well in the speaking test (considering your level.)

3 The best judge of performance is often you. You will know how well you have done but you won’t know what IELTS band score the IELTS examiner will give your performance.

The student was upset but eventually realised that she needed to study more to improve her level of English so that she would have a better chance of getting her target IELTS band score of 6.5.

She followed this advice IELTS : running a marathon

She worked hard for another 4 months and she eventually achieved her IELTS goal.

Why does the examiner keep asking me questions?

The examiner needs you to speak so that your oral fluency and accuracy can be assessed. It’s difficult to do that if you are silent and it’s really not practical for the examiner to just ask you to speak.

Imagine this:

Examiner: Good morning. Please sit down.
You: Good morning.

there is silence

Examiner: Well?
You (smiling but confused): Well?

there is more silence
and more…..

Examiner: You have twenty minutes. Speak.
You: About what?

the silence returns

The questions that the examiner asks you are not meant to trick you or confuse you. You might feel confused if you don’t listen to the question properly but the examiner really does want to give you every opportunity to speak. The questions are designed and asked to give you something to speak about.

When you answer the questions, you have a chance to show off your English and demonstrate what you can do. There’s no point answering the questions with a one word answer. Put yourself in the examiner’s shoes. What IELTS speaking band grade should the following IELTS candidate get?

Examiner: Do you study or work?
IELTS candidate: Study.
Examiner: Okay. What are you studying?
IELTS candidate: Science.
Examiner: That’s interesting. Which science are you specialising in?
IELTS candidate: Biology.

It would be really difficult the grade the English heard. The examiner might feel frustrated and would be forced to give a low grade based on the performance of the IELTS candidate. This would be sad, especially if the IELTS candidate was able to produce better English than this.

When you are being interviewed, you have to put on a show. You have to perform and during your performance you must demonstrate your level of English. Interviews are an artificial situation : both for you and for the IELTS examiner. You are not chatting over dinner in an expensive restaurant. More often than not, you will be one of many candidates that the IELTS examiner will interview during the day and examiners can get tired. Don’t make them work too hard : help them to see that your English is fantastic by giving full answers to their questions.

How could you answer this question in a full sentence (or more!) of at least ten words? Think about it for a minute or two before you read the answer of our fictional IELTS candidate below.

What do you do?

Here’s a great answer to this question :

“At the moment, I am working as a cook in a restaurant. It’s just a temporary job. I am starting my master’s at the University of Bristol in three months. Working in the restaurant is great fun but it’s only for the short term.”

Notice how the IELTS candidate answers the question but gives lots of detail. The candidate mentions their current job and also their plans for the future. The candidate also states how they feel about the current job.

This is much better than saying “I am a cook.”

Look at the following questions. How could you answer them in a sentence of 10 words or more. Could you give 2 sentence answers?

1. Do you read a lot?
2. Where are you from?
3. What time of day do you prefer?
4. Do you eat a lot of meat?
5. Do you prefer camping or hotel holidays?

Don’t forget to give reasons for your answer. Try to explain your answer.

The only way to get better at answering questions fully is by practising every day. Find lists of possible IELTS speaking questions and think about how you would answer them.

Why are words so confusing?

Read the following sentences. Can you work out what is wrong with them? Perhaps you can easily spot the errors and correct them but are you able to explain what the errors are? Giving this kind of explanation is good language practice : you have to be very precise and clear so that there is no doubt that you understand what the problem is.

My English teacher gave me lots of good advise about the IELTS exam.

Here’s how you would explain the error. Notice the level of detail in the explanation:

Advise is a verb (to advise someone to do something = verb + object + infinitive) but a noun is needed in this sentence. We know this because advise is preceded by an adjective (good) so an adjective+noun combination is needed. This is an example of a confusing word : a word which has a similar meaning to another word but is used in a different way, is related to another word but has a different meaning or one which looks similar to another word but has a different meaning. The noun needed in this sentence is advice.

Advise is used in this way –

Our English teacher advised us to have an early night before the IELTS exam.

Can you give a complete explanation of why the following sentences are wrong?

1. Strong coffee doesn’t effect me at all.
2. There are strong economical arguments for having high taxation at the moment.
3. He was so busy to do his homework.
4. Do you think there is an opportunity of life on Mars?
5. I was standing besides the IELTS examiner.

Think about your explanations. Do they make the errors clear? Have you given good examples of how to use the word used incorrectly? make sure that you note down these confusing words and try to use them correctly in your speaking and your writing.

Why not post your explanations in the comments box? Other users can check them and decide if they are correct or not. Full explanations are here.

There is plenty of material in this book to help you to improve your vocabulary for the IELTS exam. It covers the main vocabulary areas that you need for the IELTS exam.

Cambridge Vocabulary for IELTS includes useful tips on how to approach the IELTS exam tasks and covers especially tricky areas such as the language needed to describe data and processes.

IELTS : running a marathon

Many students believe that they will attain a higher band grade in the IELTS exam if they are able to study English at a higher level. They convince themselves that the fact they are studying English at a “low” level is what stops them achieving better results in IELTS test papers. These students think that if they study “advanced” English, they will be able to produce “advanced” English in the IELTS exam and attain a higher IELTS band score.

This belief, of course, is nonsense and will never lead to better IELTS results. An intermediate level student will not be able to consistently produce advanced English until they are able to deal with the language studied at intermediate level.

Imagine this. An unfit person decides that they want to run a full marathon. That’s a long run: it’s 26 miles or 40 kilometres. This new runner, this unfit runner, is best advised to start with short training runs – perhaps as short as 500 metres. There’s no point in trying to run further because an unfit body will suffer if pushed too hard. This unfit body might even fail!

marathon running legs

This new runner is forced to train and train until their fitness is at the right level so that they can achieve their target goal : the target is to complete the marathon. It would be silly if this unfit, novice runner attempted to run with elite marathon runners. They would be unable to keep up. In fact, they’d probably fall behind within 10 paces. The unfit, novice runner would become discouraged and would be in danger of failing.

The best advice for training for anything is to train at the right level. It’s also encouraging to train with others of a similar level. You will soon get to know your strengths and weaknesses and it will be clear which areas you need to work on. Our unfit, novice marathon runner will attain their goal but it will take time and hard work. Hard work is what progress takes and this takes time.

If you want to achieve the IELTS band score you need, it is important that there are no gaps in your knowledge. Intermediate level students should study at this level until they are fully ready to progress to the next level.