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Interview with Sam McCarter about the IELTS exam

Interview with Sam McCarter about the IELTS exam

05 Feb 2014 Mehdi Safavi
Sam McCarter is the author of a number of textbooks for IELTS published by Macmillan. Some of his books include: IELTS TestBuilder, Improve your IELTS writing, Tips for IELTS and Ready for IELTS. In this interview, he shares valuable tips with IELTS teachers.

Many people believe that IELTS is a mental marathon. Is this the case?

"To many people, pupils, students and teachers, preparing for the IELTS can appear to be akin to running a mental marathon. However, this is not necessarily the case. Firstly, students need to be made aware what the IELTS examination is testing: it is a test of students' competence in using the English language rather than a test of their knowledge of English. This has implications for students' attitude towards and performance in the various modules of the academic version of IELTS, for example, the reading module.

Secondly, students also need to have an awareness of what band scores 1-9 in the IELTS examination represent. If students are preparing for the other Cambridge exams such as KET, PET, FCE, CAE and Proficiency, they are assessed at each stage and move on to the next exam.

When preparing for IELTS, students sometimes start preparing for a score band 7 when they are perhaps only score band 3 or 4, so reaching the target score band can seem a long journey. A KET student can gain a certificate at each stage up to Proficiency; an IELTS student can take the exam and be given a score band 4, which can make them feel dispirited, if they are ultimately aiming for score band 7.

However, they have not failed, as the IELTS examination is an assessment of students' level of competence. The answer is, perhaps, to set targets of 4, 5, 6 or 7 or intermediary targets 4.5 etc in classes in order to make reaching the end target of score band 7 less of a marathon, and, possibly, also not to allow students to take the exam until they are around score band 5."


The time constraints in an IELTS exam are brutal. What are some ways candidates can learn to ration their time properly before entering the exam?

"As mentioned above, the IELTS is an assessment of level not a test of knowledge, so the various modules assess what students can do within certain time limits.

Take the academic reading module, for example. Compared to the other Cambridge suite exams reading passages appear to be long, but students are not expected to read everything in the passage in the examination.

The same applies in real life at university where they would not read everything if they were looking through books or journals for information. In class, it is easy to end up teaching students to read every word and 'mine' a text for every piece of vocabulary, but by doing so students cannot learn to navigate the text and questions at high speed as required in the exam.

One solution is to start a reading lesson by allowing students to look at the reading passage for only 2 minutes, to discuss the contents in groups and then as a whole task. Ask them to follow the same procedure with the questions. After that they can as a class answer the questions one at a time with the teacher timing how long it takes the class to answer.

Also give students opportunities to answer questions by pre-teaching certain words and phrases or without focusing on the vocabulary within the time-limit. In the Writing module, students should always time themselves as they write so they 'develop an awareness of time'."

Brainstorming as well as the organizing of ideas are key skills in the productive skills questions. Can you suggest ways in which these skills can be improved?

"A simple technique to help students as they prepare for Writing Task 2 and Speaking Part 3 in IELTS, for example, is to analyse carefully the structure of the task or question, and 'brainstorm the structure of the answer', so students can classify their ideas. This helps with Task Completion and helps students see what the questions are testing.

To further help students, show them the public marking scores (Band descriptors) at for their level and the main criteria that are being tested. There are many other techniques.

Students can prepare revision cards for a range of topics that might occur in Writing Task 2 and Speaking Part 3, for example.

They write the topic of the writing or speaking question on one side and notes for ideas and vocabulary such as collocations and phrases on the other. They can use the cards to test themselves as they revise and use them in pairs with one partner using the notes and vocabulary as prompts as they test their partner.

The productive writing and speaking skills in the IELTS examination is about generating and collecting ideas that already exist, so it is worth pointing out to students that they can recycle ideas in different essays.

To highlight this, you can ask students to look at topics from different perspectives: personal, local, national, international, social, educational, environmental, economic and so on. They can then see that they can approach different subjects from a narrow range of perspectives.

Some students may have difficulty brainstorming ideas as such ideas often require noun phrases. You can give students a word such as 'recycling' from a writing or speaking question and ask them what words they associate with the word. They collate their words in pairs or groups and discuss how to relate their words to the word 'recycling and then discuss the writing or speaking question."


In Reading candidates are required to demonstrate scanning and skimming skills. How easy/difficult is it to develop these skills?

"It is easy to develop them over time. The skills need to be practised again and again; otherwise, students will slip back into 'reading'. If we start with scanning for a particular word or phrase, point out to students that they are looking for the word and phrase and nothing else.

They can, therefore, scan a paragraph in any direction: from the bottom upwards, scanning left to right or right to left; in a zig-zag through the paragraph from left to right or right to left; diagonally from bottom left to top right, looking either side of the imaginary line.

They can use a pencil to help them guide their eye movement. Use a stopwatch and repeat the exercise throughout a course, encouraging students to do the same in pairs or groups with one student choosing a word or phrase for (an)other student(s) to find. When students are comfortable with this, you can repeat the process for synonyms, paraphrases of clauses and sentences.

As an initial step in helping students to skim, ask them to look at the first sentence of a paragraph in a reading passage and select the nouns. Then ask them to select the nouns in the rest of the paragraph and put a box around them. Next students choose about 7-10 words that show the theme of the paragraph.

Repeat this process over a period of time, later moving on to simple and complex noun phrases. Students should then see that the nouns help summarize the paragraph, while words like 'in the by with from a' do not, but the latter do need to be looked at for close reading."

Is it true that IELTS uses unlimited lexical resources from such diverse areas as arts, astronomy, biology, chemistry, crime, culture, government, history etc.?

"Students do not need any specialist knowledge to take the IELTS examination, but the vocabulary that students need to learn as they prepare for the IELTS is wide-ranging. Part of the issue here is that students of all levels take the same examination with the grading of the students being in their performance on the day of the examination.

The IELTS examination reflects the types of subjects that students study at university, so the lexical resources appear to be very wide.

However, if students know the basic 2,000 words of English plus the 570 words of Avril Coxhead's Academic Word List (Coxhead, 2000), which effectively gives students another 3000 words when they look at word families; these combined should give students coverage of 85% to 90% of all texts. See also the article on pages LA16 and LA17 by Dr Adam Kilgarriff in the Second Edition of the Macmillan English Dictionary for Advanced Learners.

More importantly, the types of features that occur in academic and IELTS texts are fairly limited, for example: time relationships, problem and solution, cause and effect, classification, comparison and contrast, argumentation, description- processes, sequencing, exemplification, generalization and specificity.

It makes sense that, if these features are common across academic texts, students should learn to recognize and express them and learn the grammar and vocabulary and the linking devices that relate to them."

What is the difference between teaching ESOL and teaching IELTS?

"The academic version of IELTS tests students' competence in using English rather than their knowledge of the language. This means that as teachers our focus should be on teaching sub-skills relating to the four main skills and building students' confidence in using the skills while at the same time developing the general and academic vocabulary and grammar that are useful for an academic context.

Another major difference is syllabus design. Where an ESOL syllabus may follow the tense system in order, in IELTS and in the academic world a syllabus is task driven, i.e. the grammar and vocabulary that are taught need to fit the task at hand. Take Writing Task 1, for example.

Here the main tenses are Simple Present, Simple Past, Simple Future, and sometimes the Past perfect. An ability to paraphrase, summarize, nominalize (turn verb phrases into noun phrases: Car sales rose dramatically- There was a dramatic rise in car sales), and compare and contrast are also essential.

Students need to be taught how to deal with all of the tasks in the IELTS examination under the time constraints of the exam, so it is a case of developing skills and an awareness of time."