IELTS tips

IELTS tips

I get a lot of questions from students about how to study for the IELTS. Here are some of the top tips that I give them.

1) Start by taking a practice exam to figure out where you’re at. For the reading and listening parts, this is simple enough. Use the practice test available on the British Council’s IELTS site
or you can choose one from Do them under real test conditions and then use an online converter (like this one: to get an idea of your band score. Then go back and see if there’s a common thread between the questions you got wrong. This will help you prioritize what you study. Try to find somebody who can assess your speaking and writing. If not, then do a practice and use Youtube to find model answers for speaking and to find model answers for the writing.

2) Come up with a study plan. Based on the results of your practice test and the amount of time you have to prepare, decide what you’ll practice, how you’ll practice it and when you’ll practice it. If you don’t plan it out, then you probably won’t do it. Once you’ve come up with your study plan, stick with it! Maybe you have a friend who is also studying for the exam. You can act as accountability partners. Look at the tips below for ideas on the how part.

3) Become familiar with common writing and speaking topics. They don’t repeat questions for Writing Task 2, but there are some common topics that come up in it and in the speaking section. It’s worth taking time to learn related vocabulary and practice speaking and writing about the subjects. If they come up on the exam, it won’t be as hard for you to come up with ideas to talk/write about. Here are some useful links to help:

4) Listen to the news. It’ll serve as invaluable listening practice to help with that and give you the chance to get used to different accents. Plus, it’ll keep you up-to-date with topics that you might come across in the writing and speaking sections. When you have to give supporting examples in your essay, you might recall something you listened to. If you don’t like listening to the news, then that’s even more reason to practice with it. Chances are you won’t enjoy the listening sections of the exam, but you’ll still have to listen to them and stay focused. Set yourself tasks when you listen. You could get yourself to recall the headlines, write down numbers heard, try to summarize a news report, etc. Then use the internet to check if you got the facts right.

5) Read model essays. Writing lots of practice essays is great, but reading models is also a great way to practice. When you read model essays, take the time to notice the way the essay is structured and to notice its different components-what’s the thesis statement, what are the topic sentences, what supporting evidence is offered, where is the writer’s opinion etc. Pay attention to how all of those are connected. Then try to write your own response following the same structure. There’s no single way to write a good essay, but stick with tried and tested structures. There’s no reason to take risks. My students have had a lot of success reading essays on I have seen scores move up half a band in a very short period of time simply by students reading more model answers and gaining a better understanding of the structure they should follow.

6) Make sure you understand the types of questions. This applies to all parts of the exam. Don’t let yourself be surprised or confused by the questions. One of the best places to learn more about the types of questions you might see and to practice for those specific types is He offers solid advice. You don’t want to get a lower score just because you didn’t understand the question correctly. This is especially true with the writing section.

7) Read. Read. Read. I know this isn’t exactly novel advice (pun intended), but reading more will help build up your vocabulary and, with time, increase your reading speed. A lot of people struggle with time on the reading section, so becoming a faster reader can make a big difference. As for what to read, read things that you don’t like. That may sound like strange advice, but a lot of people complain that the readings on the exam are boring. Problem is, you still have to read them. That’s why you might as well get used to reading things that you find boring. Go to a news site and start regularly reading articles from sections you’d normally avoid.

8) Use Youtube videos for speaking practice. Youtube has lots of model speaking exams. Some of them come with a predicted score. Record yourself answering questions after the assessor. Then listen to the actual answers and compare them with your own. If they used some words you liked or ideas you didn’t think of, make a note of them. Then try it again. Using the same questions, record yourself again. Compare your first recording to the second one and then compare the latter to the one in the video. Do this with lots of different questions. You should start to notice an improvement in your speaking.

9) Practice describing graphs. This is more for those taking the Academic test. If you’re not used to describing graphs or haven’t really looked at graphs since high school math, then you need to spend some time on this. First off, you need to be able to easily identify the main trend(s) and turning points. Second, you need a range of vocabulary that you can use naturally. Check out all of the helpful worksheets and exercises at Whatever you do though, don’t just memorize a bunch of new expressions. Take the time to go through the exercises and make sure you feel confident using them. Otherwise, you’re not really helping yourself.

10) Do timed practice exams. You have to practice under test-like conditions. That means no pausing, no replaying, no getting up for a coffee break, no stopping to check your Facebook. This should be one of your final steps in preparation, but it’s an important one. Print out practice exams and answer sheets from to use. Once you’ve finished, check your answers in the reading and listening sections and then go back and try to figure out why you made the mistakes you made. Don’t just take the exam and forget about it. Use it as a way of informing your next steps.

Let me know if you tried out a tip and found it useful (for you or your students) and feel free to add your own tips in the comments!

Using Songs in the Classroom

Using Songs in the Classroom

Listening gap-fills with songs were one of my favorite activities in Spanish class and now they’re one of my students’ favorite activities in the EFL classes I teach. They’re popular with both kids and adults. There are lots of ways to use them.

Sometimes I use songs as a way of introducing a grammar point. In a basic text-based approach to presenting the target language (TL), I use a gap-fill where the missing words are examples of the TL. I’ve done this with comparatives, superlatives, present continuous  and lots of others. “Lemon Tree” by Fool’s Garden is great for present continuous. Students first listen and fill in the gaps. Then after eliciting the similarity between the missing words, I continue with the language focus. The song provides a context for the focus on meaning, form and pronunciation. This is a lot of fun for students and makes the language focus a lot more engaging.

Songs are also a great way to focus on a specific vocabulary set. I love using Lenka’s “Everything at Once” for animals and Shania Twain’s “She’s Not Just a Pretty Face” for jobs. It’s a good way to start or end a vocabulary set. It’s also nice as a quick way to review in a later lesson.

Songs are perfect for highlighting features of connected speech. Students get to hear them in a song and then try to copy after listening. They get excited when they can understand the words and recognize them after focusing on it as a class.

If you haven’t used the website with your students, you have to check it out. You can pick from a wide range of songs linked to their music videos. It has gapped lyrics that have to be filled in as the song plays. It allows you to replay lines if needed or skip them. It doesn’t allow incorrect spellings, so it also helps with that. I usually use it once or twice in class as a filler. I have it projected on the IWB and get one student to type the missing words as other students shout them out. I usually use it as a filler or after a test and then get students to use it at home. They take a picture of their score and then compare scores in the next lesson to see who did the best.

Sometimes it can be nice to just have music playing in the background as students work on another task. I’ve noticed that it helps them work a bit quicker. Plus it’s extra exposure to English, which is always good.

Helping parents help their children

Parents naturally want their children to have more opportunities than they had when they were children. In the case of many Palestinians, this means the opportunity to learn English from a young age.

Adults that I speak with and teach resent the fact that the English they studied in school for 7+ years didn’t help them to grow into adults who can speak English. They struggle to find time between work and family to work on their language skills. This struggle makes them determined to see their children learning to speak and use English well from a young age.

As a teacher of their children, it is my responsibility to not only teach their children but also to help them help their children. This means making them aware of techniques they can apply and resources they can use at home. They don’t have to perfect their English or get a teaching certificate to help their kids. All they need is a little guidance. Here are some of the things that I like to share with them.

Board Games: Kids love to play games, especially with their parents. Giving parents copies of a couple of board games or templates they can customize can lead to hours of  practicing English while having fun. Templates can be used to make custom spelling games where each square has a picture of something (a number, an animal, a food etc.) and when somebody lands on it they have to spell the word. Alternatively, each square could have a speaking topic (e.g. my favorite food, my favorite color). There are endless possibilities.

Flashcards: Introducing parents to a website like where they have easy and free access to a variety of flashcard sets can make teaching and practicing new words with their children easy. Parents can use them in simple games like Kim’s Game, matching games, or stick them up on walls as a way to see if they can remember the names of the items.

Reading: There are lots of websites including the British Council’s website for kids that have stories kids and parents can read together online. Some of them have audio files so kids can listen along instead. Starfall and Oxford Owl are two such sites. See the previous blog post Free Reading Resources for more ideas.

Reassurance and Motivation Tips: Last but not least, it’s important to reassure parents that learning a language takes time and that they shouldn’t put too much pressure on their child. Give them some tips on how to make their child motivated to learn English. Encourage them to make it a family affair and/or a game. Encourage them to use positive language and praise their child. Give them the opportunity to speak to you when they’re frustrated with their child’s progress so you can advise them rather than express their frustration to the child directly.

Want more ideas or have some of your own? Leave a comment.


Free Reading Resources

I’ve always encouraged my students to read more English outside of class to help build up their vocabulary and improve their writing skills. However, books in English can be hard to find and quite expensive in some parts of the world. As it often is, the internet is a great resource for students who need reading material. Check out these sites, then use them and/or share them.

  1. This website is based on American reading levels and lexile points. It has thousands of passages for different levels that come with a variety of comprehension and vocabulary related questions. Teachers can track their students’ progress and best of all it’s completely free.
  2. This website has lots of graded readers based on literary classics. The levels are from elementary-advanced. It also includes audio files of all of them.
  3. This website has graded news articles. It is regularly updated to include recent articles. There are lots of activities that go along with each article. These could be used in the classroom or by students alone at home.
  4. This website isn’t just for reading, but it does have a good free e-book collection that’s tablet-friendly. The stories are great for younger children and most have audio files that can be played as the child reads along. It does require that you create a free user account. The site has some paid parts, but I’ve found the free bits to be helpful on their own.

Do you have any favorite sites where students could access free reading material? Share them in the comments!