Set Your Mind to the Test

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Teaching IELTS is a long way from the idealised world of CELTA. It needs a different approach, Greg Archer tells Melanie Butler

“The communicative approach just doesn’t work in IELTS classes,” says Greg Archer. “It’s wonderful, it’s the ideal, but the pure, real goal of communicative methodology is interaction and there’s very little interaction in IELTS.”

Except for the oral?

“That’s just 25 per cent of the marks, and the role of the examiner isn’t really to interact, it is to ask questions.”

Greg, who co-authored the new Mindset for IELTS series from Cambridge, is not known for pulling punches. Others in EFL talk idealistically about student needs. But in an exam class the student’s main need is to get through the test and come out with the right mark.

“We can discuss the value of assessment. We can talk about language acquisition and emergent language. But this is the real world.”

“…these students need this exam, and it’s the teacher’s responsibility 
to get them through.”

It’s the mindset of a sports coach. This is not fantasy football. It’s about getting the team through.

An IELTS course is high stakes: students’ futures often depend on getting the right grade. They are focused on the exam, not the language. They want to know what they are doing, why they are doing it and how it links back to the test.

It’s a lesson Greg learned when a Chinese student came up to him after her exam.

“Now I understand what you have been doing on our own course,” she said, “but I wish you had just told us.”

Students expect test preparation: task types, exam techniques, what the examiners are looking for.

Some may say this is coaching, not teaching. Greg is unapologetic: “Good preparation can boost a student’s results by half a band score without learning any new language at all.”

Exam prep on its own is seldom enough, however. If they need a higher score, then they need more language.

“I call it language teaching by stealth.

“For example, take a common exam topic like ‘overcrowding in cities’, get students to predict the language and put it on the board – all very CELTA style so far.

“But then, take that language and hook it to the exam.

“For example, students come up with something like ‘the traffic is bad’ and I might teach them ‘the traffic is murder.’

“Then, I link it to the exam: I make it clear they can only use it in the spoken exam because examiners will give extra marks for idiomatic language. But never in the writing paper.”

Getting inside an examiner’s head is hard for students and for newbie teachers. Like all members of the Mindset authors team, Greg used to be an examiner.

“We have included hundreds of tips on this.”

Indeed, one of his reasons for getting involved in the Mindset project was “to help other teachers avoid the mistakes I made in my early IELTS classes.”

Teachers used to general English classes may also struggle with the mixed language level common in IELTS groups. “I was given a class with four East Asians at a low B2, a C1 Bulgarian and a Finn, at C2…”

Even students who test at the same level have strengths and weaknesses: Chinese are usually stronger in reading, Arabs in speaking, and dyslexics may struggle with discriminating phonemes.

“We have this wonderful EFL idea of a language level,” says Greg, “but students don’t fit neatly into our boxes.”

The answer? “Differentiation. It’s the real art of IELTS teaching.

“Just as the football coach must monitor the performance of each player, tell them to practice a little more at this skill, do some exercises to improve that, so the IELTS teacher must track the progress of each individual student, giving them different tasks, different homework.

“EFL teachers aren’t trained to do this, it’s not in CELTA, barely mentioned in DELTA,” Greg points out. “Mindset can help by offering differentiated on-line resources, but teachers still need to guide the students to the right ones.” It sounds, I say, a lot like the life of a UK state-school teacher.

“Teaching IELTS has the same kind of pressure as a lot of mainstream education,” he says. “Pressure on the students, the management, the teacher. Pressure to get those test results.

“You can say assessment shouldn’t be like this. You can say it shouldn’t be all about exams,” Greg continues. “But these students need this exam, and it’s the teacher’s responsibility to get them through.

“You are the coach. You need tactical knowhow. You need to show your team of students a number of approaches that might help them overcome what is put in front of them.

“Mindset for IELTS is a kind of scaffolding. The units …are structured in a way that helps students approach each task step-by-step.”

– Tony, teacher at Rose of York school.

  • Greg Archer is an IELTS teacher and examiner. He is one of the authors of Mindset for IELTs, a four level course from Cambridge University Press.
Images courtesy of Library and Cambridge University Press