First of all, let me acknowledge my source for this idea. It was given me by an ex-colleague Charles Davis, who is now not only lost to IELTS but EFL. It is a great concept and is particularly useful for working on the sub-skills that can make all the difference while simultaneously giving students a taste of exam pressure.
Note to self-access students
The idea here is very much something you can borrow in your own IELTS preparation. Practice is important, but so is the way you practise. This post is a suggestion on how you can practise more effectively – just doing loads of practice tests is not always the best idea.
The basic idea – put your students under pressure with a real work out
IELTS is an exam and how students react to exam pressure can have a disproportionate effect on their score. It is not always the case that a student who can put together a good essay at home can produce one in the exam. So at some stage it really helps to train students to produce under pressure.
What the IELTS skills circuit involves is simply giving the students a part of a writing test, a part of a reading test, a part of a listening and a speaking: instead of trying to make them do one incomplete test, they do 4 little ones – in exam conditions.
This benefit of this exercise is that it “solves” a number of problems that are posed by just giving them one practice test to do.
One problem – the classroom is not a test centre
It can be very tough to create pressure in the standard classroom. Classrooms tend to be relaxed places where students feel at home. Even in the “strict” classroom very few class deadlines can ever approximate the now or never feel of the test centre. This exercise doesn’t exactly replicate the exam room, but it can mimic some of that pressure. Moving between 4 different exercises tends to be a more strenuous exercise than just sitting down to do a reading/writing which can be fairly laid back activities in the class.
Another problem – logistics
Practice tests are time-consuming processes and can eat into valuable class time. If you decide to do a complete reading, that is probably your whole class gone and you still have writing, listening and speaking to go.
Yet another problem – IELTS is a multi-skills exam
A significant part of the IELTS problem is that test day is a long and gruelling one. The student needs to perform once, twice, three or four times. The listening may go fine, but then the reading or writing bombs. The trick/difficulty is peaking in 3/4 different skills in one day – almost all candidates under-perform in at least one paper.
Finally – tests are boring, skills circuits are lively
Even if you don’t buy into the other reasons for trying this exercise, this is a big one. Almost every time I have run this exercise, the students have enjoyed it – it’s an active class, a real doing class. That’s good in the world of IELTS, no?
The solution – an IELTS skills circuit
Rather than make students do a complete reading/writing/listening/speaking test, they spend 15/20 minutes on one exercise on one skill and then move onto another exercise/skill – done the weights, now for the pull-ups. The emphasis you should see is on the word skills.
How it works – creating pressure
The skills circuit creates real classroom pressure. The student has limited time and needs to switch skills – there isn’t time to relax into a task. One moment they are doing a task four listening and then they are writing a task one summary. This may be different pressure from the exam, but can be equally tough.
How it works – focussing on sub skills
This is not a necessary part of the IELTS skills circuit but one I tend to employ. I like to choose activities to test that look at a sub skill -something I have been working on in the class – be it scanning, paragraph writing or spoken coherence. I like to do this because it makes my feedback that much more meaningful. Here’s what I taught you, this is what you didn’t learn.
How it works – exam day simulation
This is not something I do that often, but Charlie, who gave me the idea, did all the time. He just wouldn’t let any students into the room who didn’t have with them everything they needed for the day of IELTS – down to photographic ID.
Making it work – variations
Part of the beauty of the skills circuit is that it is versatile and exceedingly repeatable. How does every Friday sound? How you vary it will depend on teaching environment, here are some parameters:
Whole class or groups?
An excellent variation is to break the class into 3/4 groups and have one do the listening, while the others are reading or writing etc. The benefit here is that you get action – people moving around is good for learning, right? And it helps the students work up a little sweat too. The downside of course is space. Perhaps the whole class listens together and then you divide up for the other skills.
This will depend on the length of your session naturally. There is nothing necessary, however, about dividing the segments of the test equally. When I do run this, I tend to focus on certain sub-skills I have been teaching in class and this may mean the reading section is much longer than the writing one.
It is fairly easy to get students to do a “quick” task one, but what about essays? My solution is to focus on sub-skills and not to fret over much about precise exam formats. For example “here’s an essay, you write the introduction and conclusion” (see below for download). I like this approach as it is often easier to give meaningful feedback on an introduction/conclusion exercise than a whole essay where the main point of interest is often what band score you allocated.
Skills circuit essay (289) – Example of an essay that needs an introduction and conclusion. It is often a neat exercise as it shows both the connection between the introduction and the conclusion which should mirror each other and the fact that the body paragraphs are explanations of the position identified in the intro and conclusion. Evrything connects.
This is normally quite straightforward as each IELTS reading task breaks down into 20 minutes. Likewise, if time is short, then there should be little problem in taking only 7/8 questions for each text as opposed to the whole13/4. This is a personal thing but I also tend to teach separate question types (True/False/Not Given etc) and so I also sometimes give students two texts but only have them answer the one set of questions from each text. I also occasionally vary the rubric to something such as “Underline the words in the text”. The point being to see if they do actually read the question.
The fairly strong suggestion here is to ensure that the students fill out their answers on answer sheets and that you give them time to transfer answers from their question paper. This normally works best if you give them two separate listenings with the 30 second gap. This puts more pressure on the first listening – they don’t just get to listen to it the once, they actively need to make notes of their answers before they listen again to something quite different.
This is the tough one in class management terms. Is it possible to “interview” all your students in one class? If you do go for it, this is where it can help to divide the class into groups with one group speaking to you, while the others are doing the other skills. If you have computer lab facilities, then it is also possible to use Voxopop or a similar site/program where they record their answer.