Top Tips for IELTS

Using photos in the IELTS classroom

The starting point for this idea is that very often the best way to practise IELTS is not to do IELTS. Here I suggest ignoring the format of the test to practise instead the general language skills needed for it by using photos as prompts in long turn speaking. Possible benefits include:

long-turn speaking is a beast to practise in class – even in pairs one person is often just sitting listening for an unnatural period of time and that is rarely a great use of class time. This is a much more flexible task that can be both lively and engaging and assist language learning

some candidates just don’t understand what they’re doing in the long turn – it seems much the least natural of the three parts of the test. Part one is a chat, the last part is a bit like an interview, but what is part 2? This task can help the ss see what they’re doing – just talking about places, people and experiences to friends. Understanding the language skills they need can ultimately help test performance

looking at a picture can help produce better vocabulary and perhaps offer the ss a way to prepare better in the test itself – something I explain in more in this student lesson

looking at 2 or more pictures can help elicit more varied grammar and ultimately responses that naturally stretch to 2 minutes. It’s a task that is surprisingly focused on long-turn skills

One possible drawback: it’s an exercise more designed to appeal to visual thinkers and not everyone is a visual thinker.

Overview – share a photo/photos – talk about them

Pretty much all students have mobile phones with cameras – why not exploit them as a classroom resource? It’s a familiar enough routine in the general language class that can also be used in the IELTS theatre.

Making it work

Explain the relevance to IELTS 

This is an important starting point – there can be sometimes resistance to ideas classroom activities that are not test focused. The hook here is pointing out this exercise can help ss extend answers and find more to say. The skills they’re going to use talking about photos are similar to skills they need in the test – it’s just a bit easier with photos.

Use their own photos

In IELTS speaking the candidate is always being asked about their own knowledge/experience and so it probably makes sense to use their own pictures rather than use pictures that you have found yourself. It’s also of course much more engaging for ss to use their own materials.

Use multiple photos to share ideas and language

The routines I outline below involve ss sharing pictures. Much of the idea here is to allow them to share more language as they describe the pictures but it also means sharing ideas too.

Choose a suitable topic

This is going to work much the best if you have pictures that are thematic in some way. There are lots of possible themes here. Most IELTS long turn topics fall into one or these general categories:

  • people
  • places
  • objects
  • experiences

Share the photos with the class – describe, imagine and compare

Photos can be used in lots of ways of course but here are some simple suggestions with brief notes on how it can help the IELTS process. While you can use a IWB I find that printing off the photos works best as it allows people to spend time talking about their own photos.

1.In pairs simply describe the photo to each other – this is probably the place to start – it’s the simplest task. You should get loads of vocabulary as pictures help vocabulary.

The learning idea here is to try and get the ss to think visually and eventually see a picture even when they don’t have one to hand – a useful test room technique. How much easier is it to talk about an item of clothing when one is looking at it than just imagining it? It can help to show them the photo for a couple of minutes and then to take it away before they try to describe it.

2. In pairs decide what happened before or after – concentrate on the “back story”of the photo This won’t work with all photos but can so beautifully with those that show people and places or experiences or generally tell a story. The idea here is to get the ss to “imagine” a little and use the photo just as a starting point.

This can help with IELTS as it encourages ss to go beyond the prompts they are given in the test and expand on what they say in an interesting and often relevant way. A good example here is a photo showing a holiday. In the test the question may ask about a holiday you have been on but that doesn’t mean you can’t discuss what you did before and after it.

3. In larger groups – perhaps as part of a pyramid discussion – show three/four pictures and ask them to compare them or select just one and then say why – This should elicit lots of language.

It’s great for IELTS long-turn speaking as something few people do is compare and contrast which is often a missed opportunity. For example, a perfectly valid technique in the exam is to explain why this person has influenced you so much by comparing them to other people who have influenced you less. Again, comparing photos is a natural lead into this and gets you to more varied language.

4.  Get active! There are more “active “versions where the students rotate around the class taking it in turns to discuss their photo with a new partner each time or where you simply pin the photos up on the walls and the students wander round discussing them – rare opportunities for movement in the IELTS classroom

5. Repeat at will – it can make a nice warmer too. This is the sort of exercise that allows and perhaps needs repetition.

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