Top Tips for IELTS

IELTS preparation: where to start – plans, teachers, books and sites

There are many different ways of approaching IELTS. How you go about it will depend very much on the level of your English and the band score you require. However, my experience is that the people who succeed are people who organise their studies well and that means starting in the right place. Here are a few suggestions about how to do that.

Know your level

IELTS is all about getting a score. It really helps to know your approximate level before you start the learning process. That will give you an idea of how long you may need. It is dangerous to generalise as IELTS works differently for different people but….If you are within half a band score, then the process may be quite quick. If you are a full band score or more away, then the process is likely to be much longer and you may need to study in different ways.

How can you know your level? My suggestion is to do two separate reading and listening tests. These you can grade yourself and typically the average reading/listening score will be close to your average score for all 4 modules. I suggest you do two tests because you need at least one test to understand the exam structure.

The best resource here are the Cambridge exam books (below).

Make a study programme

Your study programme will depend on you. There is little right or wrong here. You just need to work out what is going to work best for you. Here are some details to think about:

  1. all 4 skills together or one at a time? My slight preference is for doing one skill at a time as it allows you to focus more on each skill, but by the time you get to the exam, you need to be doing all 4 at once.
  2. exam practice and skills/language learning: unless your score is very, very close to what you need, you are unlikely to improve your score enough just by doing practice test after practice test – this means that you want to allow time for general English learning.
  3. how long you study for at a time: this will depend on personal circumstances of course. It can help to study for longer periods as you need to learn to concentrate in English for long periods – part of the problem of test day is that it is very long. But shorter periods of study can be more effective in learning. If you get bored you probably aren’t learning.
  4. self-study or a study partner: later this year, I will be adding some form of forum to this site. Why? It can really help to work with other people: language is communication and IELTS is a language test.
  5. find things you enjoy doing: this applies to people who are studying IELTS long-term in particular. If you learn to hate IELTS, the process becomes much harder. The idea is to find language activities you positively enjoy – that way you are much more likely to learn. In the end, IELTS is easy, it’s the language that is hard and you want to remember to learn the language not just the exam.

The one thing I don’t mention here is how long your study programme would/should be. There is too much variation here to give you any sensible advice – it can be weeks, it can be months – sometimes it can even be days! I will say this though

be realistic and think about your motivation

Some standard advice is that it can take up to 6 months to improve half a band score. Scary?  It helps to be realistic and to understand the problem. One way to deal with it is to think beyond IELTS and to study English for its own sake – that’s much more fun and, in the end,  you are taking IELTS to use English in an English speaking country.


This website is designed for self-access learners – people who learn by themselves. I like that sort of the person and this is where I try and help them. But some things can’t really happen here: I can’t very well help you with your speaking and your writing. To do that, I need to know you. This is why I strongly suggest you contact a teacher who can help you. I also suggest that you do this quite early in the process – you may save yourself a lot of time and money.

You may of course just want to know your approximate band score. That is helpful. What I think is much more helpful is knowing how to improve your band score. So here are two questions I suggest you ask your teacher:

  • what are my specific problems? (better grammar isn’t very helpful – you need to know what type of grammar problems you have) (ask for detailed feedback on your writing speaking broken down into the different writing and speaking criteria
  • how can I practise to get better ? (just doing loads of tests is rarely the answer) (ask for precise exercises)

Selecting a teacher is a personal thing. I believe it helps to find someone you like, particularly if you are looking for long-term help. I’d also look for someone with experience and qualifications. To improve writing and speaking, you often need help with precise skills and technical things that teachers are trained to help with. Look for some of these qualifications


Where can you find people like that? It may be that the best person for you is living next door. Non-native speakers can make excellent teachers, they may understand your problems much better. There is nothing to say that native speakers are best. If you don’t know anyone, this is why I have an IELTS tutors page.


Websites can be good, but so are books – particularly fort organised learning. There are any number of good IELTS books. Here are a few of my special recommendations for people studying by themselves. These links will take you to Amazon (I’ll add that there is no affiliation!)

The Cambridge Exam Books: you want to get at least one of these books for the most authentic practice. They are by no means perfect as they give you little or no help in training. They test, they do not teach. Don’t overdo them.

Insight into IELTS: this book is not the regular course book. Rather it looks at each paper/skill separately. For me this makes complete sense.

IELTS writing skills: writing is the skill that many/most candidates stress about. This is a super book and I can also heartily recommend almost any IELTS book written by sam McCarter. He’s good.

101 and 202 for IELTS: I see that there is now 404 too (which I haven’t used). These books are slightly different again as the focus in more on hints and strategies – closer to the typical internet experience.

Grammar and vocabulary for IELTS: For me, these two are easily the best IELTS grammar and vocab books on the market. (I dislike the red vocabulary book). They are in many ways just general vocabulary and grammar books (that’s IELTS), but all the exercises are in context – meaning that you get useful exam/language practice at the same time.


There are nowadays 100s and 100s of IELTS websites out there. I started this site about 6 years ago as a a wiki for my personal students to show them the best places (not always the easiest places to find). You can still visit my directory of great sites (not all IELTS sites – but that is the point), but here is a short form version:

IELTS org: you need to visit here to understand the test format and formalities. At the vey least you should download the candidate booklet

British Council: they help make the exam. Their preparation materials are very professional – the only downside to this site is that is slightly dull.

BBC Learning English: this is the ultimate English language learning site. If you need persuading, the sort of language you will find here is exactly the sort of language you need for the exam. I particularly recommend Words in the News.

ELC: a huge site with very generous resources and excellent suggestions for exam preparation

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6 Responses to IELTS preparation: where to start – plans, teachers, books and sites

  1. Joseph Yanni March 31, 2013 at 11:52 pm #

    I entered IELTS in 2010 and I get 7 in listening, 8 in reading, 6 in writing and 7.5 in speaking and 7.5 overall. I need to get 7 each this mean I need to get 7 in writing. My question is, how long do you think I will need to improve my score in writing?
    I live in English speaking society.

    • Dominic Cole April 1, 2013 at 3:10 pm #

      Um. This is one of cases where you really need to speak to a teacher, it’s very hard to advise you. Here are a few thoughts.

      2010 is quite a while ago. Language can change a lot in 2/3 years. IELTS scores are really determined by how good your language is so it is quite possible that your language will have improved enough that your writing score will improve – but that also depends on how much you have been writng since 2010.

      Otherwise just looking at your 2010 scores, you have potential to do much better in writing as all your other scores are well over 6.0. It is possible that you were doing something technically wrong that is quite easy to put right. So you could get a 7.0 quite quickly. It is good that you live in an English speaking society but…. It is also possible that your English is very fluent but not particularly accurate – that can happen in this sort of case. If one of your problems is accuracy of grammar, that is bad news as grammar tends to need longer to put right than other problems. As I say, though, you really need to talk to a teacher to get a proper diagnosis based on your English.

  2. Maite Mallén April 2, 2013 at 4:43 am #

    Dear Dominic Cole,

    I am an English teacher who works at the National Autonomous University in Mexico City. One of my students found your blog last semester and I have used it in two different preparation courses for the IELTS exam. My students and I really like it, since it is very interesting and it has excellent tips to prepare for the exam. I particularly like the vocabulary section and the academic word list.
    I really want to thank you for sharing all this information, knowledge and expertise. It has really been of great help to complement the course, to learn more about English and about the exam.

    • Dominic Cole April 2, 2013 at 2:59 pm #

      Hi. It’s always nice to hear from another teacher. Apologies for the slight break in service for the academic word list – this is my busy, busy time of year at the university where I work and I get very few hours online. I hope to begin the words again at the start of next week.

  3. rauf August 6, 2015 at 11:51 pm #

    hi .i am just teacher but i am not good at ielts actually i dont know how to begin it yet. it seems to be too difficult .what do you advise me in this way?

    • Dominic Cole September 9, 2015 at 5:45 pm #

      Everyone starts somewhere.

      If you’re completely new to IELTS can I suggest the best place to start is actually by doing the test yourself – there’s a lot to be learned that way.

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