Top Tips for IELTS

Using authentic texts in the IELTS classroom

This is a suggestion on ways to use authentic reading texts in the IELTS classroom.  I discuss briefly a problem with focusing solely on IELTS reading in the IELTS classroom and then set out 3 connected ways of using authentic texts. In each case the focus is as much on general reading skills as “test skills” – not least because the texts don’t questions attached to them!

Problems with focusing solely on “IELTS reading” 

A student recently complained to me a condition he had acquired – “IELTS reading phobia”. I suspect that this is a complaint other teachers will recognise too, especially with long-term classes. The pathology may be complex but here is my summary of what may cause it:

the texts are hard – much harder than you’d normally present to your class

reading becomes an exercise in simply finding an answer – somewhat akin solving to a cryptic crossword

the reading texts rarely get “read” but are only really treated as the source material for finding answers

it’s boring! – is that breaking a taboo?

One possible result is students stop reading and just do IELTS exercises. That’s serious as it may not in fact be the best route to IELTS success and it certainly doesn’t prepare them for life on the other side where they’ll need to process exactly the sort of texts they see in the test.

Balancing IELTS with more general reading

Part of the rationale for using authentic texts is to get your students used to reading hard texts – the type of texts they get in the test, but without the additional pressure of trying to find answers. If they get to see more hard texts and learn to extract meaning from them, then they’ll be more comfortable doing the same thing when they have questions to answer.

A slightly different idea is to foster the reading habit on the basis that those who read most, read best. This is part of a broader view that one of the best ways to approach IELTS is to focus on general language skills and not just test skills.

Routine 1 – just read – introduce authentic texts as reading texts

Nothing complex. It’s what I think of as a “just read” exercise. My preference is for students to find their own texts – things that they think might be interesting. A good 21st century solution here is to encourage students to use apps like Apple News or Flipboard to identify first topics and then articles they can bring to class. All they need do is discuss with a partner what they found interesting or not about the article. It’s engaging and makes a nice warmer.

 Routine 2 – focus on what you do understand – getting used to authentic texts

A very predictable problem is of course that they won’t be able to “understand” the texts – that is part of the problem they face with the test after all. Here are 3 possible classroom routines that can assist. The idea behind all of them is the same – a text can be generally understood even if every particular is not understood. This is a block to many who get stuck on “hard words” and tend to treat reading as a vocabulary test.

 black out the words

This can be a great awareness raiser. You simply ask the students to black completely all the words they don’t understand so that they can’t read them. Then the question is “Can you tell me what the text is about generally even without looking at those words?” In my experience the answer is almost invariably yes – even when you take the exercise into  lower level class.

 highlight the positives

This is almost the same exercise in reverse. This time around they just highlight all the words they do understand – typically this will be almost all of the text.

 use a dictionary – sparingly

The goal of this exercise is to encourage the skill of guessing meaning and to make students think about how and when to use dictionaries. They may be good but not always great for extensive reading. Every time a word is looked up reading stops and typically less reading happens.

Look up at most 5 words – no more. The point of the exercise is that limitation. In practice what can happen is that students don’t even look up the 5 words; rather they keep reading and start to guess meanings – a natural and important reading skill.

Routine 3 – focus on “exam reading skills”

One danger of these exercises is that they can seem a poor use of time in the test class. Why are we reading this newspaper when we could be doing a practice test? These exercises are much closer to test type exercises and are meant to show that the questions in the test require natural reading skills used in general English. They perhaps work best as extension activities after the text has been read and talked about once.

 read then summarise

The idea here is that students summarise a text and perhaps pick out 5 key points or ideas from it and then perhaps compare their summary with their partner’s. To achieve this they’ll need to think about text structure, headings and paragraph structure. This is very close to the test type question where they have to match paragraphs to headings or ideas and largely involves skimming skills

 pick out the names and numbers and so why

Here you ask the students to focus on names/numbers/dates in the text and talk to their partner about why they’re important or not. This is of course a scanning activity that should be familiar from test practice. The one detail I like to add is that to say why that detail might matter. It’s a more interesting activity but it also asks students to focus on meaning as well.

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