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4 quick ideas for teaching IELTS – focusing on the question

Here are 4 ideas for teaching IELTS that I use myself and like. While they cover different skills, they all have one thing in common – focusing on the question. The idea being that a huge proportion of avoidable mistakes are made because the question is either not read or understood properly. The good news is that few of them require any resources that you would not otherwise have in the classroom. If you are a self-access learner, I have added brief notes on how you might adapt these exercises to your learning.

Task One Academic Writing – a warmer

The idea

This is as simple as simple could be. Before you launch into “teaching” the activity, you ask the students to tell you what the rubric for task 1 is, it reads:

Summarise the information by selecting and reporting the main features, making comparisons where relevant.

How it can work

With my own students, task 1 often goes wrong because it is understood as an exercise in using a certain type of vocabulary or simply describing all the detail in the chart/graph. The instructions are in fact very specific about what the candidate needs to do:

  • summarise: that means not including everything
  • select: that also means leaving things out
  • report: this is not an essay, you are reporting facts
  • main features: it is an exercise in seeing the big picture (the fact that it is visual should help)
  • comparisons: it tells you what language to use – comparisons are the first stop

Understanding this rubric does help to focus the students on the skills they need and is a good lead in to a task one lesson. It is also an eminently repeatable activity. I’d add that it can be downright confusing when you see “write a report for a university lecturer”.

Self-access learning

This is simple – learn and understand this rubric (set of instructions).

Speaking part 2 – make your own questions

The idea

The idea here is that the students practise their long-turn speaking using questions they have made themselves. It is in fact very simple to “create” your own questions, but there can be a real benefit in getting the students to do this themselves. They get to understand not just structure of the question, but also the type of response it requires. To see how the questions are modelled, look at this example:

Describe [an adventurous person who you know.] – insert your own topic

You should say:

  • who [the person is] insert detail wh question
  • how [you know this person] insert detail wh question
  • what [this person does that is adventurous] insert detail wh question

and explain why [you think this person likes to take risks.] insert explanation why question

The idea is that there is always a topic based on real life/experience that has to be expanded using detail and some explanation. If students to write their own questions, they are much more likely to see what type of detail they need to use. Also, psychologically they are much more likely to focus on answering the question (rather than provide some pat pre-learned language) if they have written thee questions themselves. That is as good exam practice as it gets.


If needed, I do have a set of model questions to show the different patterns. Typically, the questions can be categorised into People (describe someone who..), Places (describe somewhere..), Objects (describe something that..), Habits, Plans and Experiences.


  • It’s as good a  way of practising relatives and questions as there is.
  • Zero resource teaching (is this dogme?)
  • Efficient teachers will end up with a series of resources for future lessons. The cue card activity is a natural warmer.

Self -access learners

Try this one for yourselves. Look around you, look at your possessions, go through your photo albums – make cue cards to describe those people, things and experiences – those are exactly the sort of things you need to talk about in the exam.

The essay question

The idea

This is the ultimate gapped essay task. you gap the question itself and the students have to read the essay and replace the question. The concept being that a well-written essay should clearly identify and answer the question. If the students cannot come up with an adequate approximation of the question, then there’s something wrong with the essay.

How it works

Again the idea here is that many essays go wrong because they don’t adequately focus on the question. This is serious because the student may end up being penalised twice – for lack of coherence and poor task response. A slightly more sophisticated version of this exercise is to then get the students to identify which parts of the essay most directly relate to the question. This should direct them to:

  • the introduction
  • topic sentences in content paragraphs
  • the conclusion

It is in itself as good as an introduction to essay structure as there is.


This can be an almost zero resource activity. Almost all text books have model essays and this is one way of exploiting them. An alternative  is to use the essays in the Cambridge exam books which come with helpful examiner comments – it is even possible to use essays there that are deficient in some way. Failing that, help yourself to any of my sample essays.


Do you approve of showing students model essays before they write? My own experience is that surprisingly few students “over-copy” and I’m fond of this as a form of guided writing. The natural extension here is to get the students to write the essay from the question

Self -access learners

This too is one you can do yourselves. Just try one of my sample essays. It’s a good exercise to do before you write the essay yourself. If you have been doing IELTS for a while, you could also go back over some of your old essays and see if you can recreate the questions. The idea is that if you cannot do this from the introduction, topic sentences and conclusion, something is not quite right.


Listening and reading – why is it right or wrong?

The idea

This one is easy too. The idea is that you don’t just do a practice listening/reading and then give out the answers. Do that and then what happens (in my classes anyway), the answers are checked, scores are counted and little is learned. Rather the idea is you give out the answers – some of which are right and some wrong. The students then need to decide which of the answers are right and which wrong by re-reading the text/transcript and questions. The key being that they need to concentrate on what exactly the questions were. My own experience is that avoidable mistakes get made because questions are not focussed on.

How it works

  • My experience is that around 2 mistakes out of 10 works (“I’ve made two mistakes – find them”)
  • Practically students need to find and underline parts of the text that give the answer
  • You could of course just let students make the mistakes and then ask them why they got it wrong – this is a rather more friendly version! Much better to correct the teacher.
  • It works partly as an exercise in critical thinking – that is always a positive to me.


Really this is just a way of exploiting listening and reading practice questions in books – getting students to really look at what they have read/listened to. It is normally straightforward to find wrong answers, simply because that is the way IELTS is set up with distractor questions.


The are different extensions/variations possible here including giving the students the answers and asking them to write questions – interesting but typically high maintenance.

Self-access students

The variation here is not just to check your answers but to see why answers were right or wrong – find and underline the parts in the text that give the answers. Do that and you learn how not to mistakes. All you need is a set of practice books which come with explanations of the answers or which show where the answers come. The Cambridge practice test books do this.

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One Response to 4 quick ideas for teaching IELTS – focusing on the question

  1. Surbhi December 7, 2012 at 8:18 pm #

    really helpful

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