Top Tips for IELTS

20 more tips and ideas for IELTS

This is really just to advertise a new service I am running on the  Facebook page – which I am trying to run as a blog within a blog. Each day of the week I post an idea or tip on IELTS there. Most of these come from questions in comments sent to me or are brief summaries of lessons I have recently published. If you like, your IELTS in bite-sized chunks, all you need to do is sign up to the page and they will be with you.


That’s no problem. I am also starting the same service on my new QQ account – QZone 2354370857


Writing essays

Writing introductions

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Try not to look at the task 2 question as you’re writing the essay introduction.

You do want to identify the question in your essay introduction, but you don’t want to repeat its exact wording. It’s quite hard to do that if you are looking at the question as you write.

The skill you want to develop is summary writing: – you note key words and ideas and then write from those notes.[/toggle

Checking for repetition

It’s easy to get stuck on some words when you write essays – often without realising it. The writing tip today is to check your writing for words you repeat.

This is good advice because it’s easy to find repeated words, much easier than finding grammar mistakes. And, well, you want to make sure that any time spent checking is time well spent. If you can’t find any probs, you’re wasting time.

Check for your own mistakes

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IELTS advice for the day is not to check your writing for mistakes, but check it for your mistakes. Confused?

It’s a simple idea. Almost all learners have their own particular problems which they repeat. To improve your writing you need to learn to correct those problems – the ones that you typically make. for example, if you have a problem with articles? Check for articles.

The thing is if you just look for “problems” in general, you are likely not to find anything much – error correction exercises are hard – and in exam terms you may simply be wasting your time. If, however, you look for a particular problem, my experience (19 years and counting) is that you have every chance of finding what is wrong. That’s time well spent.

The practical advice is this. Make a list of the types of mistakes you make – I mean really write them out on a piece of paper. The when you check, see if you have made those mistakes again. This will not just improve the writing score, it is an important step in learning the language – the only corrections that really matter are not when a teacher corrects a student, but when a student corrects him/herself.

Using essay models

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Thought I’d share my thoughts on a comment I had on the site about different types of essays. The question was whether it was appropriate to include opinions in an “advantage/disadvantage” type essay.

My belief is that some candidates can get confused in learning different essay models and worry too much about what type of essay they should be answering and which of their various models to use. My preference is that you should just try and answer the question as it is asked and not worry too much about any special model. It is quite easy to go wrong by following models – as you may find yourself not answering the question fully in an effort to get the model right. There is always more than one way of answering the question.

I’d add that I see no problem with including opinions in an “advantage/disadvantage” essay. When you are asked to discuss the advantages and disadvantages, you are necessarily also saying what you think those advantages and disadvantages are – so you are giving your opinion anyway.

Moral of the story? Practise writing about different topics and aim to look at lots of different practice questions. But always, always look at the question in front of you and try and answer that question as fully as you can. Don’t try and repeat an essay you have written before.

Clarity, coherence and concision

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Do you know what the three “R”s are? How about the three “C”s?

The three “R” s are shorthand for Reading, wRiting and aRithmetic – the old-fashioned view of the foundation of a good education – and a little English joke for you.

My three “C”s may be more relevant, They are 3 of the key qualities of all good writing: Clarity, Coherence and Concision. Your IELTS essays need all 3 qualities all the way through. But it can help to focus on one quality at a time under exam pressure. Keeping things simple is good for exams. Here’s my suggestion:

  • Clarity for introductions – focus on the question and your point of view
  • Coherence for the main body – your main ideas are developed and fit the structure of the essay
  • Concision for the conclusion – try to restate your position from the intro and the main points from your body para in a few words.

This is one of the main ideas behind my series of lessons on the process of writing an exam essay. At each stage you focus on something slightly different.



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A quick question. Which is easier to read in IELTS? A paragraph or a complete article?

If you chose the paragraph option, I suggest you work on your skimming skills. All this is the skill of reading a text QUICKLY for meaning. If you learn to do this, then you should be able to choose immediately which para has the answer for each question.

If you don’t, then you will waste time scanning the whole article for key words. You may think you are saving time by not QUICKLY reading the whole text, but in the end you will spend more time looking for key words.

Scanning and skimming again

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Today’s tip is for IELTS reading. A comment on the site said how much easier it was to find the answer if the text was a short paragraph of only 4/5 sentences.

This is true enough. The problem with IELTS reading texts though is that they are longish (around 900 words) and sometimes the paragraphs are up to to 200 words long. My solution is here is to focus on your reading skills when you are practising.

If you just “try and find the answer”, then you may well go wrong. instead I suggest you do practise skimming the text for overall meaning and understanding how it is organised. I also suggest you practise your scanning skills – this is looking for particular words and pieces of information in the text.

It may seem at first that this takes up too much time, but in the end you should find that you read more efficiently this way. Learning these skills allows you to identify which part of the text the answer comes in and you will save lots of time this way. Then all (?) you have to do is read the text closely to find what the answer is.

True/False/Not Given

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What causes most difficulty is normally the difference between False and Not Given. This is slightly over-simple but the main idea is that Not Given means that you find nothing about that QUESTION in the text, which does not mean that you won’t find words in the question in the text. In contrast, with False you will be able to find info answering that question in the text – but the other way around – if you see what I mean.

One tip is to read the whole question and think about its meaning and don’t just focus on individual words. This is where “key words” advice may very well make you go wrong – it is a very, very dangerous strategy if you use it wrongly. To repeat myself read the WHOLE question – sometimes the little words make all the difference.

Another tip is to make sure you don’t spend too long on any one T/F/NG question. It is after all only one question and you may be looking for something that isn’t there if the answer is NG. Don’t waste too much time. This brings me back to my first comment, you do have a one in three chance (which is better than most question types), give yourself a bit of time, then guess intelligently.

A final tip is to invest in a Cambridge exam book and go through the answers carefully. See how the examiners set the questions and what F and NG really mean. Once you have done a few questions of this type, you will soon get the idea.



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A simple speaking tip for IELTS speaking is to practise different ways of giving your opinion. This makes sense because you are going to give your opinion throughout the test and you don’t want to go “I think” “I think” “I think”.

There are lots of different ways of giving your opinion in English and if you’re smart you don’t want to just learn different words/phrases, but learn how they can mean different things too. “I suppose” says something quite different from “I’m convinced”.


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Just had a comment asking about how to improve the range of vocabulary in IELTS speaking and I thought I’d share a summary of my comments here.

1. When we speak (native speakers too) we tend to use far less variety of words than when we write. It can sometimes be a mistake to concentrate too much on finding the exact word – not least because this may make you less fluent.

2. It can help sometimes if you structure your answer so that you give a simple first and then go on to give a more complex answer later. This allows you more thinking time to get the right words (and ideas).

3. Don’t be afraid of rephrasing your answer if better language comes to you later. This is quite natural in spoken language.

4. Very often the best language is specific language – simple words used appropriately, rather than over-complex ‘clever” language. One way to find these words is to think of specific examples to illustrate your answer – this should also help the coherence of your speaking.

See a picture – a practice suggestion

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One way to improve your IELTS part 2 – long turn – speaking is by practising describing photos.

The idea here is that you should use your own photos – because the question almost invariably asks you to describe your own experiences. So look at pictures on your phone and think when you took them, why you took them, who else was there. etc. If you look at the questions in the exam, this is what they ask you to do.

Looking at pictures is also a good idea because it helps you see detail. And if you are able to describe detail, then you will almost automatically use better/more precise language in the exam.

When you get to the exam, a top tip is to try and visualise – this means try to “see pictures in your head”. You will do this better if you have first practised with your own photos.

Eye contact

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Having spent the weekend interviewing people – I can assure you that eye contact does count. Practise it.

Pretty much without exception all the best communicators I spoke to made good eye contact with me. There is almost certainly a relationship between making eye contact and speaking well – you learn to pause in the right places and you are much more likely to speak at an appropriate pace.

I’d add that examiners are human too. There is no “score”for communication skills and IELTS examiners may try not to take account of eye contact and non-verbal skills. However, they will almost certainly be affected to some degree – they are not tape recorders and they mark you as they listen.

Record yourself for better pronunciation

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Most people hate the way they sound – so record yourself speaking – an excellent incentive to sound better!

It’s easy to forget how important pronunciation is. While it may be one of the harder skills to improve – that doesn’t mean you can’t – it may just take a little time. Today’s tip is to think about recording yourself and it comes with a lesson attached for an idea about how to do it.

The exam

Read the question

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If Saturday means IELTS exam day for you, just concentrate on one thing – listening to/reading the question and answering it. That may seem too simple but keeping your head clear is one of the keys to exam success.

Sunday -the day of rest


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What should the IELTS candidate do on a Sunday? Here are 3 ideas for you:

1. Go back over what you have done this week. Language is not learned in straight lines. What I mean by this is that if you want to learn a bit of language, you need to review/revise/recycle it a few times if you want to use it and not just “know” it. To go forwards, you need to go backwards first.

2. Do something that isn’t IELTS why not. There is no special IELTS language, rather what you need is good general English. I’d add that IELTS can be very boring and boring is not good for learning. Find something that interests you.

3. Take the day off. It is possible to work too hard and everyone works more efficiently when they are rested. Because IELTS means so much, it is easy to be tempted into trying to work on it non-stop. That can be a mistake. You want to focus on quality as much as quantity – that is the way to improve.

Task one

Which tense?

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Which tense should use you use in IELTS academic task 1? There’s no one answer.

The first step is to consider whether the graph/chart you are looking at refers to a particular time or not. If it is one which refers to a particular time- then you need to use that time in your writing. So if it refers to 1998, you need a past, but if it refers to 2050, then you need a future.

For some charts/graphs there is no time element in this case you should aim to use the present simple- and this is almost always the case for when you have to describe a process.

I’d add that you cannot choose the time only by looking at the form of chart/graph. Some bar charts are “static” and have no time element and some pie charts do refer to a particular time. The only way to decide is to READ THE QUESTION and LOOK AT THE AXES/INFORMATION PROVIDED

Clarity before complexity

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Is it good to use words like “nadir” and “apex” in IELTS task 1 writing? Just answered a comment on this on the website.

My answer was a fairly strong no. These are very low frequency words, which means we don’t use them very often. There is a reason for that – they have quite precise, almost technical, meanings and we use them in limited circumstances. In truth, you are unlikely to impress an examiner by trying to show off “exciting” words if you get them wrong

More generally, you are much better advised to stick with the normal Task 1 vocabulary. There are plenty of variations available, even if you restrict yourself to words such as “increase” “decrease” “climb” “drop” “reach a peak” “sink” and “level off”. The main idea is to describe the data as clearly as possible. It is perfectly possible to attain a very high band score if you use this kind of language accurately, making sure of course that you remember to vary the words you do use.

Concentrate on your writing skills

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If you want to write a good IELTS task 1: make it a good piece of writing. May sound obvious but it isn’t.

Many candidates make the mistake of producing lists of information and/or treat it as a vocabulary exercise for trend language. To do it well the key is to read the rubric:

“write a summary by selecting and reporting the main features, and make comparisons where relevant”

In practice this means you should aim to write organised paragraphs grouped around one main idea – boring old topic sentences! Task 1 is not that different really. Good writing is good writing.

This excellent tip I should say comes courtesy of Jingjing in China – a successful IELTS candidate. Yesterday I published some more tips from her with some book recommendations. If you missed it, do check it out – the tips are first class.

How to study

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Is it better to learn one IELTS skill at a time? Or should I practise them all together?

Most/many traditional IELTS coursebooks look at all 4 skills together. Sometimes I find this frustrating in class as I think it can be confusing to skip from task 1 to writing task 2 to reading etc. So very often I study the skills in a “modular” approach – one at a time – this allows my students to become expert in one skill before they move on.

That can be a touch boring though – variety can be the spice of life – and there is a lot to be said for doing different things to keep your mind stimulated. And it can help to see the connections between the different skills.

So to recap, I don’t have any particular answer to this question . But I do think it’s something worth thinking about. The solution you choose needs to depend on who you are, what your needs are and what time you have.



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