Top Tips for IELTS

Motivation and IELTS

The longer I teach, the more I discover that people who succeed in IELTS are people who are motivated not just to pass the exam but to learn the language. So in this lesson I talk a little about how and where to motivate yourself to learn more English to get that magical band score – I want you to do that too! And what you will find here is one big idea, 10 practical tips, links to good places to visit to improve your English and, buried in the middle somewhere to test your scanning skills, a downloadable resource.

I should add that the approach I take on this site is exactly the same approach I take in class. IELTS is BORING. Studying English can be fun and is much, much more interesting. Interesting is good for learning. Boring isn’t.


The big idea: practise not just practice – motivate yourself to learn the language

On my Facebook page, I am running a series of daily language questions – 30 seconds puzzles on common language difficulties. One of the questions was about the difference between “practice” and “practise”. Most people saw no difference at all. That is a possible answer, as many Americans will use “practice” as a verb and a noun. For me though, as a British English speaker, there is a significant difference. You can do “practice tests” or you can “practise skills”.

This site is really designed to help you practise skills and not just do practice tests. Why? My general experience is that the surest route to IELTS success is to practise your skills. People with good language skills tend to do well. It’s also my experience that only concentrating on test practice can in fact slow down the rate at which you learn the language. If all your motivation is to score well, then you can lose motivation to learn the language.

1. Know the problem – it may take a little time

One way you can lose motivation is that your IELTS score doesn’t improve very quickly. This is in fact quite natural. The bands in IELTS are very broad and it can often take months to move from one band to the next – it can take months to change your level.  It helps to know this before you start.

What about people who change band quickly? I hear you ask. Each case is different, so beware.

  1. To generalise, if you are Dutch and female, then you have an advantage. Dutch and English are similar languages and females tend to make better language users than males. If, however, you are Arabic speaking and male, you can still do it. It is just likely to take you a little longer.
  2. Some people improve their score quickly simply because they already had all the language skills anyway. They just needed a little input on the exam. The exam is quite simple really. I have taught it successfully in a week or so – but only to people who already had the language.
  3. Some people get different results in different tests. That doesn’t necessarily mean that IELTS is a bad test or the examiner made a mistake. It can also mean that you had a good day or a bad day. Good days and bad days exist for language too. Your job is to ensure your worst day is still good enough.

2. Become interested in English

The theory

One reason why I started this site was that the biggest IELTS sites concentrated almost entirely on two things: practice tests and questions and tips for the exams. In fact, easily the most common reason why people don’t get the score they need is because they don’t have the correct English language skills. If you truly want to ace the IELTS, my best advice is to concentrate on improving your language. People who become interested in how English works tend to become more interested in learning English and people who are interested in learning English tend to learn more quickly.

Three practical suggestions

  1. Limit the number of practice tests you do – don’t do as many as possible. You will be motivated to do them anyway of course. Make it an end of week treat! During the week, practise writing bits of essays or just analysing the data in a graph, for example. Learn the skill first.
  2. Don’t always do timed practice tests. For essays, start off by writing them in 75 minutes and then take off 5 minutes each time you do a new one. This not only gives you time to learn essay writing skills, it also challenges you to do it better and quicker each time. Challenging yourself is a part of motivation.
  3. Every time you do a practice test, spend as much time going through it as you spend doing it. Here you are motivating yourself to learn from your mistakes, not just to complete a task in time. Mike of IELTSanswers also suggests rewriting essays after you have done them once. This is the same idea: you are motivating yourself to learn.

3. Have a learning routine – be organised – find a routine for you – set targets

Routines can help you with motivation. It is easier to learn if you are systematic and don’t just start anywhere. I can’t tell you what your routine should be. Your routine needs to suit you as a person. Here, though, are some ideas for you to think about:

  1. be realistic – if your routine is too tough, you are likely to give up
  2. vary your routine slightly and give yourself time off too – routines can be boring
  3. make sure you cover all 4 skills
  4. consider doing each skill separately – sometimes you can get confused by trying to learn too much at once
  5. give yourself review times – going back is as important as going forward
  6. working for short periods of time can work better than studying for hours at a time

4. Remember life exists after IELTS

It is easy to become obsessed by the exam – it can be your passport to a new and brighter future. Quite often though passing IELTS can also be the start of your problems. This is particularly the case for candidates who are intending to go on to university. Many universities are only too happy to accept your money and enrol you on a degree course – they are run like businesses and foreign students bring money.

The saddest IELTS stories I know are when people “pass” the exam and then find that they don’t have enough language for their degree course: they either drop out, fail or get little or no value from their course. My solution? Take an interest in the language you need after IELTS too. Here are a few places you should check out for language for university and beyond. Spending a little time in these places should not only improve your language skills, but help your motivation too:

If you’re one of those poor unfortunates aiming to work in medicine, here are two sites for you to check out:

5. Variety is the spice of life – you can do pretty much anything on the internet

Books are good of course – my personal library numbers at least 2000 books. Though the internet does have advantages too – you can do so much more on the net than you can do with books. Here are one two places you can look at to do something slightly different – that’s good for motivation too. You will find more in my IELTS directory:

  • English Central: watch and listen to videos and practise some pronunciation too
  • Smart EFL blog: more than just another EFL blog – one that uses technology intelligently
  • Thesis builder: see how essays are structured – again technology to the rescue
  • BBC 6 minute English: there are lots of good podcast sites out there. This is the best
  • A year’s worth of words: a selection of words commonly found in SAT and GRE exams with interactive quizzes. Books can’t do this half as well.

6. Share your problems on a forum or leave a comment

A problem shared need not be a problem doubled! In fact, it can be very reassuring to find out that other people are having exactly the same problems as you. You may also get some advice/ideas that work for you. Possible forums include:

  • AIPPG: this is the grandaddy of all IELTS forums.
  • Using English: if you want to ask a teacher a question, this is the site where you are most likely to get a well-informed answer quickly
  • I also get an increasing numbers of comments and questions here too. Leave a comment and I’ll do my best to help.

7. Learn a little grammar

I think most people would say that grammar is the boring bit of English. And I would have to say that often it is. That said, it can be quite satisfying to learn something new or learn a “rule”. It also goes without saying that grammatical accuracy counts in IELTS. Here are some places you should check out:

  • Grammar Girl: quick and dirty tips: this is a very accessible site. It looks at common grammar problems (including vocab and punctuation) and explains in a straightforward way how to use words in a way that works. You should also check out the comments section for different points of view!
  • OUP students sites: New English File and Headway . These are two course book sites. They contain lots and lots of interactive exercises on grammar and vocabulary – all for free. You don’t have to own the course book either. Simply choose a level and navigate to the language point you want to practise.

8. The little but often approach

I started this site with a series of posts labelled “little but often”. The idea is that 15 or even 5 minutes well-spent doing something which makes you think and engages you can be better than 1 hour when your brain is asleep. There are a variety of ways in which this can work, for example:

  • try writing just an introduction to the essay and not the essay itself (try this download to see how this can work)  Introduction skills worksheet (1284)
  • focus on learning one word really well (my Daily Word series)

9. Check out other sites too

I like to send people off to other IELTS sites to see what other teachers are saying. This is another benefit of the net – there are a lot of opinions out there. And this too can help with your motivation – comparing what different people are saying and finding out the latest news and views. Can I suggest two sites that you may be less familiar with – both well worth checking out:

  • PWEnglish: this is a truly excellent site that is particularly strong on vocabulary (an area I am interested in myself) with a series of exercises built along the lines of the BBC Words in the News
  • without question the first place to check out for IELTS speaking. Not only does it have easily the most complete and up-to-date set of practice questions, it also has excellent advice on approaching the speaking module.

10. Get yourself a teacher

This site is built really for candidates who are trying to prepare themselves. It’s an idea I believe in: usually the best learners are people who learn how to teach themselves. There comes a point though when everyone can benefit from the help of a teacher. Teachers can help guide your learning, they can tell you not just what is wrong, they can also provide encouragement and learning advice too. The best teacher is often someone you already know – personal relationships are important in teaching. If, however, you don’t have a teacher, try one of the teachers on the teachers page why not? I hope to be adding more soon.

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23 Responses to Motivation and IELTS

  1. Radmila January 17, 2012 at 11:38 am #

    Very useful! Thank you!

  2. Bhavna January 17, 2012 at 12:02 pm #

    Brilliant advice here… Thank you!!

  3. Aziza January 17, 2012 at 12:31 pm #

    G…R…E…A…T THANKS. All of them are interesting, sometimes when i read something, i bore, but now i have read your brilliant tips twice,and all of them are interesting,and of course very important! Thank you!

  4. curious January 17, 2012 at 4:55 pm #

    …if you are Dutch and female, then you have an advantage. Dutch and English are similar languages and females tend to make better language users than males


    • Dominic Cole January 17, 2012 at 10:48 pm #

      Note the “tend”. When I have taught in institutions where classes are selected solely on ability the highest leve classes have been around 75`% female.

      • Tom-Lawyer February 20, 2012 at 2:21 pm #

        I want to appreciate your good work. I got my IELTS result today. I got 7.5 overall as against 7.0 needed.Thanks for the lessons.

  5. shuayeb January 18, 2012 at 7:25 am #

    I think it is really extraordinary,very helpful for everyone.

  6. Dominic's Fans January 18, 2012 at 8:03 am #

    Excellent Motivation.

    Hopefully, What you did for us will keep the “wolf” from the door!

    TA 🙂

  7. Menou January 18, 2012 at 11:29 am #

    Thank you So much!
    It’s exactly why I didn’t book for the test yet:
    I know that my English need to be improved not only for the band 7 but also , and especially, because I will use this language in my studies and my job later.. So why trying to learn english just for the test?
    I believe that everyone who wants to improve his English will systematically reach the band he wants..
    I think , in addition to what you wrote above, learners must be PATIENTS to acheive the level wanted.

    PS: You wrote : “If you’re one of those poor unfortunates aiming to work in medicine..”
    I’m from the medical body but I don’t consider my self poor unfortunate 🙂
    I agree with you if you alluded to the medical term.. 😉
    Thank you for the sites. If you have more sites for medical-IELTS students, could you please share them with us 🙂

    • Dominic Cole January 18, 2012 at 1:09 pm #

      I only said “poor unfortunate” because I used to married to an anaesthetist!! I hope you aren’t a surgeon!!!

      • kisses January 18, 2012 at 2:17 pm #

        atleast you clarify,because I’m also in the medical field.*laughing*

      • Menou January 18, 2012 at 6:01 pm #

        I’m not and I’m a “surgeonphobe” too 🙂

        • Dominic Cole January 19, 2012 at 3:26 pm #


          • Menou January 20, 2012 at 8:19 am #

            Pharmacist and doctor in medical microbiology.. But all my qualifications are in French so I need to converse them to “Uk-valid degrees” inorder to practice in my field here.. For this reason I have to reach band 7 in IELTS, your blog helps me a lot to improve my English. Thanks a lot

  8. shuayeb January 18, 2012 at 12:37 pm #

    here, is there anyone to speak with me who needs 7 in each band just like sjype name shuayeb.islam

    • Dominic Cole January 18, 2012 at 1:13 pm #


      Are you on Facebook. I posted something there that might help. If you aren’t go to post on videos from the British Council China and you might find some other people.

  9. Egyptian Dreamer January 19, 2012 at 1:43 pm #

    I am an arabic male (Egyptian) and your hint about arabic males encouraged me a lot. Is it real ???
    Thank u for these wonderful hints and useful links. I shared the article with many friends.

    • Dominic Cole January 19, 2012 at 2:18 pm #

      Absolutely!! I have spent a great deal of time teaching Arabic speaking students – mostly Libyans and Kuwaitis as it happens. Though I did start my teaching career (quite a time ago now!) in Cairo.

      In a sense life is tougher (as it is for the Chinese students who I currently teach). Every word is new and there is little that can help you from your own language. Spelling can be especially horrible for Arabic learners.

      But I can give you many “good” stories too. It can be done but it will likely take more time than if you were European or Indian. I think it helps to know that.

      Stick with the programme and believe in the dream.

  10. alia January 20, 2012 at 2:28 pm #

    Hello Egyptian Dreamer,

    I’m an Egyptian student looking for some student to practise my spoken english for IELTS

    exam if you would like ,we may speak on skype .

    my skype account is alia.mohamed33

  11. Tom-Lawyer February 20, 2012 at 3:10 pm #

    Dear Mr Cole,
    Iwant to appreciate your good work. Igot my IELTS result today. I got 7.5 as against 7.0 needed. Thanks for the lessons.

  12. Farida from KZ May 8, 2012 at 7:57 pm #

    Thank you sooo much!!!!! It is very useful for me and for everyone, who is going to pass Ielts! And good luck on exam!!

  13. ynoch September 10, 2012 at 10:26 am #

    very helpful!!! Thank you

  14. syrusronn November 23, 2012 at 1:47 pm #

    the major problem with indian students is thier hesitation. an ielts trainer can teach you and guide you with some certain tips and tricks and moreover it the environment you get there in your classroom can give you some practice time….. thats nice but if you go with your own practice sessions like singing songs with thier lyrics script… same with visual items….. will be usefull surely

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