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IELTS Teacher e-newsletter – January 2020

Thinking Outside Of The IELTS Classroom

by Daniel Pinder

Students in China are climbing a mountain and at the peak lies their IELTS examination test date. With every footstep, their minds stumble over the most effective ways of producing language in the test and how they can reach a successful outcome. “How can I really sound more fluent?”, “How many advanced words have I used?”, and “How can I include that joke I learned in class to make the examiner laugh?’ - these are the questions which are signposted as English students hike to the summit, but unfortunately some questions are overlooked by teachers in terms of spoken fluency and pronunciation, as well the extensive use of authentic reading and listening materials. While many students attend classes in language training centres in China, they tend to strictly adhere to the seemingly fail-safe strategies centred on high-end words to use, the lines to recite and the act to be performed during the test.

Their confusion is accompanied by the amount of information to absorb and the time-limit to acquire a level 6.5 in speaking or 7 in writing. It seems that many of these students and teachers alike, need to take a breath and learners need to be given a moment to think about what they want to say before they explode in a panic and lack any kind of coherent sentence structure. Rather than worry unnecessarily about how many seconds of hesitation are allowed during a speaking exam, they ought to consider their clear response to a question; be authentic and communicate who you are and what you think! There is room for all educators to encourage their students to apply a range of vocabulary and grammar activities but find out how to apply it in the real world and not simply in a single test. The higher expectation for teachers and learners is to apply real language with a communicative purpose and for thinking outside of the exam.

It is often observed in many classes run by exam preparation training schools, that a teacher walks into the room and Cambridge IELTS Practice Test books 1 to 13 come out. Students are immediately in exam mode. The cultural mindset of a focus on a test and, to a less extent, the application of natural language, suggests why building efficient language skills is so problematic. Students should be encouraged to raise their hands when it comes to vague approaches to the best exercises to make more complete and developed answers and support their fluency and coherence. Also, students will often stress over the correct use of emphasis in a sentence to present particular meaning. However, while these issues are merely brushed over in class, what happens all too often is that grammar structures and vocabulary are drilled as ‘one-size fits all’ solutions for ‘intensive learning’ only for the purpose of ‘one examination event’. What tends to be lacking is the ‘big picture of life-long learning and giving students the time to think. One comment came from a student in a class which I was delivering, in response to a ‘collaborative cohesive writing activity. “You’re teaching us to think, but we [simply] need to write” were words which seemed to sum up the frustration in Chinese students and teachers, and the dependence on direct approaches; there is a need to finish this task and quickly move on. It is, however, not so much the intensive learning focus, but rather students analysing the way we learn and think about how to apply information. By using authentic sources of English’ outside of the class in reading and building listening skills, this can be blended into spoken and written language production. It is the way to break down our method of acquiring language which is by far the most productive and leads to flexible use of English in the long run.

IELTS preparation centres in China and sceptical teachers can, with persuasion, open up to the concept of ‘thinking beyond just knowing’ or ‘Meta-cognition’ as was contributed by the American Psychologist John Flavell in 1979. Classroom activities which from start to finish have ‘questioning activities’ at the foundation are integral to skill development. Students in and out of class, can interrogate their current background knowledge and use it as a launchpad to guide new thinking. Furthermore, reflective learning can move learning forward and also be part of the learning. For example, tasks such as routine learning journal entries, as well as group mind-mapping can assess their own level of preparation, review their method of approaching a problem and even collaborate with peer learners for greater social development and confidence in communication. As a result, this builds layers of depth in understanding language rather than the mere memorizing of information, in turn providing autonomy, discovery and freedom in the learning process.

Words, Words… Words
A word which is routinely passed around the classroom is ‘recite’. There is a tendency to retain information and regurgitate it from memory. On observing English proficiency tests such as IELTS and TOEFL, it seems that word lists recall is prioritised. As teachers, we need to debunk robotically memorising information and teach paraphrasing information, applying various creative activities to use word chunks and phrases, By extending a word into word pairs or collocations, also using phrasal verbs in speaking or even altering word class between a verb, noun or adjective, students will recycle rather than repeat. They create questions with a number of unique responses. Little do students realise that this non-routine path brings independence and more confidence about attempting the language. As lessons build up ‘topic maps of vocabulary’ branching into word classes and functions, we find that in fewer cases students need to rely on prescribed language or exhausted story recitations for part 2 of the IELTS Speaking test. Additionally, self-motivation is needed for students’ wider reading, which is related to their topics of personal interest, So, when Chinese test-takers in their large numbers proudly show they are lovers of computer games, mobile phones or social media apps in China such as wechat, it becomes rehearsed materials in the test room. What class activities can do to push them for more originality, is to expand from ‘computers’ to possible careers in computer software, or ’ students can take the topic of ‘phones and apps’ and offer advice to talk about their own small business on wechat, which is a trend with many Chinese students. Without candidates’ confident attempts to explore and discover language and project a true voice, examiners will face re-emerging mundane and repetitive performances in the exam room.

Despite how students may rely on the easiest and fastest route to the test answers, the agreed response between examiners is that it is the teachers’ duty to inform candidates that they are wasting their time and money trying to game the test, staging a performance and completing a box-ticking exercise. If they want a higher score, the self-motivation is needed to widen exposure to general and academic English which extends beyond the classroom. Following 2018 reports on IELTS score averages to the present day, the South China Morning Post newspaper has raised questions about approaches for learners in IELTS preparation schools in China. “It is the so-called IELTS language such as ‘as we all know’ [and ‘it depends - different people think different things’] and other fillers [and] the sameness of the writing [which] gives them a low score”. Ill-formulated sentence structures or off-topic answers are also not uncommon. Chinese teachers can no longer resort to distributing highly sought-out Moban 模板- template answers on paper to their students.

There’s a question. Students do need to bring their meta-cognitive learning back into the test room, with specifically designed topics and tasks which need focus. It is true that the functional language of each task needs to be clear in the mind of students. This is so that they will know to offer personal experiences in speaking part 1 in comparison to generalised answers when debating other people’s opinion in Part 3 speaking. Similarly, concerning specific grammar, passive voice and sequences will be suited to Task 1 processes in diagrams. A lesson focusing on perfect tenses will help writing for Task 1 map developments, which in turn can be applied to a task 2 about developments in society over time, up to the present day. From my experience in teaching lessons in academic English and IELTS, what tends to surprise my students is the classroom exercises which convert real world language and circumstances into an IELTS setting. For instance, a bar chart of research findings from current affairs, a website news article to spark an argument or a recorded interview for listening are all examples of IELTS in context. In a following layer of the class, learners’ eyes widen slightly when they are prompted to use these resources to design a possible activity with IELTS style speaking or writing questions and share for peers to deliver a response. From that point, in yet another tier of the class, they witness the same material used in a sample real practice test. What hits home with the students is that it is necessary to take pause for breath, for thinking and to be ‘flexible in the use of language. As we learn the language, we all need the time to pause as we walk to the top of the mountain in order to appreciate it.

Educational authorities, examining bodies, managers, as well as International and local teachers all have a responsibility to ensure that sub-skill delivery methods are transparent - and to be open to these methods, so that we can share and standardise our lesson delivery. Motivation to complete demanding levels of study, which are unrelated to their interests is, without doubt, a barrier for students. They can be dismissive of long-term learning techniques when they have one isolated exam within a limited time frame. Yet there are hopeful students, as one of my own students showed her investment by budgeting 2 years, alongside her current degree. She invested to time to perfect her academic English for the IELTS test, but more essentially preparation for her targeted UK university course. Text-books resources such as the Cambridge ‘Objective IELTS’ series are built for learner autonomy and blend sub-skills in all 4 areas into one topic. Here, students can read aloud to practice pronunciation, extract and use collocations and then re-create ideas into plans and task 2 arguments as well as part 3 debates. Teachers would be wise to share and engage in demos and class observations to showcase varied lesson delivery styles, but while satisfying clearly defined test sub-skills evidence.

South China Morning Post December 2018

IELTS Teacher e-newsletter – January 2020 (approaches of learning and attitudes of 'gaming the test' ) Are the marketing strategies employed by IELTS tutors and preparation schools ethical?

British Council/EAAST webinar and discussions with examiners on Wednesday 4th March 2020 Chinese IELTS teachers and their beliefs about the test: reflections on our workshops: PPT/webinar examiner discussion

Meta-Cognitive thinking about IELTS

Education week Teacher: derstand_their_gaps_how_to_close_them.html

Recommended teaching textbooks resources Cambridge Step-Up IELTS and Objective IELTS series



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