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IELTS Teacher e-newsletter – October 2019

Unofficial IELTS Webpages: Contributions and Limitations

The current reality of IELTS test prep encourages many candidates to search online for materials they believe will boost their skills for the test. In addition to the official websites that candidates can use - such as www.ielts.org and www.takeielts.org – many more non-official ones populate the cloud, making it at times confusing for a student to distinguish between the more and less useful ones. While these unofficial pages are great resources that disseminate information about what IELTS is and how to prepare for it, they still fall short when compared to the assistance provided by a well-trained English language professional with the right training and experience. In fact, these online pages are likely to work much better, at least for candidates struggling with the competencies they need for IELTS, when used with pedagogical guidance.

This article highlights some of the contributions and limitations of a few of these unofficial pages. The aim is to help teachers involved in IELTS test prep use them either to supplement their lessons or to better support students who may ask them for assistance or advice. Out of the ten unofficial IELTS prep pages analyzed, six are from Indonesia, three are widely used internationally, and one a major website in China: IELTS Brother. The sites were identified by a combination of Google searches and suggestions by candidates themselves in online fora dedicated to IELTS prep.

How useful are these pages?

Overall, the information on these websites falls into four main categories: instructional (skills development), informative (overall test info), personal (study tips and hints), and speculative (predicting what questions might be in future tests). While none of them is particularly endorsed in this article, since they only served as tools for a general analysis, a full list of them can be found at the end.

In most cases, the job these webpages do best is to disseminate information about the IELTS test, especially to candidates living in more remote areas and who do not have direct access to the services provided by organizations like the British Council, universities, language corners, or others that work to shorten the information gap between the exam and test takers. Unofficial pages, particularly the ones from Indonesia and China, also serve as motivational platforms, since some contain success stories from candidates who worked hard and did well on the test. The ones used internationally may be also particularly useful to students in search of model answers for writing tasks 1 or 2, a section of the test that receives a good amount of attention on these sites.

Particularly in China, IELTS Brother offers a way for candidates to not only receive tips about the test, but also connect with one another and exchange experiences. Compared to the other pages analyzed, the site goes a step further by serving as a platform for candidates to get updates on the latest IELTS-related developments, with some candidates even going as far as providing anecdotal information on the topics discussed during their speaking interviews. This feature may be comforting to some but could also bring more anxiety to others, depending on how prepared candidates are to digest the information they find, assuming that it is also accurate. This website also has a companion app that candidates access on their phones, a feature still missing in the other pages analyzed.

Despite their value, these resources also have limitations. For instance, few of them actually provided details on the academic competencies assessed in the IELTS test or linked to their official counterparts where candidates could find this type of information. In general, they also lacked tools for students to diagnose their weaknesses and strengths, thus making it difficult for less autonomous learners to produce a study plan that works for them. Another main limitation of unofficial pages is that they do not provide wide access to feedback on candidates’ productive skills (speaking and writing). When they do, these services are offered at a cost which many users, in their majority students, may not be able to afford.

How can language professionals utilize these resources?

In light of the information above, teachers have ample room to explore the existing gaps and supplement the information contained in these websites. One way to start would be by assisting less independent students in making sense of what IELTS assesses and in designing an effective study plan. These students may require professional assistance to identify their areas of need and choose website features that target their weaknesses. Below is a more comprehensive and detailed list of how to better use these online resources:

1-Diagnose candidates’ weaknesses and strengths

Most candidates who take IELTS opt for the academic test because their goal is to study abroad. Nevertheless, they may ignore that the academic competencies assessed in IELTS go beyond merely acquiring additional content area vocabulary and include a candidate’s abilities to summarize, infer, classify and categorize information, as well as develop a thesis in response to an issue, among others.

2-Make students aware of their reading levels

A crucial part of this diagnosis may involve determining candidates’ reading levels. This is common practice these days in k-12 bilingual or multilingual classes and other ELT environments. A higher reading level is likely to be indicative of a higher writing ability, according to most recent studies in the field. On the other hand, a low reading level may prevent candidates from succeeding at writing tasks that require the mastery of language skills above those they are able to decode when reading.

3-Develop candidates’ knowledge of assessed competencies and skills

When developing their language competencies, candidates should go beyond merely answering previous test questions. They should be encouraged to analyze the type of question and the language or cognitive skill it aims to assess, as well as the different focus of each writing task and of each of the parts of the speaking test. Students should come to the test aware of 1) the set of skills assessed by the listening and reading sections, 2) the genre, purpose, and academic complexity of each writing and speaking task; 3) the need to express, develop, comment on, and evaluate ideas during the speaking test.

4-Use materials of similar academic complexity to those in the IELTS test

Many candidates use previous tests as tools to prepare for IELTS, and while they can be useful to predict what subsequent tests may contain, candidates may need to be exposed to a wider range of texts and topics. These students could benefit greatly from additional academic texts containing low-frequency vocabulary and with cognitive complexity similar to that of IELTS. When necessary, teachers can provide pedagogical scaffolds to help students access material of higher complexity than they can handle.

5-Provide targeted feedback and instruction

The skills of speaking and writing can be better improved with feedback from a mentor or professional well-equipped to provide it, especially if the feedback provider is knowledgeable of the different band descriptors available in public versions. This is an area of need especially to candidates who cannot make sense of the band descriptors themselves or afford the services offered by local schools and online pages.

Knowledge May Not Always Mean Power

In summary, as in many other knowledge domains, availability of information does not necessarily translate into its effective use. In the particular context of IELTS prep, this means that many candidates may not be able to navigate test prep pages on their own and use them well enough to improve their performance in the test. A well-trained teacher or mentor may be crucial for their success, and language professionals should be attentive to their role in filling this gap. Besides, teachers will also gain from incorporating such online resources into their test prep strategy, for these are great repositories of information and materials they can choose from to help meet the needs of different candidates.

Websites Used in this Analysis

雅思哥_海量雅思考题_精品雅思课程_雅思官方力荐学习平台. (n.d.). Retrieved March 2, 2019 from http://www.ieltsbro.com/

by Fabio Coelho



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