>Two-course strategy to teaching IELTS

> My strategy for teaching IELTS is:

1) ENGLISH SKILLS: If there’s enough time, work to improve the student’s English level through English training.

2) TEST PREP: Help the student gain an understanding of how the IELTS test functions. There are various books that deal specifically with the IELTS, how the speaking part works, the two tasks of the writing part, etc. (I always teach my students how to do a 5-paragraph essay for the 250-word Task 2.)

I think of it as two courses and think it’s best taught as two courses. The first one is actually teaching English and the second one is teaching how the functions of how the IELTS test works.


I have found that Interchange by Cambridge Universtity Press hits on almost all of the types of content that IELTS does such as the environment, education, work, news, movies, food, people, etc. In addition, it is teaching skills for reading, writing, listening, speaking. There are some examples below from New Interchange level 3.


The second course can be a short and it’s rather easy for the students to get the point of how different parts of the test work. Once they have this test-prep course they should understand it. I believe this one bit of training can help a candidate improve their score by one band level. I suppose some people would question that assertion so let’s look at it another way. This training can help a candidate avoid making mistakes that could cost him one band level.

Now if they should fail to get the score they want in IELTS they do not have to take this second course, the test-prep course, again. Not scoring high enough, means that their English level is not high enough and they need to work on their English skills which is a much bigger job.

For this effort I have used various test-prep books for IELTS. All of the ones I have tried have been useful but I guess I wasn’t relying on them so completely, using them more as a framework to work from, as I have a lot of things about the test that I have learned and use that as a resource when teaching IELTS. So I have no strong recommendations to make on IELTS test-prep books but am interested to hear other’s recommendations on those as well.


Personality types and qualities; relationships; “turn ons and turn offs”. Describing personalities; expressing likes and dislikes; expressing agreement and disagreement; complaining Relative descriptions of people; making inferences. Writing about a best friend. “Friends Again – Forever!”: Reading a narrative about friendship. “Personality types”: Interviewing a classmate to find out about personality.

Unusual and exceptional jobs; job skills; summer jobs. Giving opinions about jobs; describing and comparing jobs Gerund phrases as subjects and objects; comparisons with -er / Writing about career advantages and disadvantages. “Strategies for Keeping Your Job”: Reading advice about behavior in the workplace. “The best and the worst”: Finding out about classmates’ summer or part-time jobs.

The media; news stories; exceptional events. Describing past events; narrating a story. Listening to news broadcasts; listening to a narrative about a past event; making up stories. Writing a newspaper story. “Strange but True”: Reading tabloid news stories. “A double ending”: Completing a story with two different endings.

Cultural comparisons and culture shock; customs; tourism and travel abroad. Expressing emotions; describing expectations; talking about customs; giving advice Noun phrases containing relative living listening to descriptions of and opinions about customs. Writing advice for a visitor to your country. “Culture Check” Reading and completing a questionnaire. “Culture clash”: Comparing customs in different countries.

The environment and world issues. Identifying and describing problems; offering solutions. Listening to people talk about problems, solutions, and accomplishments. Writing about local issues and offering solutions. “The Threat to Kiribati: Reading about an island that is sinking into the sea. “Community planner”: Solving some small-scale environmental problems.

Historic events and people; biography; the future. Talking about historical events; giving opinions about the future. Listening to historical facts; listening for opinions about public figures; listening to predictions. Writing a biography.
“The Global Village”: Reading about political and technological changes. “History buff”: Taking a history quiz.

Milestones and turning points; behavior; regrets. Describing yourself in the past; describing regrets about the past; describing hypothetical situations. Listening to descriptions of important events; listening to regrets and explanations. “If You Could Do It All Again”: Reading about three people’s life choices. “If only . . . .”: Imagining different possibilities for yourself.

>Must students understand language mechanics to achieve language usage?

>Private Sub Reply_to_message_about_grammar()
Dim MESSAGE as String
MESSAGE = “Hello,” & Chr$(13) & Chr(10) & Chr$(13) & Chr(10) & “I think the goal is to teach our students to use the language. “
MESSAGE = MESSAGE & “Sometimes trying to study the mechanics makes it more difficult and confusing. “
MESSAGE = MESSAGE & “The same is true with computers. Most of us just want to use programs. “
MESSAGE = MESSAGE & “Trying to study computer language makes it more difficult and confusing.”
MESSAGE = MESSAGE & Chr$(13) & Chr(10) & Chr$(13) & Chr(10) & “However, computer people should understand programming. Teachers should understand language mechanics.”
MESSAGE = MESSAGE & Chr$(13) & Chr(10) & Chr$(13) & Chr(10) & “Dave Kees”
End sub



I think the goal is to teach our students to use the language. Sometimes trying to study the language mechanics makes it more difficult and confusing. The same is true with computers. Most of us just want to use programs. Trying to study computer language makes it more difficult and confusing.

However, computer people should understand programming. Teachers should understand language mechanics.

Dave Kees

>Bob – Effective student monitoring, formative & diagnostic assessments and differentiating instruction

A teacher lamented: “If, as is the case with many teachers, they have 10 or 11 separate classes once a week for one and a half hours – and, an average of 50 students in each class, – they see around 500 students for a total of approximately 26 hours during a full semester. If there is any super teacher that can focus on the performance of every one of their students under these conditions and, realistically, expect to achieve, even, 90% motivation then they have outstanding expectations.”

Different teachers have different ways to appeal to and win the hearts and minds of their students. Some teachers do it through the example of their professionalism, sometimes augmented by humor and love, and the confidence that the teacher is able to instill into their students that he will be able to take their English to a higher level.

But in large classes there are students who are slipping through the cracks. As you implied, how can they “focus on the performance of every one of their students under these conditions” rather than just, what I’ll call, “broadcast teaching”?

This past semester I was experimenting with a system I like to call “Bob”. In a way, “Bob” is a computer system I’m using consisting of an Excel file and Visual Basic program. But it is more an extension or appendage of me as a teacher and many of the things I’m doing with my students. Technology isn’t running my classroom but I am using technology to help me do what I need to do easier and better.

I must say it has helped me keep track of my students ten times better than before I began to use it. Of course, I’m a bit absent minded and always have trouble remembering things, people, names, etc.

For people who are interested in this sort of thing you need to know what to do after you gain the ability to closely monitor each student. For example, built into the system you would have some Diagnostic and Formative Assessments.

The next step is grouping the students or segmenting them. (Bob enabled me to develop the name cards or name tents that I spoke of earlier.) Then you can apply what they call “Differentiating Instruction” to better meet the needs of the students and their motivational triggers in a more individual way.[2]

I think most teachers teach to the middle level of the class. We don’t teach to the bottom students but we don’t teach to the top students either. We teach to the middle students. This is perhaps the normal effort of teachers. Teachers who make a greater effort may try to do something for students who are lagging. But there is also a significant number of students who are doing very well in our classes. If we don’t pay attention to their needs they will be stuck at an academic ceiling, possible boredom and lost opportunity to develop. We need to offer them a degree of more challenging work so they can climb higher than the class average to which we are teaching.

By effective use of available technology all of this is possible to the degree that I think you could manage 500 students.

I have a couple hundred students and until using this system I never felt I was really on top of monitoring them. The system is so powerful that recently I set up for a new group of only eight students and the system felt like overkill, too much for such a small group.

From this I can see how all of my students are doing at a glance. Areas that are in pink or dark pink indicate some areas of concern. Areas that are white indicate above average achievement. These colors appear automatically according to the data. If I want detailed information I can drill down into the data but the colored Dashboard provides a good overview.

The Dashboard is a summary consisting of totals or weighted averages of all the other data I’m tracking on other sheets like the daily attendance record (AT), classroom interaction (CIA), homework scores (HW), quiz scores (QUIZ) and bonus work.

It is a system I developed myself and is still a work in progress. It is an Excel file. In addition I’ve added programming elements that allow Bob to send out SMS messages through my mobile phone to 150 students automatically updating them on their scores.

>Know your students, know your ESP

>Mert Bland on developing English training for special purposes (ESP): “I always begin where the students are and work outward in a kind of spiral. Like, have each one describe what he does. Ask questions. Have him teach you what security and facilities maintenance are all about. He should know more than you.”

Mert makes a good point here. It’s very easy for the teacher to make wrong assumptions of what the students need. You should also ask your students for copies of their incoming and outgoing Emails so you can see what your students communicate about, what kind of language they use and what kind of errors they make. When I start a training I get 10 Emails from each student. I have collected thousands by now and have a pretty good insight into real business writing.

Many teachers think that the students need to expand their vocabulary in their professional field. However, I’ve found that professional vocabulary is one of the things they learn first while on the job and they are often more in need of improving their grammar to support their vocabulary. This is a big relief for the teacher who may not be conversant in their particularly technical field.

Lower level students will need more functional help, how to describe or plan certain actions; ie: planning the work schedule for security staff. Higher level students will not have much trouble with this but will need help in discussing concepts and ideas; ie: future trends in security and maintenance.

The best way to figure out what they need is, like Mert suggested, talk to them about their work. You could also ask for a tour of their facilities and this will give you lots of ideas of things to talk about with them or you can even help them learn how to do the tour in English.

One final thought is that in some cases it is best to not always fit the training too closely to their job. I was teaching Business English to some students from Caltex and found some Caltex materials and a video clip on the Internet. I formulated some lessons around this Caltex material which I thought would really hit the target of what the students need. I suppose it did but the students hated it. They told me they deal with Caltex stuff all week and they’d like to get their minds off work a bit when they studied English.

>Evaluating speaking and validity

>A teacher, who has his students do a class presentation as the sole English speaking evaluation task, defended his approach by saying: “I guess this just shows that there is more ways than one to skin a cat – the principles of public speaking are things that we can use every day in our lives and, if it helps to build up the confidence in the students to use their English, then it seems as good a technique to use as many of the others.”

Indeed, there is more than one way to accomplish a task. But there are also good ways and bad ways, effective ways and ineffective ways.

I can’t say for sure but I’ll make a guess that you haven’t taken a TESOL course or had any formal training to be an English teacher. I’ll admit my formal training is skimpy but I study as much as I can.

Brown & Yule explained some of the challenges of speaking. “…it should also be borne in mind that even native speakers of English find that a straight description is easier, in some sense, than telling a story and, in turn, that telling a story is easier than a justification of an opinion….This is a rather general guide to the level of difficulty. Naturally, a short narrative involving a single character and only two or three events may be easier than a lengthy description covering many details and relationships.”

Here is a list of examples of speaking that Brown & Yule point out:

1. Static relationships

a) Describing an object or photograph
b) Instructing someone how to draw a diagram
c) Instructing someone how to assemble a piece of equipment
d) Describing/instructing how a number of objects are to be arranged
e) Giving route directions

2. Dynamic relationships

a) Story telling
b) Giving an eye-witness account

3. Abstract relationships

a) Opinion-expressing
b) Justifying a course of action

If you are familiar with the IELTS speaking test you can see these elements in the test. First the examiner asks some basic information or a description of something. Then to tell a story of something like a holiday you took. Then finally he will ask for some opinions on some topics.

He works from easier tasks to more difficult tasks. Students should begin having difficulty at some point during the test by which the examiner can see the student’s level of competence.

Of course, as Karen pointed out, there are different kinds of tests and what we are talking about are not IELTS English competency tests but more like a pass/fail type test.

But my point is that there are a lot of different demands English speaking tasks make and it’s important to match the task to the need and to achieve validity.

Brown explains: “The general concept of validity was traditionally defined as ‘the degree to which a test measures what it claims, or purports, to be measuring’ (Brown, 1996, p. 231).

“Validity was traditionally subdivided into three categories: content, criterion-related, and construct validity (see Brown 1996, pp. 231-249). Content validity includes any validity strategies that focus on the content of the test. To demonstrate content validity, testers investigate the degree to which a test is a representative sample of the content of whatever objectives or specifications the test was originally designed to measure.”

So a test of General English would not be valid for Business English students. A Public Speaking test would not be valid for General English students. Would it be good for General English students to be competent in Public Speaking. Probably. Does the ability to speak publicly show competence in a general English speaking situation? No. Could the specific anxiety generated by speaking in public interfere with General English production? Absolutely.

General English requires the ability to negotiate meaning, explaining, understanding when they are not being clear to the listener and using appropriate strategies (circumlocution or defining terms), turn-taking, etc.

To this the teacher questioned: “Why??? What support do you have for this statement. In my years in China, the correlation is pretty strong, good english communicators give good speeches. This seems natural.”

I meant invalid as far as content validity is concerned. Are you familiar with content validity?

As explained by Underhill the question is:

“It is relevant? Do the items or tasks in he test match what the test as a whole is supposed to assess? Where the objectives of the programme are set out in detail, for example in a syllabus that lists skills or functions, then the content validity can be assessed by comparing the kind of language generated in the test against the syllabus. The questions then is whether the test produces a good sample of the contest of the syllabus.”

Using a public speech as a way to test general English is like giving a driving test on a motorcycle instead of a car.

Brown & Yule (1983) Teaching the Spoken Language, Cambridge University Press. Brown http://www.jalt.org/test/bro_8.htm
There is a lot of good information about testing at: http://www.jalt.org/test/news-title.htm

>The spiral of English teaching in China

>A teacher commented: “After a long teaching career I am sad to see these things go in cycles…”

Language teaching screeched to a halt during the Cultural Revolution but began to pick up in earnest about 1980. Still, China had a lot of catching up to do not to speak of the need to overcome the natural inertia that is always a part of the academic territory.

I wouldn’t say that things are turning in a perfect cycle. I would say it’s more like a spiral. Although it is turning when it comes around it gets closer to the center.

Many foreigners who work here, not just teachers but all foreigners, wish that their work or business was more organized.

I think teachers wish they had more support and instruction in how to go about their jobs. They would like better planning on the part of the school to eliminate last minute changes. I think they would like better classrooms, equipment, materials and books. The would like better salary and living conditions. They would like higher standards in all areas.

I think China is going in that direction. Of course, it will take time. Academia doesn’t change at the same speed as it takes Chinese contractors to throw up a shopping center or apartment building.

But one thing that the improvement seeking teachers will need to be aware of is that China will also have higher standards for foreign teachers and many current teachers will not qualify. China will formulize the requirements and certification for teachers.

Additionally, when the ministry of education starts dictating what books to use and exactly what to teach and how to teach it teachers will have a whole new set of complaints. Gone will be the relative freedom teachers have today to accommodate their approach to the specific needs of individual classes.

Public schools in New York began a program where every school teaches the same page of the same book each day in every school. People who want the government to step in may not be aware of what they are getting.

Up to now I think, considering this being the most populous nation in the world with perhaps also the greatest desire in the world to learn English, the Chinese are doing a pretty good job. Rather than the government dictating what everyone should do and how to do it while perhaps not really knowing the best way to go about it, the government is allowing quite a bit of freedom and hopefully seeing what is working well and what is not working well.

As for the present, the foreign teachers here are like pioneers. The conditions are not so easy. Many things are rather rough. The compensation may seem meager. But as soon as conditions improve and living standards improve you can be sure the teaching field will become crowded with highly qualified teachers coming over.

>What would "distributed teaching" be like?

>Perhaps you’ve heard of the idea of computing tasks being farmed out to many different computers? Science and business use distributed computing to solve complex problems when the power of one computer is not enough. SETI is a rather big and public example of this. It uses tens of thousands of computers around the world to help with computations related to the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence.

Already technology is playing a role in our teaching. Ten years ago Email was not widely used. Ten years ago the Internet as we know it was just a baby. Now we use these things quite extensively. Many of us are using them in our teaching as well. We have set up websites, we communicate with our students and other teachers through the Internet. Email and VOIP (Internet telephony) technology have eliminated the sense of distance between each other and makes almost everyone in the world feel

Each new technology opens a new door to opportunities we didn’t think of before. So we have to be constantly reevaluating the possibilities because what we can do today is something we couldn’t do yesterday.

What would “distributed teaching” be like? Seeing how distributed computing has impacted computing, how would distributed teaching impact teaching? What would distributed teaching be like?

Perhaps a network of teachers in different locations forming a team and each one applying his specialty to work together on each other’s students?

These are some questions I’ve been asking myself lately and, frankly, I don’t really know but think there might be some interesting possibilities there. What do you think?

>Grouping students for pairwork or groupwork

> Here are some practical ways to manage a classroom of students in fixed seating. These methods work quite well and I use them constantly.

First you start with a classroom of students. In this case we have 48 seats but some classes may be less. Larger class sizes do exist but are not the rule and you can adapt the methods below for larger classes. Sometimes you may have many more seats than students and the students will spread out and some will sit near the back, etc. I will sometimes assign the latecomers to fill in some of the empty seats in the front part of the class and/or when it comes time to do pair or group work I’ll have some students move to sit near others to make up the right number. When I create pairs or groups I usually walk through the class pointing at each student and showing the student his or her partner(s). Here is our classroom of students:

0000 0000 0000
0000 0000 0000
0000 0000 0000
0000 0000 0000

Obviously, when it comes time for pair work they can talk with the person next to them. This is usually a friend anyway and someone it is easy for them to speak with. Here the pairs are indicated as either “xx” or “oo”:

xxoo xxoo xxoo
ooxx ooxx ooxx
xxoo xxoo xxoo
ooxx ooxx ooxx

I used to have all kinds of sizes for group work but now I strictly limit myself to arranging 4 person groups with rare exceptions. I firmly believe this is the ideal number for group work. When there are more there is a greater tendency for students who are not talking to space out or get distracted. In the example below you can see that some students only have to turn around to create the four person group. Again, the groups are differentiated as “x” groups of four or “o” groups of four.

xxoo xxoo xxoo
xxoo xxoo xxoo
ooxx ooxx ooxx
ooxx ooxx ooxx

Sometimes you feel that the dynamics are not working so well in the pairs. Perhaps some people seem to resist talking to the person next to them. Perhaps some folks who are sitting together are too chummy. I also think it’s good to get students out of their comfort zones, out of their seats, as it gets them a bit more stirred up and although they show a bit of reluctance at first they always wind up enjoying it. Mix things up by giving each student a number or letter, counting them off up to half the students and then repeating the counting. The students then find their partner (“a” finds the other “a” and “b” find the other “b” if you use numbers). In this case students might just stand up in different places of the classroom to do the exercise.

abcd efgh ijkl
mnop qrst uvwx
abcd efgh ijkl
mnop qrst uvwx

But if they sit down it might look like this (below). All that is really important is that a & a get together and b & b, etc. They can be standing around in different places in the classroom but if they did sit down and put themselves in a nice little order they could look like this:

aabb ccdd eeff
gghh iijj kkll
mmnn oopp qqrr
sstt uuvv wwxx

You can do the same thing when making up groups. Just try to find a way to count them off so that they are not already sitting near each other. Especially when doing groups like this the students may abandon trying to sit in seats when doing the exercise. It is really helpful for the students to get out of their seats as it gets their bodies more involved in the class activities (though not in a TPR way) and when their bodies get more involved their minds get more involved.

abcd efgh ijkl
efgh ijkl abcd
ijkl abcd efgh
abcd efgh ijkl

But if they sit down it might look like this (below). All that is important is that a & a & a & a get together and b & b & b & b, etc. Note that two students will turn around to talk with their partners behind them. So the 2 a’s in front will form the group with the a’s behind them and all talk together.

aabb ccdd eeff
aabb ccdd eeff
gghh iijj kkll
gghh iijj kkll

These arrangements will work well with intermediate and advanced students and they will talk and talk. You may have problems with low level students, beginners, etc. as they have a harder time expressing themselves in English and will be more tempted to talk in Chinese. If your students need a little more help to not resort to Chinese you’ll be surprised how effective a “policeman” is. The policeman is told to make sure everyone sticks to English. In this example, groups have been made and one student, marked with a “1”, is asked to act as a policeman. Using our earlier example of groups of four seated students it could be like this:

1abb 1c1d 1e1f
aabb ccdd eeff
1g1h 1i1j 1k1l
gghh iijj kkll

These methods are tried and proven. As long as care is given in assigning good speaking tasks and students are interested in learning English these arrangements will result in a classroom of happy noisy chatting students.

>"Google Alerts" to alert you to interesting news

>Teachers are always looking for material to interest students. I’d like to say I’ve had great success using Google Alerts.

Alerts is a service that scans about 4000 news sources every day and sends you an Email of links to these sources that fit your criteria. For example, I’m teaching at an American company that works with McDonalds. I have alerts set for “mcdonalds” “kfc” and “logisitics china” (without the quotation marks).

I get lots of interesting news from these alerts. I found out about the death of McDonald’s CEO before my students did so they heard about it from me first. I have passed on to them detailed information about McDonalds new menu in the U.S. which, with all likelyhood, be coming to China in a couple years. I also passed on information about new technologies in logistics and warehousing.

This also helps you to tailor your class to your students need, as in English for Special Purposes.

The feedback from my students has been very enthusiastic. They said they are learning lots of interesting things about their industry and also how to explain things in English about their industry.

These students are managers or department heads and all use computers. Using features of Outlook I can put this news into messages and set the date for each message to go out. I usually gather up about 5-6 news stories and set them to go out one a day. Of course, if your students don’t have computers you can make printouts to work with.

Using highly interesting material you will see students make a greater effort to apply themselves to understanding and learning it than they would with generic material that is of little personal interest. Students will tackle material that would normally be over their head.

You can set the search criteria in exactly the same way you would a regular Google search. Have fun!