IELTS Factsheet

The facts:

IELTS is the International English Language Testing System.  It measures ability to communicate in English across all four language skills – listening, reading, writing and speaking – for people who intend to study or work where English is the language of communication. It is used by the majority of Further and Higher Education institutions and professional bodies in the UK, including the General Medical Council.

A useful place to find information and download practice materials is the official IELTS website, www.ielts.org  - if you go to ‘teachers’ resources’ you can find sample exam materials, FAQs, hints and so on.

However, sifting though all of that can take some time – so this factsheet should hopefully condense some of that information and give a basis from which to prepare for IELTS.

Potential issues and useful suggestions:

Encouragement and Reassurance

Taking the IELTS exam can be a scary experience and it may seem like a daunting or even impossible task to get the sacred ‘7’ needed to be a doctor, vet and so on. Getting a 7 isn’t impossible, many people have done so before and the main things needed to get one are hard work, lots of practice and patience!  The exam is difficult, there’s no escaping this fact, but a lot of the difficulties lie in getting the exam technique right rather than being able to speak/write perfect English.

It is important to attend an IELTS class to be able to fully grasp what is expected in the exam, and some Further Education Colleges do offer free IELTS courses to refugees and asylum seekers.  Those taking the exam will also need to do a lot of work in their own time – doing practice exercises and, when ready, doing timed writing, reading and listening papers.  It’s important to be strict with timing, as people often become unstuck when they only have an hour in the exam to complete a reading or writing paper. 

Exam Practice

Practising for the exam can be quite boring and repetitive; other activities, such as watching television or reading newspapers and magazines, can also really help in listening/reading skills. 

The parts of the exam mentors can help most with are the speaking and listening exams. Examples of both of these are available– go through a complete speaking exam together and pick out the parts that need most practice and concentrate on these. It might help for mentors to look at examples of the mentee’s writing, correct the grammar and vocabulary and also look at how the structure could be improved to make what the writing more readable.  The IELTS website actually breaks down how each of these exams is marked, to give you an idea of what you are looking for.  Most of it is common sense –perfect English doesn’t need to be produced to get a ‘7’ but it does require reasonable accuracy and the ability to speak with fluency and write in an academic style. 

Top Tips


Always read the questions before the text so you know what you are looking for.

Experiment with timing.  There are three tasks and, while it’s not a good idea spending much longer on one than the other, task 3 is usually more difficult than task 1 and so it might be worth spending a bit longer on it.  So, for example, you could spend 15 minutes on task 1, 20 minutes on task 2 and 25 minutes on task 3;

If you are really struggling with an answer, then move on and come back to it later.  If you have no time left later, then make an INFORMED guess.  There is usually at least one answer which is obviously wrong so you discount this immediately;

Use your own knowledge and experience – what does your instinct tell you the answer is?  Once you have thought about this, go back to the text to check you are right (or wrong!);

Some of the tasks might not require you to look in much detail at the task – for example, with the gap fills, by looking at the grammar and context you can usually tell which word should go in the space.  For example, it may be that a third person singular verb is needed (e.g. ‘walks’).  Only two such verbs might be in the possible choices and from these two, only one might fit the sense of the text. 


There is always a set structure you can use for both tasks. 

For example, in task 1:
Reformulate the title of the graphs/table to produce a one-sentence introduction;
Provide 2/3 paragraphs with the main features of the graphs/table – remember to learn lots of language for increases, decreases etc. (e.g. increase = rise and this increase can be moderate, sharp etc.)
Conclude with one sentence summing up these trends

In task 2:
Introduction = 2/3 sentences – what is your essay about?  What will you be looking at?
One paragraph = arguments in favour of what the essay title says e.g. parents should smack their children.
One paragraph = arguments against what the essay title says;
Conclusion = where you stand on the argument – are you for/against? 

For task 2, it’s a good idea to spend 5 minutes planning what you will say – try to note down 3 arguments for and 3 arguments against what the essay title is asserting;

Always write at least 140 words for task 1 and 240 words for task 2 – any less than this and you will have at least one mark taken off from the ‘task achievement’ part of your overall mark;

The examiner is basically looking for 4 things: that you have done what the question asks (and not included any irrelevant material), that you have used a range of appropriate (i.e. academic) vocabulary, that you are able to write with grammatical accuracy using a range of tenses (although of course you can make mistakes!) and that your writing ‘flows’ and is easy to follow;

In task 2, try to use examples from your own experience or from the news to back up your arguments.  In order to do this, it’s much easier if you read a newspaper every day and watch the news – both of these will also help you with the rest of the exam;

Never spend more than 20 minutes on task 1 – task 2 is both harder and worth more marks.  In fact, once you are used to task 1, it shouldn’t take longer than 15 minutes;

Always divide your writing into paragraphs – in task 2 you can actually lose marks for not doing so!


Before the recording starts, look at the questions and try to predict some answers – or at least be aware of what you are listening for.  For example, do you need a number, a name, an address etc.?
Try to use most of the time between the sections to look ahead not back so that you know what’s coming next.  You can check any incomplete answers at the end, in the 10 minutes you have to transfer your answers to the answer sheet;

Although it’s important to use the 10 minutes at the end to transfer answers very carefully, as it says above, this is a good time to check your answers make sense and guess any unanswered questions using common sense;

Don’t panic when you don’t catch an answer: if you spend too long thinking about it, you will miss the next answer and so on – forget about it and focus on what’s coming next. 


Try, as much as you can, to relax and treat the exam as a conversation.  Remember that the examiner wants you to do well and will normally be a friendly person who is interested in what you have to say!

One of the most important things is to keep going and not worry too much about using perfect grammar.  If you stop and hesitate a lot this will affect your mark more than using a slightly wrong tense etc.

Practise going through the speaking exam as much as you can with your mentor or another native speaker.  You can also practise part 2 on your own – speaking for 1 to 2 minutes on any topic, even if you feel a bit silly doing so!

Don’t try to predict what will come up – it changes all the time so pre-prepared answers are no use.  However, you know in part one that you will be asked about your home or your studies, so always have something to say about these two topics.  Beyond that, just get used to talking about general topics e.g. hobbies, food, sport, the news etc. 

Always make notes during part 2 – you may not think you need them but they will help to prompt you as you speak.  Always include all the parts of the prompt sheet. 

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