I would like to share some examples for teaching IELTS exam preparation courses using the Communicative Approach and Task-based Learning. I have been teaching English in Vietnam for more than 5 years. During this time, one of my jobs involved designing curriculum for IELTS preparation courses in Ho Chi Minh City. In this article, I will focus on communicative and task-based activities for teaching reading skills and writing skills in IELTS preparation courses.

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Writing Skills Activities for Teaching IELTS Preparation Courses

Speaking and writing are both productive skills.  In the IELTS classroom, this connection can be exploited in a number of ways.

1. Debates

Formal or informal debates are a great way to generate ideas and opinions on different topics.  In order to make the topics relevant, the teacher should make them very similar to IELTS essay questions.

Students will often get passionate while defending their side in an effort to win the debate and may actually come up with more interesting ideas and examples than when just brainstorming by themselves.  These ideas can later be used to make outlines and eventually body paragraphs or full essays.

Teachers should make sure that students are familiar with using the language for expressing opinions, for agreeing and disagreeing, and for supporting ideas with examples or explanations before doing the debates.

2. Team Essay Writing

In this lesson students will work together to write an essay.   These are the steps to follow:

SET UP

The teacher will:

  •  Divide the students into groups (4 people is best)
  •  Give each group an essay question

BEFORE WRITING

The groups will:

  • Analyze the essay question
  • Brainstorm for information
  • Make an outline
  • Decide which student will write which part of the essay. One student should do the Intro, another the first body paragraph, and so on) (at this point, the students should NOT do any writing yet)
  • Make a SHORT presentation to the class on their subject (if there is enough time and it suits the dynamic of the class).  (Each student presents the part of the essay that he or she will write) This is so that the teacher can give the students advice on their outlines.

WRITING

  • Each student writes his or her paragraph
  • The students exchange their paragraphs and edit each other’s work, making sure that the essay is coherent and cohesive.
  •  The final product is written and submitted.

During the collaborative steps of this exercise, the teacher should circulate to address any questions the students may have and also make sure the students do not slip into their native tongue, in the case that the students share the same first language.

PEER EDITING / REWRITING:

  1. Students exchange paragraphs
  2. Students edit their classmates’ work using the provided correction key
  3. Students return the edited paragraph to the writer and they discuss any issues which arise
  4. The writer rewrites the paragraph making changes to improve it

NOTE:  TEAM ESSAY WRITING should not be attempted until students have been introduced to, and familiar with all of the tasks required.

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Reading Skills Activities for Teaching IELTS Preparation Courses

Guiding students toward achieving a high IELTS band score can be a long process involving the introduction, development and mastery of various techniques including skimming and scanning, recognizing paraphrase, text analysis, techniques for dealing with the various question types and time management.

For this reason, communicative techniques can be used at various stages of the scaffolding process for the development of these skills. In this article, I would like to outline 4 activities that can be used, which reflect certain elements of the communicative technique.

Pre-Teaching Vocabulary

It may be argued by some people that vocabulary should not be pre-taught in IELTS reading classes, as students need to learn how to deal with unfamiliar vocabulary. However, I believe that the decision to pre-teach depends on the objective of the lesson and maybe quite necessary in order to reduce the cognitive load on students when focusing on one particular task.

It may also be necessary to pre-teach vocabulary in certain parts of the world where students may lack cultural knowledge to be able to deal with the text.   One example of this comes from teaching in Vietnam. I recently gave my IELTS students a reading exercise in a test simulation situation (20 minutes for a 700-word text with 14 questions to be answered). Although it would never happen in a real test, I pre-taught the vocabulary: “New World and Old World”.   In fact, I drew a quick map to illustrate the concepts, as an understanding of this concept was essential for them to be able to deal with the text and questions.

Peer Discussion

It may appear at first glance that peer discussion is not very innovative, but I believe that its effectiveness should not be underestimated. Peer discussion can be adapted to suit just about any activity in any class, but I will give one simple example of how to use this technique in higher-level IELTS reading classes.

After doing an IELTS reading test, some teachers would be tempted to just correct the answer sheets and give the students their band scores. Other teachers might give the students the answers and ask them to try to discover where they went wrong for homework.

However, in most cases, students lose interest in the reading once they have attempted it, and I believe it quite unlikely that the students actually complete this task effectively. For this reason, after the test simulation, I put the students into groups or pairs to compare their results (without giving them correct answers).

When all the students coincide with one answer they move on to the next question.  When they disagree, they need to compare ideas and try to come up with the best answer. This can lead to interesting, and sometimes passionate, discussions as students exchange ideas and techniques for finding correct answers, recognizing paraphrase etc.

Newspaper Scanning Race

This is a collaborative, task-based learning activity, which I would use in an introductory IELTS class or maybe even a Pre-IELTS class.

Preparation: The teacher acquires a number of newspapers (the same edition) and prepares 20 scanning questions. The answers to these questions can be found anywhere in the paper. It is a good idea to prepare questions which practice different scanning techniques and have a wide range of degree of difficulty. Note: I usually use an English Language newspaper published here in Vietnam which is about 24 pages long.

In pairs, the students try to answer as many questions as they can within a set time limit.  The pair that answers the highest number of correct answers within the time limit wins the race.

Reading Journals

Reading journals can be used at any stage of a reading course but are especially effective in IELTS and pre-IELTS courses. The methodology is very similar to that used in many general English books when students have to read different passages and then describe what they have read to a partner.

For homework, students are told that they need to read a newspaper article from a traditional or online source and identify the following items:

  • Topic
  • Main Idea
  • Interesting Details
  • My opinion
  • New Vocabulary

On the assigned day, students need to come to class prepared to discuss their article in groups with other students, using the new vocabulary as much as possible. They also need to hand in, or post, a completed worksheet, on which they fill in a worksheet on the items in the list above.

I created and developed this activity and have made it an integral part of some of the IELTS courses I have designed as, in my opinion, the activity provides the following benefits:

  • The speaking exercise helps reinforce the new vocabulary.
  • It gives students practice in analyzing texts and in forming opinions.
  • It gives students a chance to develop fluency and to be able to discuss interesting topics.
  • It encourages students to read, and therefore, is good preparation for all sections of the IELTS exam: both writing sections, speaking section 3, and naturally the reading section.
  • Extra-curricular reading is especially important in Vietnam as most university students here have very little interest in current events and socio-economic issues.
  • It is also a great way to get students to do a lot of work, without much extra effort on the part of the teacher. This can create some much-needed relief, especially for teachers of large classes who have to do a lot of extra work grading assignments, etc.

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