This letter is a detailed account of my learning experience before I achieved 7 in each of the four modules of IELTS.
I am presenting this in English in spite of two facts. One fact is that I am bound to make grammar mistakes, misuse words or blurt out Chinglish. The other is the far more minutes it will take me to write in English than in Chinese. Even so, what I want to say is that, in order to better English language skills, it is necessary to walk ourselves into trouble by confronting it.
In fact, I am far less qualified to give you advice on how to get a band 7 than many other IELTS candidates. It took me 20 months to improve from 6.5 to 7 in both writing and speaking, which pales in comparison with those who achieved this goal within half a year or even less time.
Having said that, I still want to share my experience with those who are also struggling with the nightmare of getting 6.5 over and over again or failing to get 7 in writing and speaking at the same time. As I have learned a lot from others who got 4 7s before me, I feel obliged to contribute something, valuable or not, in return.
Never stopping reading
In my opinion, for adults learning English as a foreign language, reading is a skill on which each of the other English language skills are based. Without knowing the meaning as well as the pronunciation of a written word, we are unlikely to understand it when it comes out of people's mouth, not to mention using it. Therefore, whether you want to improve your band scores in reading or other modules of IELTS, you should never stop reading, which is what I have been doing for more than 2 years.
I read the Economist almost every week. Every Friday I download the latest issue of this magazine using Calibre (http://calibre-ebook.com/) and send it to my Kindle (unfortunately, it has been blocked by the Great Fire Wall since a frontpage article titled The Cult of Xi). I do not want to talk too much about the benefits of reading with a Kindle because it will take another long article, but it is definitely a device that has helped me more than any other tools with my English learning. I have read more than 100 issues of the Economists and 10 English novels with it, all for free.
I do not read the Economist from cover to cover since it is a mission impossible to do so within a week at my current reading speed. What's more, I am only interested in 30% of the topics in this magazine, including those in the China section. As a result, I only pick 4-5 articles to read for each issue. During my reading, when I encounter an expression that I suppose can be used in writing, Ihighlight the whole sentences with the expression so that I can review it later. Please note that I highlight sentences rather than words and expressions because I am more likely to know how to use them when reviewing them in sentences. Sometimes I also export highlights from my Kindle toEvernote so that I can review them on my smart phone at any time.
Write as many essays as you can
Your writing level is unlikely to improve until you have written a sufficient amount of essays. It is pointless to just read or memorize model answers to IELTS writing tasks.
It requires great determination to write even one more essay. Most of us find it difficult to start writing an essay without being pressed to do so. I, for one, often stared at an awser sheet for half an hour with my brain completely blank. Also, it took me months to pluck up the courage to start writing this letter. Yet this kind of determination and courage is crucial to putting paid to our journey to band 7.
I had written about 150 essays, all of which are answers to writing task 2, before my last IELTS test. In the first three months, I spent 2-3 hours on each essay and I was greatly concerned about my writing speed. After writing more than 30 essays, I was able to reduce the time spent on each essay to 45-55 minutes, which was still a bit too slow. It was not until I finished my 130th essay that I at last succeeded in writing every essay within 40 minutes with the best ideas, structures and word choices I had at my disposal. Before that, I just scribbled down anything that came to my mind in the real test in a desperate attempt to finish writing within the time limit.
The ideal length of time for writing an essay is 35-38 minutes. You should allocate no more than 38 minutes because there should always be some minutes spared to double check grammar and spelling. However, less than 35 minutes are not enough to make the best of your time working out ideas and structures and word choice. Don't even think about rewriting a single whole sentence after finishing the essay because you are unlikely to have time to do so.
If you lack ideas, please visit http://idebate.org/debatabase, where you can find loads of topics with pros and cons similar to IELTS essays. But it is a place not only to steal ideas, but also to collect expressions used by native speakers.
I also take advantage of this website to practice writing. Here is how I do it. Firstly, I pick a topic which is very likely to be an IELTS writing task 2, read all the points through and highlight sentences I find useful. Then I rewrite the points I can remember in my own words. The last step is to compare my essay with the original one and replace my common expressions with less common ones. In this way I gradually upgrade my word choices in essays. But remember it will take quite a long period of time before you can use these expressions with ease.
Have your essays proofread
It is an integral part of your writing practice to ask someone to proofread and mark your essays. Writing without being marked only makes you more and more complacent with the increasing number of essays that you have written.
Essays you write and take pride in are likely to be full of mistakes. Every Chinese student has gone through a dull and fruitless process of English grammar learning and thus holds the notion that native speakers do not give a damn about it. However, believe it or not, using grammar correctly is the key to a high band score in writing. As I notice from the way the markers from IELTSBLOG give scores to my essays, the score of each essay is in reverse proportion to the number of grammar mistakes I make.
I was once confident that I had grasped each and every rule of English grammar after the painstaking learning of it in my high school. Unfortunately, it is the other way around. With marked essays piling up in my hard drive, I found that I do not have a faintest notion of some simplest grammar rules. For example, I do not know whether to put an article before a noun or which article I should use, and I do not know whether I should use the plural or single form of a noun. These are the most common mistakes I have made in my essays. I have asked a couple of native speakers for advice on these grammar rules, but it seems that these rules are too tricky for them to give a clear explanation, and the use of this kind of grammar rules are just their second nature. I believe nothing other than more reading and writing can be the solution to this problem.
Collocation is something I had never heard of before I started learning how to write an IELTS essay, and one of the most common mistakes made by Chinese students is the misuse of collocations. You must be very careful about the combination of words during writing because many combinations you figure out yourself are very likely to be incorrect. Some teachers recommend using a corpus, such as http://corpus.byu.ed/coca/ and http://www.webcorp.org.uk/live/, but the user experiences of these websites are not so satisfactory. Instead, I think a collocation dictionary is enough to provide us with correct word combinations. To use a collocation you have never used before, check it out in a collocation dictionary. Never use it until it is clearly stated in the dictionary. However, you are still likely to write incorrect collocations without being aware of them. That is another reason for which we use essay correction services.
When it comes to choosing correction services, I would like to say there are no perfect ones. I have more than 70 of my essays corrected and marked with IELTS-BLOG. It is much cheaper compared with other service providers and helpful for those who are mostly concerned about grammar and collocation mistakes. Yet the teachers there never give advice on ideas and essay structures.
For those who know John (Skype js5682 or email firstname.lastname@example.org), an independent Australian online tutor, having him correct your essays is also a good idea, especially when you buy his speaking classes at the same time. He is kind enough to explain to you all the corrections in detail in his speaking classes.
For those who are pinched for money, http://lang-8.com/ is worth a try, where many native speakers are willing to correct your essays in return for your help to improve their Chinese language skills.
Prepare for part 2 topics in speaking
Speaking is my biggest bugbear in IELTS. Even after taking the test so many times, I cannot guarantee a band 7 if I take another one. The first time I got my score increased from 6.5 to 7.5 after remarking, I somewhat supposed it to be a fluke. Nevertheless, I was confident that my level of spoken English, after more than one year's practice, had improved compared with the first time I took the test in 2013, even though most of my scores in speaking still lingered between 6 and 6.5.
I practiced my spoken English mainly by preparing for part 2 topics. I believe it is the most effective and productive apporoach for candidates whose band scores are below 7. Unless you are particularly articulate, you are unlikely to continue talking for two minutes about a topic presented to you only one minute ago, especially for candidates like me, who are unable to continue talking for two minutes even in my native language. Believe it or not, the one-minute preparation is totally useless for me because my mind often goes completely blank.
I prepared for more than 50 part 2 topics before taking my first test. Before my first test, I wrote the answers down and memorized them as advised by an online tutor. Taken aback by the enormous number of part 1 and part 3 questions, I did not prepare any of them.
Despite the 50 topics I had prepared, the one I had in my first test was not among them. Fortunately, I was quick-minded enough to respond to it with an answer I prepared for another topic by revising it slightly. The band score of the test was 6.5 as expected, but I learned the strategy of combining topics as a result, putting an end to the struggle with the continually increasing number of topics after every four months.
As time went on, I started to learn retelling my answers instead of memorizing them. This made my answers sound more natural and narrowed the gap between my spoken English level in part 2 and part 3 which might sound to examiners. Whatever topic I was given, I could begin talking without considering it for a second.
I admire those who practice speaking by themselves because I feel extremely awkward every time I am doing it. Even when I manage to talk to a mirror for a while, some stray thought quickly comes to me, leaving me losing the drive to go on talking. I find it helpless to practice speaking without a pressing situation. Therefore, I had no choice but to ask someone to speak with me in English.
I have had speaking classes with online tutors, most of whom were Filipinos, for more than 200 hours. Some people may think that I have squandered a lot of money, but it is necessary for me to spend so much money on it since I am so slow to warm up when it comes to the progress in speaking. Apart from practicing IELTS topics, sometimes it is also an enjoyable experience to talk to someone so far away from you from a totally different cultural background.
http://livemocha.com/ is a language exchange website where you are able to talk to native speakers free of charge. I tried to use it, but could not get the hang of it. I hope some of you may find it helpful.
Think twice before you believe in myths
I would like to dispel some myths. To be frank, whether you believe in them or not will have a very small impact on your score, but you may feel freer to write or speak without these restrictions created by amateur IELTS teachers other than official providers of IELTS.
Here are some of the myths I have come across about IELTS writing:
NEVER USE I OR WE. You can find plenty of examples of using I or WE in Cambridge sample essays.
NEVER USE ADMITTEDLY. I have spotted this word in a couple of articles in the Economist and a book written by L.G. Alexander, who is the author of New Concept English.
AVOID USING BIG WORDS. Advanced words can effectively enhance your writings. If you know exactly how to use these words correctly, please feel free to replace common words in your writing with them.
To become less affected by these myths, please visit http://ielts-simon.com as often as you can, where you can find plenty of valuable advice from the former IELTS examiner, such as this: http://ielts-simon.com/ielts-help-and-english-pr/2015/04/ielts-advice-score-fluctuations.html
Apply for remarking
Many candidates believe that examiners tend to give a lower score when they could give a higher one in marking writing and speaking tests. I have got the same feeling after taking the test so many times, especially when I got my scores improved for four times after remarking. Word goes around that examiners are quite reserved in giving a score above 7 to a writing or speaking test because a result no less than 7 must be re-examined by a senior examiner to see if they have given a higher score than the candidate deserves. I do not know if there is any truth to it, but senior examiners seemed more generous when they remarked my tests.
This argument has never let up, but we need not make too much of it. We must admit that examiners are always, more or less, influenced by their own personal experience and biases since they are human beings themselves. Also, it is foolish to argue over the rules with people who sets the rules. It doesn't hurt to take the fairness of the test with a pinch of salt, but you would be better off spending more time on practising.
Nevertheless, applying for remarking is always worth a try when you feel that your tests are underrated. It is highly recommended particularly when you get a lower score than what you have got in your last test. I applied for remarking 7 times and had my 1000-yuan remarking fee back 4 times. It is not all about money, but when you are so close to your target, any attempt is likely to surprise you with your dream scores.