The title of this piece sounds a bit drastic. No, my teen class wasn’t deathly ill or standing on the edge of a precipice. They were, however, remaining stagnant with their progress. This particular class was at an intermediate level, which I’ll admit, is pretty good for someone in their early teens. This means that they can function in most English speaking environments, and that they can talk about most things that come up in a non-intense social interaction. They enjoyed English, but their motivation to improve was lacking.
Read on to find out how studying IELTS helped renew my teens’ interest in learning English.
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The Story So Far
A while back, my school had decided to open an IELTS course and, due to my previous experience delivering TOEIC workshops for businessmen, I was chosen to teach it. I have no problem stating right off the bat that I am not a fan of standardized testing. I am especially not a fan of standardized testing when it comes to learning languages. Until recently, I thought that courses designed around tests were a horrible idea.
So what changed? Well, the course was a success. The students’ English is improving along all skill sets. The students are more motivated than they were before. Everyone is really enjoying the class and looking forward to it…including myself.
When I was given the task of creating the IELTS course for my school, I did all the relevant research about the test and even did a few sample tests to see what it felt like. I then talked to a number of more experienced IELTS teachers and got ideas for activities and some lesson format ideas. By doing this work, I created a TEFL course that some of my existing students who were joining were unfamiliar with. The rules were different, the expectations were higher and even my usual classroom demeanor and attitude had changed.
I can’t really take too much credit for the rest of it as I run a heavily student run course. I let them choose their own goals. I made the lessons as difficult as they wanted. They were hungry and eager to learn again. They even got their friends to join until the class was full. They were obsessed with trying to increase their score as if they were trying desperately to beat the last level of some video game. Why?
Reason One: It’s easier to measure progress
Most schools make their own tests, and most of these tests are based solely on the textbooks used in that class. That makes complete sense to me, and I will continue to make/use such tests. After all, what is being tested is the material that was covered in class, and students are being given a grade based on how well they acquired that knowledge. The difference with taking an internationally recognized test is that you will get a score that tells you your level of English in comparison with everyone else on the planet. A seven is a seven everywhere.
Having a textbook with the answers in it is kind of like cheating. In real world situations, you don’t know what the topic will be about. In my opinion, IELTS does a fairly good job at accurately assessing students’ English language ability, not just their knowledge of the past few months of grammar and vocabulary.
Another way that this type of assessment is useful is that it is much easier to guide students to individual goals. Often times, when students get their tests back, their first impulse is to compare it with that of the other students. The students with poor scores hide their tests in shame, and the students with top marks think that their English is flawless. By using a score system like IELTS, it is clear for even the strongest student that there is progress to be made and in what areas. For weaker students, score improvements are palpable and students are less likely to lose their confidence.
Reason Two: Increased awareness of weak spots
To teach the IELTS test effectively, it is essential that your students know the criteria by which they will be judged. Coincidentally, this is the same way that most teachers assess their students’ speaking and writing. Coincidentally, this is based on real life usage of English. For some reason though, since it’s a big test, which the students are treating like a big game they need to defeat, they care about the criteria more.
The criteria in this case acts as rules of the game. If you want to win, you need to know the rules. Once students know these rules, they are able to judge others honestly and effectively (grammatical accuracy, pronunciation, lexical resource, fluency, etc.). As long as I create opportunities for them to do this, and ensure that the classroom dynamic is a positive one, students can get detailed individual feedback from their partner/group every time there is a speaking activity.
Reason Three: More interesting topics
This is largely just my own opinion, but it seems true for the students as well. There are good textbooks, and there are bad textbooks for general English. Within even the best textbook, there are a few boring reading, listening and culture sections that one necessarily must trudge through if the students are to get passable grades. IELTS isn’t really like that.
That is not to say that it’s a free for all. Certain things will be covered on the test and in certain ways. It is essential that the teacher understand these well. For example, task three of the IELTS listening is a conversation with up to five people discussing an academic topic. So, no matter how much my students may be into Deadpool, I can’t just have them listen to a clip and ask them questions about it.
That said, finding IELTS listening samples, especially for task 3 (mentioned above) and task 4 (an academic monologue or lecture) offers a lot of freedom. Simply find a topic that the students are interested in. Search the web for audio or video examples (TED is great for task 4, podcasts are great for task 3). Then, come up with 10-12 IELTS style questions to go with it. As long as the teacher mirrors the style on the test, this is valuable practice, and can be about topics that the students themselves choose.
Anyways, for these above reasons I have been converted into an IELTS fan. I enjoy teaching the class, and feel that it is the best choice for my students. I’m motivated, they’re motivated and, as long as we work together, it’s a lot of fun.
If you’ve just been given an IELTS class full of teens, click on the button below to gain access to a list of suggested posts, resources and other reading.