IELTS FOR BEGINNERS

IELTS FOR BEGINNERS

By Ben Worthington

How do I start preparing for IELTS?

You’ve decided to take the test. Millions around the world make the same decision. According to www.ielts.org, in 2019, 3.5 million IELTS tests were taken, the majority, around 80% by those wanting to study abroad and the rest for immigration purposes.

You are probably asking yourself the following questions:

  • How difficult is IELTS?
  • How is IELTS graded?
  • What is the exam format?
  • How long will it take me to prepare myself?

Let’s look at the first 3 questions in detail before we get back to you.

The IELTS Exam

With any exam the first step to success is to know exactly how it is graded and the content of the test itself. With IELTS, there is no pass or fail criteria. You cannot ask the question: “Did you pass IELTS?”

  • You are graded on a scale from 0 to 9.
  • The overall or final IELTS grade corresponds to a descriptor called a Band: a brief summary of your English language level and competency. These range from 0 (Non-User) through to 9 (Expert User). IELTS candidates aim to achieve a minimum Band 6 in some cases but more often than not a Band 7 (Good User) or Band 8 (Very Good User)  (See www.takeielts.britishcouncil.org )
  • This overall grade is the average taken from 4 grades, also on a 0 to 9 Band scale for each part of the exam.
  • The exam has four parts: Listening, Reading, Speaking and Writing.
  • The final grade for each part is the average of four sub-sections in each.
  • An example:
                Final Grade:   Band 7.5
                Bands:   Listening 7.5
                              Reading  8.0
                              Speaking 7.5
                              Writing 7.0
  • Listening and Reading both consist of a total of 40 questions which are subsequently graded according to the Band system.
  • Speaking and Writing are both graded according to a set of descriptors and in each there are four aspects assessed.
  • IELTS measures what you can do in English. To begin preparing to take the test, you must know exactly what level you have to attain to get the Band score you need. Take some time to read those detailed descriptions for Speaking and Writing. (www.ielts.org, look for the speaking and writing band descriptors)

Now let’s look briefly at the exam format.

  • You can take the Academic or General Training test.
  • Listening and Speaking are exactly the same in both versions.
  • There are some differences in Reading and Writing. 

Now, of course it is absolutely vital that you choose the exam that you need for your aims. Remember IELTS is the most popular exam taken all over the world for university entry or study purposes but many candidates only require the General Training IELTS version.

How best to start?

  • Know which IELTS you need to present.
  • Read through the Band descriptors for the Speaking and Writing exams.
  • Know what overall band score you need.
  • Know what scores you must get in Listening and Reading.
  • Know what band score in Speaking and Writing to aim for

So, what is the next step?

It’s quite simple really. If you know where you want to go, it’s a question of how to get there.

Yes, but that also depends on where we are starting from.

So, the first step is: Know your level. The practical way to do that is to take a sample practice IELTS test. Simply go to any of these official sites and look for the sample tests to take (www.idp.com; www.takeielts.britishcouncil.org; www.ielts.org).

Looking for help

The great majority of IELTS candidates start their journey towards the exam looking through the vast amount of available IELTS materials, ranging from official publications, online sites, and You Tube videos. Many also seek out courses, either face-to face such as those offered by the British Council and many reputable language institutes, or through private tuition or online.

An increasing number choose to study from home and with so many possible choices to make, need guidance. Get from professionals you can trust to plan your journey towards a successful IELTS by:

  • Assessing your current English level in all areas to be tested (Listening, Reading, Speaking and Writing).
  • Planning with you a step-by-step program in the 4 areas to prepare you for IELTS taking into careful consideration your timescale and needs.
  • Pointing you to ways in which you can work on different language skills, especially those where you need to improve.

Time is an investment

You need to dedicate time and effort to be successful in IELTS. You must also be prepared of course to cover the costs not only of the exam but also for professional help and materials.  

The time factor may vary, depending on:

  • Your current level
  • How much time you are prepared to invest.

Work out how many hours a day, a week, you are prepared to devote to IELTS studies. Then, organize that time into specific IELTS-related tasks you can do, whether it be doing work on listening, reading or whatever. Try to keep 100% to plan. This initial organizational time frame is extremely useful. Keep focused. Break things down into achievable parts to help you see progress in action.

And one last point: The IELTS exam can be life-changing. But please also put IELTS into a broader context — the topics included in all parts of the test cover a wide range of topics so get into the habit of reading, watching and listening to all kinds of resources in English on a daily basis. Enjoy the challenge.  


Ben Worthington is from Northern England and for the past 15 years, he has lived outside the UK and taught English as a second language to international students. His passion for results pushed him to focus on students preparing for the IELTS exam, and in 2012 he set up IELTSPodcast, providing students with weekly podcast episodes and tutorials to help them pass the IELTS exam.

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