IELTS for beginning teachers: where do I even start?

We’ve all been there? During the TEFL interview you’re told “Oh, you’ll teach a speaking class.” Great, you think! I’ve had a lot of exposure to that in previous work with high school students and so I can easily utilize the strategies I did with them with an older group. In fact, it’ll probably even be easier, because its teaching English at university, the students will WANT to talk with me.

And then reality sets in. You arrived on campus a couple of days before the start of the term and are told “Ok, you’ll be teaching an IELTS Speaking Course”. Having graduated from an American university (we use the TOEFL) and having only previously done teaching work in private Chinese high schools (where you’re basically told “Just get the students to talk and have fun”), I was definitely NOT prepared for being told that I’d be teaching IELTS when it happened to me after taking my first university position. I quickly found myself on the internet searching everything I could about IELTS and teaching strategies. I spent the next two days developing strong academic-based lectures and lessons on IELTS and memorizing the basics of the IELTS grading system and format. I was ready I thought; I’ve got this!

A quick change of IELTS game plan!

Imagine my surprise when I walk into my actual university classroom the first day to find the following: 30 Freshman students, all Business majors, only 3 of which had ever had a foreign English teacher before. Needless to say, my IELTS lesson plans were adjusted quickly and the next few weeks was spent just learning about my students and trying to figure out how to best prepare them for the IELTS in a way that worked well.  

 Over the course of the term, I got more confident in what I was doing and was able to replicate it for future classes. In the end, I figured out 4 key strategies for teaching IELTS as someone whose never really been exposed to it before:

Know the IELTS - But don’t let it control you!

It’s very easy to be intimated by the term ‘IELTS’, or International English Language Testing System. If you’ve ever searched through the website (, you can walk away feeling overwhelmed and out of your league. Yet the IELTS doesn’t have to be that way. I found that if you take time to understand the basic format of each part of test, it’s pretty simple to develop solid lesson plans without going overboard.

1)      Just because it’s an IELTS class, doesn’t mean your students are ready for IELTS.

This was something that was very apparent to me from day one. I walked in expecting to be working with students who had strong language proficiency and simply needed someone of help them prep for the exam. Instead I found that the majority of my students hadn’t even HEARD of the IELTS before, and even those that had weren’t at a level of English where they’d be able to do well on the exam. So it was back to basics, building student confidence and giving them chances to practice learning and growing their English ability. From class discussions to group projects to movie reviews, a large part of my classes were focused simply on getting the students to use English regularly.

2)      IELTS based assessments? Absolutely but move slowly.

My speaking classes had three main grades: Participation, Mid Term and Final Exam. For each of my exams, I informed the students that they would be taking mock IELTS tests, but simplified versions. What I did was focus on one or two specific parts of the exam (Mid-Term Exams always focused on Part 2 of the IELTS and Final Exams focused on Parts 2 and 3) and when grading them, I only focused on one or two areas from the IELTS rubrics. The goal here is to slowly build up their confidence in each part of the exam versus overwhelming them all at once. 


3)     HAVE FUN!

It seems silly to say, but I think what made my classes work so well wasn’t all the time I spent talking about the format or scoring of the exam, or all the practicing the students did. Rather it was that we had fun. We discussed topics that were interesting to them. We watch thought provoking movies. We challenged each other with various questions about life and culture of our respective homes. And in doing so, they spoke more regularly, listened more deeply and most importantly, had fun growing in their ability.

Growing your students’ confidence in IELTS is important

I would love to tell you that after one term, my students were IELTS rock stars but they weren’t. The majority of my students after term one would barely score a 5 band on the IELTS speaking, below what most universities accept for admission. Yet that wasn’t my goal. Rather it was to plant seeds and foundations, realizing that over time these students would grow in their confidence and ability in taking the IELTS exam. And it is that growth that would lead them to having success and allow them to reach their dreams.

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By Andrew Macejak

 I’m an educator in Zhuhai, Guangdong Province. I’ve been teaching cross culturally for over 5 years and have worked with students aged Middle School – Adult. My students know me as Teacher Andrew or KABOOM Teacher (It’s a PPT game we play that they love). I strongly believe that confidence building is the key to successful language learning. Outside of work, my wife and I spend time eating with friends, reading and learning more about culture.