Course Review: How to teach IELTS

I recently completed a course on how to prepare students for the IELTS exam. IELTS course
The course was provided by Cambridge English Teacher (CET).

CET is an online professional development platform which currently offers about 20 courses related to teaching, learning and assessment. They range in length and price, with some only costing a few dollars and requiring only 4 hours of study. There are 6 introductory courses covering different exams in the Cambridge suite – each one requires around 25 hours of study time and costs about $15 (depending on your location).

Why did I take this training course?

My lack of exam teaching, along with my lack of experience teaching Very Young Learners, are two big gaps in my teaching CV. Taking this online course showed my new employer that I was committed to developing my skills in this area, and I was given opportunities to observe and teach IELTS courses almost immediately.

How did I hear about it?

Word of mouth – it was recommended by three different colleagues.

Who is the course aimed at?

You can find the basic course information here. As an introduction to teaching IELTS, the course is aimed at teachers who are currently preparing learners for the test. This is not a pre-requisite – I started teaching IELTS preparation classes about halfway through this course. The requirements also stress that you should have a basic understanding of the IELTS test already, but I wouldn’t say that’s necessary either.IELTS course1

What are the course outcomes?

The outcomes stated on the CET website are exaggerated a bit, so I’d take them with a pinch of salt. They stress that ‘by taking this course, you’ll learn what you need to do to fully prepare learners for their exam’. This is a strong claim. However, the course does cover a fair bit about the exam structure and assessment, along with strategies for approaching different tasks and common problems that learners may encounter. There is a forum to share ideas and thoughts with other teachers, helping you to reflect on what you’ve learned. A certificate of completion is available at the end of the course.

How was the course structured?

The course has 10 units. Three of these cover reading skills, three cover writing skills, whilst listening and speaking are given two units each. Receptive skills based units generally start by introducing the aims and the skill covered – talking about how this skill is assessed in the exam. They then move on to discuss task types in relation to each skill, and explain key strategies students can/should use to help them with each task. Units normally end with a ‘theory to practice’ section, suggesting a practical activity you can use in the classroom to explain task types and strategies to the learners.

Writing units explore the requirements for writing tasks paying close attention to the marking criteria. The unit dealing with Writing Task 1 makes clear reference to the 4 assessment criteria (range of vocabulary, grammatical accuracy, task achievement and coherence/cohesion) and draws attention to how these criteria can be met. The unit for writing task 2 focuses on specific elements of these criteria relating to the longer essay format, such as subordinate clauses, anaphora and linking phrases.

The speaking skills units are fairly sparse in comparison to the others, dealing mostly with how the speaking exam is assessed. They do provide some model speaking responses and also some strategies for speaking sections 2 and 3 (extending answers, using fillers, etc.) but these units are generally a bit of an afterthought.

What’s good about the course?

The course is clearly well-structured and the learning aims for each unit/section are clear. By far the most positive aspect of the course is that it is interactive – sometimes it uses matching tasks or gap fill activities to highlight key concepts. It also makes use of exam-style activities which you complete as part of the training, so you get real experience of the type of tasks that learners may encounter. The biggest tip I got from colleagues before I started teaching IELTS was to take the actual IELTS test a few times so I knew more about the exam format, along with possible strategies to use. This course raises your awareness of both these aspects, and the exam-like tasks do add an element of challenge. I admit to slipping up with a few answers when I thought things were easy!

Sometimes the activities were great for ideas to use in class. For example, at the start of the listening module of the CET course, there’s a short review quiz on the structure of the listening test. It is easy to retype this and use it as a review quiz in class:

IELTS course2

There are plenty of other ideas like this. Here is a screen shot of another review section for the writing module –a gap fill task that can be used to recap the exam structure at the start of class:

IELTS course3

This is just one example, but there are plenty of activities like this that you can adapt and make use of in the classroom, so that’s a big plus.

What could be changed about the course?

The video introductions and video reviews for each section are needless, but make sure you do the actual review activities as they are good.

The supplementary materials supplied on the course meet IELTS exam criteria, in the sense that they are excruciatingly dull. That can’t really be helped though, after all you could encounter any topic in the exam. As well as using the supplementary materials, I’d recommend downloading lesson ideas from the actual Cambridge English site (you can do that here by selecting IELTS resources in the drop down box). These are actually pretty good and they help you consolidate some of the things learnt on this course. I feel the course should promote these resources a bit more.

Throughout the course you are encouraged to make notes for your online journal. I didn’t make use of this, preferring instead to paste all the information from each module into a word document and annotate it. The lack of formatting options for your journal entries makes it a bit limited.

The course focuses on tasks IN the exam, and approaches to these tasks. However, it’s missing a big section – what happens on exam day. It doesn’t help me to FULLY prepare my learners for the IELTS exam, because it doesn’t answer simple questions about the exam format. Things that sound trivial, like ‘do you get headphones for the listening exam?’ or ‘what should/can I bring into the exam room?’ aren’t even covered -I get asked things like this a lot in class. I recommend looking at sites like IELTS Liz for this type of information. It’s a strange thing for a training course run by Cambridge to have missed out, particularly as a lot of IELTS blogs and training sites cover it.

The course seems imbalanced at times, with far more weight given to receptive than productive skills. Some of the sections relating to the written exam are very weak. For example, for Writing Task 1 the course has four sections that relate directly to the marking criteria, but no section is comprehensive. The part of grammatical range is particularly loose, just suggesting that learners should include comparative structures in their response.

On balance, would I recommend the course?

Absolutely. Overall, the course is great as an introduction to the IELTS exam and provides plenty of tips and strategies you can share with learners. It might not be the most comprehensive on the productive skills front, but I’d still recommend the course. If you have time constraints, you might find that course overviews and strategies provided in quality textbooks like IELTS Express give you a sufficient grounding in how to prepare students for the exam. Nevertheless, for $15 this course is a bargain.

I recommend the course for recently qualified teachers with no experience of the IELTS test. Any school could use this course as pre-requisite training for potential IELTS teachers, it covers key points well (for most skills) and can easily be done across a few weeks.

Something to add about the Cambridge English Teacher professional development site is that if you sign up for an annual subscription (which cost me about $18) then you get one training course free (your choice), and a digital subscription to English Teaching Professional, which is certainly value for money.

Please note: these are my own views, I am not affiliated with this course provider in anyway. 

Have you taken this course? What was your experience of it? Would you recommend it to others, or would you recommend something else instead? All views are welcome!

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3 comments

  1. Thanks for sharing this review. I renewed my membership of CET a few days ago and chose this course. I did bits of the FCE one when I realised there were only a few days left on it and picked up a few useful activities. Kept forgetting about the course before that (it’s my third year of membership) – I’ll definitely make the most of it this time round after your recommendation!
    Sandy

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hmmm, the thing is though Sandy you’re an experienced teacher, being a DOS and all. I can’t imagine you would gain much from the course as you probably know the stuff already, I’d say it’s more of an entry level thing. However, you could still do it to judge whether your less experienced teachers may benefit from the course.
      I might try the Blended Learning course or Teaching with Technology next. will review if I get a chance. Do you have any other recommendations for online training courses? Also, I heard that IH offer a lot in the way of professional development, is that true?

      Like

      1. Although I’m an experienced teacher, I’ve never taught IELTS. I wrote my Delta Module 3 about the reading and writing parts of it, but I’m not sure about the other sections, and I don’t really have any teaching ideas, so hopefully I’ll get some of those from the course. I think it’s still useful to do courses as a reminder.
        IH does indeed offer a lot of professional development. There is a whole set of courses available online, some of which I described in my column in the IH Journal here: http://ihjournal.com/developing-teachers-sandy-millin There are also lots of courses offered through iTDi http://www.itdi.pro although I haven’t had the chance to do any of those yet.
        Good luck Pete!

        Liked by 1 person

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