How to Prepare for an English Proficiency Test
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The time has come that you realise you need to do an English Proficiency Test for education or immigration purposes. You may have to do IELTS /TOEFL / PTE / OET / one of the Cambridge Suite etc. Unfortunately, the word ‘test’ can make you feel a little anxious or scared, depending on how well or badly tests went for you at school. Anyway, you have to work on that as this test can stand between you and a serious life goal. That is why we call them ‘high stakes’ tests, which means that getting the required score can change your life for better or worse. There are some important things to think about and some definite ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts. Try to make it fun and integrate your preparation into your daily life.
It’s a Language Test
That’s right. Pretty obvious isn’t it, but if you don’t have enough language for your required score, you will not get that score. For example, if your English is at pre-intermediate level, expect to get the equivalent of about band 4 in IELTS, which is not very useful for anything. It’s really a waste of time trying to prepare for a proficiency test without first having the language. It’s too much for your brain and it will destroy your confidence. The right way is to improve your language generally first and then prepare for the test. I have had many IELTS students come and ask how they can get a band 6 in reading. My question is “how often do you read?” They reply, “I don’t.” Well, guess what! You will not do well in reading. Would you do a driving test without practicing and learning what to do first? I hope not. That would be ridiculous. Same here.
Understand the Format
You need to understand what the test is. In most tests there are different parts testing a skill, often Listening, Reading, Writing and Speaking. The PTE test, for example, mixes the skills, though, so there are 20 items (things to do) not 4. Therefore, research what the different parts are and what you need to do. All tests are slightly different, so check carefully. The TOEFL essay, for instance, is a persuasive essay while IELTS could be a discussion or argument. Try to find out precisely what the examiners/ test are looking for.
Understand the skills
There are 4 macro skills, Listening, Reading, Writing and Speaking, and each has sub-skills. For example, speaking skills include fluency, coherence, pronunciation, vocabulary range and precision, and grammatical range and accuracy. Skills in grammar and vocabulary are obviously essential in all parts of the test. So, you really need to understand the sub skills and practice them in small bite-size parts regularly. Your brain likes it like that because it’s manageable. You can use any authentic materials to improve your language skills, which means choose something you’re interested in. If you like surfing, buy surfing magazines and watch Youtube surfing commentary.
To succeed in anything, you need to create some positive daily habits doing what is required to reach the goal. So, to improve your reading, you need to practice different types of reading skills every day. You don’t need to do it for hours, but you must do it daily, even if it is only 10 minutes. I first met a Brazilian student, Paulo, in early 2015 when he came for advice on IELTS. At that time, his reading score was his lowest skill at band 4. I told him to practice reading every day about what he loved, which is cooking. He did this and when I met him again when he really needed to reach a band 6, his reading was a band 6.5, his highest score. So, read about what you love, get some podcasts or TED Talks (click here) on your phone, write for 10 minutes every day, and practice your speaking (even just to yourself) every single day. It’s actually very easy to do, and is therefore very easy not to do. It’s your choice and responsibility. You only have yourself to blame or thank.
Noticing means seeing or hearing something and then thinking about it and asking questions. Most people walk along the street worrying about something or thinking about unimportant issues. Why not look at every word you see in a shop window and think about it’s meaning, think of a synonym or transform the word into a different form (noun to adjective, for example). If you are in a non-English speaking country, do this with some words in your book or in your podcast, or simply look at something and name it (seat /chair / bench/ to sit/ sat). This way you are building the brain function required to improve your language competence and level. Again, this is very easy to do. You are what you think. You control your thoughts. There is no excuse not to do it, if you truly want to reach your goals.
When you have improved your language to about the required level by practicing the skills and sub-skills, you need to apply your language and do practice tests to find out how close you are to your goal. With Listening and Reading tests this is relatively easy as you can do the test and then score it yourself. Once you have done that, reflect on what question types are challenging for you and find a solution to that from an expert. With writing and speaking, it can be more challenging, as you need to get them assessed by an expert. Anyway, you need to do some practice tests both timed and untimed and take the results to an expert who can assess them and give you the right advice. Record your parts of a speaking test and write out what you said as this will enable you to notice what type of language you are using. Once you are close to your target score in practice tests, you can take a real live test. Do not do a real test before you are ready as this is simply a waste of money. Many students do real tests to ‘check their level’. This is a bad idea as they will most likely do badly and feel unnecessarily depressed. You wouldn’t do that with a driving test, would you?!
Many students start our conversations by saying, “my friend/ a video on YouTube told me that X”. Most of the time it is wrong and often it is extremely unhelpful. Many people want to help you; many people just want to sound knowledgeable (common egoic human trait); many think they are experts because that’s what they want to be. The truth is these people will waste your time and money. So, make sure you get the right advice, as you would with your health or your car. You need advice to assess your level accurately, assess and redress any skills shortages and give you the right guidance in how to improve efficiently. In writing, for example, you need a teacher who understands precisely what the exam is looking for. As with all experts, you will probably have to pay. You get what you pay for.
Without the right mindset, you will waste a lot of time. Understand exactly what you are doing – learning a language. This is not mathematics. Language is a function of the brain. The brain likes good food, sleep, the right guidance and the right thoughts. So, feed your brain those things. You need to be aware of how you think and the effects that has on your confidence and learning. Learning another language is connected to confidence, your identity, culture, mindset and habits of mind. You can reach any goal you wish to in life with the right preparation, thoughts and actions. Preparing for your Proficiency Test in the wrong way psychologically can lead to difficulties because it is high stakes and it is so connected to your brain (it’s only in the brain). We meet many students who have not done what is suggested in this article and they have wasted time, money and they are depressed. We then have to spend lots of time helping them to rebuild their confidence and self belief. So, from the beginning ask yourself the right questions (what is my goal / how am I going to do that / where can I get the right information / how can I improve my grammar etc.), get your mindset right and take the right actions.
If you have read this far, obviously IELTS is important to you. The best thing you can do is to contact us for a FREE consultation. Just click on the image below and you’ll be able to make an appointment to speak with Rob or Paul, either in-person or via Skype.