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My Semester with the IELTS Class

by Cindy Chen

· IELTS,English,Tutors,General

It’s already early January and our fall IELTS prep class seems like it only just ended; how time flies! My name is Cindy and I was a teaching assistant with Paper Airplanes’ IELTS class this fall. I feel so lucky to have gotten to know the amazing instructors and students from these classes. In this blog post, I will be sharing some of the things we did in our IELTS class, as well as instructors’ and students’ comments about their experience in the class.

Paper Airplanes’ IELTS course prepares advanced English language students to take the IELTS (International English Language Testing System), an English proficiency test for foreign speakers who wish to work, study, and live in an English-speaking environment. There are two versions of the IELTS: IELTS Academic and IELTS General. Our course focuses on the IELTS Academic because most of our students want to take the IELTS to apply to universities and study abroad scholarships in English-speaking countries. The IELTS is scored from 1 (non-user) to 9 (expert user), and most of our students are aiming for a 6-7, the typical score required by universities. Other students in our class are working full time jobs and hope to take the IELTS for professional reasons. For example, Shihab, an English teacher, says that getting a high IELTS score will be a great addition to his CV.

The class gives students an overview of the IELTS exam and strategies for the four sections of the exam: Listening, Reading, Writing, and Speaking. Classes are structured by a lesson topic and a skills focus. For example, in one class session, our topic was cities and hometowns and our skills focus was how to write an opinion essay.

Reviewing vocabulary related to school subjects and university life. Here, students are categorizing school subjects into different major disciplinary areas.

Given the various sections of the IELTS, there are many skills our students hope to improve and have been working on throughout our course! One of the skills students found most helpful practicing in our course has been writing, especially essay writing. Because of students’ Arabic background and different university systems, students are not familiar with English essay structure. They have been taught the Arabic rhetorical model, which is to lead up to the main point and create the main point at the end. However, the English essay structure is the opposite, where you state the thesis at the beginning and give supporting reasons throughout the rest of the essay. Hence, students in our IELTS class have been working on their organization and structure for their essays to fit the English essay structure.

A former student, Muhammad, commented, “Our instructor was very knowledgeable and provided me with some very helpful advice. She graded my essays against the IELTS rubric and pointed out the weaknesses in my papers and how to approach them.” Another former student, Yaman, commented, “I learned a lot from Theresa (my instructor), in every part of the IELTS, especially the writing; I write my essay and send it to her and her feedback was very helpful. Because of my background, I use Arabic, but she told me you have to think in English, European/American point of view.”

Instructor and students discussing and editing a sample written essay from IELTS Writing Task 2, where students have to write a mini academic essay discussing a point of view, argument, or problem.

Another area students hope to improve is the reading section, which poses a particular challenge due to the time constraint while testing. Hence, our class has been providing some strategies to get through the reading section and answer different question types. Yaman reflected, “My problem was time, not enough time to read 3 texts and answer all 40 questions in 1 hour. However, I still remember strategies from class, such as reading the questions beforehand and skimming and scanning."

As an assistant/tutor in this course, one of my favorite parts of the course has been the conversation groups. They’re small and intimate (3-4 students plus a tutor) and not only a great way for students to practice speaking but also great for tutors and students to get to know each other. In addition to learning about each other, we also get to engage in interesting debate questions about different topics, such as climate change and environmental problems. It’s amazing to hear all of the students’ thoughtful responses to complicated questions as they discuss advanced topics in such an articulate manner. This would be hard to do even for native speakers, let alone in a foreign language! Theresa, one of our IELTS instructors and PA tutors since 2016, commented: “The Paper Airplanes students are very dedicated, resilient, hard-working, intelligent and accomplished in their fields. As experts in their own field, they add so much insight to our conversations and I feel truly privileged to work with them to develop their English skills so more people in the world can benefit from their ideas and expertise.”

There’s not only a sense of community in our conversation groups, but also in our general classes. Former student, Muhammad, commented, “I enjoyed taking part in a group class. I think it’s much better for test preparation than individualized sessions because I was able to make use of other people’s experiences since we were all preparing for the same test.” Tara, another of our IELTS instructors, commented, “It's great to see students helping each other and establishing rapport, which has happened in all three classes I have taught.”

Some former students also commented they cultivated friendships and still keep in touch with a few of their peers. Kaitlin Lucas, our English program manager, and one of the curriculum developers for our IELTS class, also commented about building lasting relationships with students: “Even though I'm not teaching the class, I still get to know the students in the IELTS class well. Several have even joined our English Program staff as Student Coordinators, and it's wonderful to be able to work with them in this capacity.”

When I was talking to former students about the course, I asked if they had any advice to help current students make the most of their PA IELTS experience and excel on the test. Among the tips and tricks they offered:

  1. Don’t feel stressed during exam day because stress will cause you to not perform as well.
  2. Always trust your skills; you already have a solid foundation to take the test.
  3. Practice, practice, practice!
  4. Seek credible information about the test and don’t trust misleading posts like “IELTS will test your accent and you won't get a good score without a British accent” (which is completely untrue! You do not get penalized for your accent!)

It feels bittersweet that our fall IELTS course has come to an end. I am sad to leave this cohort, but I am also excited for all the students and hope this course was a good introduction to the IELTS for our students. We wish them the best in their future preparations for the IELTS test!

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