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Daily Lessons with Simon, ex-IELTS examiner
Sunday, February 17 , 2013
IELTS Advice: how to improve
Many people ask me how they can improve their IELTS scores. In my experience, improvements tend to happen
in the following way:
Here's my explanation of the graph above:
1. When a student first starts taking IELTS lessons, they learn useful exam techniques and they do some
practice tests. They often improve quite quickly at this stage.
2. However, there is a limit to the improvements that you can make with exam techniques alone. Stage 2
represents the frustrating period during which your score stays the same.
3. The only way to reach point 3 is by working hard to improve your English. There are no secrets, shortcuts
or special techniques; learning a second language takes time and practice.
4. In the end, students who persist do tend to get the scores they need! (I'm afraid nobody can tell you how
long this will take).
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Saturday, February 16, 2013
Students' questions
1. Is it ok to write IELTS essays in capital letters?
Yes, it seems that the rules changed some time ago, and it's now fine to write your essays in capital letters.
2. Is writing task 2 the same for the general and academic tests?
Yes, the question types and topics are basically the same. That's why I only have one lesson category for task 2
here on my blog.
3. Do examiners care about small things like singular and plural forms?
Yes, examiners notice these things! In the writing test, one small mistake won't affect your score, but many small
mistakes will. In the listening test, a singular / plural mistake could lose you a whole mark.
4. Is it better to write numbers as words or figures?
It's probably better to write the full word (e.g. 'nine') in writing task 2, but I would write the figure (e.g. '9') in all
other parts of the test.
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5. Is it ok if I speak with an American accent?
Yes, of course! Examiners care about pronunciation and clarity, but not accent.
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Saturday, February 09, 2013
IELTS Advice: don't overthink your answers
Question 4 in Monday's reading lesson caused some problems because many people fell into the trap of
'overthinking' the answer. They were worried about the precise meaning of the word "infants", and whether it
meant the same thing as "pre-school age children".
In the reading test, you shouldn't worry about such precise distinctions. It's enough to recognise that both
"infants" and "pre-school age children" are very young children. The answer would be 'false' if the question
mentioned "teenagers" or "adolescents" - these are definitely not pre-school ages.
Remember that the people who write these questions rely on paraphrasing and synonyms; it wouldn't really test
your English if every question contained the exact words from the passage. If the words have basically the same
meaning, don't analyse them any further.
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Saturday, February 02, 2013
IELTS Advice: collocations and topic vocabulary
Viktorija asked me to explain the difference between 'collocations' and 'topic vocabulary'.
Collocations are just groups of words that often go together. Many groups of words, from "life expectancy" to
"for example", can be called collocations.
Topic vocabulary is the term I use when I'm teaching IELTS writing task 2. It refers to single words,
collocations and phrases that relate specifically to the question topic. "Life expectancy" is topic vocabulary for
this question, but "for example" is not (because it's a phrase that can be used to organise ideas in any essay).
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Sunday, January 27 , 2013
Students' questions
1. Is there a difference between "Do you agree or disagree?" and "To what extent do you agree or
Not really. I would just answer both questions in the same way.
2. My teacher told my to stick to one side of the argument for 'opinion' essays and give both
sides for 'discussion' essays. Is that right?
There are 2 ways to answer an 'opinion' question (click here), but you might find it easier to follow your teacher's
advice (to avoid confusion).
3. If I only rely on your website and ignore all the other books, is a band 7 achievable?
Yes, many students have demonstrated this. If you read too many different books, the differing advice will
probably confuse you. I tell my students to use the official Cambridge test books along with the advice on my
website. You don't really need anything else, apart from maybe a teacher to check some of your work.
4. Why do I keep getting 6.5 in writing?
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I was speaking to a student about this problem yesterday. It turned out that he had never written a plan before
starting writing task 2. If you don't plan your task 2 essay, it's likely to lack ideas and organisation.
5. In the listening test, should I write "gas works" or "gasworks", and "state rooms" or
Don't worry too much about this. Both answers would usually be accepted.
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Sunday, January 20, 2013
IELTS Advice: get some feedback
Many students are forced to study for the IELTS test alone. For one reason or another, they can't attend any
classes or preparation courses. I started this blog with the aim of helping people in that position.
However, those people often reach the point where they need some direct guidance. They need someone to
check their essays or listen to them speak.
If you keep getting the same score in every test that you take, it's probably time to find a teacher who can check
your work and help you to become 'unstuck'.
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Saturday, January 19, 2013
IELTS Advice: speaking strategies
Here are some of the strategies that I used in yesterday's description:
1. Try to develop each bullet point in detail. If you don't say enough for the first two or three points, you'll find
yourself with too much time for the last point.
2. Tell a story! My second point tells the story of how I was given the chair by a friend, and I could probably
speak for 2 minutes about this point alone. When you tell a story about something real that happened, you'll
find it easy to keep talking. Stories are also interesting for the listener (the examiner).
3. Add examples. In point 3, you can see that I added an example at the end ("last night I fell asleep in my
armchair while I was watching a film"). I could easily take this example and develop it into another short
4. When describing an object, don't forget the simple things like size, colour (I forgot that one!), shape,
material, position ("just under my living room window").
Posted by Simon in IELTS Speaking, Questions/Advice | Permalink | Comments (9)
Sunday, January 13, 2013
Message from Simon about comments
When I first started this website, I was able to answer all the questions that people asked me in the 'comments'
area below lessons. However, as more people have found the site, it has become impossible for me to keep doing
this; I just don't have enough time to answer every question.
On the positive side, I've noticed that students are now helping each other a lot more in the comments area.
Although you might not get a reply from me directly, you might find that another student answers your
Please note that I do still read every comment, and you might find the answer to your question in one of the
lessons on this page.
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Posted by Simon in Questions/Advice | Permalink | Comments (9)
Sunday, January 06, 2013
IELTS Advice: which resources to use
Students are often confused because there are so many different IELTS books and websites.
So, to make things simple, here are my top 3 resources:
1. Cambridge IELTS books for real practice tests.
2. This website (if you like my approach) for daily lessons.
3. A teacher to give you feedback on your writing and speaking.
Posted by Simon in Questions/Advice | Permalink | Comments (9)
Saturday, January 05, 2013
Students' Questions
1) Is the listening test marked by a computer?
No, this is a completely false rumour. Read the start of this page.
2) In the Cambridge IELTS books, what do the answers in brackets mean?
They are optional answers. You don't need the words in brackets, but your answer will still be correct if you put
3) A teacher on a different website said that we should write "it is disagreed" instead of "I
disagree". Is this correct?
No, that's really bad advice. "It is disagreed" means "most people disagree", so it doesn't answer the question "Do
you agree or disagree?". Remember, the rules for IELTS are not the same as those for 'real' academic writing at
university. It's fine to use the word "I" in the IELTS test.
4) My teacher (in the USA) told me to write 4 sentences for the introduction to task 2. Do you
think examiners here might prefer that approach?
No. Examiners are trained in the same way in every country. It's a waste of time writing a 4-sentence
introduction. Just write 2 sentences.
5) Can you explain the structure of this sentence that you wrote?: "Just pop round to number 10
any time after 5 pm."
It's an imperative sentence. Click here for a full explanation.
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Sunday, December 30, 2012
IELTS Advice: sometimes you need a break!
Earlier this year, one of my students decided to take a break from studying for the IELTS exam. When I met her a
few weeks later, she seemed more relaxed and confident, and her scores soon improved.
Sometimes you need to take a break to give your brain a chance to process all the information that you've been
feeding it. if you're feeling stressed or frustrated about the IELTS test, consider taking some time off!
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Saturday, December 29, 2012
Students' Questions: 'agree or disagree' essays
1) When writing an 'agree or disagree' essay, is it better to have a strong view and ignore the
other side of the argument, or should we try to address both sides?
Both ways are equally acceptable. A few students have commented that I seem to prefer addressing both sides of
the argument (click here for an example). However, I've also written some one-sided essays like this one. It
really depends on the ideas that you have, so your planning time is extremely important for this type of
2) What's the best way to approach the following question?: "Financial education should be a
mandatory component of the school program. To what extent do you agree or disagree with
this statement?"
This question doesn't allow you to partly agree: either financial education should be mandatory, or it shouldn't.
Think about which view would be easier to support, then make some notes. Click here to see my ideas for a
similar topic.
PS. Thanks to those of you who wished me a happy Christmas!
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Saturday, December 15, 2012
IELTS Advice: the importance of phrases
Note: I'm using the term 'phrase' to refer to 'a group of words' (not an expression or idiom).
When I studied foreign languages at school, we were mainly taught vocabulary as a list of individual words with a
translation of their meanings. The problem with learning a list of individual words is that you don't learn how to
use them in a natural way, and you find yourself translating word by word from your own language.
The alternative is to study phrases that native speakers have produced. I was happy to see that the first
comment (by 'boburShox') below this lesson was a list of good phrases that I used in my essay. The individual
words are easy to understand, but you can learn a lot by analysing the way I put them together.
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Sunday, December 09, 2012
IELTS Advice: practice or preparation?
Are practice and preparation the same thing? I'd say they are not. Preparation for the IELTS test should involve
more than just exam practice. What would you put in the preparation area of the diagram below?
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Saturday, December 08, 2012
Students' questions
1) Is it a good idea to use headings to organise my essays?
No, you should never use headings in any of your IELTS essays. Don't include lists or bullet points either. All of
these things are considered incorrect format.
2) Is it ok to write "I think" or "I like to say" in my task 2 essay?
Those phrases are a bit informal. I prefer to write "I believe" or "I would argue".
3) If I write that I completely agree, can I still write a paragraph explaining the other side of the
Imagine the examiner's confusion if you say that you agree, but then give good reasons for the opposite opinion.
If you want to include the other side of the argument, either write a paragraph explaining why you think it is
wrong, or change to a 'partly agree' introduction.
4) Do I have to give my opinion in the main paragraphs as well as in the introduction and
If you have stated your opinion clearly in the introduction, it will be obvious to the examiner that your main
paragraphs are supporting that opinion. Your opinion should be clear throughout the essay (if you want to get a
good score), but that doesn't mean that you need to write "in my opinion" before every idea. Have a look at some
of my essays here on the site to see how I do it.
5) Which is correct: "A and B showed an increase" or "A and B showed increases"?
Both are fine. Try Googling "they showed an increase" and "they showed increases". You'll find examples of both.
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Saturday, December 01, 2012
IELTS Advice: one tip for each part
A student of mine asked me to give him just one key piece of advice for each part of the IELTS test. After giving it
some thought, here is my answer:
Focus on vocabulary instead of grammar or linking. In parts 2 and 3, explain your ideas in detail to increase
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your vocabulary score.
Use the breaks to read ahead. When they give you half a minute to check your answers, don't! Use the time to get
ready for the next section.
Get to the end! Miss the questions you find difficult, and make sure you do all of the easier ones. Return to the
harder questions if you have time.
Writing Task 1
Write a good overview. Examiners want to see a summary of the information, as well as detailed description.
Writing Task 2
Spend more time planning. A good plan will help you to write a more organised essay with better ideas.
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Sunday, November 25, 2012
IELTS Advice: stop worrying about the examiner
Many students are overly worried about the examiner. They worry about body language, eye contact, how
friendly the examiner is, whether the examiner smiles, whether he/she is making notes, what his/her opinion
might be etc.
This kind of worrying is a waste of time and energy. My advice is that you should only worry about 2 things in
the speaking test: 1) listening carefully to the questions 2) trying your best to give good answers. It's a language
exam, so let's worry about language.
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Saturday, November 24, 2012
Students' questions
1. What is the difference between bands 7.5 and 8 in writing and speaking?
The difference is small. In the writing test, you need a small improvement in one of the following four areas: 1)
answering the question in a bit more depth 2) developing your ideas in a more organised way 3) using a wider
range of vocabulary 4) making fewer mistakes. In the speaking test, my advice is to focus on adding detail to
your answers in parts 2 and 3.
2. If the question is about 'working at home', is it ok to repeat those words?
Yes. It is inevitable that you will repeat some of the words from the question in both writing tasks. Try to add
some variety where you can, but don't get stuck trying to think of five different ways to say the word "work" or
3. The examiner laughed at one of my answers. Is that a bad sign?
No, it's probably a good sign. Maybe you said something unexpected and the examiner liked it!
4. In writing task 1, can we join the introduction and overview together?
Yes, it's fine to put the introduction and overview together as one paragraph. Just make sure that your overview
is good because it's an important part of your essay.
5. Can we use quotations in writing task 2 and the speaking test?
Personally I don't recommend including quotations because it's difficult to use them in a natural and relevant
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way. It usually seems like the student has 'forced' the quotation into his/her work, and this won't impress the
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Sunday, November 18, 2012
IELTS Band 9 (continued)
Following on from yesterday's lesson, let's look at why the answers I wrote on Friday were at band 9 level. Here
are two reasons:
- Quality of language: rich vocabulary and detailed description
- Answers are relevant and well developed, with opinions and examples
For me, these are the two main things to focus on if you want to get a higher score in IELTS speaking or writing.
If you thought that grammar and linking were the most important things, you need to change your approach!
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Saturday, November 17 , 2012
IELTS Band 9
People often ask what makes a band 9 answer in the writing and speaking tests. The answers I wrote in
yesterday's speaking lesson are definitely at band 9 level. Can you explain why?
Feel free to suggest some reasons in the 'comments' area below this lesson. I'll add my own explanation
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Sunday, November 11, 2012
IELTS Advice: vocabulary review
It's useful to review the words and phrases you learn each week. Here's a quick list of some vocabulary from this
week's lessons on the blog:
a pressing issue
the provision of
over the course of (+ time)
a calendar year
Try writing a simple sentence with each of the above phrases. Check the meaning of each one in a dictionary first
if you're not sure.
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Saturday, November 10, 2012
Students' questions
1. Is it a good idea to write 60 to 80 words for my task 2 introduction?
Personally I wouldn't write that many words for the introduction. The main body paragraphs are much more
important, so I would spend more time on those.
2. Which verb tense should I use to describe a film or novel?
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We normally use the present simple to describe what happens in a film or novel e.g. "the film is about a man who
travels to..."
3. The sentences in your ebook are all quite short. Do I need to write some longer, more
complex sentences too?
Yes. I tried to limit the length of sentences in the ebook because I wanted to focus on ideas and vocabulary.
However, it's easy to make longer, complex sentences by joining two or three ideas together. Remember that
long sentences are not necessarily considered 'difficult'. Good writing tends to involve a mix of long and short
4. Is it ok to introduce myself when writing a complaint letter (GT task 1)?
Yes, that would be fine.
5. Are the academic and general listening tests different?
No, there are no differences in either the listening or the speaking tests.
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Sunday, November 04, 2012
IELTS Advice: use a dictionary
Many students make spelling, vocabulary and grammar mistakes that could be avoided if they checked their
work properly.
When practising your writing, do you have a dictionary with you? Do you check when you are not sure about
Remember, a dictionary shows more than just meanings of words. A good dictionary shows you examples of
how to use words correctly.
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Saturday, November 03, 2012
Students' questions
1. I followed your advice and used a 4-paragraph essay structure, so why didn't I get a higher
Good structure and organisation are important, but the expression of ideas is even more important. IELTS is a
language test, so the key to a high score is to express relevant ideas using good language.
2. How many bands will I lose if I only write 130 words for task 1?
I can't give an exact answer to this. The examiner will give you a lower score for 'task achievement', but you
might also lose marks for vocabulary - a shorter essay probably contains fewer examples of good language use.
3. Can I use 'double' like this: "The figure for X increased to nearly 20% in 1997, which almost
doubled its initial rate in 2000."
The use of 'doubled' is ok, but I found the whole sentence a bit confusing, maybe because the years seem to be
mixed up. Can anyone suggest a clearer way to write this sentence?
4. Can I use the word "skew" to describe numbers in task 1?
If you Google the word "skew" or "skewed", you'll see it used to describe numbers and data. However, it's only
used in certain situations, and I've never used it in an IELTS essay. I wouldn't worry about this word if I were
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5. Can I say "There were twice as many precipitation"?
No, you would need to write "There was twice as much precipitation" because 'precipitation' is an uncountable
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Saturday, October 27 , 2012
IELTS Advice: homework should be perfect!
Students often make simple mistakes that could be avoided. In exam conditions this is understandable, but there
is no excuse for making careless mistakes in your homework!
If you are writing an IELTS essay at home, don't do it as a test. Take your time, check everything carefully, and
aim to write a "perfect" essay. Homework is an opportunity to learn and improve, not just a test of your current
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Saturday, October 20, 2012
Students' questions
1. Are "the" and "a" counted as words?
Yes! They are counted as words in the writing, listening and reading tests.
2. How can I improve my listening and reading?
The simple answer is: do more listening and reading. There are no shortcuts I'm afraid; it takes time to develop a
"good ear" for a language, and the reading exam is basically a test of your vocabulary knowledge. Your listening
and reading will improve gradually with time, practice and exposure to the language.
3. If the question asks for "type of exam", would the answer be "open book" or "open book
You don't need the word "exam" in your answer because it is part of the question. However, I don't think "open
book exam" would be marked wrong (if 3 words are allowed).
4. If the answer in a listening test is "wide variety", would "variety" be marked wrong?
Probably. I've seen many examples in the listening test where one word is not enough. For example, if the
answer is "early morning", students who only write "morning" are marked wrong. If a second word changes the
meaning a little (e.g. early morning, wide variety), you should write it.
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Saturday, October 13, 2012
IELTS Advice: only use official questions
Students are often worried because they find difficult or confusing IELTS questions on the Internet (especially
for writing task 2). My advice is: don't trust questions you find on the Internet. They are often written by
students who have remembered them wrongly.
You can definitely trust the Cambridge IELTS books. Cambridge makes the IELTS exam, so you know that the
questions in those books are 'real'. They are also clearly written, so you will not be confused about what the
question is asking you to do.
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PS. I promise I'm not paid by Cambridge to advertise their books!!
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Sunday, October 07 , 2012
IELTS Advice: your comments
You might have noticed that I no longer reply to most comments. I'm afraid it has become impossible for me to
keep up with the questions that people ask me.
However, I do still read every comment, and your questions influence the lessons that I write. Please feel free to
keep commenting, and please don't be offended if I don't answer you individually.
PS. Congratulations to those of you who wrote to say that you got the scores you needed last week! It's great to
hear that my lessons have helped.
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Saturday, October 06, 2012
IELTS Advice: vocabulary is the key!
As I've said before, there is no 'secret' way to improve your IELTS score. You just need to study hard and keep
practising. However, if I had to give one piece of advice, it would be this: work on vocabulary.
If you use a wide range of vocabulary in the speaking and writing exams, you are more likely to get a high score.
Vocabulary is also the key to finding the answers in the reading test and understanding the speakers in the
listening test.
So, are you writing new words and phrases in a notebook every day? Do you read something in English every
day? Do you use a dictionary? Do you use Google or Wikipedia to look up words and phrases? If you don't do
these things, start now!
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Sunday, September 30, 2012
IELTS Advice: preparing speaking topics
On Friday I suggested preparing six main topics for IELTS Speaking Part 2. But how should you prepare these
topics? Where can you find good ideas?
I recommend doing two things. First, have a look through the speaking lessons on this site. Second, use the
Internet to do some further research. For example, if you want a good description of a famous person, look
him/her up on Wikipedia and note down the best vocabulary ideas.
Posted by Simon in IELTS Speaking, Questions/Advice | Permalink | Comments (5)
Saturday, September 29, 2012
Students' questions
1. I'm new to IELTS reading. Should I start by doing some general tests?
I think that's quite a good idea. The general tests are a bit easier than the academic ones, so you could start with
them and practise the techniques I suggest in lessons here on the site.
2. How can I improve my vocabulary and my reading ability?
Basically you need to read a lot, use a dictionary, and keep a vocabulary notebook. Have a look at this lesson.
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3. Will it affect my score if I say too much (e.g. a long example in part 3)?
Don't worry about saying too much in parts 2 and 3 of the speaking test; the examiner will stop you if he/she
wants to. Just try to give short, direct answers in part 1.
4. Is it ok to write a sentence beginning "This essay will..." in the introduction to task 2?
I prefer to simply answer the question directly (have a look through my lessons to see how I write
introductions), but it definitely isn't wrong to write "This essay will...". It won't affect your score either way.
5. What is the difference between could, should and would?
For this kind of question, I'd recommend that you consult a dedicated grammar book or website. This grammar
website looks quite good.
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