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Your journey to the IELTS test: key mistakes you should avoid as a beginner

01 - Mistakes to avoid in IELTS test preparation

You may encounter certain common pitfalls when preparing for the International English Language Testing System (IELTS). These mistakes, ranging from mismanaging study time to focusing too heavily on one skill area, can affect your chances of success. If you are preparing for this test, this article will cover the common mistakes many IELTS candidates make and guide you on how to avoid them. Our goal is to equip you with the knowledge and tools necessary for a successful IELTS journey so you can achieve your desired IELTS band score that opens doors to new opportunities.

1. Neglecting the test format

One of the most common mistakes IELTS beginners make is not paying attention to the test format. The IELTS test comprises four components: Listening, Reading, Writing, and Speaking. Each tests different aspects of your English language proficiency.

  • Listening: This section involves listening to recordings of native English speakers and answering a series of questions. It assesses your understanding of main ideas and details, as well as your ability to follow a description of a visual aid such as a map or diagram.

  • Reading: Here, you must read passages and answer questions on them. This section tests various reading skills, including skimming, detailed reading, and recognising opinions and ideas.

  • Writing: Comprising two tasks, this section tests your ability to write a response appropriately, organise ideas, and use a range of vocabulary and grammar accurately.

  • Speaking: This is an interactive communication test with an examiner. It assesses your ability to communicate opinions and information on everyday topics and common experiences.

Without understanding this structure, you may feel disoriented during the test. For instance, not knowing the types of tasks in the Writing section or the format of the Listening section can lead to confusion and wasted time during the test. Not knowing what to expect can also increase your anxiety during the test, which can negatively impact your performance.

What you can do:

Each section of the IELTS has different types of questions. For example, the Listening section includes multiple choice, matching, and labelling questions. The Reading section has true/false/not given questions, sentence completion, and short-answer questions.

Working on these question types by attempting IELTS practice tests online will be invaluable to your preparation. It not only aids in understanding the test format but also helps develop skills to efficiently navigate these questions under the test conditions.

Each IELTS component also follows strict time constraints. The Listening section lasts about 30 minutes, Reading is 60 minutes, Writing is 60 minutes, and Speaking takes 11–14 minutes. Understanding these time limits is essential for better time management during the test.

2. Lack of time management

One of the biggest challenges IELTS candidates face is managing time effectively. Each section of the IELTS test—Listening, Reading, Writing, and Speaking—is timed, making time management a critical skill.

For instance, the Reading section allows 60 minutes to complete 40 questions, which means about a minute and a half per question. Similarly, the Writing section requires candidates to complete two tasks within 60 minutes, often demanding quick thinking and efficient planning.

What you can do:

Effective time management is key to navigating the tight schedules of each IELTS section. Here are several strategies to help you maximise your test performance:

  • Simulate test conditions: Use timers during your preparation. This practice can help you get a sense of how long to spend on each question or task.

  • Prioritise tasks: In sections like Writing, prioritise tasks based on their marks distribution. For instance, spend more time on Writing Task 2, which is worth more than Task 1.

  • Develop reading strategies: Employing skimming and scanning techniques in the Reading section can save time.

  • Practise speaking concisely: In the Speaking section, practise expressing ideas clearly and concisely within the time limit.

By mastering time management, you not only ensure that all questions are addressed but also optimise your accuracy and efficiency within the given time limits.

3. Relying solely on preparatory materials

Standard study materials, such as textbooks and practice tests, primarily focus on the structure and format of the IELTS test. They are excellent for understanding the types of questions and practising specific tasks. However, they should be complemented with real-life English exposure for a more holistic preparation approach.

What you can do:

Engaging with English in everyday contexts, such as through movies, shows, podcasts, and conversations with native speakers, can offer a more dynamic learning experience. This helps you gain an intuitive understanding of the language and how it’s used practically in day-to-day life. In turn, it helps you achieve the spontaneity required in the Speaking section through a more natural and unforced manner of speaking.

Furthermore, authentic resources like newspapers, magazines, online articles, and English radio or TV channels provide a wealth of real-world material. They expose candidates to a broader range of vocabulary, writing styles, and accents. Reading varied articles, for instance, can enhance comprehension skills and vocabulary for the Reading section, while listening to English news or podcasts can significantly improve your listening skills by allowing you to familiarise yourself with different accents and speaking styles.

4. Overlooking vocabulary building

One often overlooked aspect of IELTS preparation is vocabulary building. A robust vocabulary is not just a tool for effective communication, but it also plays a pivotal role in understanding and expressing complex ideas, both of which are crucial for the IELTS test. Conversely, if your vocabulary is limited, it can be a significant obstacle to getting high IELTS results.

A strong vocabulary is thus crucial across all four sections of the IELTS test. For example, in the Reading and Listening sections, possessing a wide range of vocabulary helps in comprehending texts and audio clips more effectively. In the Writing and Speaking sections, a strong vocabulary can enable you to express your thoughts more clearly and precisely, making your responses more impactful.

What you can do:

Expanding your vocabulary will require consistent effort and a strategic approach. Here are some effective strategies to enhance your word bank:

  • Learn in context: Instead of memorising isolated word lists, learn new words in context. This could be through reading books, articles, or even listening to podcasts. Contextual learning helps in understanding not just the meaning but also the usage of words.

  • Active usage: Regularly practise using new words in your speaking and writing. This not only reinforces memory but also builds confidence in using these words in varied situations.

  • Maintain a vocabulary journal: Keep a dedicated journal for new vocabulary. For each new word, note its meaning, synonyms, antonyms, and a sentence example. This practice enhances retention and understanding.

  • Use vocabulary apps: Leverage technology with apps designed for vocabulary building. Many apps use spaced repetition and other effective learning techniques to enhance vocabulary retention.

By having vocabulary building strategies as part of your study routine, you can enrich your language skills and increase your chances of achieving a high score in the IELTS test.

5. Neglecting pronunciation and fluency

In the IELTS Speaking test, mispronunciations can be particularly costly. Mispronunciations, particularly of key words, can significantly alter the intended meaning of your sentences and cause the examiner to misunderstand your response.

Good pronunciation, which involves the correct articulation of words, proper stress, and intonation, ensures that your speech is easily understood. When your pronunciation is clear, the examiner can understand you effortlessly, greatly reducing the possibility of miscommunication.

What you can do:

To communicate effectively in the Speaking test, focusing on clear pronunciation and smooth fluency is essential. Here are some strategies to help you improve:

  • Record and review: Recording yourself during speaking practice is an effective way to identify pronunciation errors and areas for improvement.

  • Speak slowly and clearly: Speaking at a measured pace improves clarity and reduces pronunciation mistakes, contributing to better fluency.

  • Think in English: This practice can diminish the need to translate mentally, reducing hesitations and improving fluency.

  • Use fillers sparingly: While occasional fillers are acceptable, excessive use can distract and give an impression of poor fluency.

By focusing on these areas, you can significantly enhance your speaking abilities. Clear pronunciation, coupled with fluent speech, can make your communication more effective and leave a positive impression on the examiner.

6. Focusing on one skill only

Finally, it is common for learners to have varying levels of proficiency in different language skills. You might be comfortable with Speaking and Listening but struggle with Writing and Reading, or vice versa. However, the IELTS test will require competence in all four areas. This means integrating Listening, Reading, Writing, and Speaking practices into your study plan.

What you can do:

Incorporating a holistic preparation approach can not only gear you up for the varied challenges of the IELTS test but also significantly enhance your overall English language competence. To ensure balanced growth in all IELTS skills, consider these targeted strategies:

  • Identify weaknesses and strengths: Start by assessing your proficiency in each skill. Dedicate more time to strengthen weaker areas, while continuing to hone the skills where you are already strong.

  • Integrate learning activities: Engage in activities that combine various skills—for example, reading an article (Reading) and discussing it (Speaking), or listening to a podcast (Listening) and summarising it (Writing).

  • Consistent practice across all skills: Allocate specific times for practising each skill. Use IELTS preparation materials online that cover different aspects of each skill.

  • Set realistic goals: Set achievable goals for each study session, focusing on different skills to ensure improvement.

This comprehensive method not only prepares you for the test but also for effective communication in real-world English-speaking environments.

The power of preparation

When preparing for the IELTS test, you should focus on achieving a thorough understanding of the test format, commit to regular practice, and develop your skills in listening, reading, writing, and speaking. It also includes building a strong vocabulary and developing effective time management strategies. To supplement self-study, you can also check out IDP’s comprehensive suite of IELTS preparation materials.

Suitable for both new and repeat test-takers, these materials will equip you with the necessary skills and knowledge for the actual test day. You can have them at your fingertips by downloading the IELTS by IDP app.

When you're ready to take the next step, book your IELTS test!