The IELTS exam is an internationally recognized measure of an individual’s English proficiency and, in the United Arab Emirates, one of the main proficiency tests for admissions to higher education as well as professional advancement.
Higher education programs typically look for a score of 4.5 to 6.0 on a 9-band scale. Many Emirati secondary students begin their training for IELTS during grade 11 or 12. The range of levels in a typical classroom means teachers have a more difficult time providing generalized exam preparation. For this reason, a mix of targeted language instruction and skills development are required.
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Communicative Language Teaching and P-P-P – Teaching IELTS
TESOL methodology aims at developing English proficiency for a range of everyday purposes, emphasizing authentic communicative contexts and student-centered activities. Exam prep would seem too narrow and controlled a purpose to align well with TESOL principles; however, the P-P-P planning model and Communicative Language Teaching methods lend themselves well to IELTS preparation. In effect, the result is less ‘teaching to the test’ and more practical skills training. The Communicative Approach and P-P-P model offer more stimulating ways of covering the skills and language development needed for the IELTS exam.
Let me illustrate by way of an example: IELTS writing task 1 requires students to write a 150-word summary of a graph, chart, or table. Lower intermediate students, like mine, frequently use simple, repetitive vocabulary to describe trends in graphic information. To move from a band 5.0 to 6.0 for lexical resources, students have to demonstrate a broader, more varied vocabulary and a reasonable control of basic spelling patterns. For this writing task, for example, students may have to describe a pie chart, for which they should know the difference between percent and percentage in addition to comparatives and superlatives.
The P-P-P model is ideal for lessons geared towards building lexical resources. First, you could present target words and phrases using a pie chart calculated to catch your students’ interest (e.g. video games) and then use elicitation to nail down when to use percent versus percentage as well as check their comprehension. Next, provide practice through controlled and semi-controlled drills. A dictation dash is a great semi-controlled drill—communicative and kinesthetic, both of which appeal to students. Here’s how it works in the context of this lesson: In pairs, the students must create a pie chart from an example summary containing the target vocabulary. This summary is taped to the wall on one side of the room. One student runs to the summary, reads it, and then dictates what he remembers to his partner, whose job, in turn, is to create a pie chart based on the dictation. The second drill inverts the challenge, whereby a pie chart is provided and the students, roles reversed, must create the summary themselves. Upon completion of both drills, students will have practiced the target vocabulary through several different modes—reading, speaking, listening, writing as well as graphic representation.
Last, the presentation and practice activities culminate into a production task, in which the students must produce the target language freely, such as the completion of an actual IELTS-style writing task. For a more fun and creative project-based production activity, assign pairs of students different survey questions (e.g. “What’s your favorite sport?) and have them gather responses from the rest of the class. They then organize their data and create a pie chart of their own. Afterwards, they can write a summary of their results using the target language or present their pie charts to another pair of students to summarize. To differentiate for more advanced students, provide opportunities to extend their learning beyond baseline objectives by, for example, providing them a list of additional words and phrases associated with the target language.
The P-P-P model and the Communicative Approach are highly versatile tools, designed for language instruction but effective in exam preparation as well. Lessons utilizing them, such as the example illustrated above, can be developed easily, effectively, and creatively for the other language strands assessed in the IELTS exam.