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Review ~ Ready for IELTS

A comprehensive, if conventional, coursebook for the IELTS Academic exam with an emphasis on lexical features and exam techniques, and plenty of extra material
Reviewed for TEFL.net by Tom Alder
Ready for IELTS

Ready for IELTS

Ready for IELTS is another title for preparing students for the Academic IELTS exam. IELTS (in case you didn’t know) is usually a prerequisite for university entrance in the UK and other English-speaking countries, and is also used on CVs and visa applications. IELTS course books have come and gone, and most teaching institutions have shelves stacked with them. Why buy another? After all, the last time the exam had any major revision was in 2000 (although there have been a few minor changes to some of the rules since then). Well, giving the matter some serious thought during a recent ‘section 4’ listening activity, I have come up with the following possible reasons:

  1. Previous books have shortcomings that the new ones address
  2. The new ones are more up-to-date in terms of media, subject matter and the methodology they draw on
  3. Older books have been exhausted; long-term students have been through them all and teachers are sick of them
  4. The ‘newness’ itself

Obviously it the first two factors that are most likely to influence teachers (and therefore students) to buy a particular title. So: is Ready for IELTS up-to-date? And does it improve on the competition?

In my opinion, this ‘up-to-dateness’ is a somewhat less significant factor when choosing a coursebook, since things tend to go ‘out of date’ rather fast and, in any case, if something is done well, it should have lasting value. There are certainly some ‘contemporary’ features. It comes with a CD ROM featuring two (good) practice tests, the first of the reading exercises is based on an article about ‘Facebook’, and there are various references to contemporary culture and current issues. In terms of methodology, some parts of the book seem to be influenced by discourse theory, such as looking at relationships between different parts of a text.

Before moving on to the question of the extent to which Ready for IELTS addresses the shortcomings of other IELTS course books, perhaps we should first look at some general features. There is comprehensive coverage of the four skills, and there are plenty of tasks modelled on those found in the actual exam. These are balanced by other exercises focussing on grammar, skills, and vocabulary. There seems to be special emphasis on vocabulary, word-formation and collocation throughout, more so than in comparable IELTS textbooks. Along the margins and in various little boxes we find ‘don’t forget’ and ‘how to go about it’ test tips. The layout is neat and logical. The appendices include additional materials, listening transcripts, and word lists and grammar reference for all the fourteen units. Many of the activities involve pair work or group work, and a fair amount of attention is given to speaking.

One of the key features of the book is the four extended skills-focussed sections (one for listening, one for reading etc). These feature up to 10 pages of comprehensive material and give good coverage of the various types of task a candidate is going to encounter. They also provide the opportunity for students in the same class to work on different task types, according to what they have been having trouble with. For example, some could be working on ‘tables’ and others on ‘describing a process’. These four skills-specific sections are in addition to the 14 mixed-skills topic-based units that make up the book.

The listening materials are an achievement in the world of IELTS audio, being pretty good on the whole, as opposed to those featuring in many other books which have the effect of making both teacher and students simply want to give up living. While they still suffer from bad acting from time to time (though no worse than in official IELTS recordings), they are a cut above the average. I personally would like to see more authentic lecture materials used in IELTS books and see no reason why this cannot be done. Nonetheless, listening is a strong point here, and the recordings accompanying the workbook are also usable.

IELTS teachers probably do well in pub quizzes, since after running a few courses your head is likely to be a veritable repository of random knowledge. After Ready for IELTS, you will be able to add architect Giles Gilbert Scott to your after-dinner repertoire, and should be able to hold your own with Mediterranean farmers on the subject of pomegranates (from the quaintly titled ‘Fruits and Seeds’ unit). Most of the readings have some intrinsic interest so that even if your teaching is such that no one learns any English, at least they will be clued-up on, say, the history of the Battersea Power Station.

The accompanying ‘Workbook’ matches the course book in terms of topics and language focus, and is aimed at individual students studying at home (although I occasionally used it in the classroom). The tasks are not interactive (unlike the coursebook) and there are no speaking exercises. I liked the crosswords for revising the vocabulary found in the main coursebook.

The teacher’s book gives instructions on setting up activities, offers some extensions to activities, provides some explanation for answers, and includes samples of writing answers that are graded with various ‘bands’. This is all fairly workable, although I tend to ignore the ‘instructions’ myself. In terms of the answers to reading texts, the approach seems uneven. In some places there is some explanation as to why a particular answer is correct (i.e. why the questions is or is not a paraphrase of the text), but in others we are just given the relevant section of text, and in others still only the answer is given. It is true that experienced teachers can probably work all this out for themselves, but having some more discussion of answers can be a good way for teachers newer to IELTS to clarify their ideas.

The teacher’s book also has some additional photocopiable materials that tie in with the units of the course book. Another particularly nice feature is the five ‘progress tests’ which, rather than simply being practice exams, instead focus on and revise specific language introduced through various units of the book. This is done through practice-test type material as well as additional exercises, and is a good revision tool.

Finally, there is a full-on photocopiable IELTS practice test at the end of the teacher’s book. The course-book also comes with a CD ROM which features two electronic practice tests that manage to be very close to the exam in terms of content but also allow some flexibility. This is simple software, but I found it quite enjoyable to use, especially for the reading. There is a writing section, but it just allows you to type your answer; unsurprisingly, there is no computerised ‘AI’ marking system for written work (although I believe such things are in the pipeline). This is probably of doubtful use, since one of the problems of doing IELTS is actually having to write with a pen or pencil!

Together, though, the teacher’s book, workbook and CD ROM make this a cohesive package and it does seem that a lot of effort has gone into co-ordinating the books into a comprehensive course that covers all bases.

So which of the shortcomings in other books does Ready for IELTS make good on? Well, proof-reading errors are a good place to start- small things, but sometimes enough to make students lose faith in either the teacher or the book, depending on which of the two sources they believe in the most. Ready for IELTS seems pretty sound in this respect. I remember one or two moments of doubt with a given answer during the course of using this book, but nothing that could not be sorted out with a little careful forward planning. There was, however, a glaring error in the accompanying workbook. On page 107 there is a table showing the ‘number of international visits to the UK’, and students are asked to ‘make comparisons where relevant’. Unfortunately, all but one of the columns (the first) are identical, showing the same figures, and one of the rows is completely blank. This was the only major error I noticed in 12 weeks using the textbook extensively in class, and it should be pointed out that such proof-reading errors are par for the course with English language coursebooks- as we all know well enough. Of course it is possible that the table was part of a trick question- there were no comparisons or contrasts to be drawn! Don’t miss the humour potential of this, teacher! (There is also a minor error to the answers to Ex 1 on page 108 of the Workbook).

A perhaps more serious drawback of many exam-prep books is their tendency to do more testing than teaching (especially in the reading and listening sections). This is something I would say Ready for IELTS does not suffer from so much, due to the amount of extra ‘non exam’ material and the attention given to vocabulary features such as collocation and word formation. There is also plenty of recycling of new vocabulary, with review sections at the end of each unit.

If you have used author Sam McCarter’s other books, or have seen his talks, you may be familiar with his focus on text relationships as a means to reading and composing academic writing. One example of a text relationship is cause-effect, and another is problem-solution (or problem-cause-solution). These patterns may be found at whole-text, paragraph or sentence level, and one way for students to do IELTS reading tasks quickly is to train themselves to see and identify these relationships. The theory is that there is a limited number of such essential patterns (around six or seven) and that, if candidates focus on these points, the apparent diversity and complication of IELTS reading and listening texts dissolves. You recognise, in the words of McCarter, that ‘the topics change but the questions remain the same’. This tends to make reading a very active process, and one that involves the practice of particular skills, as opposed to classes where students are simply given a set of questions and have to muck through them as best they can. These skills can be transferred to writing: the accurate handling of specific text relationships can enable students to write more convincing academic prose.

This area is touched on in Ready for IELTS, especially in the ‘Ready for Reading’ section, and the choice of materials (and related questions) clearly reflects these textual relationships and patterns of meaning. However, I feel this could have been explored in more depth here. In fact, this brings me to my main misgiving about Ready for IELTS. Sam McCarter has a unique and valuable take on IELTS and academic reading/writing, and his ways of looking at texts can be of great use to students and teachers alike. Writers like McCarter, in my opinion, offer a fresh angle on the rather generic and limited world of modern ELT materials. However, I couldn’t help feeling that the content of this book was somewhat constrained by the conventions of the format.

Some of the resulting ‘standardisation’ manifests itself in the style and layout. In fact, many disagreeable features of more typical course books that had been happily lacking from the author’s earlier works unfortunately make an appearance here: a high ‘smile factor’, lots of cartoons, a preference for ‘exciting’ topics (roller coasters, robots, graffiti) and a general sense of ‘despite all our problems, all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds’. It appears to be aimed at young adults – which is not necessarily the same as saying that it is that sort of thing that young adults enjoy.

But another typical aspect of standardisation is also the third shortcoming of many IELTS course books; that is, the obsession with being as ‘comprehensive’ as possible and hosting a potpourri of functions, ideas, study skills, grammar, discourse, vocabulary, exam techniques and other features. The problem is that this tends to engage only some of the students some of the time, instead of striking straight down the middle with more common needs of learners (e.g. essay writing) or in exploring specific angles in more depth, such as the textual analysis mentioned above. Ready for IELTS suffers from this to a degree, but then again it is rare to find coursebooks that do not. It does manage to maintain a sense of cohesion throughout, and has fairly regular ‘unit’ structures. But the focussing on particular language features (e.g. grammatical forms) may not be of use in a typical class of mixed ability IELTS students, which can feature everything from confused teenagers with rudimentary English whose parents see their passage to a UK university as the key to their future, to fluent, articulate foreign graduates aiming at boosting their career prospects with postgraduate studies in an English-speaking country and needing to touch up their essay writing or speaking. Both their staring points and their goals are widely disparate- so how can they use the same ‘guidebook’?

Publishers and writers deal with this in different ways. One is to publish IELTS coursebooks at different levels, a sensible solution that has not been widely adopted, possibly for financial reasons. It should be remembered that the difference between a 5.5. and a 7.5 is much like that between Cambridge FCE and CPE- and how often would these exam classes be ‘merged’, unless there were really no other option? Another possibility is to make the activities open-ended so that, like the exam itself, they can be fulfilled in a number of different ways. In such cases, there would be relatively little (or no) ‘pre-emptive’ language teaching, but rather emphasis on skills development, with language being taught as and when particular difficulties arise. The third approach is to pitch the book somewhere around what are supposed to be the most common levels for IELTS candidates (B2-C1).

Ready for IELTS combines features of the latter two approaches. Each of the fourteen units, as well as dealing with a different topic, features a specific ‘language focus’. The usual suspects are here (relative clauses, conditionals, modal verbs etc), and these are covered in a clear and usable way. If you are like me, you will prefer to make your own exercises (when you can be bothered), since you can tailor these to your students and add your own ‘little touches’. Even so, the coursebook materials are a good base for these additional explorations, and provide a stable reference source for the students and give structure to the course. The focus on ‘concession’ was particularly useful.

On the other hand, I found myself skipping ‘transitive verbs’, ‘present perfect’, ‘countable nouns’ and several others, basically for the reasons outlined above. A large proportion of students who study IELTS have already had this stuff rammed into the back of their heads ad nauseam and, if they haven’t, would be better off studying it elsewhere so that they can catch up with the others and be ready to work on applying language rather than learning it as such. Meanwhile, many IELTS teachers see a basic working knowledge of English grammar and vocabulary as a prerequisite for joining the class, rather than something to work on within it. Of course, students will continue to make mistakes with participle endings, countable nouns etc, and may benefit from the revision. But the point is that not all of them will need it. It seems a better idea for teachers to focus on such things if and when they appear, rather than build them into the course pre-emptively. You never know – maybe no one will complain that ‘they are boring’ because of the class and want some ‘advices’ about moving to another one. Besides, there is a workbook for self-study that accompanies Ready for IELTS – why not confine the language focus section to there, and use the freed-up space in the coursebook for more practice and development of skills?

I have mentioned some misgivings above, but it should be added that these are problems that seem to affect virtually all coursebooks, exam-focussed or otherwise. I think I could summarise by saying that the book could have departed more from the standard, generic layout and organisation, and focussed more on skills than specific language. Sam McCarter is a very good writer of materials, but my overall feeling is that his particular talent for these things is not put to best use here. While McCarters’s ideas shine through to some extent, I couldn’t help feeling that the author was slightly hidebound by the conventions of the format, and something was lost in the process.

In terms of the competition, this is at least as good as any in the current selection of IELTS coursebooks. Whether you decide to use it will depend on what you want from a coursebook. There are some that have more focus on skills (but may lack overall cohesion), and others that have a simpler, more regular layout. This one takes a comprehensive approach, and you will find a lot of material to keep you going, even if it is not all usable with a particular group. It is also a good choice for teachers who want to do more work with vocabulary. I have yet to find an ideal IELTS course book, but this is a contender, and there is none that I would have a clear preference for over it. It also provides a strong base for an IELTS course, so it can be used as a syllabus around which to incorporate other material, perhaps more honed to particular groups of students.

Reviewed for TEFL.net by Tom Alder
October 2010 | Filed under Exam Materials

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