March 31, 2016 by Lauren McKenzie

The Situation

There are many reasons why people take the IELTS exam, but rarely are those reasons recreational. The IELTS exam is a high stakes situation for most of you reading this. Education opportunities, immigration status and working in your profession often hinge on half of a band score.

IELTS for native English speakers

Some of you who speak English as a first language find yourselves overwhelmed by the expectations of the IELTS exam. Then there are other native speaker candidates who don't prepare for the exam whatsoever. The thinking of the latter group is that they have spoken the language since birth, are fluent and don’t need the help, or worse, resent that they have to take the test at all and don’t bother to prepare. If this sounds like you, please keep reading!

The Reality

The IELTS exam requires significant preparation for most, regardless of their first language, simply due to the high-stakes and standardized nature of the test. The four modules of the exam, including Listening, Reading, Writing and Speaking, have questions specifically designed to measure your ability to answer questions a certain way to assess your English-language ability.

These are not merely comprehension checking questions, but attempt to show a wide range of thinking skills and self-expression on a wide variety of topics in English. If you’re a native English speaker, you likely don’t have to spend as much time focusing on language skills, but rather how to make the most of those skills to receive a high band score within the IELTS scoring system. Here are some preparation tips to get you started:

Free IELTS Prep: There are several free practice tests available for each of the test sections on the IDP Canada IELTS website. There are online and in-class seminars that review the structure and timing of the exam. These seminars and webinars give you the opportunity to receive feedback from experienced IELTS instructors and learn the nuances and expectations of the IELTS exam.

Learn the Language: Standardized exams such as the IELTS have their own language - and although designed to be clear and fair, there are many linguistic differences between English speaking countries. For example, Canadians and Australians share cultural affinity through the British Commonwealth but have significantly different accents. This can be a challenge during the listening portion of the exam, particularly for Americans and Canadians. Listen to Australian and British podcasts, stream from some of their talk-radio stations, or watch movies featuring those accents to train your ear in preparation for the test.

Don’t Rush: it’s a good idea to start preparing for the exam several weeks or months before your test date and practice in a test-taking environment. Find a quiet place and use a timer to create the conditions of the IELTS exam when you are using the reading, writing, and listening practice tests mentioned above.

Two common areas where native English-speakers need to focus their attention are the Speaking Exam and the Writing Exam. Sometimes, being very confident in your language will reduce your preparation for the following two tasks, here are some notes on why it’s essential that you prepare, and a few tips on how to do so.

The Speaking Exam

Perhaps one of the most challenging parts of the exam is the speaking portion, which sounds counter-intuitive, but it’s the truth. Often English-speakers are less willing to engage with examiners during the speaking exam because they aren’t pleased they have to write the test at all. If you don’t talk enough during the speaking exam, the examiner may not be able to provide you with a high score that you think you would achieve as a native speaker.

There are many very competent English-speaking professionals who perform poorly during the speaking portion of the IELTS exam. Examiners may think you are highly fluent, but without evidence to satisfy the assessment criteria in the band descriptors, the examiner is unable to reward a higher band score.

The Writing Exam

Much like the Speaking exam, the IELTS trained marker is looking for particular elements in your writing tasks. These include your ability to answer a prompt and develop a well-considered response fully; use of cohesive devices and coherence in the response; and flexibility and range of vocabulary and grammar.

Therefore, you should be well versed in the assessment criteria. Public versions of these band score descriptors for the speaking and writing tasks are available for you to review. Once you familiarize with the differences between the band scores, you will know exactly what you need to do to ensure your band score aligns with your natural language abilities.

Additionally, in daily conversation and written expression, you may rely on prescriptive language and jargon related to your field. Taking some time to familiarize yourself with the exam structure and completing practice tests will decrease stress and improve results.

Confidence is Key

We understand that as a native English-speaker, you likely aren’t thrilled to have to write a test to demonstrate your English-language ability, whether you’re from an English-speaking country looking to immigrate to Canada or if you have to take it for professional accreditation. That said, as a native English-speaker, once you understand the structure of the test and the assessment criteria, you should feel confident going into the test because you’ve done a great deal of preparation and you know the language.

Lauren has been teaching English for close to fifteen years in universities and language schools in Halifax, NS. To meet the needs of her students, she began her own study of the IELTS exam nearly five years ago and has since taught preparation workshops. Lauren lives in Halifax, NS where she enjoys hiking and live music as well as travelling, studying languages and reading nonfiction.

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