Using Background Knowledge Effectively on the IELTS

April 18, 2018 by Lauren McKenzie

The IELTS will require you to interact with a myriad* of topics within the course of the day. Some of these topics will be familiar and others will not. On test day you may talk about the weather or history, read about earth science or food culture. You might listen to a conversation about a camping trip and write about early education or the value of travel to personal development. 

Although there is some predictability to IELTS topics, there will inevitably be a curveball – a topic or question you didn't prepare for and did not expect. This blog is meant to prepare you for the moment when your mind goes blank, so if you're looking for strategies to avoid freezing in the IETLS, keep reading.

Let’s begin with a story. A monk walks into the speaking test. He sits and greets the examiner. The examiner starts by asking the monk about his work and home. The monk easily describes his work providing spiritual guidance, and he talks easily about his life at the monastery. As part one of the test continues, the monk is asked to describe what kind of books he likes, to which he answers, spiritual texts. When asked about what kind of clothes he prefers to wear, he replies, “my robe” and when pressed to describe what he does with friends on the weekend, he answers, “meditate.”

The examiner suspects that this candidate is quite fluent as he has lived and worked in an English-speaking environment for many years, yet there is a clear disconnect. Although he is a very knowledgeable man, the monk does not provide the examiner with a good sample of language based on the IELTS band score descriptors. The monk continuously references his life at the monastery, and answers in very simple, sometimes single word replies.

Despite his proficiency in English, the monk didn't use his background knowledge effectively on the IELTS.  Remember, the examiner is not looking for the ‘truth’ as much as they're looking for a sample of language.  In future tests, the monk could draw on the experiences of his followers and those people he interacts with who live beyond the walls of the monastery to provide a wider sample of his language skills.

So how do you use your background knowledge on the IELTS? Many IELTS candidates are students and professionals who are immersed in a field of work or study. When you're faced with a speaking test question or a writing frame that leaves your mind blank, remember that you have a wealth of language to draw from. Think about how your area of expertise can provide you with the experience and language you need to produce a quality response. Here’s an example.

A medical doctor sits for the IELTS writing test. Task 2 asks the candidate to write 250 words about a new business they would like to start. The doctor has no interest in business or entrepreneurship and has been solely focused on studying medicine and treating patients for the past 20 years. Rather than reimagining her life and background, the doctor decides to write about opening a medical practice in her home town. 

The doctor writes about the location for the clinic and who the customers, i.e. patients, would be. She describes in detail the services provided by the clinic and the impact the clinic would have on the community. Because she is both knowledgeable and passionate about health care, that shows in her writing. She draws from her personal experiences rather than trying to create an alternate reality where she is a shrewd businesswoman.

On the day of the test you must expect the unexpected. The best way to do that is to prepare yourself with IELTS materials and practice tests. If you do encounter a topic that you're unfamiliar or uncomfortable with, remember that you have a heap of knowledge at your fingertips based on your personal and professional experience, education and/or training. Good luck!


*myriad - a countless or extremely great number

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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