Best ways to improve your English speaking and listening for an IELTS exam

Everyone knows that doing an IELTS exam preparation course is the best route to success when you want to improve your English, particularly when the IELTS course is in the UK or in another English speaking country.

Learning English in the classroom environment in an English speaking country is very beneficial because you are surrounded by English all the time.

In addition to learning English with a group of people in a language school, there are many different ways of learning English outside of the classroom. 

Before you start implementing these learning points you need to remember this one very, very important rule.

The rule is that whatever activities you select for learning English outside of the classroom, these need to be activities that you like and enjoy. If you choose something that you don’t like, you are unlikely to be able to do it on a regular basis.

If you choose something you don’t like doing, you are very unlikely to persevere, and you’re very unlikely to continue with that particular activity. 

So please make sure that whatever you choose, you enjoy doing it. 

Best ways to improve your English speaking and listening for IELTS outside of the classroom

1.Learn Vocabulary and Pronunciation with Songs

We all love songs and have access to various tunes either online on YouTube and through other various platforms. A lot of them are free. 

Listening to songs in English helps us communicate better. What does communication really mean though? 

When people communicate, they use three important parts of our communication.

I.Verbal communication- the use of words
II. Non-verbal communication- gestures, facial expressions, body language
III. Intonation- the tone of our voice,  speed and the volume.

All these three are important when we try to convey messages, but in terms of the importance, they’re not equally balanced. 

The verbal communications or communication through words constitutes only 7% of the way we convey messages*.

Our body language, gestures, facial expression, account for 55% of our communication*.

Intonation, like the tone of voice speed and volume make up to 38% of our communication*. 

*These studies, led by Dr. Mehrabian, describe how the mind determines meaning. The conclusion was that 93% of communication is “nonverbal” in nature.

Through songs we can focus on new words, but we can also learn about the intonation. Particularly word stress and sentence stress. We can also practise the speed, the pace of some songs is quicker than others. When you learn English with songs you will have opportunities to practise pronunciation, intonation, rhythm and accent. You can also practise vocabulary- not just isolated words, but collocation, how words go together or idioms in English. 

 

Step by step suggestion on how to practice learning English with songs.

  1. Choose a song and just listen to it without reading the lyrics. So just focus on listening. And try to work out what this song is about. Don’t worry about the details, listen to just the general idea, general topic or general theme of that song, and then once you’ve worked out what this song is about, listen to this song again.
  2. Listen to the song for the second time. And this time look at the lyrics while listening and check if you’ve guessed the topic or the theme of the song correctly. Then you can try and look into the lyrics in more detail. Find some words or some expressions that you don’t know and look them up.
  3. Look a word up in a dictionary, take a note of them in your vocabulary notebook, and then listen to the song a few more times and try singing along. So it’s not just about listening, but also if you practise singing, you will be practising pronunciation. 
  4. Sing the song to practise your pronunciation and intonation as well

 

Which song to choose? 

I’m an avid (adj. very eager and enthusiastic) fan of British English accent and pronunciation and whenever I recommend a song I always choose one by The Beatles. Their songs vary in difficulty, so choose a song that you think corresponds to your level, here are some suggestions: 

 

B1 – intermediate – equivalent to IELTS band 4.0-4.5

I want to hold your hand 

While my guitar gently weeps

A Day in the Life

 

B2 – upper- intermediate – equivalent to IELTS band 5.0-6.5

Help

In my life

 

C1- advance – equivalent to IELTS band 7.0-8.0

Revolution

Eleanor Rigby

Another way to incorporate music in learning and improving your English is by visiting a website called lyricstraining.com. You can register on this website for free and you can find a number of songs there so you can look for your favourite songs. Or you can just browse and choose songs you haven’t heard before.

The website gives you the lyrics with gaps so you can listen to the songs and fill in the gaps to the lyrics at the same time. In this way, you can practise and improve your listening skills at the same time.

There is also a karaoke version so you can play the music and sing your favourite songs. You can practise intonation and the most important thing is that if you like music, it is a lot of fun.

2. Listen to podcasts to improve your English fluency

LearnEnglish Podcasts

LearnEnglish Podcast is a series of podcasts, there are about 80 episodes, or 20 hours of podcasts about everyday topics for pre-intermediate A2  or intermediate B1 learners (learn more about level and IELTS bands here). You can download them and listen offline or read the audio script, there are also interactive exercises to help you understand and use the language.

The episodes are divided into different sections, from fictional drama and jokes to quizzes and language advice, which will  improve your listening comprehension and develop your vocabulary. 

All ears English

This American English podcast is presented by two ESL teachers, Lindsay and Michelle. In very short episodes, they discuss American culture, and explain confusing expressions in a friendly and fun way. Their motto is “connection not perfection” so expect a focus on everyday English as it is spoken in the real world. An additional brilliant feature of this podcast: Lindsay and Michelle focus on training people for the IELTS exam.

 

3. Learn new words with Videos

With LearnEnglish Videos app you get regular new video episodes to make your listening practice fun and useful. 

When watching these videos you improve your listening, reading and understanding of general and business English.

New videos on a range of topics are added every week. These are downloadable episodes, which means you can watch offline. There are also interactive audio scripts that make it easy for you to repeat phrases or new vocabulary if they are hard to hear. The app has a great feature of pitch control which allows you to slow down the video speed if the speaker is a bit difficult to understand.

 

British Council has introduced a Video Zone page in which you can watch YouTube videos on a wide range of topics, including science, psychology, entertainment, culture, nature and sport. The videos are specially selected for upper intermediate (CEFR level B2) and advanced (CEFR level C1) learners of English.

The videos will develop your ability to understand a variety of accents and speakers, as well as a range of colloquial and idiomatic language in context. Each video has a transcript and interactive exercises to help you understand the language.

 

Ted Talks are short inspiring, very entertaining and thought-provoking lectures from some of the world’s most inspiring and renowned leaders. All accessible on your mobile or tablet, all you need in an internet connection. Ted Talks are a great way to broaden your horizons and look at various topics from a different perspective. If you’re ever stuck and clueless about what to talk about in your speaking exam or what to write in your essay- writing task 2, start watching Ted Talks, they are much more interesting than reading The Guardian or The Times. 

4. Improve speaking and your pronunciation

LearnEnglish Sounds Right is the British Council’s free pronunciation chart for learners of English worldwide. This app will teach you how to pronounce different sounds so that your pronunciation improves. By tapping arrow signs you listen to example words with that sound.

There are 44 sounds in English (do you know them all?)  and we can divide them into two groups, that is consonants and vowels. There are 20 vowels in English and 24 consonants.

With the LearnEnglish Sounds Right app you can learn about these sounds through the app and once you know how to pronounce each of these sounds, you will be able to pronounce all the words in the English language.

 

5. Learning English for IELTS through language exchange or study buddy

Language exchange is a concept of exchanging language skills, usually speaking but also writing, with a fellow language learner who wants to speak your native language. A great example is a Spanish-English language exchange, or Chinese-English language exchange. It might be tricky to find an English speaker who wants to learn with or from you. However, there are plenty of native English speakers who want to learn a foreign language, for example Japanese, Spanish or French. You meet up either in person, face to face or online through one of the free online platforms (see below) to practise speaking English and in exchange the other person practises your native language, which allows both of you speak the target language. You even might be lucky to find an English teacher (current or former) amongst a vast pool of language exchange seekers.   

How do you find a language and conversation exchange partner? 

There are websites and apps that offer free language exchange opportunities. Best apps to find conversation exchange buddy are HelloTalk, Tandem and HiNative. You can download these apps on your phones, register and say your first language is and what language you are learning. This way you can find the right match for you. Each app gives you an option either to type or speak. 

Hello Talk 

 

HiNative

Tandem

There are many, many more language buddy apps out there and  you can find them by using Google. These three are the ones that I’ve come across before and some of my students have used and had good experience with.

6. Learning English with with books and magazines

Reading is a very important skill in foreign language acquisition, especially when you prepare for English exam like IELTS. If you read books or magazines not in your native language, good chances are that you’re a bit slow reader. But that doesn’t change the fact that through reading you are exposed to more sentences, grammar structures, and new vocabulary per minute than the average, short class, TV show, or song. I frequently observe that the more fluent students are the ones who read books in the target language (language that you are learning). 

Even though some of you might have already realised how important reading is for your fluency, it can be quite a lonely, challenging and daunting activity. Many IELTS test takers complain that originally written books are difficult to understand because there are too many unfamiliar words and they lose interest in the book or an article very easily. If that sounds familiar, then maybe you should start reading Graded Readers books.

Graded readers are books that are specifically designed for English language students, and they’re available at your local library or online. One of the best examples of Graded readers is a series of Penguin readers, and there are various levels:

Level 7

Level 6

Level 5

 

 

 So what is special about Graded reader books?

Graded readers give you a range of different kinds of books, so it could be contemporary fiction, nonfiction, popular classics, and all of them are written especially for learners of English as a foreign language. A lot of them come either with CDs or with a streamable audio, so you can read and listen at the same time. Or you can choose just to listen or just to read. Some of these books are retellings of well known stories and some are adaptations of classic and contemporary fiction. Some of them are factual, and the main important thing is that the language used in these books is strictly controlled, and it corresponds to the level of the student who is reading it, so the same way English language course books are designed for different levels. In the same way graded readers are also designed in a way that they correspond with different language abilities.

Why is it important to read and what I’m recommending here is what we call extensive reading. Extensive reading is quite different from what we do in the classroom. Often when you do a reading activity in the classroom, the teacher will give you a text or will ask you to open your course book and read something and then there will be questions under the text and the teacher will say now answer these questions or the teacher might say let’s look at the vocabulary from the text, or maybe let’s look at the grammar. So this is called intensive reading and this is what we often do in the classroom. Extensive reading is different. Extensive reading is something that you probably do in your own language when you read for pleasure. You read not because you want to focus on some grammar or vocabulary, but you just want to do so. You read something that is enjoyable and of course at the same time you are learning about something. 

When you read Graded Readers you read for pleasure, in a similar way you read in your own language. At the same time you increase your reading speed and your reading fluency, you also  expose yourself to new words and different types of sentence structures. Any new vocabulary is often introduced and explained in the Glossary – a little dictionary at the back of the book in which the most difficult words are explained. These words are often recycled, so either these words or their meaning are repeated throughout the book. So you see them again and again and again, and this way it will help you remember them, and if you start from graded readers rather than regular books, the process will be much easier. Pick a graded reader book that corresponds to your level of English, this way you will encounter less frustrations (checking new words, not being able to understand grammar, etc) and enjoy reading the book. When you notice that reading a graded reader book seem easy it’s time to move to the next level. If you’ve been reading the most difficult level of graded readers books and you find them easy, it’s time to pick up and read an original book not a graded reader version.

7. Learning English vocabulary and improving your listening with Films

These days people have access to films through Netflix or other other platforms, so it’s quite an accessible way of learning English. By watching films you expose yourself to real English spoken in a natural way and  better pronunciation, including connected speech. Obviously the words and grammar are used in context, very often a life context. But by choosing different types of films you will be exposed to different topics and accents from all over the world, so you’re learning not just about language but also about the culture in different parts of the world or English speaking places. There are lots of films and TV series to choose from depending on your preferences. I always suggest watching movies that you like and enjoy. Here are some of my recommendations.

 

TV Series: History: The Crown 

TV Series: Crime: Luther 

TV Series: Fantasy Drama: His Dark Materials

Movie: Comedy: Hot Fuzz

Movie: Drama: King’s Speech