Saturday, December 27, 2014

Google - a useful tool for English language learners

I was recently reading an IELTS essay about whether newspapers should publish information regarding the private lives of people.   The essay had the word "information" 10 times.  When I asked the writer of the essay why she didn't use any other words that carry the same meaning, she replied that she couldn't think of any.

This is when Google is your friend.   While Google Translate is a thorn in the side of most people, the site has other tools that are useful for language learning.   I recommended that when stuck for a synonym that she use Google's Define feature. That is, Google:  "Information define," and Google will give you both definitions AND synonyms.  If the essay writer had known that, she would have been able to use words like details and particulars which fit quite nicely into an essay like the one she wrote. 

So this is a quick and easy way to expand your vocabulary.  If you are unsure about whether a word fits a particular sentence, again you can use Google.   For example, with the word, particulars,   Google:  "particulars in a sentence," and you will find links to sites like  which provides examples of the word in a sentence.   

Thursday, November 6, 2014

IELTS task one - do you always need an overview?

Most IELTS test takers know that you need an overview when describing a line graph, bar chart or pie chart.  But what about the dreaded process diagrams and maps?  Do you need one there, too?  The answer is yes.  The public band descriptors for Task 1 do not differentiate, so you need an overview no matter what kind of diagram you get. 

So, how do you write an overview for a process diagram? It needn't be too complicated.  You could mention that there are a number of steps/ machines/ people/ stages involved and you could mention what  the beginning and the end are.  If there are two process diagrams or two maps shown, you could say what the main difference between them is, of course, without going into too much detail because the overview shouldn't be about detail.   It should be able to give the reader the main, overall image of the information you have in front of you.  

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Questions, please!!

I haven't been posting very much lately so I thought I would ask you, my readers, to pose any questions you might have.  Is there an area of IELTS/ ECPE/ CPE/ General English that has you confused?   Needing more information?   Awake at night?  Ask me and who knows, your question may be the subject of my next post. 

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

writing & speaking - grammar in band 7

If I seem to talk a lot about Band 7 it's because it seems to be such a highly sought band.  People need 7 for immigration, they need it for some advanced degree programs and even if you don't need a 7, if you need a 6.5 for a university course, for example, your 6.5 will only come if you have at least a couple of 7s or higher. 

I have written quite a bit about fluency, coherence & cohesion, and task response, but I haven't really discussed grammar and vocabulary that much.  I hope to correct that in this post. 

In the public descriptors both for writing & speaking, the descriptors for grammar at band 7 requires some complex grammar.  This of course, leads some people to then ask, "Well, what is complex grammar?"  Typically, a complex sentence is one that has more than one clause. A clause, as you probably know is a part of a sentence that contains at least a subject and a verb.  So, if you can make sentences with more than one clause, that is considered complex grammar.  For example,

Relative clauses:
Florence, which I have been to three times, is one of my favorite cities.

If I could visit any city in the world, I would travel to Florence.

Not only is Florence a beautiful city, but it is also full of historical importance.

Time clauses:
I will visit Florence as soon as I finish my studies.

Participle clauses:
Having been to Florence three times, I believe I know it fairly well.

These are just a few examples that came to my head. Of course, there are many more.   An advanced grammar book will give explanations as well as how these structures are made, how to use them and any other rules you may need.   If you need any recommendations for a good book of advanced grammar, please email me.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

topic sentences in reading & writing

Today I was helping someone who was having a hard time with reading.  I suggested to her that she read the first sentence of each paragraph to find out what that paragraph was about.  When she was done, she had a good idea about the overall direction of the passage, as well as what each paragraph covered.  We then discussed how the first sentence of each paragraph, also known as the topic sentence, is basically an introduction to what follows in the paragraph.  It gives you the central idea, so, when you are looking for something, by reading the first sentence you can often tell if you are looking in the right place or not.  

Well, as helpful as  topic sentences are in reading, they are also extremely important in writing.  In the band descriptors, under Coherence and Cohesion, Band 7 tells us that each paragraph must have a central topic.   Assuming you have done all your brainstorming & organizing before writing, a topic sentence is a wonderful frame for making sure your paragraph is staying on track while basically providing an introduction to that paragraph for your reader.  If you're not sure what a topic sentence should look like, take a look at various reading passages for IELTS.  You'll see that the first sentence of each paragraph outlines for the reader what the paragraph discusses.   Read some good sample essays.  The topic sentence allows you to understand what you are going to read before you read it.  Plus, it shows that the paragraph has a purpose, a "central idea," which you are introducing in the first sentence of the paragraph. 

Monday, July 21, 2014

what's your opinion?

I hear a lot of people asking, "in task 2 writing, should I save my opinion until my conclusion?"   The answer is no.  Take a look at the band descriptors for task 2.  In Task Response, at band 7 it clearly says, " presents a clear position throughout the response."  If you leave your opinion until the end of the essay, then it is not clear throughout.  "Throughout the response"  means starting from your introduction.  Even if you present the opposing point of view in your first body paragraph, it is clear from your introduction what your opinion is.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

pronunciation: "you say toMAYto, I say toMAHto???"

There are so many things to think about when you speak for IELTS, aren't there?  Does my speech have a good flow or do I hesitate?  Do I make sense when I speak? Is my grammar accurate?  Am I using a variety of simple and complex structures?  Am I using advanced, less common vocabulary and collocations? 

One of the things candidates frequently overlook is pronunciation.  Do they assume that pronunciation is something that can't be fixed?  That they will never sound British/ American/ Australian so they don't even work on it?  Or does pronunciation just seem like a detail?

Well, it is certainly NOT a detail.  Pronunciation accounts for 25% of your overall speaking score.  And no, you are not expected to sound British/ American/ Australian in order to get a good band score for pronunciation.  

There are certain elements that make up "good" pronunciation.   First, and this is where many IELTS candidates stop, is in the correct pronunciation of words.  You should of course know how the words you use are pronounced, but that is not enough. 

Too often, intonation is overlooked.  Intonation is the "music" of speech.  Every language has its own music, that is, when our voice goes up and down in a sentence.  For example, our voice goes down at the end of most sentences but goes up at the end of questions.  Also, when we are giving a list, our voice rises for each item in the list, except for the last one, when our voice drops.  Try saying this, "My favorite hobbies are reading, running, cycling and shopping."  Did your voice go up for the first three & down for the last one?  What you don't want is to have speech that is completely flat & monotonous. 

Also, sentence stress is important.  Users of English need to know which words to emphasize when they speak in order to add extra meaning. 

Lastly, remember that how and where you pause in your speech is also a part of pronunciation.  This is often called chunking - pausing appropriately between phrases or strings of words.   American news presenters are great at this.  They definitely make their speech much more dramatic this way.  Take a look at newscasts from any of the big US networks and listen to how and when they pause.  Your goal is to pause at the correct breaks so tune your ear to how English speakers pause in their sentences.  For example: "Despite the wide variety of hobbies I have -  I'd have to say that- for me- the most enjoyable activity is - studying English."  I put dashes where I paused.  And, to make this more fun, I will put in bold all the words I stressed as well, just to give an example of sentence stress.  Here it is again: "Despite the wide variety of hobbies I have -  I'd have to say that- for me- the most enjoyable activity is - studying English."

So play around with it a little.   Record yourself.  Record yourself focusing on each of these features of pronunciation. Watch a little CNN/ NBC/ CBS/ ABC news in your free time.  Here is a link from the British Council you might find helpful: 


Wednesday, April 16, 2014

One individual's story: How Victor improved his IELTS score

I met Victor just a couple of days before his first IELTS test.   He needed at least a 7 in all sections of the General test.  He had a good level of English but had prepared very little by himself & sought my advice a day or two before the exam. 

While he did ok, he didn't get the 7 he needed in all four sections.  So, before his second test we talked a lot more about writing & speaking.  He got 7.5s and a 7.0

So, what changed, you asked?  Well, I asked him, too.  What did he think really made the difference to improve his score?

Here is what he told me:

"The improved score was because I had the chance to understand how speaking works. For the first exam even if I spoke a lot it was probably too much and bad! This time I followed some simple rules:
         1. For part one speaking, do not give long or short answers, answer exactly what you are asked, nothing more, nothing less
         2. Try not to be too friendly with the examiner (he is not your friend nor your enemy) - the examiners seem to be very friendly to put you at ease so I was too the first time and I forgot that I was taking an exam. The second time I focused more on why I was there for and I ignored the examiner's friendliness.
         3. For part 2 speaking, focus on what the bullets are asking you and elaborate for each one.  Also, try to answer when, where, how and why if they are not already mentioned in the bullets.
         4. For writing, I also focused on what was being asked of me.  I tried to answer  based on the language of the task and not get off topic.  Remembering to have a central idea in each paragraph helped, as did supporting and developing each of my main ideas with examples.
         5. For listening, I understood everything.   I probably should have had a higher score but I must have made a lot of spelling mistakes, so spelling correctly is really important, too."

So, there you have it.  One man's story of two IELTS attempts.   I hope his advice can help you, too.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Cohesive devices: when too much is just too much

I know I have just finished with suggestions on improving lexical resources with collocations but I would like to point out in this post the virtues of a little restraint, especially in the speaking portion of all ESL exams.  By the time you take your Cambridge CPE, Michigan ECPE or IELTS exam, you know furthermore, additionally, what is more and moreover like the back of your hand. 

I am going to share a little secret with you:  native speakers never use those words.  Really.   Well, maybe I am exaggerating a little.  Furthermore and additionally certainly have their place in academic writing but I can assure you that unless you are a member of Parliament or the Queen, the word moreover has no place in your arsenal of spoken language.  It's just too much.  And it certainly doesn't sound natural.  For some reason however, this is the word that has come to haunt me over the years. 

My advice:  just try to replace it with something more authentic sounding.  "Also,"  works wonders. "Besides" and "on top of that"  would also do nicely. 

when a little extra work is..... colossal

In my last post I mentioned lexical resources and I used synonyms for big as an example of how to use a wider range of vocabulary.  After I wrote the post, I kept thinking about the word, "colossal."  Yeah, that would have been a good one to suggest.  Then I started thinking about collocations with colossal because it is one thing to know a good word but it is quite another to know how to use it correctly.  So, I basically did something I think every ESL student should do, if he or she doesn't do it already:  I googled colossal definition.  One thing that dictionaries are good for apart from definitions, is telling you how the word is used.  So Merriam Webster gives us "colossal failure," Oxford tells us about "colossal mistakes,"  and The Free Dictionary gives us "a colossal increase in price." is another great site to see how words are used in sentences.  So, for all the words you learn, or all the "good words" you know, work with them,  see how they are used and jot them down somewhere.  Experiment a little.   If you are not sure if something you've written is a collocation, google that, too.  Who knows, it might just make the difference between a 6 and a 7.  And I think we all know that that is colossal.  :)

Friday, March 7, 2014

IELTS Writing: What does it all mean?

Lots of people approach me saying they need a 7 in IELTS.  My advice is always the same:   know what that means.  It's easy to see what a 7 translates to in Reading and Listening but sometimes people don't know what a 7 means for speaking and writing.  Google this:  IELTS speaking band descriptors  as well as IELTS writing band descriptors.   The descriptors are available on PDF all over the Internet.  Familiarize yourself with them and what they mean. 

A 7 in writing means you will need to do lots of things. In terms of task response, first, you'll need to address all parts of the task. So, if there are two questions, you will answer those two questions.  Advantages/ Disadvantages?   Talk about them both.  Your position will need to be clear throughout, so yes, say what your position is in your introduction.   Lastly, back up your main ideas with support, support, support. An 8 tells us that you have to develop your response with EXTENDED support, so after every sentence you write ask yourself, "how, why, what, who?"  If you can give an answer, then perhaps that answer should go in your essay. 

Coherence and cohesion tell us that your essay needs to have a logical order & progression.  Cohesive devices are necessary but they are more than just Firstly, Secondly, thirdly.   Even pronouns and words like this and that can link your ideas together.  So, use a variety.   Another warning would be not to OVERUSE cohesive devices.  So, sentences should be linked together but more seamlessly. 

As for lexical resource, why use "big" when you can say enormous, monumental, substantial or vast???  You want to be as precise as possible.  You could say, "air pollution is a big problem in our society," or you could say, "air pollution is a problem of monumental proportions in our society."    And I know that spelling in English is no easy task but it counts, so do be careful. 

Grammatical range means use more grammar than just Subject + Verb + Object.  Use subordinate clauses.  Use advanced grammar like inversion,  subjunctive, participle clauses, conditionals, relative clauses.  If you are not sure what these things are, open an advanced grammar book or Google them.
In an 8 essay, the majority of sentences are error-free.  That is your goal.  

If you keep in mind what an 8 is and have that as a goal, then you are more likely to get the 7 you actually need. 

Sunday, March 2, 2014

For mini-posts, links I like, etc....

.... you may want to check out my page on Facebook.  I try to post things that I find from sites I like that I think ESL students, especially those studying for IELTS, ECPE and Cambridge ESOL, might find helpful.  I also occasionally post something original that doesn't really warrant a whole blog post.  If interested, check it out:  

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

IELTS writing task 2 - let's stick to the topic

One of the things that always causes stress for my IELTS students is the time limit.  Many people feel overwhelmed with the idea of writing a full essay in 40 minutes.  So what do many IELTS candidates do?  They rush.  They rush to start writing & that of course can be disastrous.  I know that I have mentioned in previous posts how important it is to take some time to brainstorm but before you get to that, you must be very certain that you have understood the task!

One of my students was recently given a task 2 question about the environment. The question was something like, "Preserving the environment is an important issue today.  How can individuals protect the environment? Why don't people play a more active role in environmental protection?
What I see some students do is, in their mad rush to start writing, they see that the topic has something to do with the environment, so they start writing what some of the threats to the environment are.   Or maybe they spend their essays discussing what can be done in general to protect the environment.  Both approaches, of course, are wrong.  The first sentence of the prompt is just an introduction to the topic.   What you are supposed to write on is very clearly laid out for you in two questions:  How can individuals protect the environment?  Why don't people play a more active role in environmental protection?  If you spend a paragraph answering each question, you are well on you way to getting a good band score for Task Response.  Remember, how appropriately and completely you answer the question accounts for 25% of your Task 2 mark. 
So what do I suggest?  Spend a couple of minutes looking at the question.  Pinpoint key words or phrases.  Sometimes it helps to rephrase the prompt, although this might be a little risky.  Take a look at this task 2 question:  It is generally believed that some people are born with certain talent, for instance for sport or music, and others are not. However, it is sometimes claimed that any child can be taught to become a good sports person or musician. Discuss both these views.  Hmm,  a lot to take in.  So, let's see what they want us to do: Discuss both these views.  Which views? some people are born with certain talent and any child can be taught to become a good sports person or musician.
All your brainstorming & subsequent writing will be centered on these two main ideas.  Anything off-topic runs the risk of falling into the "answer is tangential,"  territory of Band 4 for Task Response.