Have you reached a point in your IELTS journey where you feel like you’re not making any progress?
Are you preparing as much as you possibly can, but still not seeing any increase in your scores?
This article looks at some of the research available on the topic and helps you take steps to break through your language learning barrier.
It is totally normal for your language learning progress to start slowing down. There’s even a word for it – you’ve hit a plateau in your language learning (great word for Task 1 graphs by the way!).
The trouble with IELTS is that it is so difficult to measure progress – people who take the test regularly often see significant variations in their scores from one session to the next.
So if you still feel you need something extra to push you past your current level, I’ve done some research. This article summarises the ideas that I found so that they apply specifically to IELTS test preparation.
The 5 main reasons why you’re stuck.
The most comprehensive and informative article I found was written by Professor Jack C Richards (2008).
In his article ‘Moving beyond the plateau’ Richards gives 5 reasons why people get stuck at the same level, especially in Speaking.
Do you recognise any of these issues?
- There’s a gap between your Listening/Reading skills (understanding English) and your Writing/Speaking skills (producing English).
- You speak fluently but you don’t use enough complex, sophisticated language.
- Your vocabulary is good but you are over-using low-level vocabulary.
- You produce excellent language, but it ‘lacks the characteristics of natural speech’ – it may be too formal, for example.
- Your language is ‘fossilised’ – you’ve been making the same mistakes for so long that it’s difficult to get out of the habit.
1. The gap between your receptive and productive skills
In order to acquire new language, you need to start ‘noticing’ language more. You need to identify the gaps in your knowledge and do some research into solving your problems.
One way to do this is to exploit the sources that you’re already using to prepare for the test.
For example, when you do a Listening Test, don’t just check your answers.
- Get the tapescript.
- Read it carefully.
- Listen and read at the same time.
- Read it aloud.
- Record yourself.
- Compare your version with the original.
- Learn the expressions and collocations.
- Check how they used articles, prepositions, tenses and plurals.
- Notice how the questions are constructed.
All of my listening tapescripts are colour-coded (I do the noticing for you!) so that you can see where the answers came from and learn the relevant language connected with it. For example, check out this video lesson which, after the listening test, takes you through a language point that you can use in other areas of the test (modals of deduction).
Then use the new language so much that it becomes automated.
- Put it into personalised, memorable sentences.
- Test it out.
- Use some of the technical tools that help you hear it (e.g. Youglish).
2. Using more complex language
Look at the grammar point in the video above (Making assumptions e.g. ‘She must have forgotten’). Think about how you would express the same idea yourself.
You have 2 options.
i) Maybe she forgot.
ii) She must have forgotten.
Which one would you use?
i) The first one is very basic: Simple Past Tense.
ii) The second is far more advanced, and this is the type of grammar you need to start using automatically and using confidently.
But, as we said before, first you need to notice the difference, as we’re doing here.
Check out some of my posts about making your language more complex and the different ways of expressing the same idea, and how they can be categorised into different bands.
3. Your vocabulary is good but you are over-using low-level vocabulary.
‘Limited vocabulary is one of the main hurdles that keeps intermediate learners stuck in the plateau phase.’ (FluentU)
Out of all the articles I read relating to ‘the plateau’ the theme that came up most often was vocabulary and how essential it is for breaking through to the next level.
It is something I talk about a lot on my podcasts and with my students, and it is the reason why I created the 28-Day Vocabulary Booster course specifically for IELTS.
Richards refers to O’Keeffe et al. (2007) who suggest a few solutions:
- Learn less common vocabulary which is also useful (‘not too rare or obscure to be of little practical use’). I see a lot of free materials with lists of vocabulary that you would NEVER USE. Make sure you’re only spending time learning the words that are most commonly used in the IELTS test.
- Spend time learning ABOUT the words e.g. synonyms, antonyms, related meanings, homophones, homonyms, register, style, false friends, collocations, formation and grammar see 28-days of Vocab blog post). Mastering the use of a Learner Dictionary is a skill that will stay with you forever so that you keep making progress.
- Develop ways of becoming ‘an independent vocabulary-learner and user’ – this is something I address in the Learning Links component of the vocabulary course.
To help you remember words more easily, Richards cites Gairns and Redman (1986) who say
‘..it is much easier to recall a list of words that are grouped or organized in a meaningful way, as compared with trying to recall a set of words that are simply organized alphabetically.’
My daily Quizlets organise the key vocabulary in this way, and help you see new words on a regular basis, which is also a key point highlighted by the authors.
Learning collocations (words which go with other words, like ‘heavily polluted’) is another simple way of building fluency and complexity.
Collocations enrich your language output and you will save time trying to think of a better way of saying things!
‘Knowledge of collocations is vital for effective language use, and a sentence that is grammatically correct will look or sound awkward if collocational preferences are not used.’ (Richards 2008)
Finally, if you can introduce any specialist vocabulary from your job when you get the opportunity (e.g. medical terms if you are a doctor), this will really count in your favour.
4. Your language ‘lacks the characteristics of natural speech’
One way to make your English sound more natural is to learn ‘multi-word chunks’ e.g. ‘I know what you mean but…’.
When I examine Speaking candidates, I can often guess their level by the way they react when they walk into the room. Even though examiners are not allowed to make ‘small talk’ before starting the recording, high-level candidates my often say something spontaneous like ‘How’s it going?’ or ‘Yeah sure’ when I ask them to sit down.
If you record yourself and listen, you may notice that you tend to say things in the same way that you write them:
e.g.‘My work requires a great deal of studying’ (quite formal) = ‘I have to do a lot of studying in my job’ (more natural)
5. Your language is ‘fossilised’ – you’ve been making the same mistakes for so long that it’s difficult to get out of the habit.
As before, the solution to this problem is to notice the difference between what you’re saying and how it is normally expressed. It could be that you are translating directly from your own language and are not aware of small mistakes that you make.
You need to identify the problem areas and become an ‘active monitor’ of your language production, for example by recording yourself doing a 2-minute long-turn (like we did in the 30-Day Speaking Challenge) and listening back for errors, ideally with someone who can recognise the errors. Or getting someone to look at your Writing and highlighting the main errors.
It would be a good investment to get a specially-trained tutor to identify areas you need to work on in your Speaking and Writing.
All the free materials you can find on the internet are great up to a certain point, but if you really can’t see where you’re going wrong, free materials won’t help you.
‘I love free resources as much as anyone, but relying on “free” has its drawbacks. It costs a lot of time and energy to search for, collect, and organize all the information you need.’ (Better@English).
Other things you can do
1. Set goals
Give yourself a daily task – learn a vocabulary set or the next page in a grammar book. that’s why I’ve divided all my courses into ‘28 days’ so that you can do a 10-minute, achievable task everyday and see how much progress you’ve made in a more measurable way.
Identify, research, learn, and master a key grammatical pattern that is causing you problems.
2. Use real IELTS practice tests and appropriate, relevant material.
Although it’s great to read an English book for pleasure or watch a movie, most of your time should be spent consuming IELTS-related materials such as the ones I include in my Vocabulary links, and the specific, specialised YouTube videos and podcasts that I recommend for each day of my vocabulary course.
3. Try something new.
‘Nothing changes if nothing changes’
Try taking a course in English which is not ABOUT English. I often joke that for IELTS you need a PhD in Biology, Chemistry, Archaeology, Architecture and Anthropology, so why not find a simple course that interests you e.g. on Coursera or Udemy.
If you’ve been preparing for IELTS using books/ lessons/ teachers in your own language, try something like my podcast, which teaches you everything you need to know about IELTS through the medium of English. All of my videos in the Academy can be slowed down or sped up!
4. Focus on problem areas.
If you struggle with a particular grammar rule, spend more time and effort to understand it and use it correctly. When you’ve done your research, start practising until you master it.
5. Find a speaking partner
Many websites suggest that you find a ‘native-speaker’ to practice with. As we all know, this is easier said than done, and it is difficult enough to find someone you can chat easily with even in your own language, let alone a complete stranger who is just the right level for you and is happy to chat for free.
Personally, I would feel very uncomfortable asking someone to do that. Also, unless they are qualified teachers who have been trained to recognise problem areas and help you improve, this type of practice might not be the most efficient one.
It might be just as beneficial to find another online learner who is a similar level and who has the same goals as you so that you can help each other.
Arrange a regular time to chat that suits you both so that you are using the language more often and so that you can encourage each other and stay accountable. Use the IELTS test questions to exchange ideas. You can find a set of questions to practice for each topic in my Vocabulary course, and we also have a private Facebook group where people and find speaking partners.
Everyone is busy.
But to be the best, you need to be obsessed.
Put other hobbies and interests on hold for a short time and focus everything you have on reaching the next level.
Doing an hour of quality studying every day consistently and trying out some of the tips above will make a noticeable difference.