How fast can you improve your English?
If you’re like the large majority of Chinese candidates doing the academic version of IELTS (International English Language Testing System), you’re aiming to get an overall band score of 6.0, 6.5 or 7.0.
How well do test takers do? It may surprise you, but most candidates in China don’t get the score they want.
The average band score in China is about 5.5, which is below what candidates usually require to study at an overseas university. Depending on the university and the course, an overall score between 6.0 and 8.0 is usually required for admission. In 2007, just 20% of Chinese candidates got an overall score of 6.0, and only 16% got higher.
Research into IELTS has found that it usually takes many months to improve candidates’ English to the band score they require.
The research revealed that around 300 hours of full-time study (18 hours or more a week) is needed to lift the average candidate’s overall band score from 5.5 to 6.0. Surprisingly, longer than 300 hours of full-time study is needed to move from 6.0 to 6.5, or from 6.5 to 7.0.
That means the average Chinese candidate - with a band score of 5.5 - could need up to seven to nine months full-time study to get an overall score of 6.5.
As for the individual language skills (listening, reading, writing and speaking), the greatest gain can be expected in the listening test. However, the score for the reading test is likely to show the lowest level of improvement.
Of course, all of the above periods are averages. Some candidates need less time to get the overall improvements shown, while others need even more time. The research established that the actual improvement individual candidates can expect depends on five factors:
Motivation. Highly motivated candidates are much more likely to increase their overall score than less enthusiastic candidates.
The value given to English. Candidates who believe having an excellent level of English is important for their future academic studies or career are likely to make greater gains in their overall score. Conversely, candidates who just regard IELTS as a test they have to “pass” to get into university are less likely to show significant improvements.
Confidence. Candidates who lack confidence, who are fearful of using English or who are anxious will probably need much more time to improve their overall score.
Age. Older candidates definitely need more time to improve their overall score than people in their twenties.
Through my teaching work, I’ve noticed that candidates in their mid- to late teens also often need more time to prepare. This is because they tend to have limited knowledge of the types of social issues candidates have to talk or write about in the academic version of the exam. For example:
- the effects of having an increasing number of people living longer than ever before;
- the factors contributing to rising levels of stress in society; or
- the impact of technological change.
Focus. Some candidates retaking IELTS only work on improving the one or two skills for which they got an unsatisfactory score. However, while the scores for those skill areas may improve, there’s usually a fall in their scores for the neglected skill areas. As a result, their overall score doesn’t rise.