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University study for non-native English speakers

Updated on May 8, 2013
Official IELTS Logo
Official IELTS Logo | Source
IELTS Practice materials
IELTS Practice materials | Source

IELTS preparation

The UK has been and remains a popular destination for foreign students to study at university level. Perhaps the attraction is the British prominence in global affairs, that although in decline, still coveys the image of a country and people to be associated with. Or the draw might be the established academia, with some institutions such as University College, Oxford dating back to as early as 1249. Focus might be on contemporary features with high profile cities such as Manchester and London, locations such as Stonehenge and the Scottish Highlands, or the fact that the UK is a constitutional monarchy with an acting parliament and active royalty. Whatever the reasons for foreign students choosing to come and advance their education in the UK, the numbers speak for themselves. In the 2009-2010 academic year over 280,000 non-EU students were studying in UK universities.

The requirement for non-native English speakers to study in the UK is either to participate in a university sponsored pre-sessional programme that prepares the individual for the rigours of university life, or the completion of the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) to grade their academic English usage. Either option needs considerable determination, with the former requiring the participation on a university sponsored academic preparation programme and the latter requiring a commitment to engage in IELTS preparation classes.

IELTS preparation involves the structured study on a programme designed to develop the four skills of reading, writing, listening and speaking to the aggregate level specified by the university and academic programme the students wish to join. The level is achieved through developing the four skills by engaging with academic texts, topics and themes, and completing tasks that mirror those found in the exam.

When the student and tutor feel that the required level has been reached, the student will book a place on the test and then intensively prepare for the final weeks leading up to the test day. The test itself is split into four parts and is taken in the following order:

  • Listening test (30 minutes)
  • Academic reading test (60 minutes)
  • Academic writing test (60 minutes)
  • Speaking test (15 minutes)

The listening section consists of four parts that increase in difficulty and are played only once. The student listens to each recording, and needs to answer a variety of question formats such as multiple choice, short answer completion, etc.

In the reading test the student will engage with three texts, again increasing in difficulty and from sources such as magazine articles, textbooks and journals. A variety of question types feature in the reading section, with the total word count of the texts between 1,500 and 2,500.

In the writing section two tasks must be completed: a short letter responding to a situation and then a longer essay that presents an argument or considers a problem. The total word count for this part should be over 400.

Finally, the speaking module is completed where an examiner must be spoken to on topics and in a manner that increases in difficulty as the test progresses. The format followed is: Introduction, an extended monologue about a topic given by the examiner and then a discussion about a situation or problem.


Each individual module is graded in bands, from Band 1 (non user) to Band 9 (expert user), with the grades progressing in 0.5 increments. However, it should be noted that the distance between each band level increases in difficulty the higher the band. So the step from Band 4 to Band 5 will require considerably less effort that the step from Band 6 to Band 7. Therefore, students will need to study intensively in order to acheive their required IELTS score that will facilitate access onto their preferred academic programme and an exciting adventure in a new and culturally diverse country.

IELTS Speaking Test: part 1

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