How to Revise for Your EFL Exam
A high score in an English as a Foreign Language exam opens many doors, whether that’s enabling you to secure a place on a course at a top university or proving your English capabilities for the workplace.
However, a high score is a less realistic prospect if you don’t put in effort beforehand to prepare for the series of tests you’ll face to attain your qualification. Just as you’d revise for an A-level or International Baccalaureate exam, so you need to revise for your EFL exams if you’re to stand the best chance of securing the highest scores. In this article, we focus on preparing for the IELTS exam, one of the most popular and most widely accepted EFL exams; but the tips here should also help you revise for any other EFL exam, as they all feature the same core components of reading, writing, listening and speaking.
Let’s start by looking at general revision tips and resources that will help you prepare for all sections of the IELTS exam.
Understand exactly what you’re preparing for
Before you begin your revision, it will help to have an idea of exactly what you’re preparing for. This means reading in detail about what the exam involves. This is a useful table summarising different elements of the IELTS; if you’re taking a different EFL exam, the format will likely be slightly different, so be sure to read specifically about the one you’re taking.
Take online example tests
By far the best thing you can do to revise for your EFL exam is to practise online sample tests, of which there are plenty. These will get you used to the style of questions you can expect and the tasks you’ll be required to carry out, as well as allowing you to get a sense of the timings you’ll be working to. The questions obviously won’t be identical to the ones you’ll get in the real thing, but they will take the same format and give you some valuable practice. Sample tests are available on the IELTS website to get you started. This page is a useful resource providing links to IELTS revision tests, including mock papers, and the British Council has lots of helpful mock papers too. These free exercises are designed to help you prepare for the Cambridge ESOL exams. Don’t forget that with the IELTS, you take the reading, writing and listening tests one after the other, with no preparation time in between, so make sure you practise mock exams in the same way once you get used to what’s expected in each section.
A quick search on YouTube reveals numerous videos dedicated to helping you prepare for your IELTS exam, so when you get tired of completing practice exams, or even before you start the practice exams, watch some of these. They’re a great free resource that will make revision a bit more fun and engaging. This two-hour video is a useful example that combines a series of videos into one place.
British Council apps
Another way of making your revision more interesting is to download the British Council’s LearnEnglish apps, which are available for smartphones and tablets and will help you master various aspects of English. There’s one geared specifically towards improving your grammar skills, while others include an app that provides learning podcasts and another offering videos about British culture, both of which will improve your listening skills.
Go on an EFL summer school
If you’re preparing to take the IELTS exam and want to improve your academic writing, you can do so in the company of like-minded fellow students here at Oxford Royale Summer Schools by signing up for our IELTS Preparation course. This will help you improve your writing, grow your vocabulary, practise reading and understanding various academic texts and get to grips with the basic requirements of the IELTS exam, which you’ll need in order to apply to a UK university. This summer school is ideal preparation both for the IELTS exam itself, and for the demands of academic writing to which you will be subjected at university.
We now move on to some more specific revision ideas for each section of the IELTS exam. The reading tasks expected of you in this part of the IELTS vary according to whether you’re doing the Academic or General qualification. The materials you’ll read in both exams are all taken from English books, newspapers, magazines and so on, and for the Academic exam you’ll be given topics of general academic interest that have been written for a non-specialist audience. In the General exam, the texts you read might also include things like adverts, company handbooks, and so on; you can expect a section on everyday life, a section on the workplace and a longer section on a general interest topic. You’re not expected to know technical terms in either exam; if these are present, there will be a glossary for you to refer to.
To prepare for the inevitable variety of texts you’ll be presented with, you can’t do any better than simply reading as much as you can, and as many different kinds of writing as you can, in every conceivable place. Here are a few ideas to help you familiarise yourself with English in its many contexts:
- Read at least a couple of news stories per day, on different subjects; if you aren’t able to get hold of a newspaper, read the news online (BBC News is a good source of online news in English).
- Read some books in English – ideally a mix of some classic works of English Literature, modern novels and non-fiction.
- When you’re out and about, pick up and read leaflets, such as bus timetables or tourist information.
- Buy a magazine on a topic that interests you and see how the language differs from what you read in newspapers or online news sources.
- Read food labels. For example, when you pick up a carton of orange juice to pour yourself a glass, read the writing on the side and make sure you understand the important points it’s making.
For the listening part of your EFL exam, you’ll be tested on your comprehension of four different audio clips featuring a range of situations and speakers. You only hear the audio once, so it’s advisable to make notes as you go along. To this end, practising the sample tests linked to in the first section of this article is vital. Here are some other things you can be doing to help improve your listening skills in the run-up to your exam.
Listen to the radio
Listening to English-speaking radio stations on a daily basis will help you become completely familiar with the sound of English, and the different ways it’s spoken by various regional dialects.
Listen to academic podcasts
The Listening component of the IELTS and other EFL exams often tests your ability to understand points raised in a lecture. You can practise jotting down notes from lectures by listening to academic podcasts. There are lots of lectures available on iTunes and YouTube.
Familiarise yourself with a variety of English accents
The listening component of the exam will feature a variety of English accents, so familiarising yourself with the different sounds associated with accents from different parts of the country would be advantageous. In addition to listening to the radio, try looking up different accents on YouTube, such as “Yorkshire accent”, “London accent”, “Brummie accent” and so on. Also listen to English accents from overseas, such as Australian and American.
Writing and vocabulary
The tasks you can expect in the Writing section of the exam differ according to whether you’re going down the Academic route or the General one. The Academic tasks focus first on interpreting a graph or chart, and then on writing an essay about a particular issue. The General tasks are first to write a letter, and then to write an essay (in a more personal style to the one you’d write for the Academic test). In addition to taking sample tests, here are some other ideas for improving your English in preparation for this part of the exam.
Practise writing letters
As mentioned above, letter-writing is one of the tasks you can expect if you take the General IELTS exam. You’re given details of a situation and asked to write a letter explaining it or asking for information, and the letter can be formal, semi-formal or more personal, depending on what you think is most suitable. You can prepare yourself for this task by practising writing different kinds of letters. Even if it’s just writing a letter to a friend, if it’s something you’ve done several times before the exam, you’ll feel a lot more comfortable about expressing yourself in this format.
You’ll be required to write an essay whether you take the Academic test or the General one, so practising your essay-writing skills will stand you in good stead. To get you used to this, simply pick topics you find interesting and write short essays about them. Think about the structure of your essay and ensure it flows logically, just as it would if you were writing in your native language. Use a wide vocabulary and a variety of syntax, and make your essay interesting, rather than focusing entirely on the mechanics of writing in English. Try to do this under timed conditions to prepare yourself for the exam.
Continually grow and test your vocabulary
We’ve already mentioned that the British Council has an app to help you grow your vocabulary, but it has a few online games that also give you a fun way to learn more words. There are fun online vocabulary games that will give you a more enjoyable way to learn more new words, such as Pic Your Wits, in which you race against the clock to write down the word that describes what’s in the picture.
Put your spelling and grammar to the test
Working on your spelling and grammar would also be useful preparation for the IELTS. Again, check out the British Council website for some fun games to help you do this, such as Verb Machine and Spelloween. You may want to note down and practise any spellings you know you struggle with.
This section is the one that’s most difficult to practise online, as the speaking test takes the form of a one-to-one interview with the examiner. You can find some online practise questions here; below are two final revision tips.
Practise speaking with a native speaker
Try to practise speaking with a native English speaker if you can, and get them to ask you some questions about yourself – about your work and home life, your studies, your interests and so on. Don’t be tempted to give yes or no answers; force yourself to elaborate by explaining why you’ve answered yes or no, or adding some extra details, such as:
Question: “Do you have any hobbies?”
Answer: “Yes – I’ve ridden horses since I was little, and recently started learning to play the piano.”
Getting comfortable with talking about yourself in this way will stand you in good stead for the IELTS. You could also practise talking about where you live and what it’s like. However, try not to prepare answers to likely questions, as this may result in your answers sounding wooden and rehearsed, when you want them to sound fresh and natural. Record yourself speaking, so you can play it back to see how you did and note any mistakes to be corrected.
Practise talking about subjects you’re interested in
You will have to give a one- or two-minute talk, so it’s a good idea to practise doing this in the run-up to the exam. Get to know what a minute or two feels like; it may be a lot shorter or longer than you’re expecting, so practise speaking out loud with a timer so that you get this right. Also, make some notes to help prompt you to remember what to say, and in what order; don’t write out a script and read from that, but use one or two word notes to jog your memory. Again, record yourself if possible.
Remember, as with any exam, to fail to prepare is to prepare to fail. Taking on board the tips in this article will enable you to prepare thoroughly and give yourself the best possible chance of success.