Exam preparation

How to Master Writing Emails/Letters in English

postbox-med

Image courtesy of Davina Ware (Flickr)

 

Letters may seem outdated in this digital age, but the skills needed to produce one are still considered important. Naturally, many international language tests evaluate the test taker’s ability to produce pieces of communication, such as letters, memos or emails.

 

In the IELTS General Training format, the writing module has two tasks. In the first one, candidates are given a situation and asked to write a letter. Depending on the situation, they have to choose from one of three kinds of tone – friendly, semi-formal, or formal.

 

Tone Example situation
Friendly Write a letter to a friend inviting him/her to a party you are having next month.
Semi-formal Write a letter to your manager requesting him/her for one week’s leave.
Formal Write a letter to the general manager of a restaurant complaining about the poor service you received during your visit there.

 

So, what exactly is tone? Simply put, it is the style of writing that is most suitable for a given situation.

 

Identifying the appropriate tone for a letter can be tricky at times. In fact, it is not uncommon in IELTS for test takers to get the tone horribly wrong. As a result, the letter sounds rude or inappropriate, thereby affecting their overall writing score.

 

So, how can you identify the appropriate tone? Well, here’s one key factor to consider:

 

The recipient

Is the person you are writing to (i.e. the recipient) someone you know? What sort of relationship do you share with them ‒ formal or friendly?

 

If the recipient is unknown, or if they are much senior to you (in age or rank), the letter needs to have a respectful tone (semi-formal to formal). On the other hand, if it’s a friend you’re writing to, the letter will certainly be chatty, looking more like a conversation.

More about tone in the next part!

 

 

GLOSSARY

 

outdated
Form : adjective
Meaning : no longer useful or fashionable
Example : The computer systems in Kevin’s company are really outdated.

 

tricky
Form : adjective
Meaning : difficult to deal with
Example : Aged people sometimes find smart phones tricky to operate.

 

horribly
Form : adverb
Meaning : in a bad way
Example : He got injured when a karate move went horribly wrong.

 

chatty
Form : adjective
Meaning : describes writing style that is friendly 
Example : Judith sent me a bright, chatty letter about her life in Greece.

 

 

Too Busy? How to De-stress and Achieve More

via GIPHY

 

Exams can be stressful – in fact, we need a bit of stress to help us perform to the best of our abilities.

 

But, attempts to be the best at everything we do, can lead to more stress than is good for us.

We think we are bound to achieve more if we can only do more – cram more and more into our schedules, juggle work and study, learn a new language – and the list goes on…

While this can work a some of the time, and we proudly boast to our friends that we are ‘just so busy’; in actual fact we are overdoing it and forgetting to find time for those things that we need to help us de-stress and achieve more.

 

Here are a couple of things to remember to help you find that balance:

 

You can’t do everything all at once

Trying to achieve a lot with the time you have is good. But if you think about it, multitasking means you can’t give your whole focus to one thing, so everything ends up below the high standard you’re aiming for.

Just focusing on one thing at a time however, can make best use of your time and allow you to do that one thing really well.

We can’t all spin plates like this guy, you know.

 

 

 

Give yourself time to unwind

Your body and brain need to recharge so they can work at their best. It is a simple thing, but we can all forget it and find ourselves slumped over our keyboard/books in the small hours of the morning. It’s better to get decent rest.

That doesn’t mean that every second of the day should be non-stop action either. Just as our bodies couldn’t run from morning til night without a break, our brains need moments throughout the day to wonder off and daydream.

Doing this means when we want to (like exams), we can sharper our focus and attention.

 

3 Top Tips to Survive Exam Stress

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‘the strongest kind of fear is the fear of the unknown’

Have you ever been so stressed about an exam, that it stopped you from giving your best?

It’s a common trap and one that is easily fallen into. Often, the more you want something, the more weight you put on your own shoulders to accomplish it. You then risk burning out: losing sleep, skipping meals, and running yourself into the ground. And whilst a little bit of stress is good to keep you focussed and alert, what steps can you take to keep it under control? Here are three…

 

  1. Sleep well.

“Sleep is not a luxury,” says Dr. James O’Brien, medical director of the Boston SleepCare Center in Massachusetts, USA. “It’s a necessity for optimal functioning.”

It’s maybe tempting to burn the candle at both ends to fit in extra studying, but that could be eating into your chances of performing well.

Sleeping allows the brain to recharge and reset for the day ahead. Without it, your memory, mood and ability to concentrate will be severely hampered. So get plenty of rest.

Tip: 7-9 hours a night is just right.

 

  1. Keep it real.

For some exams, there is a real need to revise certain facts, dates, equations etc, so you need to learn these by heart. For IELTS, your knowledge is not being tested, only your ability to speak, write, listen and read in English. It’s a test of your English for the real world.

So, your study should be about widening that ability as best as possible. Yes, it’s important to know how to form past and future tenses etc., but this is best learnt through using real language. Knowing that you’ve studied in an effective way will give you more confidence and reduce your stress.

Tip: Read the newspaper every day and practice writing summarising the articles you read or start a conversation with a friend on that topic.

 

  1. Practice, practice, practice

The gothic horror novelist H.P Lovecraft wrote that ‘the strongest kind of fear is the fear of the unknown’ – and he should know!

This definitely comes into play when we’re faced with a test or exam. ‘Not knowing’ what the test will be like or how the exam is structured can leave us stressed out.

So, the simplest way to overcome this is to get hold of practice test papers and familiarise yourself with the test itself.

If you’re thinking about taking the IELTS test you can find lots of free resources and practice papers here.

 

Tip: Try recreating test conditions by timing yourself as you sit a practice test.

 

GLOSSARY

 

Running oneself into the ground
Form : phrase
Meaning : to make yourself very tired by working too much

 

optimal
Form : adjective
Meaning : Best or most favourable

 

burn the candle at both ends
Form : phrase
Meaning : The go to bed late and get up early.

 

Eating into something
Form : phrase
Meaning : To use or take away a large part of something valuable (eg, money or time).
Example : The high cost of living in London is eating into my savings

 

 

hamper
Form : verb
Meaning : to stop something happening easily
Example : Ankle injuries severely hampered Usain’s sprinting career.

 

 

 

Come into play
Form : phrase
Meaning : Becoming active or effective
Example : Conditions for workers will change once the new labour law comes into play

 

 

 

Clever Reading Skills to Improve your English (Part 2)

books stack

 

If you are poor at reading, then perhaps it’s because you use only one style ‒ intensive reading.

 

In part 1, we looked at how skimming can help you understand the gist, i.e. the general meaning, of a text. Here are two more sub-skills that are widely used in reading.

 

Scanning

This method is useful in identifying factual information in no time, e.g. names, dates, numbers, address, etc. Scanning involves moving your eyes quickly down a page in order to find a specific fact or piece of information without reading the entire text. While scanning, the reader:

  • understands the way the text is structured before beginning to ‘read.’ For instance, is information arranged from A to Z (e.g. a dictionary, where items appear in alphabetical order) or by category (e.g. a catalogue)?
  • sometimes uses their finger or hand to focus on what they are reading.
  • does not make an attempt to understand the whole text; instead they read relevant parts around keyword

 

Many of us use this skill in our daily lives without realising it. For example, when we look for someone’s number in a telephone book, or football scores in the newspaper, we are, in fact, scanning.

 

 

Intensive reading

As the name suggests, this sub-skill is used to get a thorough understanding of a text by reading it closely and carefully. Here, the reader:

  • focuses more on the language (grammar and unfamiliar vocabulary) than the text.
  • sometimes deals with grammar and vocabulary that is beyond their existing language ability.
  • reads the same piece of text again and again to ensure that they have understood words correctly.

 

If you are poor at reading, then it is perhaps because you use only one style ‒ intensive reading. Obviously, this will slow you down, apart from making you too dependent on every single word you read to increase your understanding. Instead, train yourself to use sub-skills effectively so that you are able to read fast and understand better.

 

Remember, a good reader always uses different styles to read effectively!

 

GLOSSARY

 

factual
Form : adjective
Meaning : relating to facts
Example : The newspaper article about the incident had a lot of factual errors.

 

in no time
Form : phrase
Meaning : very quickly
Example : Since there was no traffic, so we reached the restaurant in no time at all.

 

catalogue
Form : noun
Meaning : a list of items, usually with details, that people can look at or buy
Example : The library catalogue lists many rare books amongst its collection.

 

keyword
Form : noun
Meaning : an important word
Example : When giving a speech, Bob keeps a list of keywords to remind him of what to talk about.

 

 

thorough
Form : adjective
Meaning : defines something done completely, with great attention given to every detail
Example : Detective Stinson has a thorough understanding of how crimes are committed.

 

 

View From Campus: My Journey from Nepal to Studying in the U.S.

Rasana

IELTS has made a substantial contribution to what I am today

 

We spoke with Rasana Pradhan from Nepal, who is studying Environmental Safety and Health Management at the University of Findlay in the U.S. She told us about her how the IELTS test helped her prepare for U.S. study and her dreams to set up an environmental NGO back in Nepal.

 

How would you describe your experience in preparing for and taking the IELTS test?

As a graduate from St. Xavier’s College and an avid English novel reader, learning English has always been my passion. I always wanted to come to the U.S. and I knew IELTS was the gateway to it, so after completing my BA, I booked my IELTS date and bought IELTS books. I frequently went to British Council to grab some more IELTS books and DVDS so that, I could learn more. Later on I also participated in British Council’s weekly classes and IELTS sessions. Writing essays on variant topics evidently enhanced my writing skills, and speaking about different topics in front of everyone was one of my best experiences.

Then finally, the test day arrived.The best part of taking my IELTS was my speaking test. I had a great time talking to my examiner about my hobbies, my friends and my aim in life. Overall, when I have to sum up, the IELTS test improved my English and boosted my confidence.

 

How did you decide on the U.S. as your study destination? 

I always had a thirst for knowledge. The education system in the U.S. is one of the best in the world, as it strives for more practical education rather than just theoretical one. I came here to quench my thirst for getting an education that will allow me to grow professionally. In addition, the U.S. is the land of opportunities!

 

How has the IELTS experience prepared you for your degree program? 

I think IELTS has made a substantial contribution to what I am today. It has undeniably made me a confident English speaker. I have actively participated in my class presentations, I can confidently talk to my professors and my American friends. IELTS taught me the exact format of writing, which helped me a lot during my course assignments. Moreover, because of this confidence and good communication skills, I also earned a graduate assistantship this year. For a graduate assistant, fluency in English is essential, so IELTS has helped me fulfil my duties. You not only learn from school, but also from your day-to-day life. I have not only learned to be more independent, but also to solve my problems. Here, I have been able to get a holistic education that goes beyond school and definitely beyond books.

UF alumni

What are your plans after graduation?

I am planning to work for 3-5 years as an environmental and health specialist/manager in the U.S. to gain experience. After gaining sufficient amount of experience here, I have a dream to go back and open an environmental NGO in my country. I co-founded an organisation called The Youth Today Nepal in 2014, and this organisation inspired me to work more for the betterment of the people. There aren’t many good environmental and safety organisations in Nepal and the state of my country’s environment is deteriorating, so I would like to improve those conditions and serve others.

Clever Reading Skills to Improve your English (Part 1)

newspaper stack

Nowadays information can be taken in through an ever-increasing variety of media: newspapers, magazines, hoardings, flyers, blogs, phone messages, web chat, online posts, dictionaries, brochures, and so on. And the end result? Most of us are forced to deal with an endless stream of content in our daily lives, in both electronic and print form. However, the way we read these texts differs.

 

For starters, why we read is not always the same. Sometimes we read to gain information, at other times we do so for sheer pleasure. Understandably, WHY we read something influences HOW we read it. Another factor worth considering is writing style: the tone of a novel is quite different to that of a research paper, which means we change our reading style depending on what we are reading.

 

In an exam situation – for example, the IELTS Reading test – it is important that candidates use various sub-skills to read different texts efficiently.

 

Skimming

When we skim, we read a text very quickly to form an overall idea of the content. In other words, we move our eyes rapidly over the text to get an overview of it. While skimming, the reader:

  • reads just content words ‒ nouns, main verbs, adjectives and adverbs, which generally give us the most important information in a passage.
  • takes a quick look at the heading and subheadings to understand how they are connected.
  • does not stop to ponder over the meaning of individual words or phrases.

 

So how easy or difficult is this technique? It may not seem all that simple at the beginning, but learners get better at using this skill with practice. Of course, once you master skimming, you may be able to go through about 700 to 1000 words per minute and obtain an overview of it all.

 

And that’s exactly the kind of ability that will help you perform better in a reading test.

Look out for Part 2 for more tips and skills to help improve your reading.

 

 

GLOSSARY

 

for starters
Form : phrase
Meaning : to highlight the first in a list of reasons
Example : We are facing many problems – for starters, we don’t have enough staff.

 

sheer
Form : adjective
Meaning : complete or total
Example : Watching their daughter take her first few steps was sheer joy for Mathew and Lisa.

 

rapidly
Form : adverb
Meaning : very quickly
Example : Crime figures in some parts of the world are increasing rapidly.

 

overview
Form : noun
Meaning : an outline of something
Example : Our research provides an overview of the challenges faced by today’s youth.

 

 

ponder (over something)
Form : verb
Meaning : to carefully think about something
Example : Minnie spent hours pondering over her father’s comments about her career.

 

master
Form : verb
Meaning : to learn how to do something extremely well
Example : He still hasn’t mastered the skill of passing the ball to his teammates accurately.

 

 

 

IELTS Reading: Dealing with Difficult Question Types (Part 1)

group reading

The IELTS Reading test, in both Academic and General Training, has 40 questions. A wide range of reading skills are tested using a variety of question types, some of which are much more challenging than others.

 

In this part, we’ll take a closer look at a particular question type that most candidates feel is the hardest – identifying information (True/False/Not Given).

 

Here’s a simplified version of this question type to help us understand how best to deal with it.

 

Reading text

Mr Farrell, a revered professor at the university, walked into the room in a huff that day. Dressed in a pair of dark trousers, light-coloured shirt and red tie, his dapper appearance seemed to be in stark contrast with the foul mood he was in.   

 

Do the following statements agree with the information given in the reading text?

Write:

 

TRUE if the statement agrees with the information given in the text
FALSE if the statement contradicts the information given in the text
NOT GIVEN if there is no information on this

 

  1. The Professor was wearing a black shirt.
  2. The Professor was wearing a blue shirt.
  3. The Professor was wearing a pastel shirt.

 

So what do you think are the answers?

 

Tips to answer

 

Choose TRUE when you find information in the text that agrees with the statement in the question.
Example: 3. The Professor was wearing a pastel shirt.
Explanation: Since pastel shades are pale or light-coloured, it’s safe to conclude that the statement agrees with the text.

 

 

Choose FALSE when you find information in the text that contradicts the statement in the question.
Example: 1. The Professor was wearing a black shirt.
Explanation: Black isn’t a light colour so this statement contradicts the information in the reading text.

 

Choose NOT GIVEN when you don’t have sufficient information to choose either TRUE or FALSE.
Example: 2. The Professor was wearing a blue shirt.
Explanation: The colour blue is available in different hues, both light and dark. There simply isn’t sufficient information in the statement to choose either True or False so the answer is Not Given.

 

 

Remember, statements that are TRUE are the easiest to find; perhaps start with them and then move on to the others.

Discover further reading preparation and tips for the IELTS test here.

 

Happy reading!

 

Top Tips to Improve Your IELTS Speaking Score (Part 2)

In the previous part, we spoke of how it is best to avoid memorised answers in the IELTS Speaking test. Here’s another way to be yourself during the interview.

State YOUR opinion, not the examiner’s

 

Bad example

Examiner: Let’s now talk about the role of advertising. Do you think advertising influences what people buy?
Candidate: Hmm… No, I don’t think so!
Examiner: Well, how do we then explain companies spending billions on advertisements?
Candidate: Oh, OK; I guess advertisements do influence people in some ways. Sorry!

 

The Speaking module has three parts:

  1. Introduction and interview (4 – 5 minutes)
  2. Individual long turn (3 – 4 minutes)
  3. Two-way discussion (4 – 5 minutes)

 

The third part gives candidates an opportunity to state their views on abstract topics and justify them. Sadly, some candidates don’t express how they really feel about a topic; instead they agree with whatever the examiner says the whole time!

 

As a candidate, you are assessed on your language, not your ideas or views. All the examiner wants to know is how wide your range of language is, so focus on exhibiting that. If your opinions are different to those of the examiner, feel free to disagree with him/her. Be confident and speak your mind.

 

Good example

Examiner: Let’s now talk about the role of advertising. Do you think advertising influences what people buy?
Candidate: No, I don’t think so!
Examiner: Well, how do we explain companies spending so much money on advertisements?
Candidate: In a highly competitive market, it becomes necessary for companies to promote their products and services. Advertising helps them reach out to billions of people. How else would people notice a particular product or come to know of its existence? But the question here is whether it influences consumer behaviour. Now, I strongly believe that there isn’t enough evidence to ….

 

Remember, always be frank and express your thoughts; do not change your opinion to mirror that of the examiner – just be yourself!

 

 

 

GLOSSARY

 

be yourself
Form : phrase
Meaning : behave or act naturally
Example : Why do you put on an accent, Tom? Have the confidence to be yourself!

 

abstract
Form : adjective
Meaning : describes something based on general ideas, not anything in particular
Example : They spoke about love in abstract terms – for example, is it valued in today’s world?

 

justify
Form : verb
Meaning : to show that something is right, especially when others think it is wrong
Example : It’s difficult to justify paying huge salaries when the company is making a loss.

 

 

 

 

 

exhibit
Form : verb
Meaning : to show something such as a quality or skill
Example : He exhibited his skills during the football match.

 

speak your mind
Form : phrase
Meaning : to honestly say what you think, usually in a direct way
Example : Clara always speaks her mind, which sometimes gets her into trouble. 

 

frank
Form : adjective
Meaning : describes someone who is honest about their opinions
Example : Dan was completely frank about the problems he was facing in his marriage.

 

mirror
Form : verb
Meaning : to match the feelings of someone
Example : He always makes sure his views on office matters mirror those of his boss.

 

 

Top Tips to Improve Your IELTS Speaking Score (Part 1)

 

 

 

 

 

…don’t sound like a robot!

The IELTS Speaking test is a one-to-one discussion with an examiner, lasting between 11 and 14 minutes. It has three parts, with each testing a different speaking skill. Here is one simple way to improve the score you get:

 

Be natural, DON’T rehearse answers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s an example of how not to do it:

Examiner: Can you tell me your full name, please?
Candidate: Certainly! My full name is Mariana Georgina Gama. Mariana is my first name, Georgina is my middle name, and Gama is my surname. My friends call me Maria so you may call me Maria too.

 

The IELTS Speaking is testing your ability to use English in real-life and many test takers say the interview is similar to a conversation with a friend. So, you should speak in a natural way. Don’t memorise answers and reproduce them – the examiner can tell and mark you down. You don’t want to sound like a robot!

 

Let’s consider the example given above – the candidate’s rather long answer to a very simple question makes them sound artificial. If you don’t speak like that in everyday conversations, why would you do things differently in a test?

 

Good example

Examiner: Can you tell me your full name, please?
Candidate: Sure! It’s Mariana Georgina Gama.

 

A note of caution: although the format of the speaking interview lets you interact freely with the examiner, avoid using informal language (e.g. wanna; gonna; cheers, mate; etc.) or sounding too causal.

 

So to recap, the best way to improve your IELTS Speaking score is to relax and not to reproduce memorised answers. Just be yourself!

 

GLOSSARY

 

one-to-one
Form : adjective
Meaning : describes something that involves only two people
Example : I have a one-to-one meeting with my manager every month.

 

note of caution
Form : phrase
Meaning : a piece of advice or warning
Example : The old man sounded a note of caution, warning them not to play near the train tracks.

 

 

interact
Form : verb
Meaning : to communicate or be directly involved with someone/something
Example : Our new CEO is amazing – he finds time to interact with everyone in the office.

 

recap
Form : verb
Meaning : to repeat what has been said in a brief manner
Example : I’m so sorry for being late! Can you please recap on what you’ve discussed so far?

 

 

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