Using Current Affairs to Develop IELTS Vocabulary (Part 1)

Improving your English does not always have to involve attending classes or completing language exercises. One of the positives to come out of the Covid-19 outbreak is the realisation that there are opportunities aplenty around to improve your language skills; you just need to look hard enough. In this blog series, we will look at an unconventional way to improve your IELTS vocabulary – taking an interest in current affairs.

Why build your IELTS vocabulary

The answer is fairly simple! In two sections of IELTS, Writing and Speaking, vocabulary (Lexical Resource) accounts for 25 percent of the final band score. Now, a widely held belief is that it is easier to get a band 7 on vocabulary than on grammar. Anyone who has tried to fix bad grammar will vouch for the fact that it is an arduous task that could take forever. Naturally, forming the ability to use a reasonably broad range of words, phrases, and collocations related to specific topics may seem to be a comparatively easier route to improving your band scores. Additionally, a wider vocabulary will most certainly help your comprehension along in the Listening and Reading sections too.

Why use current affairs

Current affairs stories typically feature common IELTS topics, such as the environment, consumer behaviour, health, culture, education and social issues. Such reports tend to be rich in topical vocabulary; all you need to do is put enough work into learning some of them. You can then reap the rewards on test day. This is because topical vocabulary generally helps you steam ahead in Writing Task 2 or Speaking Part 3.

News reports are also a great source of functional language – for instance, language used to agree or disagree, to state your opinion, to speculate about the future, to sequence your ideas, or to describe problems and their solutions. The more you see or hear such kind of language, the easier it will get for you to reproduce it.

Finally, news reports come in different formats – print, audio, video – which means that you get to choose whatever appeals to you best. You can alternate between formats too, making sure that monotony never sets in.

In the next part, we will see how current affairs can be used to boost your IELTS vocabulary.

Fun Ways to Learn English: Using Subtitles (Part 3)

In this final part, we’d like to tell you a bit more about how subtitled content can be good news for your English.  

7. Learning topical vocabulary

We’ve already established that subtitled content is generally rich in phrasal verbs and colloquialism. What is also true is that it can be a shortcut to discovering topical vocabulary. In other words, if you wish to learn new words and phrases related to a particular subject, all you have to do is find a movie or programme on it. For instance, it’s hard to think of a better way to improve your legal English than by watching a law-related TV show.  As well as entertaining you, it will also introduce you to the specialised variety of English used by lawyers and seen in legal documents.  

8. Understanding appropriacy

In any language, mastery of grammar and vocabulary alone cannot fully equip you to communicate effectively. Having a limited understanding of cultural or situational contexts will most certainly lead to communication breakdown, with the possibility of offending others. If you fail to use the style of communication that a context demands, the outcome could be something undesirable. This is where subtitled movies and videos come handy – they can teach you when to use formal and casual language, and when not to. 

9. Controlling your learning experience

Perhaps the greatest benefit of using subtitled content is the degree of flexibility it allows the learner. For a start, since you are free to choose your own “learning materials”, there’s no question of you losing interest midway. If action is your thing, you could watch thrillers; if you are a romantic at heart, there are scores of romcoms to choose from. Another good thing is that you can pause or replay sections to your heart’s content. This gives you a rather unique advantage: you get to review the language components in subtitles at leisure, allowing you to learn at your own pace.

To sum up, if learning English the conventional way leaves you bored silly, subtitled content could help break the monotony. Do give it a shot if you haven’t done so yet.

Fun Ways to Learn English: Using Subtitles (Part 2)

In the previous part, we began discussing some benefits of taking an unconventional approach to language learning – watching English movies or programmes with English subtitles on.

Here are some more reasons why this method can be both entertaining and productive.  

4. Building vocabulary

If there’s one thing that almost all English learners wish to have, it is a wide vocabulary. And one of the best sources of conversational phrases and idiomatic language is films and programmes made in English. While watching them, you are likely to come across tons of phrasal verbs, phrases and colloquialisms of the street that native English speakers commonly use in everyday conversations. The added advantage here is that you get to experience vocabulary in context, so you’d have a fair idea of how to use the lexical items you learn.

5. Bettering pronunciation

English pronunciation could be a nightmare, especially if your first language is syllable-timed and the idea of word stress is something you’re new to. Listening to words pronounced the right way is the easiest way to improve your diction, which is what you get to do when you watch something in English with subtitles on. When you see as well as hear words, you tend to learn pronunciation a lot faster. What’s more, you also get to watch the mouth of the speaker move, helping you produce difficult sounds that are perhaps absent in your first language. Subtitled content is also an excellent source of various intonation patterns in English.

6. Improving word recognition and grammar

Quite often films and TV programmes use less formal English that is common among native speakers. Exposure to such content is a great way for a learner to get introduced to chunks that form a key part of a native speaker’s spoken language. These can be lexical chunks like fixed collocations (e.g. crying shame) or grammatical chunks (e.g. If I were you, I’d + bare infinitive). On seeing and hearing the same chunks repeatedly, your brain begins to gradually recognise patterns and process language in real time.

Watching a favourite movie of yours again is a good idea – since you already know the plot well, it allows you to focus on subtitles. We aren’t done yet, so do read the final part in this segment.

Fun Ways to Learn English: Using Subtitles (Part 1)

Learning a new language, whether it be English or any other, doesn’t have to be drab and stressful, at least not in this day and age. Thanks to modern technology, there are now many ways to make the whole experience engaging.

In this segment of the series on ‘Fun Ways to Learn English’, we’ll see how watching a movie, documentary, or web series, in English with English subtitles on can be an enjoyable way of improving your language. Here’s why you should consider the idea.

1. Improving listening comprehension

If you’re someone from a non-English speaking background, understanding native English speakers can be tricky. Movies and programmes in English with a subtitles feature are an entertaining way to work on your listening skills. Unlike audio materials produced for language learners, conversations in movies are done the exact same way they happen in real life – fast and without long pauses. So, use subtitled content to better your listening skills: watch a scene first without subtitles, and then watch it again with subtitles on to check comprehension.   

2. Increasing reading speed

When you watch something in English that is subtitled, you are relentlessly trying to connect the English you hear to the English you read on screen. Subtitles typically flash by, allowing the viewer very little reading time. That said, some practice should make it easier to keep pace with the text. Little by little your brain learns to adapt to the task, that is speed reading, and you get quicker at deciphering information.   

3. Learning to speak naturally

If you live in a non-English speaking country, it might not always be easy to keep your English up-to-date. Occasionally, your English can sound a bit unnatural. Watching movies and programmes in English exposes you to the kind of natural language used in everyday situations by native English speakers. If you keep doing this over a period of time, it will help you avoid unnatural sounding language.    

If you’ve never tried learning with the help of subtitles, it may be best to start with short, subtitled videos; you wouldn’t feel too overwhelmed. We’ll be back soon with more on this topic.

IELTS Test Day Advice: Writing (Part 1)

There are 2 tasks to complete in the Writing section of IELTS. Task 1 can be report writing (Academic) or letter writing (General Training), whereas Task 2 is an essay writing exercise.

Here are some handy tips to help you get a good Writing band score.

1. Choose your stationery wisely

Answers in IELTS Writing can be written in pen or pencil, so doing some writing practice under timed conditions before test day is highly recommended. Among other things, it can also help you decide what you’d be more comfortable using on test day – pen or pencil. Should you discover that a pencil slows you down, practise with pen.  

2. Avoid memorised answers

Writing answers are assessed by qualified individuals with relevant teaching experience. All of them have to undergo intensive training before they can get certified as IELTS examiners. One of the things they learn during the time is to spot memorised or plagiarised responses. Of course, such ‘model answers’ invite a severe penalty, lowering the overall writing score of the test taker. So, don’t bother mugging up answers to popular topics!

3. Remember the weighting of tasks

Although each task is assessed independently, it is worth remembering that Task 2 contributes twice as much as Task 1 to your overall Writing band score. Put simply, it means that if you write a decent Task 1 answer and a very good Task 2 response, you should still get a good Writing band score. Sometimes test takers spend so much time on Task 1 that they aren’t left with enough time to do a good job of Task 2. And as you might imagine, the result is usually disappointing.

4. Analyse questions thoroughly

Answering without trying to fully understand the question should be a definite no-no in any exam. However, when panic sets in, common sense flies out the window. Off-topic answers are all too common in IELTS Writing, and they get penalised for irrelevance. Whether it is Task 1 or 2, never be in a mad rush to begin your response. First, read the question over and again, underline key words, and then identify what the question requires you to do.

We’ll be back soon with more IELTS Writing test advice. Meanwhile you can check other test tips we shared before.

Using Capital Letters (Part 2)

In an earlier blog post, we looked at some situations when it is essential to use capital letters – at the beginning of a sentence; when writing the names of people, institutions, companies, and brands; when referring to cities, countries, nationalities, religions, and languages; and when using the personal pronoun ‘I’.

Here are some more rules to help you capitalise words appropriately.

Rule 5: Capitalise days, months, holidays

The names of the seven different days of the week, twelve months of the year, and holidays are all proper nouns. Do make it a point to begin with a capital letter when you write them. However, the names of seasons (e.g. winter, summer) do not fall into the same category, so they shouldn’t be capitalised unless they appear in a title.

Examples

Can we meet early next week, say Monday or Tuesday?

Both my sons were born in the month of May.

Where did you spend Christmas last year?

Haley and Tom got married on Valentine’s Day.

Rule 6: Capitalise key words in the title of a book, movie, poem, etc.

As far as capitalising words in a title is concerned, be it books, movies, poems, or other works, much depends on what style guide you choose to follow. Generally speaking, all content words get capitalised. This means that nouns, main verbs, adjectives, adverbs, etc. need capital letters at the beginning. By comparison, smaller words, such as articles and prepositions, tend to be in lower case, unless they appear as the first or last word in the title.

Examples

Alice in Wonderland’ is a fascinating tale.

The Lord of the Rings’ is a series of epic fantasy films.

Have you read ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ by Charles Dickens?

Rule 7: Capitalise the first word of a quote

When quoting someone, or quoting from a literary work, always capitalise the first word if the quotation forms a complete sentence. On the other hand, if the quote is just a phrase, it doesn’t need to be capitalised. 

Let’s compare:

Cindy said, “My husband is far from loving.”

Cindy said that her husband was “far from loving”. (No capitalisation required, as the quote is a phrase) There’s more to follow, so watch this space if you’d like to learn more about capitalising words.

Using Capital Letters (Part 1)

Capitalisation, the appropriate use of capital letters, is an area of punctuation that many learners pay little attention to. One reason might be that this topic can look deceptively simple at first glance. However, on exploring further, you very quickly realise that there’s quite a bit to learn. What also becomes evident is that like most grammar points, rules related to the use of capital letters aren’t always cut and dried.

Here are some handy tips to help you decide when to use capitalisation.

Rule 1: Capitalise the first word of a sentence

This one is as straightforward as grammar rules come because there’s hardly any complication here. Every time you begin a new sentence, start the first word with a capital letter.  

Examples

Hello there! How have you been?

You cannot go in there without permission.

Rule 2: Capitalise names of people, institutions, companies, brands

It goes without saying that people’s names are always capitalised. Similarly, the names of institutions, companies, and brands generally begin with a capital letter. Remember, if the name has more than one word, all important words in the name have their initial letter capitalised. 

Examples

Alan and Mathew are coming over this evening.

He works for the National Health Service.

United Airlines is a major player in the aviation sector that operates domestic and international flights.

Most people consider Sony to be the pioneers of portable music.

Rule 3: Capitalise cities, countries, nationalities, religions, languages

The names of cities, countries, nationalities, religions, and languages are proper nouns, so they should be capitalised. In the case of religion, the names of various deities are also capitalised.

Examples

Prague is a breathtakingly beautiful city.

He is from the United Arab Emirates.

Her father is Irish, whereas her mother is Scottish.

He’s had a Christian upbringing.

He speaks English, Spanish, Italian, and German.

Shiva is an ancient Hindu deity.

Rule 4: Capitalise the personal pronoun ‘I’

Unlike other personal pronouns (e.g. we, you, she, it), the personal pronoun ‘I’ is always written as a capital letter, no matter where it appears in a sentence.

Examples

I don’t know about the others, but I don’t want to go back to that restaurant.

James and I were the only ones to score goals yesterday.

We’ll be back soon with more on the use of capital letters. 

Understanding the IELTS Writing Section

Writing is arguably the most difficult language skill to master. Contrary to popular belief, skilful use of grammar and vocabulary alone wouldn’t necessarily make a person a good writer. This is because good thinking which follows a logical path and which is easy to understand lies at the very heart of good writing.

Read on to understand what to expect in the Writing section of IELTS.

Tasks

Task 1 (Academic)

Test takers are given information ‒ usually in the form of a graph, table, chart, or diagram ‒ and asked to describe it in their own words, writing at least 150 words. This could involve describing and explaining data, describing the stages of a process, describing how something works, or describing an object or event.

Task 1 (General Training)

Test takers are presented with a situation that people commonly encounter in their everyday life. They are then asked to write a letter of at least 150 words requesting information or explaining the situation. As far as the style of writing is concerned, the letter could be personal, semi-formal/neutral, or formal.

Task 2

In both Academic and General Training, test takers are asked to write an essay in response to a point of view, argument, or problem. Essay topics in Academic Writing are suitable for individuals entering undergraduate / postgraduate studies or seeking professional registration in an English-speaking country, whereas topics in General Training Writing tend to be of general interest and less complex.

Duration

Overall, test takers receive 1 hour to finish writing both tasks. Although the recommendation is to spend 20 and 40 minutes on Task 1 and Task 2 respectively, it is up to you to decide how to divide the time. Remember, Task 2 contributes twice as much to the final Writing score as Task 1, so you may need to spend adequate time on it.

Skills tested

Broadly speaking, the test is designed in such a way that a range of skills gets assessed. These include the test taker’s ability to produce a response that is appropriate, organise ideas skilfully, and use a wide range of vocabulary and grammatical structures with accuracy.

Marking

Writing answers are evaluated by certificated IELTS examiners using the IELTS Writing test assessment criteria: Task Achievement (Task 1) / Task Response (Task 2), Coherence and Cohesion, Lexical Resource, Grammatical Range and Accuracy. Scores are reported in whole and half bands.

Remember, a common mistake that test takers make is not finding out enough about the Writing section format before the exam; do familiarise yourself with the task types so that you can fulfil all task requirements.

Improving Intonation (Part 2)

In a previous post, we spoke of why it’s useful to better your ability to use various intonation patterns while speaking. We also looked at two common types of intonation, falling and rising.

In this post, we’ll first consider some more intonation types and then give you tips on how to improve your intonation.

Types of intonation

3. Rise-fall intonation
In this type, you raise the pitch of your voice and then drop it. This pattern is often found in:

  • alternative questions
    E.g. Would you like tea or coffee?
  • lists (pattern in the example – rise, rise, rise, fall)
    E.g. We’d need milk, sugar, flour, and eggs.
  • conditional sentences
    E.g. If you seeDanny, please ask him to call ➘ Rebecca.

4. Fall-rise intonation
In this type, you drop the pitch of your voice and then raise it. This pattern is commonly used to suggest that something is uncertain or incomplete. Have a look at these examples:

I don’t like drinking tea in the morning.

(perhaps hinting that the speaker enjoys drinking tea at other times of the day)

The first half was exciting.

(perhaps hinting that the second half was boring)

Do you think this is allowed here?

(perhaps hinting that the speaker is not sure if something is permissible)

I can’t afford a car at the moment.

(perhaps hinting that the speaker may be able to buy one in the future)

Ways to improve intonation

Here are some tips to help improve your ability to use various intonation patterns.

  • Listen carefully to short recordings of native speakers of English, paying particular attention to the way their voices rise and fall. Then, imitate their intonation by just humming along, without saying the actual words. Remember to focus on the melody, not the words.
  • Record yourself saying a sentence with absolutely no intonation, just like how a robot would do. Later, repeat the same sentence by using stress and intonation. Listen to both versions to know the difference that intonation can make.
  • Record yourself saying any common word over and over again, changing your attitude each time. For example, repeat the word ‘coffee’, giving it different meaning each time to indicate different emotions, such as enthusiasm, displeasure, surprise, and relief.

Remember, it’s difficult to listen to our own pitch, so working with audio materials is the way forward for improving your intonation.

Improving Intonation (Part 1)

A key pronunciation feature that helps you convey your thoughts and feelings with precision is intonation. In its simplest sense, intonation can be described as the melody of spoken language, i.e. the rise and fall in your voice when you speak. The focus here is on how we say things, not what we say.

It goes without saying that the concept of intonation is common to all languages; yet not many pay attention to this area while they speak, as they are so caught up in choosing the right words to express what they want to say. What they don’t realise is that intonation can be as important as word choice if not more.   

Why improve intonation

Here are a few good reasons why it is worthwhile to work on your intonation:

  • Bettering your understanding of intonation helps you become a skilled communicator.
  • Failing to use intonation could mean that listeners may soon lose interest in what you’re saying and switch off.
  • Getting your intonation patterns wrong might give rise to misunderstandings, with listeners even taking offence.
  • Not having enough awareness of intonation can impair your listening comprehension too, as you’re likely to misinterpret what others say.

Types of intonation

Here are some common intonation patterns found in English speech.  

  1. Falling intonation
    In this type, you drop the pitch of your voice at the end of the sentence. This pattern is usually found in:
  • statements
    E.g. I’m going for a stroll on the beach.
  • commands
    E.g. Get your hands off my coat!
  • wh-questions that seek information
    E.g. What’s your name?
  • question tags that invite agreement
    E.g. It was such a lousy film, wasn’t it?

2. Rising intonation
In this type, you raise the pitch of your voice at the end of the sentence. This pattern is generally found in:

  • yes/no questions
    E.g. Do you like my newdress?
  • question tags that seek an answer
    E.g. You haven’t had a fight with Tom,have you?

We’ll be back with more in the next part. Meanwhile, think about whether your pitch goes up and down when you speak in English.

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