The problems with - and solutions to - conventional IELTS training in China.

The International English Language Testing System, or IELTS as it is commonly known, is an almost ubiquitous acronym in the international ESL community. For many students, it is the last and most important English language exam they will ever take, the result of which can decide where they will go to university and in what program.

A “band score” of 7 (out of a possible 9) on the Academic Exam will suffice for almost any undergraduate program in Canada, the US, the UK, Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, and South Africa, but as this score can be difficult to obtain without proper knowledge of the exam techniques, many test-takers miss the mark by under preparing. This has lead, in many countries, to the creation of a huge market for training centres and materials promising to “crack the code”, and help students achieve the required minimum to get into their desired program, at their desired school, in their desired foreign country.

However, as with many exploding markets, a vast majority of what’s on offer is of extremely poor quality, created not to help the customer, but to meet the urgently growing demand. This is as evident in China as anywhere else, where many IELTS schools cram as many students as can fit into their classrooms, and bootlegged textbooks, often out of date and incorrect, are sold for a fraction of the cost of the official versions. The schools teach exam techniques to their students, but do not make sure their English is at a level where they can properly apply these techniques.

A vast majority of what’s on offer is of extremely poor quality, created not to help the customer, but to meet the urgently growing demand.

Exacerbating the problem is China’s attitude towards education itself. The ‘drill-and-kill’ method in this country has been widely publicized by foreign and domestic researchers; the focus on rote memorization in order to excel in academic settings like examinations (so effective for subjects such as math and sciences) is leaving students unequipped for subjects which require more lateral and critical thinking, such as languages. 

But if, in spite of all this, a student is prepared for and succeeds on the exam, what happens then? All too often, they make it to their dream school, only to find their lack of language and cultural education a daunting obstacle to making the most of their time abroad. These students report, in significant numbers (and disproportionate to their counterparts from other countries), feelings of disorientation, homesickness, and culture shock, and many say that they are overwhelmed by how far away from adequate their English level actually is, whatever their score on the IELTS may have been. They naturally retreat to the comforts of home, by living and hanging out with exclusively Chinese friends or family, eating Chinese food, watching Chinese movies, and watching their time in an English-speaking country pass them by without improving their language and social skills in any real way. Obviously, there are examples of Chinese students who manage to flourish academically and socially during their studies abroad; unfortunately, however, these are the exceptions to the general rule.

The only real solution to these problems is an ideological and methodological reformation, in which classes and materials are designed not only for the short-term objective of scoring well on the exam, but properly preparing students for their life after IELTS. Instead of Chinese teachers training their students to find the cracks in the system, native English-speaking teachers should be giving IELTS classes in an immersion environment, where the language is always being taught, and used, and examined, and discussed. Classes should be grouped by students’ academic aspirations, keeping the students' destinations and goals in mind, and kept to a reasonable size to give the students the attention they need. In this way, the examination is studied in conjunction with relevant language and culture training and positive feedback, encouraging conversation, debate and even mistakes as part of a growth-mindset learning process. The deeper purpose, and what will take the biggest shift in mentality to achieve, is to give the students the confidence to regard English not as a mysterious beast to be conquered by sweat and blood, but a beautiful music that can be learned, improvised upon and played with to create something special.

Surely, the point of learning English is to create something special; ideally, a better and brighter future for the student. The IELTS may be the last English language exam they will take, but it should be the beginning of a lifelong journey that will take them far beyond a dorm room in a university abroad.

i Global Times (2014). ‘Higher Learning.’

ii Shadbolt, Peter. ‘How China has fallen in love with private education.’ CNN (2014).

iii Bartlett, Tom, and Karin Fischer. ‘The China Conundrum: American colleges find the Chinese-student boom a tricky fit.’ The Chronicle of Higher Education (2011).

iv Slaten, Kevin. ‘How to Help Chinese Students.’ The Diplomat (2011). 

v Heggart, Keith. ‘Developing a Growth Mindset in Teachers and Staff.’ Edutopia (2015).