Teach Yourself Examglish: how to self-study for the IELTS or TOEFL

Here’s the situation: you’ve booked your exam, it’s several months/ weeks/ days away, and now you’ve got to get ready for it. You’ve looked up exam-preparation courses in your area, and tried searching online, but you really don’t want to pay that much for a standardised course with a stressed-out teacher and 12 other students.

And you start to wonder if you could prepare for the exam by yourself: could you learn, practice, and ultimately pass the exam, paying only for the coffee you drink as you go?

It’s possible! If you’re a self-sufficient language learner, with the ability to set realistic goals and fairly good research skills, and if your English level is intermediate or above, why not study by yourself, even if you’re planning on getting a few lessons later on?

There are obvious ways to maximise your chances of success. For instance, you should read newspapers and listen to podcasts in English, talk with native speakers or other learners, study grammar and sift through all the free resources online. I’m going to assume you know about these things already.

Instead, I’ve made a list of ten important steps that aren’t always apparent to students, and these are the ones I’d like to share with you now.

  1. Get the book
  2. Know the format
  3. Understand the difference between language learning and exam practice
  4. Schedule your exam practice
  5. Read the rubrics
  6. Get familiar with coherence and cohesion
  7. Train yourself to ‘notice’
  8. Use tech tools
  9. Improve what you can easily improve
  10. If you get help, make sure it’s personalised

1. Get the book

Although it isn’t cheap, I would definitely recommend getting a copy of the ‘official’ exam guide. This is the book written by the same organisation that writes the exam: Cambridge English for the IELTS and ETS for the TOEFL. Both books contain training activities to help you prepare, as well as complete tests.

This is the official IELTS book, with DVD and access to the Cambridge IELTS app.

Here’s the TOEFL book, also including downloadable test resources.

If the cost is too much, it’s a good idea to check second-hand bookstores near you (or ethical online bookshops). Or ask friends and colleagues: if you know people who have passed the exam, there’s a good chance that one of them has the book.

Try to find the most recent edition of the book, because the exams have changed over time.

I want to mention one other thing. There are a lot of alternative IELTS and TOEFL books out there, both by the exam organisations and by other publishers: you can find books of practice tests, grammar books, vocabulary books, writing guides and enough others to fill a room. Don’t feel you need to get any of these. If you can work your way through everything in the official guide then you will be ready for the exam.

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2. Know the format

When I teach students for the IELTS and TOEFL, one of the first things I’ll ask is “What do you know about the format of the exam?”. Usually, it turns out that students don’t really know what they’ll be doing on exam day, so studying the exam website becomes their first piece of homework!

And it is important to know the practicalities! For instance:

  • What are the components of the exam?
  • What order are these components in and how long are they?
  • What types of question will appear in each part of the test?
  • Are they multiple-choice or do you have to write or type whole words?
  • Do you have to do all of the questions or can you choose?
  • How many times will you hear each recording in the listening test?
  • What happens in the speaking test?

You can find answers to all of these, and many more useful bits of information, on the IELTS or TOEFL websites.

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3. Understand the difference between language learning and exam practice

There are two ways to study for a language exam, and ideally you should be doing both.

The first way is to take one particular skill (e.g. finding information in a text) or language area (e.g. phrases for linking ideas in writing), research how to do it well, and practise it intensively. This is the way to get your English to the level that you need for a good grade in the exam.

The second way is to do a practice test or a series of exam questions, so that you can develop strategies to handle each of the question types you’ll meet in the exam. Exam practice can also show you which skills you’re lacking and how much progress you’re making.

If you get the official exam book, you’ll find both of these methods are covered, with a mixture of language practice exercises and exam-type questions. There are also examples of past exams.

Otherwise, it’s up to you to find resources of both types, online or in other books.

In general, it’s a wise idea to spend more time on language learning earlier in your preparation, and to shift your focus towards exam questions as you get closer to the exam itself.

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4. Schedule your exam practice

In addition to individual exam-style questions (which are plentiful, in the books and online), there are a limited number of complete practice tests available. It’s a good idea to try one of these tests early in your exam preparation, but it’s also important to leave one or two tests for the week before the exam, so think about how you’re going to space them out through the time you’ve got available.

The ‘Official IELTS guide’ contains eight practice tests, while the equivalent TOEFL guide has just four. In addition, the IELTS and TOEFL websites have one example each. You can find some additional ones elsewhere on the web, but these mostly aren’t written by the examining organisations, and quality will vary.

Another piece of advice: plan for how you’re going to train yourself to answer the questions under time pressure, particularly for the reading and writing sections. I’d suggest doing the first practice exam without a time limit but writing down how long each part takes. For your second practice exam, set time limits, but don’t feel you have to use the same time limits as in the real exam. After that, reduce the timings gradually, until you’re able to do everything in the time allowed.

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5. Read the rubrics

A rubric is a description of the grades available in a writing or speaking test. This is how the examiner decides on your grade. The examining organisations for IELTS and TOEFL have published a version of their rubrics, and these are very valuable to you.

The IELTS rubrics show that you’re graded in four areas in speaking, and four areas in writing. These are worth a look, even if you’re doing the TOEFL.

In the speaking rubric, the four areas are:

  • Fluency and Coherence
  • Lexical Resource (This is what you or I would call vocabulary)
  • Grammatical Range and Accuracy
  • Pronunciation.

With the writing (both task 1 and task 2), the four areas are:

  • Task Achievement / Task Response
  • Coherence and Cohesion
  • Lexical Resource
  • Grammatical Range and Accuracy.

A lot of students worry about grammar mistakes, but you can see here that grammatical accuracy accounts for only around one eighth of your grade, both in speaking and writing. It’s at least as important to focus on things like fluency and intelligibility (being understood).

Grammatical range is about using different tenses / conditionals / sentence structures, so you get points for not just sticking to basic grammar. Similarly, with vocabulary, you get points for being interesting and taking some risks.

In the writing test, Task Achievement / Task Response is essentially asking “did you write the text you were asked to write?” You can get points just for following the instructions. Also, in the essay task (task 2), make sure your answer looks like an essay, with paragraphs, and make sure you state your opinion clearly. In task 1, if you’re asked to write a letter, you need to follow the usual format of a letter in English and make sure it’s clear and readable.

If you’re doing the TOEFL, you’ll find the speaking rubrics here. Compared with the IELTS, fluency and intelligibility are emphasised even more, and ‘language use’ covers both vocabulary and grammar. The writing rubrics are less clear than for the IELTS, but the areas you need to consider are pretty much the same.

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6. Get familiar with coherence and cohesion

You might have noticed that I ignored these two words when they appeared in the in part 5 of this article. That’s because they’re worth a whole section on their own!

Coherence is about making sense. In the writing test, if you keep to the topic and make sure your ideas are grouped into paragraphs, with no jumps in logic or unrelated ideas thrown in, you’ll have a coherent text. The same applies in the speaking test: try to speak in full sentences and keep to the point.

Cohesion is about the detail: it’s about how words and phrases combine to link ideas together. This involves a lot of different techniques that we all hear in conversations every day and read in books and newspapers: your challenge is to transfer these skills to English.

Not only will this help you in the writing test, but if you’re doing the TOEFL you’ll also need it in the reading: one of the question types is “Fit the sentence into the paragraph”, and this is essentially testing your understanding of cohesion (as well as coherence, to some extent).

I’d recommend finding out a lot more about cohesion techniques in English. I’ve made another post with some quick examples here, and linked to some other pages which go into more detail.

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7. Train yourself to ‘notice’

Cohesion is an example of an advanced language skill, or we could even say it’s a whole toolkit of advanced skills. As a teacher, I have a theory that English gets messier and more fragmented the higher you go. Up to intermediate level, there are big pieces of grammar such as tenses and conditionals, and learnable vocabulary lists of colours, foods and parts of the body.

Going up towards advanced level, you start to meet individual words that have their own grammar rules. For example, verbs for reporting speech all have their own grammar:

  • He suggested (that) we go.
  • He warned me not to go.
  • He refused to go.
  • He denied going.
  • He insisted on going.

Meanwhile, familiar words pop up with new meanings and grammar. For example, used to and get used to are quite different.

  • I used to work in a cheese factory.
  • I got used to the smell of cheese, but only after a few months!

Then there are different contexts for familiar vocabulary. If you’re familiar with managed to do meaning did successfully but with some difficulty, how about the sentence below?

  • When I came downstairs, I found that my cat had managed to be sick over the whole floor.

As you’re self-studying, you don’t have a teacher to guide you through all these little, diverse, complex, messy bits of advanced English, so it’s up to you! Remain curious and observant. When you’re reading (exam texts or any other texts), take some time to underline anything new or interesting. Any phrases or grammar structures you don’t understand, do some research in dictionaries or on websites, then try writing your own example sentences.

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8. Use tech tools

Without a teacher, you’re likely to need some outside help, especially with tracking your progress in speaking and writing. You might also want to connect with more advanced English users (or grammar experts) to ask a question or two.

Here are some tools and sites which may help:

a. Speaking tools

  • Your phone! Most phones have a voice recorder. If not, you can record yourself on Whatsapp or other messaging software.
  • Interactive phonemic charts (this example is in British English). For more detailed training, there are apps like Say It (with a 7-day free trial available). There are also Youtube channels with pronunciation tasks: Rachel’s English has plenty of good ones (in American English), and her “play it, say it” method is one you can easily use with any video.
  • Youtube or Spotify. Listen to a podcast or video by a fluent English speaker (any topic is fine!), write down some sentences from it, record yourself saying them, then compare your recording with the video. This will help with connected speech and probably with vocabulary as well.

b. Writing tools

  • Write and Improve is a tool developed by Cambridge University. It uses artificial intelligence to check your writing. It’s not (yet) perfect, but it can certainly help to point out your most obvious mistakes or weaknesses, and is very much suited to IELTS practice.
  • Some advanced students also use Grammarly, a popular grammar-checking tool. The downside is that it tends to over-correct and can change the meaning of the sentence. However, if you use it carefully, it can help to identify synonyms and introduce you to more advanced vocabulary.

c. Finding answers to grammar or vocabulary questions

  • Hi-Native is a site and app where you can ask language-related questions to native speakers. Crowdsourced information is not always correct, but it can point you in the right direction.
  • Try Facebook too: the C2 Proficiency group is welcoming and well used, and you’ll find plenty of teachers there.
  • Merriam-Webster operates an excellent online dictionary of American English, with example sentences for each word. For British English, there’s Cambridge.
  • Dictionaries tell you about the possible contexts for a word or phrase, but to find out the most common usage in everyday English, try using the Corpus: this is a massive database of written and spoken English. It has about the most annoying interface of any website anywhere, but once you’re in, it’s a powerful search tool for phrases and idioms.

d. Alternative or additional exam practice

Finally, in case you finish the official IELTS/ TOEFL book and still want more, here are some websites offering additional practice questions.

  • IELTS Liz: questions and advice for each part of the exam.
  • IELTS Speaking: vocabulary and practice activities for the speaking only.
  • Exam English: free TOEFL style test activities.
  • Magoosh: one free TOEFL practice exam.

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9. Improve what you can easily improve

When I ask exam students what they would like to prioritise in our lessons, they’ll often say something like “Speaking (or writing) is my weakest area, so I’d like to work on that”. In a general English course, it’s a very good idea to focus on improving your weakest skills. But if your intention is to get the highest possible result in the exam, this actually might not be such a good idea, and there could be a more effective way to spend your study time.

The key is to spend the most time on the skills or areas that you’re most capable of improving. These won’t necessarily be the same as your weakest areas.

For example, if you’re a really fluent talker and don’t make a lot of errors in speaking, that’s great! Now, can you fit your answers into 1-2 minutes as required in the exam? If not, you can practise refining your answers so they’re shorter. As you’re already good at speaking, this shouldn’t be too hard.

If you’re a nervous speaker and find difficulty in expressing what you want to say, you can still improve, but it will take time and effort before you see a big change.

Suppose you can write fluently, but your essays come out a little bit disorganised and you realise some of your vocabulary is too informal? You can easily train yourself out of these bad habits. Conversely, if you’re really struggling with the writing test, you might find more immediate success in focusing on the other sections of the exam.

Don’t misunderstand me here: working hard towards long-term improvements in your least successful skills is a good idea, in general. But when your exam date is getting closer, you’re allowed a little bit of short-term strategic thinking!

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10. If you get help, make sure it’s personalised

What happens if you follow points 1-9 and still feel like you’re not making as much progress as you should?

It’s possible that you’ll be tempted to sign up for an exam preparation course. This is especially likely if you’re online a lot: there are many options out there, and the adverts are everywhere. You can find one-off webinars via Zoom, subscription services where you pay monthly, and an increasing number of ‘asynchronous’ courses where you never actually meet the teacher but just listen to videos and do practice exercises.

I’m going to conclude with this piece of advice: if you decide you need to pay for help to prepare for the exam, don’t pay for a webinar. Don’t pay for a course. Pay for a teacher and if possible, make sure to get a one-on-one lesson with a qualified and experienced teacher.

That way, you get personal help with the skills you need. For instance, you can:

  • Spend all the lesson time practising your writing or speaking and getting immediate feedback.
  • Bring a reading activity to class because you found it difficult, and get training on the exact strategies you need to answer that type of question.
  • Arrive with a list of questions about vocabulary or grammar and get answers to all of them (and web-links and references for further practice of this vocabulary or grammar).

I offer a 3-hour Exam Workout, which is completely personalised and designed to help students who want to learn mostly through self-study. If 3 hours is too long, here’s my menu of Full English Lessons, also personalised and suitable for IELTS or TOEFL students.

Thank you for reading, and good luck with your exam preparation!

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Top photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels.

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