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A look at IELTS:  The high-stakes exam for study, migration and work

Interview with Adrian Judele

Below is an interview with Adrian Judele, Head of Examination Services for the British Council Switzerland. Adrian is an international relations graduate, passionate about languages and cultures. Life and career have taken him from software services to recruitment and education, from Eastern Europe to the Middle East then back to Europe. For the last six years Adrian has been heading the British Council exams activity in Switzerland.

This interview was conducted on the 6th June 2016 with the aim of giving readers a greater awareness of what IELTS (International English Language Testing System) is and why, given the increasing popularity of the test, their students may want to study it.

Gemma Lunn

Can you give us a brief overview of why people take the IELTS test?

IELTS is the high-stakes exam for study, migration, or work that we deliver as part of our cultural relations remit for the UK. In Switzerland it is taken:

  • by high-school leavers, to have an external assessment of their level of Academic English. Many prestigious private and public (cantonal) schools have either included IELTS in their curricula or actively encourage their students to sit the exam.
  • to get into an undergraduate or postgraduate programme, taught in English, in Switzerland, UK, USA, Australia, or elsewhere
  • by people looking for (better) employment, in Switzerland or abroad, where having an IELTS diploma on their CV is a strong plus
  • for emigration to the UK, Ireland, USA, Canada, Australia
  • by individuals who have studied English from a variety of sources and wish to have their knowledge formally assessed.

Last but not least, candidates take IELTS because of its open scale (1 to 9, where 9 is the level of an educated native speaker). You don’t fail it; everyone gets the score they deserve. The better you show your knowledge on the day, the higher your band score.

Have you seen an increase in the number of people taking IELTS in Switzerland over the past few years?

Yes, we have. We are pretty happy that, in a very competitive market like Switzerland, more and more candidates appreciate what we have to offer: the convenience and the reliability of an internationally recognised diploma that leads to numerous opportunities worldwide (more than 9000 institutions – universities, companies, immigration authorities – of which about 3500 in the USA). We have had sustained double digit growth over the past several years.

If a teacher is interested in becoming an IELTS Examiner what is the best way to go about this? And what are the minimum requirements needed to become an Examiner?

Training to be an IELTS examiner is seen by our colleagues as a great addition to their teaching skills. But I need to state this clearly: the IELTS examiners are not allowed to use their confidential knowledge when preparing students for IELTS and are not allowed to promote themselves as such, in order to convince students to come to them for preparation. It is also best practice not to give an estimation of a band score to a student, but rather focus on the positives and the negatives of a student’s performance.

The minimum professional requirements to be met by the examiner applicants are (considered cumulatively):

  1. An undergraduate or Master’s degree (in any field), or qualifications that can be demonstrated to be equivalent to an undergraduate degree (minimum of three years’ full time academic study)
  2. A TEFL/TESOL qualification from a recognised institution, at minimum certificate level OR EFL/ESOL-related studies completed as part of an undergraduate or post-graduate award course from a recognised institution, OR a degree in Education (if supported by an undergraduate degree which includes studies focused on English language)
  3. A minimum of three years’ full-time EFL teaching experience (14 hours face-to-face per week teaching to adults; freelance and volunteer teaching is not included).

There is also a requirement for professional attributes and interpersonal skills which are evaluated through questions on the application form and by checking references.

What does the British Council do to ensure the validity and reliability of IELTS tests?

The IELTS test content is developed by Cambridge English to provide a fair, accurate, and reliable assessment of English language proficiency. The IELTS test development process ensures test consistency and fairness for all candidates regardless of their cultural background or where the test is taken. Each IELTS test contains a unique combination of questions. Every test is carefully constructed to ensure a consistent level of difficulty. This involves pre-testing (or trialling) each question on a culturally diverse range of language students to determine its suitability and fairness. Statistical analysis is then undertaken to ensure every question performs as designed.

Part of the reliability of IELTS are the strict security measures – candidates can only register if they have a valid passport (or in the case of Swiss, EU, EFTA citizens – an ID card), which they have to present on the exam day. The photo of the candidate is taken and will be printed on the test report form. Impersonation situations are rare in Europe. We had a couple in Switzerland over the last five years because of the high stakes of this exam. We heard that there are candidates out there willing to pay EUR 5,000 or more to someone to sit the exam in their place. Our exam staff are all trained in identification verification, to prevent any irregularities.

I should mention that one unique attribute of IELTS is the one-to-one assessment of speaking. The skills of each candidate are assessed independently. There is a system in place to make sure all candidates are assessed in an objective way, regardless of which examiner does this.

All the IELTS examiners are selected, trained, certified, and monitored following the same standards and have to retrain and re-certify every two years.

Also, examiners follow the same criteria when marking writing papers or when interviewing for speaking, and all candidates are evaluated in terms of those criteria, not compared to each other or to the examiner’s subjective criteria.

Finally, the interviews are recorded and the examiner’s activity is regularly monitored to ensure they meet the standards.

How much and what type of research do the British Council, in general, do on IELTS test?

The ongoing development, improvement, and validation of the IELTS test is supported by research encompassing applied linguistics, language pedagogy, and language assessment. You can read many reports and studies here: https://www.ielts.org/teaching-and-research/research-reports

Your readers might find it interesting to know that IELTS partners offer a range of grants, fellowships, and awards in the fields of linguistics and language education. Applications for research grants are open from April to June each year. See more on the same page www.ielts.org/teaching-and-research/research-reports

Can you share any insider tips to help teachers of IELTS?

The best way for students to get a good mark in IELTS is for them to improve their English proficiency, so in that respect, you are already an expert in IELTS preparation! You will also need to familiarise yourself with the different question types in the different parts of the exam so you can help your students to do the same. Try taking a practice IELTS test yourself – there’s no better way to understand what your students will need to know.

Teaching IELTS is very ‘user-friendly’. It can be either done in special classes, focusing on IELTS exam techniques, or it can be included in the regular English lessons. It can be done intensively, in one-two weeks (focusing on exam techniques), or it can be done throughout the academic year (so that the students can learn the exam techniques and improve their level of English in the same time).

Teachers teaching IELTS love it because they can be creative in the classroom and they can actually teach English and just embed exam techniques into their lessons. IELTS preparation is not about learning structures or lists of words by heart (and fearing you would not make it if you don’t remember a precise word…), it is about developing the skills for the real life use of English.

I would suggest visiting the website http://takeielts.britishcouncil.org/. There are a lot of resources and advice for candidates which one can use in the classroom. There is also a link FOR TEACHERS to a dedicated section with plenty of tips, advice from other teachers, lesson plans, and videos. There are other IELTS resources on https://www.britishcouncil.org/teach-english, the website many teachers already know and use intensively. You can browse the Teach English website for recordings of seminars delivered by Sam McCarter (author of IELTS and EAP/ESP books) and other specialists.

Some tips: first and foremost, teach your students to READ THE INSTRUCTIONS CAREFULLY! In order to answer the questions, they need to understand what is required. So many times we’ve seen candidates who give wrong answers because they did not read the question carefully.

Another aspect is – candidates must be courageous and must take risks. In reading and listening, even if they are unsure, they must write an answer – they will not lose marks if it is wrong. In speaking and writing candidates who use more difficult grammatical structures or words, even if they are not 100% correct, will be awarded higher marks than someone who plays it safe. And I believe this is an important difference to other exams – the examiner is not there to ‘chase’ mistakes but to look for and award positives.

Before starting to teach, familiarise yourself with the IELTS assessment criteria, which give a detailed summary of what students need to do to achieve particular band scores in each skill (you can find them on the above-mentioned website).

You can download the brochure Guide for Teachers from www.ielts.org/teaching-and-research/ielts-for-teachers or email me.

What other services does the British Council in Switzerland offer?

Our presence in Switzerland is mostly about English and exams. This year we are focusing on Shakespeare, having been involved in events organised throughout Switzerland to mark the 400 years since his death. British Council supported the Globe Theatre with their world tour (with representations in Liechtenstein and Geneva). We are also involved in supporting Manifesta11 (The European biennial of contemporary art, 11 June – 18 September 2016, Zürich) and Zürich Shakespeare Festival – University of Zürich (www.zsf2016.com).
 
We are also promoting a new teacher training course, aimed at teachers who need to teach their subject in English. The Academic Teaching Excellence course has been developed with Oxford University to answer the need of a growing number of universities and other places of higher education that teach courses through the medium of English to multi-lingual classes. Though lecturers are excellent subject teachers, they are not trained to make the most of this new situation, and that’s where we help, through this course. The course helps lecturers design and deliver their lectures in English and meet the special linguistic requirements of their students.

Finally, what are the main aims for IELTS in Switzerland over the next few years?

We will focus on delivering our special services to schools – they can choose dedicated dates for their students to sit IELTS, in line with their academic timetable. We organise the exam on their premises, for the convenience and to the benefit of their students. We are already working with many public and private institutions, but want to expand these services further.

In terms of geographical coverage, we are now present in Bern, Geneva, Zürich, Lausanne, Basel, St. Gallen, and Lugano. Every Saturday IELTS takes place somewhere in Switzerland. Our aim for the next years is to increase the number of sessions offered in each location and to start offering IELTS sessions in new towns.

If anyone has any further questions about teaching, taking or examining for IELTS Adrian can be contacted at the following address: adrian.judele@britishcouncil.ch

Thanks for sharing these insights with us Adrian!

Gemma Lunn