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Five commonly asked questions about preparing for an English test

Man sitting in a chair holding a book with other books in the air around him
We asked a former IELTS examiner about speaking accents, overcoming fear in an English test and ways to improve your writing.

Unsplash CC: Ahmad Ossayli

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English proficiency tests are often required for migration, work and study purposes. We asked a former IELTS examiner, Peter Crosthwaite, five commonly asked questions about taking English tests.

Does my accent matter?

Students often worry about having the 'right' accent for an English speaking test.

However, Peter says that this should not be a student's biggest concern.

"Many students spend time trying to perfect an American accent, but that's probably not the best investment of your time."

What if I don't understand the examiner in a speaking test?

With speaking tests, specifically, students are allowed to ask the examiners questions to clarify meaning.

Peter suggests a number of different questions that students could ask:

Firstly, "if the examiner gives you a question and you just didn't catch it, ... you can ask them to repeat the question."

Or, if there's a word you don't understand and it's a speaking test that does not have a fixed question (such as IELTS Speaking Part Three), "you could ask the examiner to rephrase the question — to put it more simply."

Another way is to "ask a question to the examiner in the form of 'do you mean?' Say, for example, if I asked you a question: 'Describe a problem with the education system in your country'. Then you might say, 'Do you mean I should summarise something that the government has mentioned recently?' Even if you don't understand the question, if you ask 'do you mean', you're still talking. You're showing the examiner that you're able to use language and ask questions."

Peter Crosthwaite
Peter Crosthwaite says that asking the examiner a question to clarify meaning is a way to demonstrate speaking skills.

ABC: Allison Chan

How can I overcome my fear of speaking?

Being prepared is one way to overcome your fear of taking a speaking test, argues Peter. He recommends familiarising yourself with the structure of the test and understanding the different topics that will be covered.
It's also important to "be aware of the marking criteria." If you find yourself struggling with particular skills, such as fluency and coherency, Peter suggests trying to develop other speaking skills. For example, "complex vocabulary, or grammatical structures, or working on your pronunciation."
Peter also offers additional advice from an examiner's perspective:

How can I learn new words quickly?

Whether it be collocations, idioms or phrasal verbs, Peter says that it's important for adult English learners to quickly recognise how words are used in context.

Peter recommends that students use a concordancer, which is a piece of software that searches electronic texts (such as the British National Corpus or Sketch Engine).

For example, if you were to search a concordancer with the word 'going', "it will allow you to isolate words that typically appear after 'going'. So you might get 'going to', 'going out', 'going for'. What you can do is then see what types of contexts those sentences are found in. [...] You're seeing how those words are used in context."

"After reading enough of them, it's basically a super fast way of making sure you're aware of which words go together and where they might commonly be found."

Man sitting on a bench reading a book, surrounded by long grass
Reading can improve your vocabulary and writing skills.

Unsplash CC: Ben White

What's the best way to improve my writing?

Reading, according to Peter, is essential for building writing skills.

Peter also suggests getting feedback on you writing from a teacher or a partner.

"It should be the kind of feedback where you can look at it and go, 'What did I do right? What did I do wrong?' and allow you to fix that by yourself."

Learn English Hacks is a Facebook Live series featuring Australian teachers where they discuss challenges learners face and how to overcome them. For more information, visit our Learn English Facebook page.