The IB Diploma and IELTs

How to avoid under-performance in IELTs

An increasing number of students in international schools, including those following IB Diploma courses are sitting the IELTS and similar examinations of language competence, but many under-perform. Chris Jay provides some useful guidance on how to avoid pitfalls and achieve success. 

Additional exams

There is no doubt that some students experiencing a very busy IB Diploma Programme find themselves stretched by preparation for additional examinations of language competency required for university admissions. One of these tests is the International English Language Testing System, otherwise known as IELTS.

The test is owned by the British Council, IDP Australia and Cambridge Language Assessment. More than two million candidates sit the exam each year, making it the world’s most popular test of English proficiency. This figure includes a substantial number of international school students.


Most IB Diploma students should be in an advantageous position as IELTS candidates, as they are often immersed in English teaching, learning and social environments.

However, misconceptions about the test and inappropriate preparation can lead to student under-performance and poor performance can result in the need to sit the examination again and again. Thus, time is wasted and the student is distracted from his or her IB Diploma studies.


IELTS is available in two test versions: Academic – for people applying for higher education or professional registration, and General Training for those migrating to Australia, Canada and the UK, or applying for secondary education, training programmes and work experience in an English-speaking environment.

Both versions provide a valid and accurate assessment of the four language skills: listening, reading, writing and speaking. (

Supporting students

The vast majority of international school students will take the academic test. In general, the biggest challenges presented are from the components testing the productive skills of Speaking and Writing. Here are some simple guidelines EAL/Language Acquisition teachers unfamiliar with the test could use to support their students:


  • Consider the test not so much as a show of comprehension but more a demonstration of ability
  • Use the excellent vocabulary (when appropriate) that you have developed while studying your IB subjects
  • Utilise adverbs for clarity and stress
  • Ask the examiner to repeat or reword a question if you are unsure (doing so demonstrates confidence)
  • Begin the test with shorter answers of a few sentences then in the final section use extended responses with examples and justifications


  • Take some time to develop familiarity with the command terms used in both Part 1 and 2 questions
  • As with any IB paper that requires a written text, planning/mind mapping is fine, just remember to put a line through it
  • Consider the time available and plan accordingly. One hour is likely to be less than you are generally allowed to complete two essays
  • Double check your word counts to avoid any unnecessary deductions in scores
  • Ensure you do not “lift” from the prompt and instead incorporate a range of synonyms

Prepare and practise

Impressing upon students the need to set aside some time to prepare and practise is important. At school and in class they find themselves in context rich environments, engaged in courses delivered by passionate teachers – so often accessing the right vocabulary and constructing dialogue or essays comes relatively easily. This may not be the case in a new test venue with an unfamiliar examiner. They need to practise in similar conditions.

Format familiarity

It is also good to urge students to do at least a few full practice tests beforehand to ensure they are familiar with the format. Many IELTS test-takers perform less well than they should because they make simple mistakes such as not devoting sufficient time to Part 2​ of the speaking test or not leaving themselves enough time to write a conclusion for Task 2 of the writing test. After a few trial runs with mock exams, students should find themselves more comfortable with the format and more aware of what they need to do in order to obtain a high score.

Online support

Finally, there is a wide range of IELTS information and support available online – some of this is sound and some may be less reliable. Encouraging students to investigate support websites and report back to the group is a valuable starting point. A good place to begin is


Chris Jay teaches at the Independent Schools Foundation (ISF) Academy, Hong Kong





Feature image: PublicDomainPictures – Pixabay

Other image: Yustinus Tjiuwanda – Unsplash