IELTS Testbuilder 1 2nd edition – a review by Samuel Jackson

ielts testbuilderJust as an introduction, I’m generally quite a fan of the Testbuilder books. I think they’re a great way for students to learn independently, precisely because of the further practice exercises. In fact, they pretty much always manage to say and do, both directly and in the structure of the exercises, exactly what I encourage/instruct/help my students to do in class, whether one-to-one or in groups. It’s probably also precisely for this reason, however, that I always only saw and used them as independent learning tools – i.e. rarely in class. I would send students away with the relevant Testbuilder book if they had a month or so gap between lessons and/or preferred learning by themselves and asked for a tip on how to do so. And I always did so with the confidence that they were in safe hands. However, I’m now warming to the idea of using these exercises to complement what I do in class.
A good example of a further practice exercise which goes step by step through exactly what I try to do is from the first one on p.15. It’s practising for section 4 (gap fill) of the listening paper by asking the student to predict what type of language is coming (adjective/noun/number etc) in each gap. When I first saw the list of the same questions again and again for each gap, I was a little turned off – until I realised that’s precisely what I get them to do too! (I must say it also asks them to look for/underline key words that predict when something is about to be said – something I’ve never specifically taught before in quite that way, but rather focussing more on reading the whole sentence. A nice trick!)
I like the way that, in general, the book is not afraid to repeat the same kind of tip again and again at the start of each further practice section, regardless of which paper we’re taking about (i.e. – Look carefully at the rubric…, Read through …, Skim the statements.., Skim the text… etc). The more times the students read this the more they may understand that it really makes a difference!
Excellent tips for the writing too. Interesting to see it explicitly stated that an overview is important for task 1, and that without one a high mark may not be possible. Again the simple tips of reading through carefully/fully understanding the question and so on just cannot be said too many times. Also the exercise at the top of p.92, which asks the student to group together the elements of the given diagram into the columns, is particularly useful. This is because I generally find it so important to get them to try grouping together information from diagrams or figures/data given in writing task 1 .. to focus on zooming out to the bigger picture, as well as providing appropriate detail – to avoid the classic mistake of a mechanical recounting of the whole thing.
P.124 has an exercise asking a series of key questions, which I view as a kind of checklist, some which the student answers before (checking understanding of the rubric/input material) and some after writing, as a means of really checking whether their writing is well-structured/answering the question. Excellent to go through such key elements as to what makes a good answer. It’s all very well me saying in class to the students beforehand what these key element are … it’s even all very well me giving direct feedback on their writing pieces as to what may have been done better – but to have them analyse their own text with such a good, clear, well thought out series of questions is invaluable. I can imagine using this in the classroom.
That brings me onto a general thing I find about these books – I’d recommend pointing out the value of following the instructions and exercises to the letter, even if they don’t fully know why at first (if you’re sending them away with the books as I have done). I’m actually quite a fan of cherry picking and a generally more free style of learning that than implies – but when it comes to the exercises in this book, I see that those points which I can normally emphasise and motivate the students into paying attention to in class are covered in a very systematic way. It’s a different way of working for me, but one which is done very well. Again I refer back to the confidence with which I can send my students away with these books, without feeling I’m compromising on thoroughness.
I particularly like the preparation for the speaking parts – so often such preparation for speaking can send the students off in funny directions and have them speaking kind of oddly. So I was pleasantly surprised with how they were approached in this book. For example the exercises on pp. 97-98, which go through a series of questions to help maximise the use of the 1 minute preparation time for part 2. Useful as something to give the students confidence to get speaking more quickly, and in a less hindered way, from the beginning. Which brings me on to one of the types of tip I particularly appreciate in the book (from p.65), talking about speaking part 3 – “Ways to begin: When you answer questions, it is important you begin well and that you don’t hesitate. Hesitation is not just about silence … practice beginning, then developing your answer”. Fairly intuitive and more easily said than done, but the point is also that the student isn’t just left hanging with this, of course – it then works through how to practise/improve this.
One, or rather one type, of exercise that I don’t always find very useful from experience, is the one found on pp.19-20, relating to the first Reading part, which asks questions to help lead the student towards whether the answer is true/false/not given. Although the questions are logical, I do find that (especially slightly stronger) students, especially when they have already identified the answers, actually tend to get thrown off by such questionsIt’s perhaps because they have developed/used their own logic, and this then unsettles them, thinking that they approached it in the wrong, rather than simply a different, way. I’ve noticed it happen enough times to only ever suggest they have a look at questions they have already checked the answers to and know they got wrong. Then I find it’s helpful.
For the other further practice throughout the book, much goes without the need for me to repeat, in terms of how the step by step instructions do a very good job of that which I generally try to do in class. The general tips at the start of all further practice sections are great… and in my view necessary to be said/repeated as they are.
I seem to have a fairly glowing opinion of this book, as I do for other Testbuilder books I’ve worked with in the past. Thank you!
Sam Jackson mugshotI started teaching English in Vienna about 11 years ago, after having done my CELTA in Cambridge, where I’m from. My previous years working in sales and my psychology degree seem very far away, but both still come in handy today when I’m teaching ESP and especially Business English courses. I’ve been a Cambridge speaking test examiner for the last 5 years and do ever more of this. My interest in all things musical comes out mainly on the drums, and in all things body/health through my work as a shiatsu practitioner. I will also become world pool champion at some point (just, um, give me a little more practice).

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