British Council HK: Students’ wants versus needs

by | 16 February 2022

​​This series uncovers ideas and activities from British Council IELTS teaching centres around the world. This week, Siobhan Cox, Assistant Academic Manager Adult Courses at the British Council in Hong Kong, shares skills-based activities for your students.

Sometimes, students and teachers don’t see eye-to-eye on what is essential material in the classroom. In our IELTS preparation classes, students often tell us they want more real exam practice. While this is certainly important, teachers know that just doing past papers isn’t enough. There needs to be an opportunity for students to learn from their mistakes as well as better understand how the IELTS tests are assessed.

In this post, I’m going to lay out three tips for each skill. This list balances targeted skills activities with exam practice. I hope you’ll find it strikes a happy medium in your classroom, fulfilling both what your students want and what they need.


Students face several challenges when it comes to the Listening test. Not only do they need to maintain their focus for 20 minutes but they also need to be wary of the tricks the test sometimes plays, giving and taking away correct answers, for example. In class, working with the test itself can help better prepare them.

  • Let students learn from their mistakes: after completing a section under exam conditions, give the learners the audio scripts with the answers underlined so they can identify where they went wrong.
  • Build vocabulary by identifying synonyms for the key words in the questions in the audio scripts.
  • Target practice to students’ level to maximise students’ success: Part 1 should be within reach of all but the weakest learners, but Part 4 will challenge anyone above B1.


Personally, I find this the hardest skill to teach. For guidance, I’ve turned to experienced teachers to see how they exploit the test materials to support the students.

  • Build up students’ vocabulary: lexis is key to all parts of the IELTS exam but it’s crucial in the Reading test, so start with the key words and end with the answers in the text itself.
  • Ensure they recognise what subskills they need to use to answer specific questions: the first few questions generally rely on sampling, skimming, or scanning the text while subsequent questions require them to read more intensely or infer meaning.
  • After answering test questions, provide students with a rationale for why specific answers are correct and others are wrong.


Students often don’t know what to include or not include when facing Task 1 and often struggle to come up with ideas to answer Task 2 questions. There isn’t always time in class to do a full-length test but using past papers can help get them thinking in the right way.

  • Help students gain familiarity with the public band descriptors: using model answers, have them identify examples of coherence and cohesion, or grammatical range and accuracy.
  • Make sure they recognise what the question is asking them to do: for a Task 1, compare and contrast or track changes over time; for a Task 2, give an opinion, consider both sides, or talk about the problem and offer a solution.
  • Make sure they understand how simple mistakes with Task Achievement and Task Response can detract from their overall performance on the test: for Task 1, focus on the overview in response to a chart or process; and, for Task 2, make their position clear in response to a prompt.


Many students find the Speaking test the most stressful part of the exam. They’re often focused on one element of their performance and again know little about the public band descriptors. Bringing these into class can help learners begin to understand what they need to focus on to improve their speaking.

  • Focus in-class feedback on one aspect of the public band descriptors: this can be an opportunity for learners to better understand what the descriptors mean and how they relate to their speaking.
  • Encourage learners to seek out authentic examples of IELTS test candidates and listen to candidates at or just above their target band score.
  • Have them self-assess their own level and record themselves speaking: encourage them to listen back with the band descriptors and see what their strengths and weaknesses are.

In the end, IELTS is simply a measure of one’s current English level. However you choose to prepare your students, with a little strategic exam practice and some hard work on each skill, students can realise their full potential and get closer to the band score they need.


Siobhan Cox, Assistant Academic Manager Adult Courses, British Council HK

Siobhan Cox, Assistant Academic Manager Adult Courses, British Council HK