IELTS in Zambia: ‘I’ve been speaking English since Grade 1, why should an English test worry me?’

by | 7 December 2020

Justina Kilumelume (left) and Idah Chunga (right), from the IELTS Team in British Council Zambia.

Andrew Stokes (AS) asks Idah Chunga (IC) and Justina Kilumelume (JK) how the British Council helps IELTS candidates in Zambia.

AS: How many languages are there in Zambia and what is the position of English?
IC: There are 72 languages in Zambia, and English is the official language. It’s the basic mode of language used for communication, and almost everywhere you go in Zambia it is the first language that you come across. Of course English is not quite so common in the rural areas because there are people in the countryside who don’t get to go to school. Basically, those that have access to education will speak English.

AS: What is the standing of IELTS in Zambia?
JK: Before it was mainly for people going out of the country to either to study or to work in healthcare overseas, mostly as nurses. And this is still a big portion of the people taking IELTS today. There has been a change though. Interestingly, there has been an increase of people coming into the country to practise healthcare, especially doctors. These are people from Congo, Korea and China. To come in and to get a licence to practise, they have to take an IELTS test. So the test is recognised by the government.

AS: What challenges do IELTS candidates face in Zambia?
JK: The main issue is that everyone thinks, ‘Well, I’ve been speaking English since Grade 1, why should an English test worry me?’ But IELTS really isn’t like the kind of exams that they have done at school, and it’s only when they get into the test that they realise what a challenge it is.

The most difficult paper is Reading and there are two reasons for this. Firstly, Zambia is not a reading culture — they don’t even read the emails telling them what to bring to the exam & where to go! But also most of the candidates lack the technique. They don’t know how to skim; they don’t know how to identify the topic sentences — or even what a topic sentence is. They want to read the whole passage first and then look at the questions, and then go back and read the passage again, and this means that although their English may be very good, they don’t have enough time.

AS: So how do you help them prepare?
IC: We offer workshops on a monthly basis, which they have to pay for. A few people have tutors but they are not British Council quality. They just give their students a lot of practice tests with no feedback and no test-skill development.

And of course everyone who registers for IELTS with the British Council has access to the Last Minute version of Road to IELTS. What we want to do now is to send out an email challenging them to try a Road to IELTS Reading test. They can download it, use the timer and then mark it. This will really show them first hand how much they actually do need to prepare. It’s going to be a great awareness building exercise and I hope it will jolt people into doing some proper preparation.

Another reason we like Road to IELTS is that the British Council is involved in promoting online learning in Zambia. We’re running projects in primary schools, and there’s some use of computers in secondary schools. Also universities are using it more because the students have to submit assignments online.

AS: How else do you help your test takers?
IC: We always ask them to fill in a feedback form, and we do take action on what they tell us. For example, we’ve added new venues. We’ve also made the venues more conducive for the difficult test, introducing snacks and changing the furniture. It’s easy to provide snacks, and changing the seats to help candidates get the best possible score. However, if they think reading is too long, that’s a much more difficult thing to rectify.

Andrew Stokes, Publisher, ClarityEnglish

Andrew Stokes, Publisher, ClarityEnglish