Road to IELTS: Behind the questions

by | 10 January 2023

Road to IELTS is the British Council’s comprehensive, 100% online IELTS preparation program, co-published with ClarityEnglish. The program prepares test takers for all four skills – Reading, Listening, Speaking and Writing – through interactive activities, advice and tutorial videos, and practice tests. Recently, I interviewed Sarah Philpot (SP), a Road to IELTS content writer, and Marijana Petrovic (MP), the intermediary expert between Road to IELTS test takers and the British Council. We spoke about the Road to IELTS writing process, how they keep the test taker’s needs at the heart of the program, and the most frequently asked questions from test takers.

Could you give me a quick summary of your role? What is it you do?

SP: I am a member of the Global IELTS team. We are a core team of 7 who write: IELTS teacher training courses (for face-to-face and online delivery); webinars for test takers and IELTS teachers; and IELTS materials. I am an author and editor for Road to IELTS and most recently worked on the Speaking section.

MP: I am also a part of the Global IELTS team. I am involved in the content writing for the online courses, a monthly newsletter for IELTS teachers, I answer IELTS related questions on social media sites like Quora and Reddit, and I co-run an IELTS for Teachers Facebook page. I started working on Road to IELTS in 2020 and I answer all of the content related questions from users.

How do you decide what topics are important to include in the program?

SP: All of the current writers for Road to IELTS are ex-IELTS teachers. Between us we have donkey’s years of experience being in an IELTS classroom and involved in the IELTS network. We know the test intimately. It is imperative that all of the topics we choose are universally accessible. Every test taker should be able to take the IELTS test, no matter where they come from. That is our starting point. And it definitely helps that everyone on our team is from such different places so we can catch each others’ blind spots.

What is the general process you go through when writing the content for a section?

SP: I’ll give you an example of how we did it with the Road to IELTS Speaking test.

Step 1: Research. We set up the parameters of the topics. This involves trawling through ideas and researching a number of topics that could be the core of our new materials. We all go off and start planning units and content individually.
Step 2: Questions. We all use our experience as former IELTS teachers and think about these core questions:
– What do students need?
– What can we help them with?
– What will get students the best band score?

Step 3: Writing. Once we have accumulated our research and sized it up next to our core questions, we begin creating the content. It is important that the content is developmental – one unit must gradually build on the next. It has to be logical.
Step 4: Draw up a syllabus. Unit 1 has to cover the core material because that one is free for everyone. If people go no further, they must have the basic and essential information for the test. Units 2 to 12 can cover more detail and more areas. So, the syllabus has to lay out all of the content so students and IELTS teachers can easily pick and choose topics, and decide where the most work or input is needed.
Step 5: Sharing. In this stage, the writers send all their work to each other. Up until this point, we have mostly been working independently. Now it is a big collaborative and cooperative process until we come to a version we’re happy with.

It is worth noting that in the Speaking section in particular, we had to make sure the content we were creating worked ‘out loud’ and in real life. Most people are used to recording themselves on their devices. So it is more natural to ask people to incorporate their phones into their learning and try recording themselves for practice. We needed to build this form into the test.

What are the specifics you have to think about when you’re writing a question?

MP: As Sarah said earlier, the test must be accessible regardless of where you come from – it is a test for everyone. And that doesn’t just apply to topic content. We, as writers, need to assess whether a question:
– Has built-in the assessment criteria
– Can empower students to improve themselves
– Give students the tools to do some level of self-analysis on their answers

We want to give independent learners a learning experience that is as close as possible to having a trained teacher in front of you.

What are the most frequently asked questions you get from test takers?

MP: There is quite a range of questions I get asked about all four sections of the test. Here are the top five.

  1. The most questions I get are about the True / False / Not Given questions. Candidates need to start by going through the difference between the three options and learn to justify their answer. Really practise the process of answering this question.
  2. In the Reading and Listening sections, test takers often ask about answer variations. This can be number notation like ‘50000’, ‘fifty thousand’, ‘50 thousand’, for example.
  3. Sometimes when test takers get an incorrect answer on the program, they want to know why it was marked as incorrect. Usually this boils down to not following instructions, going over the word limit, or using synonyms when the question asks for words from the passage only.
  4. There are many questions about the use of uppercase or lowercase letters in their answers and if they will be penalised.
  5. People also really want to know about the linearity of questions in the IELTS test. Do the questions follow on from each other? Does the difficulty increase?

Other queries that come through are about acceptable varieties of English, speech impediments, the difference between paper IELTS and IELTS on computer, date and time notation, and further clarification on grammatical structures.

Why is it important to have an intermediary between learners and writers?

MP: It is really important that we have a clear and open communication with our learners and give them the answers they are looking for with clear justification. There are many self-proclaimed IELTS trainers online that give out contradictory information and this can really confuse learners. If they choose to work with a British Council course and program, they can expect legitimate answers from experts.

There should be someone taking responsibility and responding to those that need help. It validates the candidates and their concerns. It also makes our institution more trustworthy if we are willing to listen to their questions and give them real answers. Then they feel their concerns have been tended to and dealt with.

Road to IELTS includes over 300 interactive activities, 13 videos giving advice and tutorials, 40 practice tests, and has been chosen by over 5,000,000 IELTS candidates. If you have any questions about Road to IELTS, please get in touch with – we would love to hear from you.

I’d like to thank Sarah Philpot and Marijana Petrovic for taking the time to share their insights for this blog post.


Katie Stokes, Blog Editor, ClarityEnglish

Katie Stokes, Blog Editor, ClarityEnglish