4 Tips to Help You Prepare for the IELTS and the TOEFL Exams

By Jonathan Wilson

(AP/IB History, English Literature and English Language tutor at The Edge Learning Center)

With the influx of IELTS and TOEFL students joining us here at The Edge, I thought it appropriate to address some preparation strategies for these two exams. Taking a course with us will be a big help in getting your ready for these tough tests, but you can get a head start on building your skills on your own long before test-day. Here are four things you can do.

> Read more on Jon’s previous IB English blog “How to Read a Graphic Novel or Comic Strip: Part 2 (Shots and Angles)”

Improve your vocabulary

Okay, learning vocabulary words by rote is usually pretty dull. We all know that it will help us with a variety of standardized tests, but we tend to put it off in favor just about anything. If you’re looking for an alternative to reading the dictionary like a nerd, you can check out websites like this one. The “Academic Word List” or “AWL” is a list comprising 570 words that appear frequently in academic texts. Other well-known vocabulary lists include that from Ogden’s Basic English, which is 1000 words, and Michael West’s 2,000-word General Service List (here, but with no fun activities included). Better than that, you can download the Magoosh apps from their website or your app store. They offer flash card apps for exams such as the SAT, GRE, and the TOEFL, but I like the vocabulary builder the most. It has a wide range of vocabulary difficulties to choose from, and you can even compete against others online.

Develop your note-taking skills

Both the TOEFL and the IELTS have Listening sections that test our ability to understand spoken English. We’ll have to listen and take notes on what we hear so that we can answer questions later. The TOEFL exam also has listening components to its Speaking and Writing sections, which are referred to as “Integrated” tasks. This means our speaking responses and essays for these specific tasks will have to include information from lectures and conversations that that we’ll listen to. To remember all of this information, we’ll have to take notes as we’re listening, and that can be pretty tough.

Let’s look at an example together and use it to illustrate some important note-taking guidelines. The following is transcript of the first 45 seconds or so of a 6-minute Listening lecture from a practice exam. Keep in mind, on the exam, we would not see this written. Rather, we would hear it.

“Alaska is fascinating to geologists because of its incredible landscapes. Umm…permafrost has a lot to do with this. That is, the areas where the ground, the soil, is always frozen, except for the very top layer, what we call the “active layer” of permafrost, which melts in the summer and re-freezes again in the winter. 

“The northern part of Alaska is covered in lakes, thousands of them, and most of these are what we call “thaw lakes”—T-H-A-W—“thaw” lakes. I’m gonna [going to] show you a few sketches of them in a minute, so you’ll have a good idea of what I’m talking about.

There’s no way we can write down all of this, and if we could, it would still be a waste, because it would take us too much time to identify the important information. We only want the important words, so our notes should probably just have these:


Permafrost—areas ground always frozen—except for top layer—active layer—melts summer—refreezes winter

Northern Alaska—covered in lakes—most “thaw” lakes

Thaw lakes—(I’ll talk about why I wrote just “Thaw lakes” here in a moment)

This is a good start, but it still may be difficult to write all of this down, especially at the rate of speech that most of these lectures maintain. Other strategies might include writing in “shorthand.” This means, that we write down shorter forms of words, so that words such as “Alaska” might be written as “Alsk” or “AK,” which is the state’s official abbreviation. The phrase “that is” in line 2, but be rendered “i.e.” abbreviating “id est,” or “that is” in Latin.

Another strategy that I like is to use symbols. For instance, the word “except” in line 2 of the first paragraph might be represented with an “X”. If we want, we can even represent the word “is” with a symbol like this: “=”.

So now, our notes might look something like this:

AK=fscntng b/c lndscps

Permafrst i.e. areas grnd alwys frzn—X tp lyer—> “actv lyer”

mlts smmr—refrzs wnter

 N.AK—cvrd lks—mst =“THAW” lks

Thw lks—

This system of writing is hard to get used to at first, and the downside is that it is sometimes difficult to remember what the words mean if you leave out too many letters! However, I recommend that all of us develop a system of quick note taking and practice it as much as we can, so that we’re ready for test day! And you may have noticed that at the end of my notes I wrote down “Thaw lakes” or “Thw lks” again. Well, this leads us to the other benefit of practice, which is that we learn to predict what kinds of information will be talked about later, by identifying key phrases such as “I’m gonna [going to] how you a few sketches of them in a minute”. When we read this, we know that the speaker is going to give us some key details about these “thaw lakes,” so we’re already preparing to write that information down even though the speaker hasn’t begun yet!

Learn to type well if you are taking the TOEFL ibt (internet-based test)

If we take the TOEFL ibt, it will be at a computer. This exam has a two-task Writing section that includes the Integrated task I mentioned earlier, which should be 300+ words, as well as an Independent task that requires us to write a 150-225+ word essay based on a prompt. We’ll have to type both of these essays inside of 50 minutes, so we need to be able to type rather fast to still have time to edit our essays.


Improve your reading and listening skills with content you enjoy

The best way to become a better reader and listener is to read and listen often and to engage with content that it is sophisticated in the quality of its content and in the complexity of its language. To improve our reading I would suggest reading periodicals such as The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, The New York Times, The New Yorker, GQ, The Atlantic, The Lily, and other magazines and journals written at a rather high reading level. The previous links will take us to their respective sites directly, but better yet, following these publications on Facebook will deliver articles straight to us! Media aggregations such as Reddit and Everyday Feminism can link us to social news articles. Remember, we want to read content that is interesting and enjoyable, but we also want to be challenged by it.

For listening, I would suggest checking out the websites of National Public Radio (NPR) the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and TED Talks. Some of my favorite channels on YouTube are Vox, Crash Course, and the channel for TED Talks. TED Talks are especially good because we can easily find ones related to topics we are interested in. This way, we don’t get bored out of our minds, quit studying, and watch videos from “FailArmy” until it’s time to go to bed (or it’s long past our bedtime!).

I hope these tips help, and I hope you get the chance to practice them well in advance of the test. For more advanced tips on classic questions and for feedback on your speaking and writing responses, you can a get some help from a little place I like to call…

The Edge Learning Center

Need help with your ACT/SAT? Check out our courses here or call us for more information on private lessons/additional course offerings.

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