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Improving your IELTS Rating: Tips for Chinese (Mandarin) Language Speakers

By Tony Rusinak, IELTS Expert

IELTS reaches every corner of the globe. From Argentina to Zimbabwe, IELTS test centres can be found in almost every country. Different countries, different cultures, and different languages are a common way to describe IELTS test-takers. While the language and culture of the people taking IELTS changes, the language needed for IELTS does not. All those taking the IELTS need to demonstrate their best English skills. As IELTS is a huge global system, so is IELTS preparation. With a quick Google or Baidu search for [IELTS Preparation], you’ll see millions of hits. However, what you won’t see is how specific English language learners should prepare. Why would someone from Tianjin be using the same preparation materials as someone from Toronto? I’ve been helping students prepare for IELTS for more than twenty years, and one thing is sure – people with different first languages learn differently. 

With that in mind, how does someone with Chinese Mandarin as a first language best prepare for their IELTS exam? There are many specific challenges Chinese Mandarin speakers have when working to improve their English. From my decades of experience in the classroom with Chinese, I’ll mention a few of the most significant ones.  

IELTS is not the Gaokao Exam 

Many Chinese students taking the IELTS still have fresh memories of the Gaokao. As you probably know, the Gaokao is the national college entrance exam in China. Many students study every waking hour of the day preparing for this exam and say it is the most stressful thing they have ever done. If you’ve studied for the Gaokao English exam however, you shouldn’t be using the same approach to IELTS. Although both exams test English language skills, they are graded differently.  

For IELTS writing, focus on the four skills of grammar, vocabulary, cohesion & coherence, and task response. You will also need to know how to write a summary for the Academic test, or how to draft a letter for the General test. These writing skills are not graded the same way as the Gaokao. It is important you review how the writing tasks are marked and not just prepare the same way you did for the national exam. 

Another big difference between the exams is the speaking component. Though there have been some speaking tests with the Gaokao, we don’t usually consider speaking as part of that exam. Don’t just guess that studying all night with your preparation book will improve your speaking test score. The key point here is that the IELTS speaking test is communicative. You have to be natural, flexible, and thoughtful when you speak. IELTS is testing how well you discuss, describe, and chat about things. You also need to make sure that the sounds you make are clear. Chinese learners of English typically have trouble saying the difference between ‘l’ and ‘r’; ‘v’ and ‘w’, and the ‘th’ sound. Can you clearly say the difference between five and fife?  

My best advice here is to first review the typical sounds Chinese have trouble within English, then actually chat with someone. Go to a café with some friends who want to discuss interesting topics, then chat, chat, chat!  

Common Grammar Challenges 

When I grade English language, I often see the same grammar mistakes from Chinese students. Fixing these little mistakes can really help to increase your IELTS score. The three I see most often are plurals, articles, and subject verb agreement.  

For plurals, make sure you add an ‘s’ when you are speaking or writing. This may seem very basic, but even the most advanced Chinese speakers have the habit of forgetting this. It’s also a good idea to review the irregular plurals. For example, one mouse, two miceone child, two children; and one curriculum, two curricula. As a final tip when reviewing plurals, don’t forget to learn the spelling!  

Articles in grammar involve the use of ‘a’ ‘an’ and ‘the’. In Chinese, there is no perfect translation for this grammatical feature. Even the top English language students have trouble using these, so it will take some work to perfect. My advice is to study articles using a combination of natural English and grammatical theory. First learn the rules for how and why we use articles, then try to notice them in ever day English. Also, when you are writing and speaking, really try to use them correctly. Don’t just ignore them! 

The third grammatical point I see Chinese students having trouble with is subject-verb agreement. This basically means that the subject of a sentence affects how the verb is used. As a simple example, he goes and they go. The word go changes with the different subject. We also must remember to change the verb with time – they go nowthey went yesterday. Again, this may seem simple, but do you use your subject-verb agreement accurately when speaking and writing? 

There are many more key challenges that Chinese learners of English have. Remember that every language learner is different. Some IELTS prep materials might be great, while other prep material might be a waste of time. Knowing what you need is the first step in the journey to a higher IELTS rating. Good luck on test day!  

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