Rliberni's Blog – Radical language

August 24, 2011

Advanced students – case study 5 – IELTS doctor

 This is my fifth case-study in the series. Like the others it illustrates a journey we both took to reach a particular language goal. Like the others the benefit gained was mutual this case is slightly different as it involved an intensive 2-day study followed by on-going tutoring via the internet up until the exam.
See the other posts:

Case Study one – Mehmet (project manager)

Case Study two – Stepan (IELTS – doctor)

Case Study three – Maria (company relocation to UK )

Case Study four – Takeshi  (IELTS – doctor)


Case Study five – Ayesha

My fifth student in the series was also an IELTS student and a doctor. She was slightly different from the other doctors I have mentioned as she was a recently qualified doctor and had just arrived in the UK as a newly wed looking to pursue a career as a doctor in the UK. Her husband was already working in a hospital here.

Ayesha had recently taken the IELTS before getting married and moving to the UK but had unfortunately not got the band score she needed. In the few months she had been living in the Uk she had started to prepare again for the test. She soon realised that in order to prepare adequately she needed help from a specialist teacher and that is when we became acquainted. In fact it was her husband who contacted me. Being very busy in the hospital, he was looking for a weekend course where Ayesha could get an intensive boost in English and then continue preparing by herself up to the exam date. As she had only just arrived in the country she was too nervous about travelling on her own so I was more than happy for them both to come together.

 They arrived late on Friday evening, I collected them at the station. We had a light supper and then they retired to bed.

The first lesson

We started bright and early on the Saturday morning and started to go through each part of the test. I soon discovered that Ayesha’s main problem had been lack of preparation particularly in the speaking and writing papers. She had assumed that the speaking would simply be a short conversation and told me that she had the impression that the examiner was wanting her to say more but she didn’t know what to say.

The writing also needed a little work to get to band 7 and there were a few grammar areas to address.

We decided to concentrate for half a day on each part of the exam:

  • Listening – we worked through different types of listening material both IELTS and non-IELTS and talked about techniques and strategies for the exam
  • Writing – We looked mostly at analysing the title and then creating good plans for the essay. On Saturday evening Ayesha produced both a Task 1 and a Task 2 for me to check.
  • Speaking – Ayesha’s spoken English was quite good but lacked breadth. We went through the test and practised each part and also talked about how she could get more practice – being in England meant that there were opportunities to do this but Ayesha was a little nervous about joining groups or clubs. We agreed that we would speak on the phone as part of the follow-up and she would try and speak more to her neighbours and other people that she ‘knew to say hello to’ (this is someone you don’t really know very well but see from time to time).
  • Ayesha’s reading score had also been very good but as she was looking for an overall score of 7 we felt that we could improve this to boost her final score..

The study plan

We worked from 9 a.m. to 1.00 p.m. and then again from 2.00p.m. until 5.00p.m. During each session we concentrated on one area of the test.

There was a little time in the late afternoon to get out for a short walk which gave us time to talk generally – something which is important for fluency.

There was also time during our meals together (with both our respective husbands) to have more conversation.

Ayesha’s husband had brought work with him to complete and my husband took him out for a while to see the local area.

The weekend was a good way to get an overview of  useful test strategies from Ayesha’s point of view and I was able to see where her strengths and weaknesses were in each part and provide a study plan for her to follow going forward to the actual test. We did this on the final afternoon.

So armed with a plan, some websites to check out and I hoped, a little more confidence, I took Ayesha and her husband back to the station for their return journey home.

During the few weeks that followed we spoke on the phone and also communicated via email. She also sent me more writing which I corrected and returned. Where there were language problems I sent supplementary exercises to help and gave her a daily dose (using Gapfillers) of general language skills work to keep developing her English skills.

She had also made friends with one of her neighbours who, on hearing about the IELTS test offered to meet regularly so that Ayesha could practise her speaking – if you don’t try these things you’ll never know what might have been!  This was a real boost to both confidence and fluency.

A month or so later Ayesha took the IELTS she called me and told me what the questions had been – they were all fairly standard and some of them were things I had given her to do in her practice. She felt very upbeat and thought that the test had gone well.

A couple of weeks later I was in the car when my phone rang and I saw that it was Ayesha so I knew that this would be her result. She had got an overall band score of 8 (3 x 8 and 7.5 in Writing – amazing) !! She was so excited and could now move on with the next stage of her preparation to work in the UK as a doctor.

This is Ayesha’s  final email to me after the exam.

I am happy to send my score card and to dedicate my success to your guidance and the emotional support. I have booked my plab1 exam on feb.11th and started preparing for it. hope I will pass that exam too with your blessings.thanks a lot                                                 

Do you need help with your IELTS exam?

As a former IELTS examiner and with over 15 years of experience preparing and coaching people for the exam especially at Bands 7 and 8 I know what it takes to achieve these scores.

I work a lot with professionals (especially doctors) who need high band scores to move on with their careers.

Using my own Advanced English training site, Gapfillers and my own expertise in IELTS I can help you to get the score you are looking for.

Join my free IELTS Group in Gapfillers and get regular updates about preparing for the exam and also the chance to join in my teleseminars and seminars and all the other IELTS training opportunities I offer.

Joining is easy;  follow this link, register (it’s absolutely free), (don’t forget to tick the IELTS group button) and that’s it!

As soon as you register you will have access to my free 1-hour presentation THE TROUBLE WITH IELTS – the link is on the welcome page. Watch or download it, it’s your choice.

I hope to see you there 🙂





October 1, 2010

Sharing diaries – Writing from the heart

This is the 3rd and final part in my series on writing for a wider audience. In this final piece I want to look at diaries and how, although more intimate and certainly very authentic pieces of writing, they can still be shared.


Writing Diaries

From time immemorial diaries have been an obvious genre of writing for use with students. There are many different ways of approaching diary writing from formal work schedules through daily records to very personal commentaries.

A recent development of the diary format can been in the use of Learner Diaries. This is an excellent and personal way for a student to record their learning both in terms of  progress and also personal reaction to the process and results. It can be at once a practical and a reflective piece of writing. As such it is highly personal and allows the freedom to be more creative.

In a classroom situation students will share their learner diaries with the teacher and perhaps with each other too. When students are studying alone, it may seem pointless to keep such a diary as there is no one to read it (this is not necessarily a good reason not to write one) and who is going to correct it?

See Nik Peachey’s piece on Learner Diaries

I think there are two things to say here.

  • Firstly, keeping a learner diary just for yourself is a valuable thing to do. You will develop a record of your learning which can be very revealing about your journey through the process and it will help you to develop and progress your skills in the future.
  • Secondly, taking into account my previous suggestion in posts 1 and 2 about joining communities online, you can share your diary if you want to. Being an independent learner does not mean being an isolated learner and finding these groups can be part of the e-learning  process.

A personal experience of sharing a student’s learner diary.

So, I’d like to share a diary with you which was written by my student (face 2 face) after staying here for a week in the summer. I hadn’t actually asked him to do this as part of the learning (although I do often ask my face to face and online e-learners to do this).

The student is a dentist and we  had spent a pretty intensive week on a mix of general English and work on several presentations that he was going to be giving internationally.

When the week was over I realised that I had forgotten to get him to give me an evaluation on the week and some thoughts (which I could publish) on the efficacy of the immersion experience he had spent here in Yorkshire.  However, I felt that we had built a good working relationship and that I could ask him for a sentence or two retrospectively.

Imagine my great surprise when the week after the course I began to receive, via email, instalments of his diary that he had written each evening after the day’s work. I was gobsmacked!

It is an amazing piece of writing, full of life and energy and it really captures the week we shared together. When I asked if I could share this on me site he was delighted! I feel so privileged to have been sent this and I feel even more honoured that I am able to share it with you here.

I have made very few changes (although I did go over it thoroughly with him) as I think it it’s ‘raw’ state it has a great deal of energy that I could only spoil.

This a great learner diary!

Ezio’s Diary

I hope you enjoy it as much as I do!

I was lucky enough to have others share their experiences in blogs and videos too. Here is a collection of their reflections and another way that students can share their learning experiences with a wider audience.

More reflections on learning experiences



Part one of the series – Using blogs to help your writing skills, the how, the why and the what

Part two of the series Getting your voice heard – authentic writing for English language students

 Other posts in writing:

Warning, mistakes cost marks!

7 Deadly sins to avoid in your writing.

7 Great virtues to help you write well in English

June 21, 2010

Carl-Henric Svanberg, Fabio Capello – your English skills just haven’t been good enough!

We can feel for both Carl-Henric  Svanberg, the chairman of BP, and England Manager, Fabio Capello, they have been much in the spotlight this past week and have, in their very different ways, been found wanting.  One of the reasons they did not come up to scratch was due to their knowledge of English. Although they can both use English well enough for their respective jobs,  I am not sure that when thrown into the limelight and expected both to speak on behalf of and defend their respective teams, they are quite up to the job.

We all know what it feels like to be ‘put on the spot’, to have to argue the case and discuss and debate issues – this is not an easy task even in your own language. When you get agitated, excited or annoyed, words desert you and sentences struggle to maintain meaning. Imagine having to do this in another language and imagine having to do it to the world’s media who are masters of manipulating language and tying people in linguistic knots.

So what happened?

Carl-Henric Svanberg

His English is good there is no denying this. He speaks in a fairly measured way, taking care over his delivery. It all boils down to two things; his pronunciation – which could be better – it is very deadpan almost to the extent of being dis-interested, then there is that one, disastrous phrase  ‘small people’  made all the worse by repeating it no less than three times! It’s amazing that one small word could cause such a furore – but in language ‘least said, soonest mended’ could just be a maxim to keep in mind!

What would we say – man in the street, ordinary citizens, the US public? Answers on a postcard please! Certainly not ‘small people’. Did anybody check? Did he rehearse? Was this off the cuff? One small phrase caused so much anger and hurt that there was absolutely no consideration of the fact that he wasn’t a native speaker of English!

If you go into the lion’s den – be very prepared!

Fabio Capello

Fabio is now in his third year as England Manager and there are many who worry about his commitment to improving his English skills.  England fans are very passionate about their team and they have, in the past, been very sceptical about having non-English managers. Will a non-English manager have the same passion for England’s football mission?With Capello they are doubtful as to whether he can truly command respect and really communicate his ideas when his language ability is still so poor.

To be fair in this footage he manages very well. He knows the vocabulary he needs, he gets his message across clearly and with some humour. He maintains the gravitas required for his role and, despite his lack of correct word order, his strong accent and his limited vocabulary, we are quite clear about his points.

Fast forward to more recent times.

There was the row with the photographers, then the criticism about his choice of goalkeeper and finally his defence of England’s first two games.

(recent footage wasn’t available to embed so here’s a link)


The pressure and the constant barrage of questions puts a lot of strain on language delivery. As emotion takes over so coherent language retreats.

This is natural but if  your work demands that you put yourself in these situations then the need for competency becomes all the more important. You have to maintain decorum, you have to maintain self-respect, you have to avoid controversy and you need to preserve the good name of your company as well as that of yourself. This is important stuff!

When you lose your cool – make sure you can still look cool!

So, my top tips for avoiding situations like the Svanberg/Cappello ones above.

  1. Don’t be complacent – if you are going to be the face of your global/UK/US company make sure you have the language skills to do it – ‘good enough’ might just not be good enough when really tested!
  2. Use models – who are the great speakers in English? Find some whom you admire and study their form, note down some of the expressions they use, how do they deliver, what makes them stand out? Model yourself on them
  3. Practise! – I would never go into a presentation or meeting where I have to represent someone or put forward ideas or proposals without practising. Going in cold is a foolhardy thing to do and you are taking a big risk.
  4. Ask someone to check – don’t try to do too much off the cuff, if you have a presentation ask a native speaker to check it, a friend or teacher – if you can practise in front of them too then this is very valuable – don’t underestimate how useful your teacher can be to you, it’s not all about grammar and vocabulary!!
  5. Check current and cultural sensitivities – when tempers are high people are less likely to be tolerant or understanding. Make sure you are not going to offend anybody culturally or because of a current situation (for example when people are complaining about some work-related issue).
  6. Do not translate! – don’t assume that the way you would do it in your own language is going to translate to another culture or another language (small people). Check and find out!

Now I am going to get someone to check this before I post it – I don’t want to offend anybody either!!

March 2011 – I rest my case!!

Some other posts you might find useful:

Business English -what is it you really need to learn

English verbs that confuse

Advanced students – Case Study 1

June 14, 2010

Prepositions – pearls of great price!

I’ve been doing some work on prepositions lately and it struck me that for such insignificant little words, they have quite a powerful role to play in English language and seem to be a common bête noire at all levels of learning.

I looked up a definition of prepositions, it seems they are a group of words that show relationships between nouns, pronouns, or gerunds and other words in a sentence. They show place, time, direction and other attributes in relation to these words. The good news is that they never change their form. The bad is – it’s not that simple! They can be free or bound (they can depend on other words).  They can be complex too, they come along in pairs or sometimes threes and fours for good measure and take on new meanings. Occasionally they are in disguise – they might look like prepositions but in actual fact they are adverbs or adjectives! It is often when they hook up with verbs that they are at their most demonic! They form phrasal verbs, prepositional verbs, and horror, phrasal-prepositional verbs!! Is it any wonder that these enfant terribles of the English language learning world put fear into our hearts

So, I thought in this post I’d try to break down the uses, give some examples and see if we can’t engender a little respect for these feared yet very hard-working and versatile little words!

Prepositions pure and simple 🙂

Using prepositions in their simple form is fairly straightforward.

Place – relationships are bound by position  – on, in, under, above etc..

Some to note are:

over and under (rather than above and below)

  • used when something is  covering something else – the spoon fell under the table, the fog drifted over the village
  • for horizontal movement – the birds flew over the trees
  • to show more, less, fewer than – we made just under/over £3,000!

above and below

  • are used for rank or level – Sergeant is below the rank of captain.

in, at, on

  • these are specific – I’ll meet you at the cinema (probably outside) or in the cinema (inside). It’s on the corner (the outside of the corner). It’s in the corner (surrounded, probably a Square or in a room).
  • In with cities, countries etc.- in France but on with streets – I’m on North Street, at with named places – at Oxford Circus.
  • At when people gather together – at a party, at the conference.

towards and up to

  • towards shows the direction of the movement, up to usually indicates a purpose – I went up to her to get directions.

Time – relationships are bound by duration or a point in time


  • indicate the start and end time – I’ll be here from Monday to Friday. (note American English often uses just through) I’ll be here Monday through Friday. The American usage tells us that Friday is included in the stay the British version is less clear.

Bound prepositions – those with no meaning in life! 😦

Bound prepositions are dependent upon certain words (or the words ‘take’ a certain preposition). These prepositions have no independent meaning as meaning is conveyed by the word/s to which they are bound.

It is important to learn these and commit them to memory as you come across them.

Some general rules exist:

  • Prepositions can follow verbs nouns or adjectives – rely on,  success in, keen on etc… (here is a list)
  • These prepositions always take an object – rely on somebody,  success in his exams, keen on riding horses
  • Where the object is a verb – it is often in the …ing form – They accused him of lying.
  • With adjectives describing emotion then ing form or infinitive with to is possible.  They were angry at seeing animals mistreated. They were angry to see animals mistreated.


verb + preposition

  • These multi-word combinations are called prepositional verbs.
  • Here are a few examples – complain to, rely on, confide in, part with, look into etc..
  • Another verb + preposition combination is the phrasal verb – these  are different because the meaning is changed completely with addition of the preposition, which is not the case with prepositional verbs.
  • Here are some examples – wear off,  break down, look after, put off, own up etc…
  • A third  multi-word verb using a preposition as a particle is a phrasal-prepositional verb (verb + adverb + preposition)
  • Here are some examples –  look up to, hand over to, get out of, put up with, get back to, come out of etc….

noun + preposition

where a noun and a verb are related both will usually take the same preposition

  • They succeeded in getting the contract
  • Their success in getting the contract was the turning point in the life of the company.

sometimes  a noun takes a preposition where the related verb does not

  • She had always had a fear of spiders.
  • She had feared spiders from childhood.

adjective + preposition

as above, where an adjective is related to a verb or noun taking a specific preposition then the adjective will also take this preposition

  • They were very anxious about the merger.
  • We could sense their anxiety about the merger.

adjectives describing feelings and opinions often have bound/dependent prepositions

  • I’m not keen on the blue one.
  • She’s quite nervous about tomorrow.

Try an exercise

Prepositions with a complex! 😦

Complex prepositions are always free prepositions but need support. Although their meaning combines with that of the other word/s  they rely on these other words, which go in front.

Here are a few examples:

  • for:    as for, except for, save for
  • from:    away from, aside from, apart from
  • to:    close to, due to, on to, next to
  • with:    along with, together with
  • of:    ahead of, out of,  irrespective of
  • on:    depending on

Some have such low self-esteem that they require a larger support team!

  • for:    in exchange for,  in return for
  • of:    by means of, in case of,  in favour of, on top of
  • to:    in addition to, in contrast to, on relation to
  • with:    in contact with, in comparison with, in line with

In this last group they are hardly visible amidst their entourage !

  • for the sake of
  • with the exception of
  • in the light of
  • on the grounds that

Stranded prepositions (who’d be a preposition!) 😦

Our final example in this woeful tale of prepositions is the stranded preposition.  It stands alone at the end of a sentence or clause.

  • In questions – Who are you applying to work with?
  • In the passive –  What percentage can the cost be reduced by?
  • Relative clauses – Yesterday I saw that woman (that/who) you introduced me to!
  • Infinitive clauses – She managed to see the film that it is impossible to get tickets for!

Don’t forget to check your grammar book for more detailed information!

Prepositions strike back! 🙂

Despite their sorry state prepositions can form interesting and very common idioms which you might want to consider adding to your vocabulary.

Useful idioms formed from prepositions

Sometimes we simply pop a couple of prepositions together

Here are a couple of examples – in for, in on, up to (more examples)

Other prepositions hook up with nouns to form handy little phrases (see here)

Here are some examples – on the go, on the case, on the house

Prepositions certainly do need some respect and it is worth spending time to study and learn how to use them well – it is one of those niggling areas of grammar which, if mastered, can make a big difference to your language performance!

Here are some other posts you may like:

How to keep motivated in language learning

English verbs that confuse

Language Immersion

Prepositions Aargh!

March 11, 2010

Advanced Students – Case Study 4

This is my fourth case-study in the series. Like the others it illustrates a journey we both took to reach a particular language goal. Like the others the benefit gained was mutual but unlike the others, this one was a very scary journey.

See the other posts:

Case Study one – Mehmet

Case Study two – Stepan

Case Study three – Maria

Case Study four – Takeshi

My fourth student was still in Japan when I was approached. He was an eminent doctor, well-known in his field both in Japan and internationally. He was coming to the UK to take up an appointment in a large London hospital. There was, however, a problem, he had to have a score of 7 in each of the IELTS papers and he had taken the test twice in Japan and not achieved this.

The hospital had decided that he should come to London, study, be immersed in the language, visit the hospital and get to know people there and then re-take the exam in London. This made sense but there were two further problems

  • I was about to move house
  • We had exactly one month to prepare, take and achieve the result or Takeshi would be unable to take up the post!

So, no pressure there then!

The first lesson

I accepted the challenge and so on a cold, blustery January 2nd I arrived at the hospital to meet Takeshi.

He asked me if he was my first student of the year. I replied that he was, he was happy about this and presented me with a bottle of very good champagne!

The first thing I noticed about Takeshi was how very organised he was in his learning. He had approached everything very systematically and his study folders were meticulous. We went through an example of each part of the exam noting down everything that was incorrect or not fully understood. At the end of this process we had a list of areas to  develop.

And so we set to work.

We decided to concentrate on the following areas in particular:

  • Listening – we would concentrate on tuning his ear into English sounds, look for nuance and deal with listening passages in small chunks.
  • Writing – the task here was to get the writing to flow better and give it  bit more of a natural feel
  • Speaking – work on pronunciation and making the speech flow more naturally

His attention to detail was amazing. His surgical training helped here. He dissected the reading passages and rarely got a question wrong. His speaking was very precise and showed a very wide range of vocabulary and good use of structure. His writing was well organised and developed but needed some work. It was his listening skills that needed the most work.

 In the case of Takeshi there weren’t really any specific breakthroughs just sheer dedication and hard work.

We both ‘rolled up our sleeves’ and got on with it!

The study plan

We met every day for 2 hours in the morning. We worked through all the tasks, building vocabulary, confidence and honing skills. At the end of each session I assigned work and Takeshi then spent the afternoon and evening studying. At the beginning of each day we went over everything and then continued learning and checking and checking and learning. He even spent most of the weekend studying too. For this one month nothing else mattered!

I have rarely seen such absolute dedication to a task. He lived, ate and slept English and IELTS. Every grammar error was followed by more practice until it was clear. I was in danger of running out of material! 

Each mistake had to be understood, corrected and practised until Takeshi was sure he had eliminated it. The process was not boring or in any way onerous – on the contrary it was like nurturing a plant and seeing it grow day by day.

Speaking became more natural (not only due to me, but also to the time he spent with his colleagues) Listening skills blossomed until, like the reading, there was rarely an error. His writing flowed more and, especially in task one, he was almost writing better than me!

As the month drew to a close I felt satisfied that we had ‘all the balls in the air’ and Takeshi felt more confident about taking the exam again. He had chosen a centre that would be easy to get to and not pose any travel problems.

He took the exam and flew back to Japan the next day. I did not get the chance I usually have with my students of discussing the exam afterwards.

I heard nothing more until a few weeks later when I had a very excited telephone call from Japan! Success – we were both relieved! He had scored a mix of 7s and 8s but that wasn’t important, he had what he needed and was now making preparations to move his family and take up the post at the hospital.

Some months later I was contacted by the hospital again. This time to teach Takeshi’s wife.

What I learnt most from this student is that dedication, hard work and a systematic approach to language learning pay off especially when you have a clear goal. Of course there’s nothing like a bit of external pressure to get the adrenaline flowing!!

February 13, 2010

10 goofy ways to practise speaking skills.

I’ve been thinking about some quick ways in which you can practise English as you go about your daily life. I realise that not everybody is in a position where they are surrounded by English every day. For others they have very limited time to practise and need ‘quick fixes’ to keep their language skills moving. One area which poses a particular problem here is speaking.

I thought back to my early days of learning French, I was in a similar position with no French around me and without things like internet access that are available today!  I invented little tricks and tasks to do in French to keep the momentum going. I’ll share these with you here and I’ve added a few more that I have observed from other people.

So, wherever you are and whatever you’re doing you can do a little effective practice!

These will work with any language you are learning.

Warning – you might want to do some of these behind closed doors!

All the activities require a little imagination, do them when you are performing routine tasks.


I love to sing and do these quite often. Great for in the shower, washing the dishes, cleaning or driving.

         1.  Choose a song you like and make up English lyrics – anything will do, wild and wacky or sad and sentimental.

         2.  Invent a ‘jingle’ to advertise your favourite chocolate bar, car, band etc.. let your imagination go wild!

         3.  Make up a rap about what you are doing.

OK, so how do these help anything, you may be asking. There’s spontaneity, which is something you also need when speaking – you don’t know what’s coming next. You can be totally uninhibited and try anything – true freedom of expression! It will help you drag out vocabulary from your boots, you’ll be surprised at what you know. You’ll also find out what you don’t know – no worries – look these words up in your dictionary later on.

Present a TV show!

          4.  Cooking is GREAT for this! As you prepare your dish/meal imagine you are on TV and show your audience how to make it.

        5.  Choose another task you are doing and imagine you are making a video to show others how to do it.

This is great practice for giving instructions and describing a process. Conjure up a team to help you and soon you’ll have your own TV studio!! Get into the part. You could even invite your friends to join in too!

Recite a poem:

         6. Learn a poem or verse by heart and then practise it while you go about your daily tasks. You can, alternatively, base it on a poem in your own language or even make one up.

When I was learning French at school we used to memorise poems and ‘perform’ them in class – great for pronunciation!!

Conversing with pets!

          7. Converse with your dog or cat! You have a real live partner for your conversation even if you get very quizzical looks! (I always did). It adds a dimension to your creativity and great for pronunciation.

Making speeches.

         8. OK, you need a microphone for this, so grab that washing-up brush, wooden spoon or shower gel bottle and make that speech to your invisible audience!!

Become a tour guide!

          9. Grab your  ‘microphone’ again and pretend you are a tour guide and give a guided tour of your city, town or village!

        10. Get Gapfillers word of the day on your mobile phone. An effortless way to improve your vocabulary!

Make your language practice a part of your life!!

Check out these posts to help you with your English practice.

10 ways to increase your vocabulary

7 virtues to help you write well in English

7  deadly sins to avoid in your writing

Warning – mistakes cost marks!

An A to Z of effective language practice

Some tips for improving listening skills

February 1, 2010

Advanced Students – Case study 3

This is the third in my series of Case studies on Advanced students – posts about students I have taught and their English language learning journey. It was a journey I shared with them and I learnt as much from them as, I hope, they did from me!

See the first two posts:

Case Study one – Mehmet

Case Study two – Stepan

Student 3 – Maria

My third student came to me as an intermediate student. Her name was Maria and she and her family had been relocated to the UK from Chile by her husband’s company.

Maria had three children including a two-month-old baby boy! She was keen to improve her English skills but with a baby so small was unable to attend courses. Her husband had requested that a teacher teach her at home.

I first spoke to Maria’s husband who told me that Maria’s English was very basic and she was worried about how she was going to cope in London. He thought that she might be afraid to pick up the phone and so it would be better for me to call him initially to arrange everything. Before meeting Maria I had a picture in my head of a very timid, diminutive woman bowed down by the cares of the move and struggling with her new life in the UK.

The first lesson.

Imagine my surprise when, having arrived at the house, the door was opened by a very tall, energetic, confident woman holding a small baby! She greeted me in good, if a little hesitant, English. No shrinking violet here!

We agreed that we would build on the strong foundation in English that she already had and  would get her speaking more fluently, widen her vocabulary and generally take her English to the next level. We decided to use a traditional course book as a basis as she had time, being in the house with the baby all day,  to review and do homework.

During the first few weeks, we spent a lot of time on practical tasks like organising workmen to do various things around her house. We would prepare the calls and then she would do them. I would be ready to leap in and take over if there were any problems. There very rarely were and soon Maria became very confident about all these day to day language uses and we began to concentrate more on language exercises, newspapers and other things she was interested in.

Breakthrough 1

Maria’s two older children attended a UK school and so it wasn’t long before she had a small social circle of English friends.  She became involved in activities at school, had children over to play and quite soon had a social life which included people of many different nationalities and all with English as their common language. This improved her fluency and vocabulary and with her continued dedication to her English study she was becoming a very effective and proficient user of English.

Breakthough 2

Maria’s two school aged children although native Spanish speakers always used English to each other. This was unprompted and simply happened. They used Spanish to Maria and their father and any other Spanish speaking visitors. In the beginning she was unable to follow their conversations and when she tried to join in they made fun of her accent and mistakes (they were 5 and 7). Gradually, however, she was able to follow most of their conversations and although they still considered her accent to be ‘strange’ they corrected her sentences less and less.

Breakthrough 3

About two years after Maria had arrived, she and her husband attended a large public meeting. Throughout the meeting Maria’s husband was giving her a quick summary in Spanish so that she could keep up with the proceedings. At the end of the meeting questions were invited from the floor. Maria put up her hand, her husband, with a look of horror, tried to persuade her not to stand up and ask her question afraid that she would embarrass herself and him! She ignored him and at the appointed time stood up and in good, accurate English asked her question and entered into a short discussion with the speaker. Her husband sat open mouthed and flabbergasted! As they always spoke Spanish at home he had no idea how good her English now was. He felt very proud of her and also admitted that he could not have done it.

Maria and her family stayed in London for 3.5 years before returning to South America. She was so keen to continue the English of her children that they decided to send them to a British school and with the help of  one of my colleagues fixed this up while still in the UK. Maria also continued her involvement with the English speaking community and when I was last in touch her English had gone from strength to strength.

Her language learning experience opened doors for her not just here in the UK but wherever else she and her family decide to live.

You might like to see my post on whether some people learn languages more easily than others.

January 22, 2010

Improving IELTS scores – Part 2

Reading and Writing.

In my last post I suggested 10 things you could do generally to improve your English language skills for the IELTS examination.

Here I want to look more closely at the reading and writing papers and suggest some things you can do in your preparation for IELTS to help improve your score.

  • What are the issues you face with these papers?

Remember that reading and writing skills are linked. You can learn phrases and other aspects of language from your reading to use in your writing. Take note, as part of your study, how certain things are expressed this is very valuable for your writing.

  • Write down phrases you come across in reading which strike you as useful or interesting. Try and use these in your next writing task.
  • Make a note of any useful or new vocabulary.
  • Don’t make every exercise a ‘timed’ one – be more creative!

Approaches to the reading task:

  • Don’t read the piece through – start with the questions.  In fact, you won’t really have time to read the pieces properly so don’t try.
  • Analyse the questions carefully for key words that will help you find the information. Underline the key words. Spend your time here on the questions.
  • Look at the title and the first couple of sentences- this should give you an overview of the the topic.
  • Speculate about potential answers and then skim the text to find the information and prove/disprove your suggested answer. You should be able to find the relevant place in the text using your keywords and then read this bit very carefully.

All of these techniques speed up the process and give you more time to consider the questions and find the correct answers.

Question Types:

There are many question types on the reading test. I’m going to look at just two. The ones that seem to give my students the most trouble.

1.       Headings: match a given heading with the paragraphs.

  • Read all the headings through first carefully.
  • Start with your first paragraph read the first two sentences.
  • If you know the heading fine,  if not, choose a couple of possibilities and mark these.
  • Do the same for each paragraph and slowly by a process of elimination you should have assigned all the headings.
  • Each time you are proving or disproving your choice, so look for evidence.

2.       Yes, no, not given: understand what these actually mean

  • A yes answer means that the information in the text and the question agree.
  • A no answer means that the statement given contradicts the information in the text – is the opposite if you like.
  • A not given means that you don’t have enough information in the text to answer the question.

Ask yourself these questions when you consider the answer

  • Is this the same as the text?
  • Does this contradict the text?
  • Can I really answer this question from the text?

NEVER consider information from outside the text. – i.e. what you know to be true from your experience.

Top Tip: If you can’t find an answer move on to the next you’ll probably come across it later on as you complete the rest and you can go back and complete the answer.

  • Have you used these techniques?
  • How did you feel about them?


  • How do you feel about the writing paper?

Writing and speaking are productive and completely in your hands. Don’t see the writing as the ‘bad boy’ of IELTS, as something to dread. You control your performance here and you must embrace this chance to show what you can do!!

I have written already about writing in the is blog and you can find many of my suggestions and comments in these posts:

You can also look at my section on writing on the Gapfillers website:

Some things to remember when preparing for the IELTS writing task:

  • Plan, plan and plan!!!
  • Look for models – use newspapers for task one you will find lots of good examples in the business pages and there are lots of good examples of essays in all the IELTS books DON’T IGNORE THESE!!
  • Get your work checked.
  • Don’t write more than one essay at a time 3 essays will be 3x the same mistakes.
  • Check check and check!!!

Top Tip:  when checking your writing read it aloud you will stumble over any mistakes and find them easily!

Do you need help with your IELTS exam?

As a former IELTS examiner and with over 15 years of experience preparing and coaching people for the exam especially at Bands 7 and 8 I know what it takes to achieve these scores.

I work a lot with professionals (especially doctors) who need high band scores to move on with their careers.

Using my own Advanced English training site, Gapfillers and my own expertise in IELTS I can help you to get the score you are looking for.

Join my free IELTS Group in Gapfillers and get regular updates about preparing for the exam and also the chance to join in my teleseminars and seminars and all the other IELTS training opportunities I offer.

Joining is easy;  follow this link, register (it’s absolutely free), (don’t forget to tick the IELTS group button) and that’s it!

As soon as you register you will have access to my free 1-hour presentation THE TROUBLE WITH IELTS – the link is on the welcome page. Watch or download it, it’s your choice.

I hope to see you there 🙂




January 12, 2010

Using Modal Verbs – part 3

In this final post on modal verbs I want to look at how modals can be used to suggest levels of intensity and also how we can employ them to be tactful.

For more on Modals (grammar and lists of verbs)

In my first two posts:

Modal verbs 1 and modal verbs 2 we looked at the  way modal verbs are used for expressing different functions. In this post we will look more at how they express intensity and also the nuance that modal verbs can bring to a sentence. Finally we’ll look at a list of verbs which are very often paired with modal auxiliaries.

Expressing levels of intensity.

Look at these three sentences:

  • You must read the instructions before you begin!
  • You should read the instructions before you begin.
  • You could read the instructions before you begin.

What is the difference?

  • In the first we have no choice (or if we ignore the obligation there may be consequences).
  • In the second it is recommended that we read – but not obligatory – so we have choice.
  • The final sentence is quite neutral, do or don’t, it doesn’t seem to matter. The speaker might add – but it’s quite straight forward.

Here’s another example of how modal verbs help us to determine the level if intensity in an utterance.

Consider these sentences:

  • Students may not leave the examination room before the end of the exam.
  • You have to remain in the examination room until after the exam.
  • You can’t leave the examination room before the end of the exam.

 What is the difference here?

  • The first sentence is very formal. It expresses an external obligation (rule) and is more likely to be written than spoken.
  • The second also expresses a strong obligation which may be part of the spoken instructions before the exam begins.
  • The final sentence is more neutral and might be spoken between two of the exam candidates.

We see that it isn’t only the meaning of the sentence that is important but also the participants in a conversation and, also the circumstances. Let’s explore these a little more:

Jack and Henry are brothers

  • Henry, lend me your this afternoon car will you?
  • Henry, can I borrow your car this afternoon?
  • Henry, would you lend me your car this afternoon?
  • Henry, might I borrow your car this afternoon?

Some possible reasons for the different modal use:

  1. The car is old, Jack borrows it a lot, he is a good driver.
  2. Henry may want to use it, Jack doesn’t often borrow the car, Henry doesn’t often lend his car.
  3. Jack doesn’t usually borrow the car, the car is quite new, Henry is very proud of his car, it is for an urgent reason, Jack’s driving ability is unknown, Henry may need it.
  4. The car is special, Henry doesn’t lend his car, Jack damaged it last time, Jack isn’t a good driver, Jack needs it urgently, Henry was planning to use it and Jack knows this.

Our choice of verb depends on the relationship of the speakers, the situation and the ease with which the person can do what they are being asked to do. We can also add a further dimension – how easy is it to make the request etc.. (perhaps we have to interrupt the person). All of these factors dictate how intense, formal or polite we need to be.

Using modal verbs to add depth or nuance:

Modal verbs can also be used to express formality, belief and more subtle levels of meaning. Here are a few examples:

If we go back to the first list of sentences – we can here add another to the list.

  • You might want to read the instructions before you begin.

This sentence suggests that we may not have considered reading the instructions and the speaker (tactfully) suggests we do because they have information which tells them we should (this could be that we always do things badly because we fail to follow instructions, or perhaps the speaker has done this task before and had a bad experience as a result of not reading instructions first – they want us to derive benefit from their experience)

Here are some more examples:

  • You might have told me they had got divorced! 

The speaker found themselves in an embarrassing situation and is angry.

  • I might have been a famous singer ! 

We understand that something in the speaker’s past made this a possibility but it was never realised.

  • You really shouldn’t treat her that way.

Here the speaker is taking a moral stance as well as giving advice. What is happening is wrong in the eyes of the speaker.

  • I wouldn’t go that far, but I do think your ideas are a little odd!

Would here is used to express polite disagreement.

  • It would have been a good idea to let us know yesterday that the meeting was cancelled.

Again would is used to make this reprimand more polite.

  • They will keep spelling my name wrongly!

We know from this use of will that the speaker is very irritated.

Modals are the most common way of expressing stance in English especially in conversation.

Try this Gapfillers exercise on modal verbs which show a speaker’s belief or stance (the ex. shows probability).

Check out my post on Register for more on formality.

Finally, here is a list of verbs that most often occur with modal auxiliaries:

abide,  admit,   afford,  appeal, cope, guarantee,  handle,  imagine, interact, resist, survive, tolerate

and some that frequently do:
advise, aid, believe, benefit, claim, continue, contribute, count on, deduce, end up, expect, exit, focus, forgive, get over, grumble, harm, overwhelm, pause, reach, rely, respect, solve, withstand

As ever, check in your grammar book and try these out as soon as you can!

You may like to look at these posts:

Doing a language audit

Making progress as an Advanced learner

Advanced learners – a Pecha Kucha

January 6, 2010

Using Modal Verbs – part two

In part one we looked at a definition and some of the language functions in English where we use a modal verb. I want to continue with more functions here.

If you listen or read English you will see that modal verbs are commonly used in a variety of different ways. It is, therefore, worth spending some time to make sure you know how and when to use them. Correct and appropriate use will enhance your English and help it to develop and grow.

Here are more functions which require a modal verb.

  • probability
  • prohibition
  • obligation
  • advice


May, might, ought to and should are the modal verbs used for probability.

  • I may go abroad to work next year. (I’m thinking about it)
  • I might apply for a job in the USA. (It looks good but I’m a little apprehensive still)
  • You shouldn’t have any problems getting a place on the course with your qualifications. (Id be very surprised if they didn’t accept you)
  • House prices should improve this first quarter. (The conditions indicate this.)

Note that should is used for positive situations. For negative statements we tend to use will.

  • House prices will plummet this year!
  • I’m sure that she won’t be chosen as team leader.


  • Things ought to get better from now on. (The newspapers are saying this.)
  • They ought not to have told her about Jenny and Steve. (probability resulting from an action in the past – she is upset or angry)

Try this exercise  from Gapfillers to test modal verbs for probability.


mustn’t, shouldn’t, oughtn’t to, may not, cannot are used to express prohibition it is also possible to use (be) not allowed to

  • You must not use pencil in this examination. (It is a rule and you will fail if you do.)
  • You shouldn’t tell anybody about the accident. (It might upset people.)
  • You ought not to stay alone in this house. (It isn’t safe but it is your choice.)
  • Visitors may not use the employee rest rooms – facilities are available in the foyer. (A softer/polite way of prohibition)
  • You  can’t smoke in public buildings in the UK. (This is a fact)
  • You are not allowed to ask questions during the presentation. (The speaker has requested this very strongly).

(We will look a little more at degree and politeness in the final posting on modal verbs.)


 must, should, ought to, all express an obligation to do something with varying levels of urgency. Have to and need to can also be used to express this language function. Sentences using these modal verbs are opposite in meaning to prohibition (where their negatives are used).

  • UK drivers must wear a seatbelt in their car. (It is the law.)
  • I had to go and see the Director this morning. (He asked me to go and see him.) We use have to where must isn’t possible, as here in the past tense.
  • You should stay in bed with that bad cold. (This is my opinion as you don’t seem very well.)
  • You ought to speak to Janice first before you ask Sean to help. (If you don’t she may be angry.)

Need (without to) can be used as a modal verb to show absence of obligation

  • You needn’t clear up, the cleaner will do that later.

or in questions.

  • Need you make so much noise? I can’t hear  television.

We use need to and have to interchangeably.

  • I don’t need to/have to attend the meeting on Friday.


ought to, ought not to, should, should not, must, must not, had better, had better not are all used to give advice which is another function of modal verbs. (for advice using conditionals see my post on conditionals)

  • You really ought to re-draft that proposal. (It’s not very well written.)
  • You ought not to go out tonight. (The weather is very bad.)
  • You should get your application in early. (It will show that you are organised.)
  • You shouldn’t let things get you down. (They’re not so important.)
  • You must get a new suit for the interview! (You want to make a good impression.)
  • You mustn’t let him borrow the car. (He’s a terrible driver!)
  • You had better let Dr Jones look at you. (You don’t look well to me.)
  • You had better not go out this evening. (The weather is bad and you are not well.)

Check you understand these usages. Learn them and above all use them as soon as you can!

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