Learning for English exams - the help you need!

hitting the books

Whichever English exam you are studying towards, there are two things you must consider - your level of general English, and learning techniques to improve your exam score. Unless you study them over the duration of a longer course, it's difficult to improve both at the same time. So, let's focus on how to improve that score!

I work mostly with IELTS and Cambridge exam students and this post is designed to give you some helpful pointers and links to improve your grade, although you should keep doing whatever you can to better your general English too. Remember to listen to, read and watch the best content in English.

If you want the quick version, here are my 5 tips for exams success.


How do I create an English study plan?

English study plan

The first point I make to students is that your study plan must be realistic, and something you can stick to. Don't pencil in six hours for Sunday afternoon and leave the rest of the week free. Don't bank on study time when you have a busy work schedule or have to drive your kids to swimming practice.

Also, you'll never 'have' time, you have to make it, and that means cutting other activities in order to focus on your studies. Of course, the time you can free up will be different for everyone. Try to vary your study techniques and do something every day, however small. Here's an example:

  • Monday - 30 minutes general English reading at lunchtime + Exam writing practice essay in the evening
  • Tuesday - 15 minutes vocabulary study at breakfast + listening exam practice paper in the evening
  • Wednesday - 30 minutes speaking practice with online / coffee partner + 60 minutes general English listening in the evening (movie or podcast)
  • Thursday - 15 minutes vocabulary study at breakfast + 60 minute exam reading practice in the evening
  • Friday - Rest day. No study. Watch or read in English if possible.
  • Saturday - 60 minute exam writing practice + one hour's general reading
  • Sunday - 15 minutes vocabulary study,  30 minutes speaking practice with partner, 60 minutes grammar and vocab checking and exercises.

This looks like a lot, but it's only 8.5 hours of study per week. If passing this exam will make a big difference, then adjust the activities and times for you.


How do I study vocabulary?

English words

Forget word lists. Learn vocab in context. Keeping note of words you hear and read and look up is not enough - use them in context, write where you found them and then revise them. Most importantly, use these new words! Conversation lessons are great for this as you can try out the phrases you've just heard with your tutor.

This article from the British Council has more great ideas on how to better memorise words.

Repetition is crucial with new words. In my example study plan, I mentioned 15 minute vocabulary study. For this, I recommend apps such as IELTS Word Power and Memrise while you eat your cereal, wait for the bus, or watch TV.


How do I practise speaking?

talking over coffee

Think you can't practise speaking? Think again. It's important to get help and correction, but most importantly you must produce the language. Speak it into reality. Options for trying some speaking activities for your exam include the following:
  • Getting a family member to ask the questions and test you
  • Recording yourself (especially for monologues like Part 2 of Cambridge or IELTS). Listen back and try to improve your answer.
  • Meeting a friend for coffee and speaking in English. This could be another English student or colleague.
  • Setting up a language exchange. You can see who is in your city with this site. Or why not go an English speaking social event (check Facebook for your local group).
  • Chat online - There are thousands of native speakers on sites like Cafetalk and Cambly who want to talk to you and help.

Students are often least confident with the speaking section of exams, but it doesn't have to be that way!


How do I improve my English writing?

writing on paper

This is the area where I see students doing the least practice. It's also the section of the exam that you can improve quickest. It's not really about the level of your general English, but how you apply that to answering the question . . . and that takes training.

Using a trainer book or web course to learn about the structure of the answers and useful phrases and constructions to implement is a good starting point. Further to that, you must write at least two answers per week. If you write twenty practice essays before the real one, your grade will be much improved. Of course, it's necessary to get your work checked and graded, too. You can use my proofreading service - I'll correct, comment on, and grade your answers, so you can improve your English writing.

Another tip is to check lots of model answers. Read responses which score the grade you are aiming for. There is no point reading a band 9 response if you are targeting a band 6. This site has a good number of error-free band seven and eight IELTS responses. I also recommend Ruben Valero's site for Cambridge writing.


Am I learning English right?

confused person

Without feedback, how do you know if you are improving? It is crucial to receive instruction and assessment from qualified tutors in order to pass exams. Nowadays, people have their own schedules and lives to navigate, and group classes at academies or study centres might not be affordable or be able dedicate enough time to personal feedback.

Good tutors will help you to work to an attainable goal, so be prepared for them to tell you to work harder, smarter and for a longer time before attempting the exam.


Useful links for English exam study


  • Tips and practical advice for the Cambridge FCE and CAE
  • A great site for all things IELTS - how to articles, model answers and case studies.
  • Flo Joe - Vocab, grammar, skills development and practice tests for Cambridge exams.
  • General resource for lots of different exams with free practice tests - Cambridge, IELTS, TOEFL, TOEIC - and C2 vocab.
  • English Stuff - Practice for FCE, TOEFL, TOEIC, IELTS. Some general grammar (intermediate) and pronunciation too.
  • Exam outline with some TOEFL tips and practice exercises
  • British Council IELTS site. Many resources here.

I should mention that YouTube is a great place to find videos which introduce techniques and especially to watch examples of speaking tests.


I've helped hundreds of students to improve the exam scores. If you would like to work with me, then click here for more information.

Thanks for reading. I hope you found the tips helpful.