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The four reasons candidates fail the IELTS exam

If you have taken the IELTS exam more than once and have not yet achieved your target score, it is likely for the following reasons:

  1. Booking your exam before you are ready
  2. Taking a general course (with no feedback)
  3. Not knowing how the test is evaluated

All these points are covered below, however, you need to pay particular attention to “preparation” and “lack of feedback” (points 2 and 3 below).  Not knowing how the test is evaluated should also be covered by choosing the right course to study, because your teacher needs to give you feedback on your performance based on how you score against the test band score criteria.

Over 3.7 million candidates took the IELTS test in 2019. Below are the latest Test Statistics from IELTS showing the results for Vietnamese test takers in 2019 (just published here).The mean scores for each skill were as follows:

  • Listening: 6.2
  • Reading: 6.3
  • Writing: 5.7
  • Speaking: 5.7
  • Overall: 6.1

This is a very slight improvement in the results from 2018 (Overall: 5.98). Since 2017, IELTS no longer provide a breakdown of the percentage of candidates who achieved certain band scores, however, in 2017, we can see that a considerable majority (62%) failed to achieve a band score of 6.5, while a large minority (38%) achieved 6.5 and above. Link to graphic

The overall result of 6.1 last year shows that, as in 2017-2018, candidates are either taking the test too early and/or not preparing effectively. Two major problems related to inadequate preparation are that many students do not understand the official marking criteria, and not using authentic practice materials. 100% of the things you do in the speaking and writing tests should be informed by the official marking criteria.

Similarly, all the materials you use to prepare should accurately reflect the real IELTS exam. This is why it is so important to check the course book you will be using BEFORE you sign up for a course at a language school, and ask how the teacher will give you feedback and show you how to improve in each of the four skills. Most IELTS language centers here in Vietnam use “in-house” materials, which means they have copied old course books which are often not graded to the level of the learner, and not representative of the real IELTS exam.

So, what are the reasons why a majority of candidates fail to achieve their target?

1. Mindset

The characteristics which make up a growth mindset (success) versus a fixed mindset (failure).

The most important factor, which might surprise many students, is “mindset” –  the established set of attitudes held by someone. In education, mindset reflects the underlying beliefs people have about learning and intelligence. When it comes to IELTS, a positive mindset is more important than ability. When students believe they can get smarter, they understand that effort makes them stronger. Therefore they put in extra time and effort, and that leads to higher achievement. Your mindset will determine your score, and students who fail the test often believe the following to be true:

  • You can learn tips to pass the test quickly.
  • You can pass the test without much work.
  • Outside factors are to blame for your low score (e.g. hard test, unlucky, difficult examiner).
  • Their ability level is higher than it really is (unrealistic targets).

2. Active versus Passive Learning

The second factor which affects students ability to make progress is “active versus passive learning”. Students need to adopt an effective method for learning new material, but this may be hard to do when the traditional education system is designed to be passive rather than active. Vietnamese universities and colleges continue to rely on traditional standardised tests that promote rote learning and do little to develop critical thinking or problem-solving skills among learners.

Examples of passive learning include reading books, listening to audio and watching videos, listening to a teacher in class, and taking notes in class. All of these methods will result in very slow progress for the average IELTS student.

In contrast, example of active learning include:

  • Revising and summarising notes
  • Asking questions in class
  • Understanding the relationships between different topics
  • Participating in class practice and discussions
  • Researching new information on a topic

Active learning is so effective is because it requires a student to think about a particular topic and put their knowledge into practice. This improves both comprehension and long-term memory. So, how can students use active learning techniques in IELTS? Here is some advice:


  • Practice developing and giving your opinion on a wide range of IELTS topics, such as crime, education, the environment, healthcare and cities.
  • Listen carefully to your partner in class and then ask them follow-up questions (this will test your listening skills and improve your understanding of part 3).


  • Subscribe to the Facebook news feed for the Economist, Telegraph newspaper, Science Channel and TED Education – review the infographics and diagrams and try to describe and summarize the trends or main points.
  • Develop your ideas and opinions on a wide range of IELTS essay questions.


  • When you have completed a reading passage in class, review your incorrect answers at home and identify the correct answer from the passage
  • Construct keyword tables with the underlined keywords from the questions and their synonyms from the passage


  • Use the time before the audio begins to predict (not the same as guessing) what the answers could be. Think about grammar (noun, adjective, verb) and vocabulary.
  • Listen again at home and identify the expressions and keywords which lead to the correct answer.

3. Lack of feedback

The third factor which slows down students’ progress is a “lack of feedback”. This obviously affects students studying by themselves, but also many language schools do not provide effective feedback in the classroom.

An effective IELTS course shows you the exact weaknesses that will cost you marks in the exam.

Students have to understand what they need to do to achieve their target band score, and a good teacher will provide individual feedback specific to your work so you can learn how to improve.

In addition, a final exam does not help students to understand their weaknesses, measure their progress or know their band score throughout a course. It just helps a language school place you on another course.

Effective feedback will involve continuous assessment using actual exam questions, and students keep a detailed record of their progress in all four skills.

If you don’t know exactly where you’re going wrong, you won’t be able to improve.

4. Techniques

The final area, “techniques”, is often considered to be the most important, but is actually the least important, and misunderstood. Most students think that techniques = tips, tricks and advice to give you a high score in the IELTS exam, but learning tips and tricks is not going to help you with the following:

  • Preparation
  • Cognitive awareness
  • Skills

Preparation includes the ability to manage and schedule your time, prioritise what is important in your studies, solve problems by being an independent learner, and discipline by avoiding distractions – and your phone!

Cognitive awareness are the skills your brain uses to think, read, learn, reason and pay attention. This includes the need to understand, apply, analyze, evaluate AND develop opinions!

Finally, skills are NOT the most common things you see on websites, such as: word lists, phrases, structures and model answers. This gives students what they want but not what they need.

So, what skills are valuable in IELTS?

  • Study at your current level – IELTS course books are often graded, so choose new materials which are suitable for your current band score.
  • Become an independent learner – you can only achieve a high band score if you take responsibility for your own learning. For example, looking for an online course which promises to deliver band score 7.0 in a few months is unrealistic if your current score is below 6.0 – Sites like this will show you lists of words and idioms which are often “difficult” rather than “less common” and are presented out of context. Band score 7 candidates should show a range of vocabulary with an awareness of style.
  • Use deliberate practice for learning vocabulary – in your IELTS reading and listening passages, make lists of vocabulary, collocations and idiomatic phrases and learn how to use them in a natural way (in context). Also, try and study topic-based vocabulary, since this is a common theme in the IELTS exam.
  • Don’t waste time learning very informal (for example, slang) or technical words.
  • Make sure you can pronounce and spell the vocabulary you are learning.
  • Study regularly, every day.
  • Avoid practice tests until a few weeks before the exam. Practice tests do not improve your English proficiency, just your ability to take the test.
  • Use authentic materials. Many students are using free or cheap practice materials which do not reflect the real test and often contain many mistakes. Similarly, don’t pay attention to “tips and tricks” which promise to boost your band score in a short time – students who do this often retake the test and remain stuck at the same level.

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