Scaling through the IELTS (International English Language Testing System) exams seems to be an uphill task for Nigerians. It is generally accepted that someone cannot write this test the first time and scale through, unless he has been studying long before the day. In fact, my elder brother said that people should make up their minds the first time they are sitting for the exam that they are there to check out the exam’s format, not to pass the exam. I was like why should I spend N75, 000 to sit for an exam just to have an experience of what the exam is like? Why won’t I pass it the first time? Of course, those that have written this exam told me to stop dreaming. Like someone pointed out, it’s not all about studying English in the higher institution; it’s about understanding what it is expected of you and then practicing it till it becomes a part of you.
I had problem accepting these views. I mean, Nigeria is an English speaking country (though as second language users), so why do we have to struggle with an exam that only wants to test our level of competency in the language. If you look at it, English is a subject of study in our schools – from nursery to tertiary – and we speak it often (sometimes even more than our Nigerian indigenous languages), so we shouldn’t be struggling in this exam with countries like China and Russia, where English is a foreign language. But then, our people have to sit for this exam several times before they meet up the cut off marks required by the concerned immigration offices.
To be sure that these people giving me these information aren’t biased, I went in search of data. I found what I needed in IELTS website, https://www.ielts.org/teaching-and-research/test-taker-performance and discovered that we Nigerians aren’t doing badly. I realised that the mean scores of Nigerians in 2017 IELTS exams were not too far from that of native speakers of English like Canada and United States of America. So, I concluded that the IELTS exam challenge is an individual thing, not a national one.
Of course, some of us may be fast to judge our education system (don’t worry I’ll still get to that). But if you check the English textbooks approved by Nigerian Educational Research and Development Council (NERDC), you will note that they cover all parts of the tests you pass through in IELTS. In other words, the curriculum is working hand in hand with international standard. You may then ask what the problem is.
The first thing I believe that is causing this taking and re-taking of this exam by Nigerians is the teaching method employed by their English teachers. Most teachers are not flexible with their teaching styles. What some of them failed to realise is that every language skill requires a different teaching method or approach. It is also necessary to note here that most of our teachers focus more on grammar and vocabulary building than on the development of the language skills. This is why you can see someone who has challenges with writing but knows all the rules applicable to the English language.
Our second problem is our testing style. This is my major interest in this piece. Our education system does not acknowledge that there are four basic language skills, which need to be tested in every single exam. The only skills tested in our exams here in Nigeria are the reading and the writing skills. This means that Nigerians going for their first IELTS exams will have to face tests on listening and speaking skills unprepared.
The last thing I would like to touch here is the timing of our exams. I always tell my students that exams are designed to test their abilities to think and act fast, and to do so appropriately. This is the essence of timing exams. In Nigeria, some teachers give their students exams that are too poor for the duration of time specified. Others may give exams that are too much for the stated time. And then, those that give what is suitable for the specified time will leave the students to stay longer than they are supposed to because they ‘pity’ them (the let-them-finish syndrome). The result of this is that our students are not trained to use their time properly (Ask around and you will see that many people failed their IELTS exam because they couldn’t meet up with time).
Well, I believe that the reason for pointing out problems is to find their solutions. I’ve been thinking of something, and that’s what I want to bring in here. My take is on how to get our students prepared for exams, both local and international. Here, I want to suggest that our school exams in English should inculcate the four basic skills – listening, speaking, reading and writing. The examiners should bear the following in mind during these tests:
a. Testing the Speaking Skills: This test should be supervised by competent English teachers. Here, the students should be tested on pronunciation, intonation, fluency, accuracy, comportment, vocabulary usage, confidence, and so on. The students should engage in conversations with their examiner(s), where topics related to any of the registers studied within the term will be brought up and discussed.
b. Testing the Listening Skills: Usually, listening comprehension passages are included in English textbooks, where teachers are expected to read it out to the students and then ask them questions from the passages (the students are not to look into their books throughout this exercise). This method can be adopted for the exams; or an audio message should be provided for them. The major thing tested in this exam is the students’ abilities to be attentive, comprehend and interpret the message(s).
c. Testing the Reading Skills: This skill is tested almost in every exam in English. This is usually done using different levels of comprehension passage exercises. This exam tests the students’ abilities to decipher information from printed characters (that is ability to read), comprehend information from texts and interpret the information. This means that students should be able to read in between the lines and understand the intended meanings of the writer.
d. Testing the Writing Skills: This is also another area Nigerian education system handles very well. This part involves testing the students’ abilities to put down their thoughts in prints, organise their thoughts logically, apply the mechanics and express themselves in a clear unambiguous manner. This test can also assesses students’ levels of creativity and knowledge of the different writing techniques. This means that teachers have works to do here to ensure that their students are well grounded.
e. Testing the Vocabulary Development: This test is supposed to be inculcated in the first four tests, but nevertheless, it is good that the students be assessed separately to see how they are able to use words according to context. This test usually gives a comprehension passage where students are asked to replace words or phrases with their synonyms that could be applicable to the context. It can also come in the form of filling up missing words in gaps left in passages.
The truth about the situation of English language in Nigeria is that the country is gradually adopting this language as her first language. This means that Nigerians shouldn’t find IELTS exams challenging if they actually know what they were going there to face.
Since our curriculum isn’t wanting in this subject, it is left for the teachers and the education system to make some adjustments to incorporate the suggestions given here. For those who have passed school age, you can still make use of these suggestions as you prepare for this exam.
Please, nobody should hold this believe that they are writing IELTS because they want to have a feel of the exam. Write this exam because you want to scale through and continue with your migration processes. N75, 000.00 is not something to be joked with.