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Improving your English skills: Options for international students

If you are thinking about studying in Australia, you will need to provide proof of your English language proficiency. This is a requirement when applying for a student visa, as well as when you are applying for courses.

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The Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) accepts four main English language skills tests:

  • International English Language Testing System (IELTS)
  • Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL)
  • Cambridge English: Advanced (CAE)
  • Pearson Test of English (PTE)

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When applying for study, it is important to check the English language requirements of each institution you are interested in. Some may accept one test type exclusively, while others may be more flexible — accepting two, three or all of the above. You should also check the proficiency level required for course admission. A course in a language-based field such as communications, for example, will often require a much higher score than other fields. Each test will provide a graded score according to your level of proficiency. IELTS, for example, uses a scale of 0–9. A score of nine is awarded to ‘expert users’, while a score below six indicates limited or modest use.   

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How to improve your chances of a high score

Find a tutor. Finding an English tutor, especially considering the costs of tuition, is not always possible. But don’t forget, you may be able to track down an English speaker in your hometown to help. If you are currently studying, your school or university may be able to provide a list of contacts or refer you to someone on campus who can help you prepare.

Practice verbal skills with friends. It’s a good idea to practice your English language skills with a friend or within a larger group.This will help you learn how to hold a conversation, rather than reciting phrases on your own. Another advantage is that mispronouncing a word to your friends will not be as stressful as it would be with a tutor or language teacher!

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 Expand your reading materials. One way to improve your English vocabulary and language comprehension is to widen your range of reading materials.This will help improve both your reading and writing skills, as you will pick up new words, phrases and grammar rules along the way. This may include finding the English-language version of your favourite book, tracking down Australian magazines or making an effort to read Australian online newspapers throughout the week. You should also seek out unfamiliar material, such as an opinion piece written in colloquial (conversational and informal) Australian English.

Create your own study materials. Even if you have limited resources, setting your own assessment tasks can help you improve your overall skills — whether this involves writing essays to improve your writing skills or recording yourself speaking. Assessing yourself does not necessarily mean that you will need a tutor or English-speaking friend on hand. Correcting your own essay is possible with the use of a dictionary or by researching English grammar rules online. 

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Most importantly, you should identify your strengths and weaknesses. For example, if you speak well but have trouble with spelling, this should be your priority when preparing to take the test. If you read and write to a high standard but are worried about speaking under pressure, you will need to make sure that you get plenty of practice before testing day.

There are a number of tools available online, such as sample tests and preparation guides (some with videos to help you along). You may also find student communities, perhaps on social networks,  that will pair you up with students in the same position who will also be eager to practice their language skills.

[Jenny Nguyen]


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