Screengrab of virtual reality game

Virtual reality for language learning and teaching – the recipe for successful IELTS preparation





Date Published

31 October 2023

Rory Reyes-Cobar predicts that virtual worlds are going to be the future of test preparation for IELTS. She teaches English in Surfers Paradise, on Australia’s Gold Coast. She recently won the IELTS Morgan Terry Memorial IATEFL Scholarship 2024 for her research on using virtual reality (VR) to prepare students for their tests.

Rory Reyes-Cobar

Rory explains how she helped her students to boost their test scores while having fun: “I started using video calls to teach English online long before the pandemic happened and when lockdowns started, I was already used to teaching online.

“During the pandemic I started to notice that students were not really engaging in their online classes, which was leading to poorer results. That’s when I thought about virtual reality (VR) for the first time.

“We know that it’s easier to learn things while experiencing them, and this knowledge led to my idea of using VR for the listening sections of the maps in IELTS. I was lucky enough to be teaching at an innovative school which was happy to try new things, so we started using it for smaller things, like chatting to strangers in virtual environments. The students were so happy with it that we decided to create a virtual world to teach prepositions and directions.

“With a developer, we built a maze and while students are in the virtual environment, one student gives directions to the others. The other students can follow their progress on a map and can then go through the maze based on the directions that the other student is giving them.”

Screengrab of virtual reality game used by Rory Reyes-Cobar

Traditional versus virtual reality IELTS preparation

She adds, “Since we were experimenting with the technology, we decided to measure how effective it could be for our students.

“In one of the tasks used in the IELTS Listening test, students need to learn to receive directions and instructions by looking at a map and completing missing information.

“The first group prepared for the IELTS listening task in a traditional way, so they were given a flat image of a map, while the second group were given a virtual map inside a 3-D environment. In the virtual environment we created bridges, buildings and the structure of a map so the students could walk around.

“We observed that the students who prepared for the task by using a virtual world obtained much better results on practice map tasks. In fact, on average they answered three to four more questions correctly.

“We saw similar results with the writing task. Those who trained with the technology were able to produce much better results and used broader descriptive language.”

Screengrab of virtual reality game used by Rory Reyes-Cobar

Rory goes on to explain, “Most of our younger test takers and learners are digital natives who have grown up with technology and gaming. But even with older students, although it takes them a little longer to get comfortable with the technology, you can then see that the results in their writing and listening tasks are improving significantly and they enjoy the process a lot more.

“It’s really rewarding to see that your students are having fun while learning. However, creating the material is quite challenging!”

Tips for teachers looking to introduce virtual reality in the classroom

Rory has some useful advice for other teachers: “The big challenge is that VR is fantastic, but it takes a lot of time to develop and it’s very easy to consume. Immediately after finishing the first task, my students are already asking for more. The reality is, it takes around a month to develop all this, so I don’t have 20 of them lined up.

“My advice for any teacher interested in this would be to find a good game developer that understands the importance of the educational elements. It’s very easy to get excited about the game part and forget about the rest.

“My second piece of advice is to make sure that teaching and learning always come first and then the technology will help with the cool stuff, so it is much more than just a game.”

  • Rory Reyes-Cobar is a Senior Teacher at Langports, Australia

IATEFL Scholarship

The IELTS Morgan Terry Memorial IATEFL Scholarship, funded by the IELTS Partners (British Council, IDP IELTS, Cambridge University Press & Assessment) is designed to recognise innovation in the English teaching space.

Find out more about the scholarship and hear from previous winners.