This article reports an investigation of the impact of IELTS on the preparation of international students for tertiary study in New Zealand. The research was carried out in two phases, moving from a broad overview of the national scene to a specific focus on two particular IELTS preparation courses.
The first phase was a survey of the provision of IELTS preparation in the tertiary/adult sector. A questionnaire was mailed to 96 language schools, with a response rate of 81%. The schools included language departments and centres associated with public tertiary institutions as well as numerous private language schools. Among the respondents, 60 schools offered some form of IELTS preparation, mainly to international students of Asian origin. IELTS preparation was structured in three main ways: as a separate part-time course that was relatively short; as a optional component of a full-time General English programme; and integrated into an extended full-time course in English for academic purposes.
The questionnaire was followed up by 23 interviews with teachers engaged in IELTS preparation at the larger language schools in four of the main cities. The interviews probed the structure and delivery of IELTS preparation in greater depth, as well as exploring the relationship between preparing students for the test and preparing them adequately for academic study through the medium of English. The participants reported that students really needed to.be at an upper intermediate level of General English proficiency before being able to benefit from IELTS preparation and have a realistic chance of passing the test, but there was often pressure to accept students whose proficiency was lower than that. Even students who gained the minimum band score for tertiary admission were likely to struggle to meet the demands of English-medium study in a New Zealand university or polytechnic. IELTS courses varied a great deal in the extent to which they could incorporate academic study skills which were not directly assessed the test. Despite its limitations, the teachers generally recognised that IELTS was the most suitable test available for the purpose.
The second phase of the research was a classroom study of two IELTS preparation courses at different language schools in Auckland. Data was gathered over a one-month period by employing two different observation instruments as well as teacher interviews and a questionnaire, student questionnaires and pre- and post-testing using retired versions of IELTS. One course was a separate IELTS preparation course, which focused almost entirely on giving the students information about the test, advice on test-taking strategies and multiple practice tests. The other one was a one of a sequence of IELTS preparation courses offered by the second school to students in its General English programme. It followed a topic-based approach and gave attention not only to the test tasks but also to the development of language knowledge and academic skills. The research instruments revealed a number of substantial differences between the two courses and in the way the two teachers felt IELTS had influenced their teaching.