Advice: Study vs Immersion

A teacher emailed me this week to ask for advice about helping a group of students who seemed to be stuck at band 6.5 to 7.

Here’s part of the advice that I gave to the teacher:

If you’ve already taken your students from band 5 or 6 up to band 7, it’s going to require quite a lot more work on their “general English” to move them towards 7.5 and 8.

You are essentially working with upper intermediate / lower advanced students and trying to move them up to advanced level. This can be easier when the students are immersed in the language (e.g. students living here in the UK), but it’s a huge challenge when your students aren’t using English outside the classroom.

Don’t feel too bad if your students struggle to become as proficient as you would like. They probably need a period of immersion in an English language environment to break through to the next level. Either that or lots more lessons!

Let me explain this in a different way:

If you take English lessons but use your own language outside the classroom, you are trying to improve through study. This takes time and hard work.

But if you live in a country where English is spoken, or if you are surrounded by native English speakers for another reason (work, a hobby, an online community), you have the chance to immerse yourself in the language outside the classroom. This usually leads to bigger and faster improvements.

In my experience, people often get stuck at a certain level when they rely on study alone. They need a period of immersion to break through to the next level of fluency and proficiency.

Let me know what you think.


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  1. Hi Simon,
    Some of my students, who’ve just completed the test, have commented that the IELTS test is recently becoming more difficult and tricky and that the official IELTS Cambridge Practice tests are somehow outdated and a bit ‘easy’. They’ve told me that in the Reading test, for example, some answers to gap-fill questions are not in order as they used to be, and in the Listening test, the question types in each part are also changing. For instance, Listening Part 4 sometimes contains multiple-choice questions. Is it true? I’m in Vietnam, by the way. Would you suggest any other reliable (more difficult) IELTS Practice tests?

    • Over past two years, I studied English by myself in an environment without using this language in my daily life. However, I noticed that I need to make me to be surrounded by native English speakers. I listen BBC news podcast after getting up in the morining, I read magnizes such Economists and TIMES when available. These work helped me to keep my English level after my IELTS test. Now, I have an oppertunity to immerse myself in English becuase I was involved to work with people from different areas who have to speak English in order to understand each other. Even though we are not native speakers, I guess improvement can be expected by using English frequently.

    • Hi Quan. I’m afraid that students have been saying that kind of thing for years! I’ve seen no evidence that tests are getting harder. Besides, if a particular test is a little trickier than usual, the IELTS creators know this and change the banding accordingly (e.g. you might only need 28 correct answers to get a band 7 instead of 30).

      Practice tests always seem easier than real tests, but the Cambridge IELTS books are still the best source of real practice – they contain ‘past papers’.

    • Hi Chao. Keep up the study, and I hope the opportunity to work in English helps!

  2. Hi Simon
    It is fortunate to say that I have the chance to immerse myself in the language, but I’m afraid of making mistakes. The common way I used is translating every email or file to check. It is still hard for me to express myself correctly in English.

    • Hi Alyssa. Try to worry a bit less about your mistakes. I made lots of funny mistakes when I lived in Spain, but they helped me to improve. Language is for communication, not for showing that you are always ‘correct’. Relax, take a few more risks and you’ll see the benefits.

      • Hi Simon, you definitely make a good point! But I’m afraid it’s another kettle of fish when it comes to IELTS speaking, sorry, I definitely hate to bring the grammar thing up again.
        But I 100% agree with you that go for language expression first, pay attention to what native speakers say in daily life, and then worry about your grammar issue.
        Another thing is when it comes to having daily conversations with others, I notice that I’m able to produce a lot of idioms, and slang very naturally, but during the speaking session, I sometimes get stuck with ideas or don’t how to express myself clearly.
        Wonder if it happens to others as well…

        • This is completely normal Chen. It’s always harder to produce “natural” language when we’re feeling self-conscious.

  3. Hi, Simon. Thank you for the great advice.
    I’m lucky that I now live in Canada.
    I feel that I could always find some ways to express myself (I’m not afraid of making mistakes bc it’s somehow unavoidable).
    But I still have problems understanding others’ speaking. It bothers me that I feel nervous when listening and embarassed to ask them to repeat.
    What do you think of it ? Do you have any advices ?

    Thank you.

    • Hi Bingyuan. The only solution is time and ‘exposure’ (lots of listening). Just let your brain do its job – it won’t be long before you understand native speakers much better. But you can’t force this process, so relax and enjoy the challenge!