My top tip for IELTS Listening: put your finger on the text

My top tip for IELTS Listening: put your finger on the text

In many way, IELTS Listening is as much a test of attention and multitasking as of aural comprehension. Regardless of accent, the recorded voices on the tape speak more slowly and clearly than people generally do in real life, and they do not use the kinds of slang* and idiomatic language that can be confusing to many non-native English speakers.

The difficulties of the Listening portion lie elsewhere, in processing the written information on the page and the spoken information on the recording at the same time, and in connecting one to the other. In principle, this is simple because the two convey the same information. However, they may not always be identical: the written portion may restate the recording word-for-word or, at certain points, it may paraphrase/condense the spoken part. When the latter occurs, it is easy to become confused and miss essential information simply because it takes you a few extra seconds to figure out which phrase or sentence on the page corresponds to what you are hearing. And in Listening, every second counts.

An additional challenge is that multiple-choice questions accompanied by a long list of answer choices are physically separated from the rest of the text, making it necessary to continually jump back and forth between different parts of the page while you listen. There’s a lot of content to manage, and if you spend just a couple of seconds too many re-reading an answer choice and stop paying close attention to the recording, you may miss the information you need to answer the following question. (more…)

7 Tips for the IELTS Speaking Test

7 Tips for the IELTS Speaking Test


1) A question is a general prompt; it is your job to “develop the topic”  

I’m certainly not the first person to say this, but this is undoubtedly the single biggest issue for many IELTS candidates, especially in Part 1. In non-test life, when someone asks you a simple yes/no question such as Do you live alone or with other people? it’s perfectly fine to just say By myself.

An IELTS response that will put you on track for a high score, however, is something along the lines of I live in a house with a couple of other people right now, but I’m actually planning to move into a studio in a couple of months. I get along with everyone pretty well, but to be totally honest, I’m the sort of person who does better alone, so I’m really looking forward to having my own space.    

It’s ok to speak until the examiner cuts you off. You only get points taken off for talking too little, not for talking too much. If you are not naturally talkative, you will need to practice pushing yourself to keep giving more information than what certain questions seem to call for. Although this may seem deceptive on the IELTS’ part, it’s actually right there in the Band Descriptors: high-scoring responses are “fully” developed—by definition, that involves giving a lot of information. (more…)

Five tricky types of subject-verb agreement

Five tricky types of subject-verb agreement

I originally did this list as an Instagram post, but then it occurred to me that I should put it up here as well, so here goes in slightly expanded form.

First, remember that the singular/plural rule for verbs is the opposite of the rule for nouns:

Third-person singular verbs end in -s (it works, s/he does, the graph shows).

Third-person plural verbs do not end in -s (they work, they do, the graphs show).

1) Compound subject = plural

A compound noun consists of two nouns joined by and. These subjects are always plural, regardless of whether the individual nouns are singular or plural. This rule is easy in principle but can be surprisingly difficult in practice.

Correct: A stressful atmosphere and poor management are often responsible for employee burnout.

Incorrect: A stressful atmosphere and poor management is often responsible for employee burnout. (more…)

Sign up for the international students’ newsletter

Sign up for the international students’ newsletter

In recognition of the fact that many of the students who use Critical Reader guides are located outside the United States, we are launching a monthly newsletter specifically for students international students applying to universities in the English-speaking world (focus on the United States and Canada).

Sign up below, and get news and information about admissions, testing, visas, and scholarships.

Now available: recorded webinar for tutors working with struggling older readers

Now available: recorded webinar for tutors working with struggling older readers

I’m happy to announce that my Working with Struggling Older Readers: What Tutors Need to Know is now available at Although it is geared toward SAT/ACT tutors, it can be adapted by anyone working with struggling older readers in middle school or above.

The program includes the following: 

Part 1 (53:00) covers some of the background issues that influence the reading process and that can interfere with students’ ability to connect letters on a page to authentic language. (If you’ve read my series of blog posts on this topic, some of the material will probably be familiar, but I encourage you to watch this part regardless since it summarizes the major issues and provides important context for Part 2).

Part 2 (1:47) is a step-by-step guide to a series of systematic, age-appropriate exercises designed to help older readers process sound-letter combinations more accurately and fluently so that they can focus on the meaning of what they read. (more…)

How to write a body paragraph for the IELTS Task 2 essay

How to write a body paragraph for the IELTS Task 2 essay

Although it is very important to make a good first impression on your examiner by writing a strong introduction to your Task 2 essay, the body paragraphs are where your overall mark will really be determined.

Body paragraphs form the substance of your essay, and so it is important that they be structured logically (Coherence and Cohesion), and in a way that allows you to respond to the question as directly and thoroughly as possible (Task Response).

Because the Writing test requires you to apply so many skills at the same time, it can be very helpful to have a standard body-paragraph “formula” that can be used for virtually any question.

Once you have determined the focus of your paragraph, each new idea can be introduced with linking device + point.

You can then discuss that point or give an example to illustrate it using no more than two additional sentences. The limit prevents repetition, over-explaining, and going off-topic.


Update: Webinar for Reading Tutors

Update: Webinar for Reading Tutors

Slowly but surely, I am making progress on my webinar for tutors working with struggling older readers.

After a crash course in using Zoom to record PowerPoints, numerous attempts, and much time spent finagling computer-camera angles in my office, I’ve actually managed to produce what I hope is a serviceable recording. (I was having a bad hair day in pt. 2, but I’m hoping that everyone can deal;)

There are two parts: a shorter (approx. 40 mins.) introduction part, in which I summarize some of the key issues and background information (the Simple View; the Matthew effect; the three-cueing system); and a longer recording (1:45), in which I present and demonstrate a series of short exercises based on the sequence developed by my colleague Richard McManus at the Fluency Factory in Cohasset, Mass.

Although I spend a lot of time going over the exercises, they can actually be done in about 30 mins. and can thus be split with regular test prep. I’ve also tried to actually integrate SAT/ACT-based materials into the exercises as much as possible.

I’m currently working on the materials packet (probably in the range of 70-75 pages) and will hopefully have the whole thing ready by the week of November 7th. I haven’t yet determined the overall price, but the packet will be included along with the webinar because it would be pretty ridiculous to explain all of the exercises without, you know, actually providing them. Initially, I was going to focus on the ACT since that’s the test where speed and processing issues tend to become most apparent, but because the SAT is the more popular test, I’ve integrated some material from that exam as well.

A few points: (more…)

To make your IELTS writing more idiomatic, stop trying to use idioms

To make your IELTS writing more idiomatic, stop trying to use idioms

Fiona Wattam at IELTS Etc. recently put up an excellent post on some of the trickier aspects of using idioms well in IELTS essays, and it got me thinking about that topic as well. I think it’s fair to say that it’s a very popular subject: a quick Google search turns up almost four million results, some of which offer very contradictory advice.

I spent a lot of time thinking about idioms while writing (and repeatedly rewriting) that section of my IELTS grammar book, and at a certain point—perhaps after my tenth revision?—I came to a realization and finally managed to put the issue into words: using idioms is not the same as speaking or writing idiomatically.

I realize that statement might sound very contradictory so, to use a frequently memorized Task 1 General Training phrase, allow me to explain:

Essentially, the problem lies in the similarity of the terms idiom and idiomatic. One could very reasonably assume that they refer to the same thing, but in reality… not quite. (more…)

Coming soon: webinar for tutors working with struggling readers

Coming soon: webinar for tutors working with struggling readers

At the beginning of the summer, after I did my series of posts for tutors who have unexpectedly found themselves working with struggling high-school readers trying to prepare for college admissions tests, I started putting together a presentation for a webinar to address the major issues at play and demonstrate some of the exercises that can be used to help remediate such students.

Alas, my summer and the beginning of my fall got hijacked by my IELTS books, followed in rapid succession by necessary updates to my GMAT, ACT English, and ACT Reading books (followed by the IELTS again).

I’m happy to announce, however, that I finally seem to be back on track and am planning to record the webinar in the next week or so, and then people can access it at their convenience. I’m also doing my best to put together an accompanying materials pack that includes all the exercises covered. (more…)

“IELTS® Writing: Grammar and Vocabulary” is now available

“IELTS® Writing: Grammar and Vocabulary” is now available

The print version of my IELTS grammar and vocabulary guide covering both Academic and General Training is now available on Amazon as well as the Books page. If you’re studying for that exam, or are a tutor who prepare students for it, here is what you need to know.

IELTS® Writing: Grammar and Vocabulary is based on a simple premise: to write a good essay, one must first be able to write well at the sentence level.  

Many IELTS Writing guides focus on overall essay organization and construction and treat grammar and sentence-structure almost as an afterthought. And if they do emphasize these aspects of English, they often include example sentences that are much simpler than those required by the exam, or that are not fully relevant to the kinds of topics it involves. As for books written by non-native English speakers… well, I’m not even going to go there.

This is book is different. To the greatest extent possible, it focuses on direct application to the IELTS. It shows how specific structures are particularly suited to certain topics and scenarios, and points out traps to avoid. It also walks readers through the process of constructing “complex” sentences without losing control of their writing, and covers common errors that many test-takers do not even realize can easily (and quickly) prevent them from achieving their desired score. (more…)

Regarding the 2021-22 changes to ACT Reading

Regarding the 2021-22 changes to ACT Reading

As you may have heard, the ACT is tweaking its Reading test to include some graph- or chart-based questions similar to those on the Science test and the SAT Reading test. I’ve received several inquiries regarding these changes, so I wanted to let everyone know where things stand in terms of my materials.

First, yes,  I will be updating The Complete Guide to ACT Reading, although not immediately.

Unfortunately, the 2021-22 ACT Official Guide does not include any sample passages accompanied by the new question type; as of July 2021, the only example I’ve been able to locate is the one posted on the ACT website, and, well… It doesn’t seem particularly well done (to put things diplomatically). In the absence of any material from administered tests, there’s also no way for me to tell how well it reflects what the actual exam will look like. (more…)

The three types of conjunctions, and how to punctuate them

There are three main types of conjunctions in English. Some words in different categories have identical meanings, but they have different grammatical functions. As a result, they are punctuated differently when used to begin a clause or sentence.

Although the conjunctions discussed below may also appear in the middle or at the end of a sentence in certain contexts, this post concerns their placement at the start of a sentence or clause only.

 1) Coordinating Conjunctions (“FANBOYS”) 

There are seven coordinating conjunctions, known collectively by the acronym FANBOYS:

These words are placed in the middle of a sentence to join two independent clauses and should follow a comma. Although the punctuation is often omitted in everyday writing, you should make an effort to use it because the comma serves to clearly separate the parts of the sentence and helps the reader follow your ideas more easily. (more…)

Comma splices: the two main causes

Comma splices: the two main causes

Image by TypoArt BS, Shutterstock


I was looking back through my grammar posts the other day when I made a rather startling discovery: in all my years of writing this blog, I had somehow neglected to write a piece covering the two major causes of comma splices.

I suspect that because I’ve given this explanation in a total of five books now, I took it for granted that I had covered both issues  in a single post, back in… oh, I don’t know… 2012 maybe? But apparently not.

Since this is among the most frequently tested concepts on the SAT and the ACT, an occasional target of questions on the GMAT, and a HUGELY common error in IELTS essays, I would count this omission among the greatest oversights in Critical Reader history.

So here goes. (more…)

How to identify and assess a reading problem: some strategies for tutors

How to identify and assess a reading problem: some strategies for tutors


In a recent post, I talked about the challenges that (ACT) tutors often face when working with struggling readers; I also discussed how different types of problems can signal difficulties in different component skills that combine to produce reading. In this post, I’m going to cover how to identify a reading problem and provide some strategies for determining whether it stems from decoding, aural comprehension, or both.

To quickly review, the Simple View (Gough and Tunmer, 1986) states that General Reading Ability = Decoding x Aural Comprehension, with the weaker factor limiting overall skill.

Proficient teenage-adult readers decode at approximately 200 words per minute, or the speed of speech; however, many struggling readers never learned sound-letter combinations well enough to “map” them orthographically—that is, to store them in their brains for automatic retrieval. As a result, they read slowly and dysfluently, and may guess at, skip, misread, reverse, add, or omit letters/words.

On the other side, weak vocabulary (particularly words denoting abstract concepts); difficulty making sense out of complex syntax; and poor general knowledge can cause students who are solid decoders to have trouble understanding what they read.

Problems can be restricted to either of these areas; however, they often involve both factors and together produce a general reading problem. (more…)

Working with struggling readers: what ACT tutors need to know

Working with struggling readers: what ACT tutors need to know

Image by GOLFX, Shutterstock


When Breaking the Code, the reading-instruction group I helped found last summer, held its most recent workshop last week, I stuck an announcement in my newsletter almost as an afterthought. A test-prep tutor had participated in our previous workshop and seemed to have gotten a lot of out of it, and it occurred to me that others might be interested. Nevertheless, I was a bit taken aback at the number of inquiries I received from ACT tutors—more emails, incidentally, than I got from elementary-school teachers.

In retrospect, this should not have been at all surprising, but I guess that given all the current backlash over standardized testing, I neglected to realize how many students are still getting tutored for college-admissions exams, and how many tutors are encountering the exact same kinds of reading problems I repeatedly saw. The issues I discuss here do also apply to the SAT (and any other standardized test), but I’m focusing on the ACT here because it brings a set of specific issues into particularly sharp focus.  (more…)

Informal words and phrases to avoid in IELTS Task 2 essays

Informal words and phrases to avoid in IELTS Task 2 essays

After reading a certain number of Band 6 #IELTS Task 2 essays, one (or rather I) can’t help but notice certain patterns. In particular, the persistent use of certain informal words, phrases, and abbreviations is quite striking.

I’m not the first person to point this out, or to post about it on the internet, but given sheer frequency with which they’re used, it’s clear that the message isn’t getting through.

So I decided to compile the greatest hits into one very short list. 

Bottom line: if you stop using the informal terms, you’re taking a real step towards Band 7; if you keep on including them, expect your score to stay where it is. These are very high-frequency words and constructions, and they are relevant to pretty much any question you might be asked.

In fact, I would actually wager that it’s possible to accurately gauge, in only a few seconds, whether an essay has any chance of earning a 7 simply by scanning it for the terms in the left-hand column, plus standard punctuation, capitalization, and spacing. 

Let’s look at a comparison: (more…)

Parallel structure with verbs: keeping track of forms

Parallel structure with verbs: keeping track of forms

Image by Charlotte May from Pexels


In theory, parallel structure is a relatively easy concept to master: it simply refers to the fact that items in a list, as well as constructions on either side of a conjunction such as and or but, should be kept in the same format (all nouns or all verbs).

In very simple sentences, e.g., I went to bed late but woke up early, this rule is generally quite simple to apply.

When sentences are long and contain a lot of information, however, things get a bit trickier. Keeping forms parallel requires the writer to keep track of and understand how words and phrases in different parts of a sentence relate to one another.

One very common issue involves the use of main verbs after modal verbs such as canshould, or might. As anyone who speaks English at a reasonably high level knows, main verbs are never conjugated in this construction, e.g., one would say it might work, not it might works. But when the two verbs are separated, there’s a common tendency forget about the first one and to stick an -s on the second.

This is an issue that appears in the writing of both native and non-native English speakers, but it’s particularly rampant in IELTS essays. It may also be tested in GMAT Sentence Corrections. (more…)

Social media and the great global English-grammar misinformation machine

Social media and the great global English-grammar misinformation machine

Image from Andrea Piacquadio,


I have a somewhat ambivalent relationship with social media. Given what I do and the nature of my audience, it’s pretty much a necessary evil, albeit one I dip in and out of depending on the demands of my other projects. For the past month or so, I’ve had a bit more free time than I’ve had in a while, and it occurred to me that perhaps I should make an attempt to revive my long-neglected Instagram account (a decision of which the algorithm unfortunately does not seem to approve). Having recently taken some steps into the world of English-language proficiency exams, I got curious and decided to explore the social-media ESL world. If nothing else, it was certainly an eye-opening experience.

I don’t have a clear sense of what proportion of my readership is made up of students living outside the United States, although my sense is that most of them attend either international schools or English-immersion programs and speak the language at a very high level. Based on some of the messages I’ve received, however, I’m aware that this is not the case for everyone.

For that reason, and because the internet has basically swallowed real life whole, I feel obligated to offer this warning: to anyone attempting to use social media to supplement their study for English proficiency exams (TOEFL or IELTS), please be extraordinary careful about whom you follow and take advice from. And if you are a tutor who works internationally, please make sure your students understand the difference between “Instagram English” and “school English.” To describe the linguistic misinformation out there as “mind-boggling” is an understatement. (more…)