Lisa’s Study Corner. THIS WEEK – What are the best books for self-study?


Students often ask me to recommend books so that they can continue to study at home. Obviously there is no one book that is perfect for everybody’s needs but some books suit self-study better than others.

Below, I’ve provided a summary of my favourites:

  • Grammar Books

Elementary – Pre-Intermediate: Essential Grammar in Use by Raymond Murphy

Intermediate – Upper Intermediate: English Grammar in Use by Raymond Murphy

These books are classics. They have a really easy-to-use format of two pages per topic, with clear explanations of grammar points on each left-hand page and exercises to check understanding on the right. There is also a diagnostic test so that students can learn what areas of grammar they need to study.

Both books are published by Cambridge University Press and costs around $30 without CD or $40 with.

  • Cambridge Exams (FCE/CAE and even CPE)

FCE Organiser by John Flower

There are two main reasons why I always recommend this book. Firstly, it contains all the language that trips students up in the Cambridge exams: prepositions, phrasal verbs, word formation, verb forms and essential vocabulary by topic. Secondly, it’s really easy to use for self-study. Again, it’s presented in a two page format. This time the left-hand page practises and the right-hand page organises and reviews. Furthermore, there are really useful sections on easily confusing words and common grammar mistakes to avoid.

FCE Organiser is published by Cengage Learning and costs around $35


Focus on Academic Skills for IELTS by Morgan Terry, Judith Wilson and Sue O’Connell

This book really suits self study because it’s presents tasks in a very step-by-step way. With the Writing Tasks, for example, you learn first about the different types of Task 1 and Task 2 questions and then are introduced to the key skills and vocabulary you need to succeed. The CD provides lots of model answers for the Speaking Tasks and also a good range of Listening Practice tests.

Focus on Academic Skills for IELTS is published by Pearson Longman and is available with CD for about $64.

  • Dictionaries

Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary

All students should invest in a quality English/English dictionary and, in my opinion, this one is the best. It makes it really easy to look up words, phrases, phrasal verbs and idioms and provides excellent example sentences and details or origin and formality so that you can clearly see how to use the target language in real life. There are also some additional useful features like the “Other ways of saying…” boxes and the 30-page Focus on Writing section.

Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary is published by Cambridge University Press and can be found online for around $40. A version with an accompanying CD-ROM is also available.

To summarise my advice for this week, I would say don’t rush into buying a book for home study. Make sure you consider your needs very carefully first. Then look for a title that is specifically aimed at studying alone and which is really clearly laid out and easy-to-use. Ask your teacher for recommendations or try out my recommendations above. Happy self-studying.

Lisa’s Study Corner – IELTS Academic Writing Task 1 – the 5 Ts

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The 5 Ts for writing an Academic IELTS Task 1

In Task 1 you have only 20 minutes to write 150 words. Below, I’ve outlined the way I teach students how to ensure they include everything necessary to get the best score for their ability level.

The Task:

You will be given a table, chart, map or diagram and will need to describe what you see (fact only; do not include your opinion). Mostly commonly the illustration will do one or a combination of the following:

  • compare quantities or amounts
  • show change over time
  • describe a process

One quick way to approach the task is to remember the 5 Ts: Time, Topic, Thesis, Trends, Totals.


Before you start writing you need to identify what time you are talking about and what your main tense will be. For example, if it’s a graph showing change over time, are both dates in the past (Past Simple) or are you comparing the past with the present (Present Perfect)? If it’s a process question, is it a natural process when you’ll mostly use active tenses or an industrial process when passive tenses are usually required?


Your reader needs to know what you are describing. This is the topic. Imagine that your reader can’t see your graph or diagram and describe what it shows. Usually you will be able to paraphrase (write in your own words) the question to do this. However, do not copy the wording of the question exactly because if you do this, it won’t be marked.


The next thing to consider is what the most important point the diagram illustrates is. If you were in the pub and you had to describe the main point/feature of the chart/graph/process what would it be? Did sales go up over time? Is one product, by far, the most popular? Do men earn way more than women despite their education background? Do not underestimate the importance of this step. You must describe the big picture as well as the details.


Now you need to describe the main trends. This does not mean describe everything you see. Your job it to group information together or compare information to make it meaningful. Consider the following examples, which is better?

  1. In 1980 men earned on average $200 per week. Then in 1990 they earned $250 per week and in 2000 this had grown to $300. Finally, by 2010 their weekly income had risen to $350 per week.
  2. On average, men’s weekly income increase by $50 over each 10 year period; from $200 per week in 1980 to $350 per week in 2010.

B.  is better because it groups the information and summarises the main trend.


The final thing you must remember is that it is essential to include data in your answer. Data could be total amounts, periods of time, dates, weights or a combination of the above. Without data, the information you provide is meaningless. If you say that sales rose you need to include when and how much. If you say that the caterpillar turns into a butterfly you need to say how many stages there are and how long each stage in the process takes. 

So to summarise this week’s tip – remember the 5 Ts when you write a Task 1 and get the tense (time) right, introduce the diagram effectively (topic), describe the main point (thesis) of the diagram, group and compare the key information (trends) and NEVER forget to include data (totals).

Lisa’s Study Corner – Should I do Cambridge or IELTS?


THIS WEEK – Should I do Cambridge or IELTS?

In the past, my higher level students have often asked me about studying on an exam course. They (rightly) think it would be a good idea for them to gain an English qualification but don’t know which exam would be most suitable for them.
Here, I will try to make the answer simple by asking you three questions.

1. What is your English level?

Basically the Cambridge First Certificate is an Upper Intermediate examination and the Cambridge Advanced Certificate is, you guessed it, Advanced. These courses and tests are written for students specifically at that particular level of English. A student needs to get 60% or above to pass, 75% or above for a B and 80% or above for an A.

IELTS is a bit different. There is no pass and fail rate and the material is not adapted for a particular level. The test is designed to find out a candidate’s English ability. Scoring is out of 9 and a score of 4-5 indicates roughly an Intermediate level while a score of 6.5 – 7.5 is Advanced.

2. What do you want the qualification for?

The majority of students who take the IELTS exam, do it because they have to. For example, if you want to study at a university or TAFE in Australia, the UK and various other countries around the world, you may be asked for an IELTS score. Also, if you are applying for a visa to immigrate to Australia and the UK you may be required to prove your level of English by taking an IELTS test.

In contrast, many people take the Cambridge exams for their own satisfaction, for the beneficial effects of taking an exam course or to be able to list their qualification on their resume. Many international businesses recognise the Cambridge courses as a great preparation for working with native speakers and the Cambridge exams have the benefit of being valid for life. Your IELTS score, on the other hand, can only be used for official purposes if less than two years old.

3. What kind of English do you want to learn?

This is probably the most important consideration. There are two different IELTS tests but most schools focus on the Academic one that students need for further study. This test involves skills such as listening to lectures, describing graphs and tables and reading academic articles from books and journals. It’s a very useful course for giving students the vocabulary and reading/writing skills they need for study, particularly at a university in an English speaking country.

On the other hand the Cambridge exam courses are more focused on everyday English; the English that people use in everyday conversations, in magazines, newspapers and films and in the workplace. It’s a great course for improving your accuracy, increasing your knowledge of phrasal verbs and idioms and learning how to write for different purposes and genres.

So to summarise this week’s Tip – My recommendation is to choose IELTS if you plan to study in English or if you have been told you need to provide an IELTS score but to choose Cambridge if you want to do a qualification that will help you focus on accuracy and equip you better for work, travel and conversing with native speakers.