Retake only 1 section of the IELTS exam

Hello everyone,

My name is John Grant and I’m an instructor at AGOS Japan.

I have some new information that is important for any students that are going to take IELTS in the near future or thinking of a switch from TOEFL to IELTS.

I really think this will be a game-changer as far as exam preparation goes!

IELTS is piloting a program that will allow test-takers to retake just one skill of the IELTS test instead of the entire test.

Let me try to explain what that means and the significance of it.

At the moment, if a candidate does not get the score that they need in, let’s say speaking, but they are happy with the rest of the scores, (say Reading, Listening, and Writing), they have to re-take the entire test.

This may result in lower scores in those other sections.

For example, if a candidate’s results after their first test look like this:

Listening: Band 7

Reading: Band 8

Writing: Band 6.5

Speaking: Band 6

And this would result in an overall score of 7.

(The four bands 7 + 8 + 6.5 + 6 = 27.5, and this number is divided by 4, and this is 6.875. This number for the overall score is rounded up, which is an overall band of 7).

That seems like a great score!  But if the student needs a 7.5, they’ll have to retake the test.  They just want to improve their speaking score a bit to get a 7.5 as the scores will be rounded up.  If they can just get a 7 in speaking, they’ll get their 7.5 overall, and have a chance to get into their dream school!

So the candidate works very hard on their speaking for months and months, and they improve their speaking and take the test again.  The results look like this:

Listening: Band 6

Reading: Band 7

Writing: Band 6

Speaking: Band 7

This would result in an overall score of 6.5.

They spent so much time working on their speaking that they overlooked reviewing their other sections.  They didn’t improve their overall score and it actually went down!

However, in this new system, the candidate can choose to only take the Speaking section, so that their other band scores are safe.

At the moment, this is only available in Australian test centres – but rumor has it that it will be rolled out in other centres soon.  We really hope it will come to Japan, but if you are doing your test in Australia, you may be able to take advantage of this now!

For more information, please check our AGOS news blog and my updates or check here:

Good luck on your exams!

Best wishes,


Minimal Pairs for Japanese Speakers

How to use minimal pairs to improve your pronunciation.

by John Grant

In a previous blog post, I mentioned a good way to check your pronunciation is to use a note taking app that has a microphone and read some sentences into your phone to see if your phone can pick up each word accurately. I also touched on using minimal pairs to work on individual sounds.

Minimal pairs are words that are very similar but have one sound that is different. In this blog post, I will give you examples of sentences that focus on sounds that Japanese people find difficult.

Try reading these sentences into your phone using a note taking app to see how accurate your pronunciation is. As you read these sentences, pay attention to where your tongue is in your mouth and your mouth shape.

  1. æ / ʌ

i. It’s beside the cap . It’s beside the cup .

ii. She sang in front of people. She’s sung in front of people.

iii. It’s fan art. It’s fun art.

2. ɑː / eə

i. It’s not far . It’s not fair .

ii. It’s under the stars . It’s under the stairs .

iii. It’s under your car . It’s under your care .

iv. I don’t like to go near the bar . I don’t like to go near the bear .

3. ʌ / ɑː

i. I don’t like much . I don’t like March .

ii. Don’t get dirt in the cut . Don’t get dirt in the cart .

iii. I damaged his hut . I damaged his heart .

4. ɜː / ɪə

i. He has a blue bird . He has a blue beard .

ii. It’s not really fur . It’s not really fear .

iii. Is it actually her ? Is it actually here ?

5. ɜː / ɑː

i. Is it fur ? Is it fair ?

ii. How much further ? How much, father ?

iii. I used to own a firm . I used to own a farm .

iv. She’s used to be heard . She used to be hard .

6. b / v

i. It’s the best . It’s the vest .

ii. It’s a bet . It’s a vet .

iii. It’s a cupboard table. It’s a covered table.

7. s / ʃ

i. They didn’t suit the man. They didn’t shoot the man.

ii. Please clean the seat . Please clean the sheet .

iii. He saved your head. He shaved your head.

iv. It’s a sign . It’s a shine .

8. s / θ

i. Are you sinking ? Are you thinking ?

ii. I can see her mouse . I can see her mouth .

iii. It could be worse sitting here. It could be worth sitting here.

9. h / f

i. It isn’t hair . It isn’t fair .

ii. I can feel the horse . I can feel the force .

iii. The company wants to hire me. The company wants to fire me.

10. n / ŋ

i. She’s sinner . She’s a singer .

ii. We were sinking in the water. We were singing in the water.

11. l / r

i. You said it was long . You said it was wrong .

ii. Can you collect it and send it to me? Can you correct it and send it to me?

iii. I said I did not want flies in my meal. I said I did not want fries in my meal.

Good luck and keep practicing!



Note Taking Apps for Pronunciation


Hello, I’m John Grant and I would like to show you a great way to practice and check your pronunciation.

A common question I’m asked by my students is how they can check their pronunciation of certain words or sentences by themselves. If you don’t have English speaking friends, this may seem quite difficult. Luckily, technology has an answer.

Have you ever heard of note taking apps on your smartphone?

These are applications that you can use to jot down memos to yourself. On iPhones, the app Notes (メモin Japanese) is already installed on the phone. If you’re an Android user or have a different phone, you can download Evernote or a similar app. I use my note-taking app for shopping lists and things to do.

So how do we use it to help with our pronunciation? With these apps, you can click on the microphone to record your voice and it will transcribe your words into the app.

First of all, make sure your keyboard is switched to English.

Now try to read a few sentences into your phone. You can choose a model answer from a textbook or a script from a TOEFL or IELTS listening task. Your phone should pick up the same words that are in the script. Make a note of any words that your phone misunderstood and practice those words. You can use Google pronunciation to practice those words.  I have discussed this in a previous blog post.

This is a great way to check your pronunciation by yourself, especially those that will take the TOEFL test. As you may know, the TOEFL test is now graded, or rated, by a person and a computer program called Speech Rater®. So you have to speak clearly or the Speech Rater® will not understand what you are saying. This can adversely affect not only your Delivery mark, but also your grammar and vocabulary rating.   By using the above study tip, you can check if a computer AI can understand you.

This method is particularly useful for working with minimal pairs. A minimal pair is a pair of similar words with just one sound different, typically a sound that is difficult for students to produce. An example of a minimal pair would be light/right or sink/think.  I’m sure many of you have struggled with these sounds, and now you have a way to check if you are saying them correctly and practice them until you get them right.

In my next post, we will go through these pairs, focusing on ones that Japanese speakers find challenging.

Free Apps for Improving your English

Free apps to improve your English for the TOEFL and IELTS speaking exams.

by John Grant

I’m often asked by students which online resources they can use to improve their speaking skills in preparation for taking either the IELTS or TOEFL exam.

I base my recommendations on three criteria:

  1. Motivating
  2. Easy to use
  3. Free (mostly)


  1. Google pronunciation

This completely free (amazing !!) function in the Google search engine allows you to hear and see how a word is pronounced in both British and American accents. Also, it has a practice button allowing you to try to pronounce it with feedback to see what you are doing wrong. This is a real game changer! Just type the word and type pronunciation. For example, try to type ‘wonderful pronunciation‘ into your search engine. Try it now!

Note: This works best with Google Chrome.



The free version of this app is a must-have for mobile phone owners. Practice small discrete lessons based on topics to expand your vocabulary and improve your grammatical accuracy. The daily reminders and point system keep you motivated and you can finish a lesson in less than 10 minutes. Perfect for the commute!

Note: There is a paid version that eliminates the ads.

3 Drops

This beautifully designed app builds your vocabulary in a wide variety of topics with a clean interface. The constant repetition of vocabulary ensures that you won’t forget new vocabulary.

Note: The free version has a time limit for how long you can use it, but it is more than enough for daily use.


4 Busuu

A variety of lessons on common topics will keep you motivated with very natural conversations. This app uses cutting-edge AI machine learning to constantly improve the app! Also, it has a feature that connects speakers of other languages ​​to grade each other’s progress . This is a great source if you would like to move beyond textbook English.

Note: The free version limits access to the whole lesson so you may want to pay for the full version.


5 Ted Talks

This is a huge resource of lectures and talks on almost any subject imaginable. Use these lectures to practice summarizing skills that are so vital for the academic lectures you encounter in both the IELTS and TOEFL. Each lecture has subtitles in many languages ​​so you read along with the lecture in both English and Japanese! This feature also allows you to navigate the lecture easily so you can repeat sentences and phrases.

I will be back soon with more tips and suggestions!


A new type of TOEFL Task 2 campus conversation (Part 2): How to answer it

In a previous post, I introduced a new type of Task 2 campus conversation in which the student agreed with the basic idea of the plan to close down the computer lab because students had their own laptops, but she didn’t like the idea of adding more books to the library. If you haven’t seen the first post, please go back and look at this new type of Task 2.

How should we organize our answer? It could look something like this:

The university is planning to get rid of the computer lab in the multimedia department because they argue that most students have their own laptops, and it will give them more space to expand the book section.

The woman mostly agreed with this plan. First of all, she said that most students in the multimedia department had their own laptops because they were quite inexpensive and everyone needed them for homework. As a result, the computer lab was hardly ever used these days.

However, she didn’t think it was a good idea to expand the number of books as published books in the multimedia field are typically soon out-of-date.  She suggested that the space would be better utilized as a meeting area for groups working on projects.

So, it’s not widely different from what we are used to. We can add ‘mostly’ to ‘agreed’ and use a contrasting linking word to introduce the second point, such as ‘However’.

In conclusion, you are still more likely to see the old pattern, but please be aware that this new pattern above is possible.

New TOEFL Speaking Task 2 (Part 1) by John Grant

Recently, TOEFL has modified the pattern that TOEFL Task 2 campus conversations typically take. In this blog post, I will examine what this new type of task looks like. In an upcoming post, I will show you how you can answer it.

We are all familiar with the usual pattern as follows.

In the reading, there is a proposal to improve things around campus or an announcement from the university of a plan to change something. Then, we hear a conversation between a man and a woman about the change.

In this pattern, the person has either completely agreed or completely disagreed with the plan or proposal. Our job is to summarize the plan or proposal, the person’s opinion, and both reasons.

While we still usually see this pattern on the TOEFL test, ETS has added a third way the conversation could develop. In this new pattern, the man or the woman agrees with the main change and agrees with the first reason that is explained in the reading.  However, they disagree with the second reason. Let’s look at an example.

Read this announcement from the university.


Changes to the Multimedia Department’s Library

The university board has decided to close the computer lab in the multimedia department’s library. This decision was taken because, according to a recent survey, a majority of students in this department own their own laptop and use it exclusively for their work. The library will continue to lend out laptops to students that do not have them.

In addition, the space that the computer lab currently occupies can be used to increase the number of books about multimedia that the library has to offer.


To summarize, we can say the reading makes these points:


Type: Announcement from multimedia college.
Plan:  They want to close the computer lab in the library.
Reason 1: Most students have their own laptops.
Reason 2: It will free up space so they can add more books.


Now, let’s look at a transcript of a conversation between a man and a woman discussing the announcement.

Male student Have you heard about the computer lab?


Female student I sure have, and I think it’s about time.


Male student Why’s that?


Female student Well, they’re right that most students have their own laptops these days. Every year they’re getting cheaper and cheaper. Also, in our field, you need your own laptop so you can do the homework. Those old computers in the lab just weren’t being used.


Male student So you must be happy that they’re getting new books.
Female student That is one thing that bothers me.


Male student What do you mean?


Female student Multimedia is such a changing field that by the time books are published, they’re already out of date. I mean, if you’re going to write a paper, you’d head to the Internet first for the latest information.


Male student I see what you mean.


Female student I think that extra space would be better used as a meeting room for group projects.


As you can see, the woman agrees with the change and the first reason for the change. However, she doesn’t think it’s a good idea to buy more books, and she offered an alternative on how to use the extra space.

In my next post, I will show you how to answer this question.