Have you taken IELTS many times and your writing is still only 5.5 or 6?
Isn’t it SO frustrating? You practise writing essays every day, you do different kinds of questions, heck, you even read A TON of model essays you have found online.
You use lots of linking words like in addition, however, besides, but you still only get a band 6.
You take the test again and again, spending LOTS and LOTS of money on tests.
You wait nervously for 2 weeks to get your result. And…………
ARRGGGHHHHHH!!! Still only band 6!
If this sounds like your problem then you need to think why am I not improving? Doing a lot of practice tests and taking IELTS exams will give you a lot of exam practice, but will not help you get a higher score.
STOP! You need a new strategy!
So, here are my tips for improving your writing in Task 2 of the IELTS test for both general and academic modules.
Step 1. Are you answering the question?
This might sound like a silly question, but a lot of candidates in the IELTS test do not answer the question properly. The first criterion that the examiner is looking at is ‘Task Achievement’. This means ‘Did this student answer the question correctly and fully?’ You need to understand what the question is asking you to do before you start writing. There are several types of question and you must be able to understand all of them. Just writing in general about the topic of the question will lose you marks if you don’t do what the question asks.
- i) The ‘To what extent do you agree?’ question.
Here you are given a point of view or an opinion and are asked how much you agree with it. Careful! There might be 2 opinions so you will have to give your opinion on both of them. An example might be:
Globalisation allows trade and the spread of technology between countries, but it also means that national traditions and customs are lost forever. To what extent do you agree with the above?
It is tempting to answer this question by listing all the advantages and disadvantages to globalisation. If you did this, you would not be answering the question and so would lose marks in Task Achievement. You must say how much you agree with the statement. You can completely agree or disagree, or might agree with part of it but disagree with the other part. But you must give your opinion and reasons for it.
- ii) The ‘problem solution’ or discussion question.
In this type of question you are given a problem, and you might be asked to say what the causes are and to suggest some solutions. For example:
Pollution in cities is an increasing problem today. What do you think are the causes of this? What solutions can you suggest?
There are 2 parts to this question – causes and solutions. You must write about both. The language that you will need in this type of question is quite specific. To state causes you can say:
causes…, is caused by…, results in, is the result of
Solutions can be made using:
the government/people should…, if people did X, then…. By doing X, we would/could…
iii) The argument question
With this question you are given a statement maybe with 2 sides and asked to give your opinion on it, say which is best or to state the advantages and disadvantages. It is good advice to make your argument balanced. This means you need to look at both sides of the problem and discuss them equally. You can give your opinion at the end or make it clear in each paragraph. An example of this kind of question is:
Nowadays, many students decide to go abroad to study in a foreign university. While there are a lot of benefits in doing this, there are also some drawbacks. What are the main advantages and disadvantages to studying abroad?
You could answer this question by listing a few advantages to studying abroad, and then listing the disadvantages in the next paragraph. This is fine, but what about mixing them up? Start with and advantage followed by a related disadvantage in the same paragraph. For example:
One advantage to going to a foreign country to study is that the student will learn a new language. […] However, it takes a great deal of time and money to get your language level up to the required standard…
This organisation produces a much more interesting essay. Spare a thought for the poor examiner who has to read 100s of essays on the same topic. Give him/her a different, more interesting essay structure and you just might score a few more marks.
Once you have understood the question, you must make your position on the question clear and present developed and extended ideas. Give reasons for your answers and use examples to help explain what you mean and to extend your ideas. Every question tells you to support your answer with examples and relevant evidence, but students often forget to do this. This leads us nicely onto the next step.
Step 2. ‘Does your essay make sense?’
The next criterion the examiner uses when marking your essay is ‘Coherence and Cohesion’. What, I can hear you say, do they mean?
‘Coherence’ is about how logical your essay is. Have you used paragraphs? Is there a progression from one paragraph to the next? Is the information in the paragraphs arranged logically?
Each paragraph should have a topic sentence that introduces the topic of the paragraph. The other sentences must logically develop that subject and should not introduce another topic.
‘Cohesion’ is like the glue that sticks your sentences together. There should be a flow from one sentence to the next so you need to use some cohesive devices like However, In addition, because, As a result, etc.
But if you use too many, they will be unnatural so do not overuse them. And make sure you know exactly how to use them. Find examples online and check the grammar around them.
Another thing the examiner is looking for is referencing words. These are words which you use to refer back (or forwards) to other words. Here are two examples:
- i) While it has many clear benefits, it is obvious that globalisation also brings problems.
it refers forwards to globalisation.
- ii) One of the advantages to studying abroad is mastering a new language. This skill will be of great benefit to the student for the rest of their life both in work and outside.
This skill refers back to mastering a new language.
We’re half way there. The next 2 steps are the ones you probably think most about when doing an essay. They are just as important as the steps above.
Step 3. Have you used a range of vocabulary?
In order to score highly in the ‘lexical resource’ criterion, you need to use a variety of vocabulary accurately. This is where all your hours of reading and making notes of new words pays off. The examiner wants to see you using synonyms and collocations correctly and effectively.
So, for example, if you are writing about recycling rubbish, can you think of other ways of saying this?
recycle – reuse, separate out, reclaim, salvage
rubbish – waste, litter, refuse, trash
Again a word of warning; don’t try to use 5 different ways of saying the same thing because it will sound very unnatural. One or two should be enough.
What else can you do to show a range of vocabulary? Well, you can use different forms of the same word family to demonstrate your flexibility.
an increase (noun) to increase (verb) increasingly (adverb)
recycle waste (verb) recycled waste (adjective) waste material (‘waste’ as an adjective)
And finally, learn vocabulary in chunks. When you are studying and you meet a new word, look at the words before and after it. What other words go with the new word you are learning? They are very important because if you don’t know what they are you will not be able to use the new word correctly.
This is called collocation. For example, if you learn the word excited, you also need to learn the preposition that goes after it – about. He was excited about his job.
We say a strong wind, not a big wind.
Another thing to think about is what form does the new word take? By this I mean does it take the –ing form (e.g. look forward to doing something) or the to form (e.g. We made preparations to visit the sights.). If you ask yourself these questions when you meet a word you don’t know, you will greatly improve your ability to use the words correctly and so impress the examiner.
And last but not least…
Step 4. Have you used a range of grammar?
This is probably the area that you worry about the most. To get a high score in the ‘Grammatical range and accuracy’ criterion, check that you have used a good range of grammar. As you are writing, and when you are checking your writing at the end, see if you have used a few of the following grammatical structures:
tenses – present/past simple/continuous, present perfect, past perfect, will/going to
complex sentences e.g. As it was a hot day, we decided to go swimming.
compound sentences e.g. It was a hot day so we decided to go swimming.
This is not a final list but if you have a few of these structures in your essay, and you have used them correctly, your grammar will be varied and you will show the examiner that you can write using complex structures.
So, by looking more carefully at each of the writing criteria you should be able to see where you can make progress. I hope that by following some or all of the steps above your IELTS score will improve.
Remember, it won’t happen overnight – it takes time. Good luck!