Using Capital Letters (Part 1)

Capitalisation, the appropriate use of capital letters, is an area of punctuation that many learners pay little attention to. One reason might be that this topic can look deceptively simple at first glance. However, on exploring further, you very quickly realise that there’s quite a bit to learn. What also becomes evident is that like most grammar points, rules related to the use of capital letters aren’t always cut and dried.

Here are some handy tips to help you decide when to use capitalisation.

Rule 1: Capitalise the first word of a sentence

This one is as straightforward as grammar rules come because there’s hardly any complication here. Every time you begin a new sentence, start the first word with a capital letter.  

Examples

Hello there! How have you been?

You cannot go in there without permission.

Rule 2: Capitalise names of people, institutions, companies, brands

It goes without saying that people’s names are always capitalised. Similarly, the names of institutions, companies, and brands generally begin with a capital letter. Remember, if the name has more than one word, all important words in the name have their initial letter capitalised. 

Examples

Alan and Mathew are coming over this evening.

He works for the National Health Service.

United Airlines is a major player in the aviation sector that operates domestic and international flights.

Most people consider Sony to be the pioneers of portable music.

Rule 3: Capitalise cities, countries, nationalities, religions, languages

The names of cities, countries, nationalities, religions, and languages are proper nouns, so they should be capitalised. In the case of religion, the names of various deities are also capitalised.

Examples

Prague is a breathtakingly beautiful city.

He is from the United Arab Emirates.

Her father is Irish, whereas her mother is Scottish.

He’s had a Christian upbringing.

He speaks English, Spanish, Italian, and German.

Shiva is an ancient Hindu deity.

Rule 4: Capitalise the personal pronoun ‘I’

Unlike other personal pronouns (e.g. we, you, she, it), the personal pronoun ‘I’ is always written as a capital letter, no matter where it appears in a sentence.

Examples

I don’t know about the others, but I don’t want to go back to that restaurant.

James and I were the only ones to score goals yesterday.

We’ll be back soon with more on the use of capital letters. 

Understanding the IELTS Writing Section

Writing is arguably the most difficult language skill to master. Contrary to popular belief, skilful use of grammar and vocabulary alone wouldn’t necessarily make a person a good writer. This is because good thinking which follows a logical path and which is easy to understand lies at the very heart of good writing.

Read on to understand what to expect in the Writing section of IELTS.

Tasks

Task 1 (Academic)

Test takers are given information ‒ usually in the form of a graph, table, chart, or diagram ‒ and asked to describe it in their own words, writing at least 150 words. This could involve describing and explaining data, describing the stages of a process, describing how something works, or describing an object or event.

Task 1 (General Training)

Test takers are presented with a situation that people commonly encounter in their everyday life. They are then asked to write a letter of at least 150 words requesting information or explaining the situation. As far as the style of writing is concerned, the letter could be personal, semi-formal/neutral, or formal.

Task 2

In both Academic and General Training, test takers are asked to write an essay in response to a point of view, argument, or problem. Essay topics in Academic Writing are suitable for individuals entering undergraduate / postgraduate studies or seeking professional registration in an English-speaking country, whereas topics in General Training Writing tend to be of general interest and less complex.

Duration

Overall, test takers receive 1 hour to finish writing both tasks. Although the recommendation is to spend 20 and 40 minutes on Task 1 and Task 2 respectively, it is up to you to decide how to divide the time. Remember, Task 2 contributes twice as much to the final Writing score as Task 1, so you may need to spend adequate time on it.

Skills tested

Broadly speaking, the test is designed in such a way that a range of skills gets assessed. These include the test taker’s ability to produce a response that is appropriate, organise ideas skilfully, and use a wide range of vocabulary and grammatical structures with accuracy.

Marking

Writing answers are evaluated by certificated IELTS examiners using the IELTS Writing test assessment criteria: Task Achievement (Task 1) / Task Response (Task 2), Coherence and Cohesion, Lexical Resource, Grammatical Range and Accuracy. Scores are reported in whole and half bands.

Remember, a common mistake that test takers make is not finding out enough about the Writing section format before the exam; do familiarise yourself with the task types so that you can fulfil all task requirements.

The View From Campus: Understanding the U.S. Application Process

Marie Whalen, Associate Director of International Admissions and Recruitment at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington, shares a brief overview of her institution, her views on the value of IELTS in evaluating students’ English readiness for university study, as well as an overview of the U.S. college admissions process.

Q: Describe your institution in 5 words or less.

A: Rigorous, inclusive, supportive, faith-filled

Q: For what is your institution known abroad?

A: Whitworth is best known for its academic excellence and a welcoming, supportive environment for international students.

Q: What are your top academic programs (undergrad and grad)?

Health Sciences

Business/Economics

Biology

Psychology

English

Q: What are the top 5 countries represented at your college?

Nigeria

South Korea

Mongolia

Nepal

Zimbabwe

Q: Do you accept IELTS scores for admissions and do you trust this as a good indicator of a student’s English ability?

A: IELTS enables us to assess the applicant’s skill overall as well as in the individual areas of reading, writing, speaking and listening. As a well-recognized and reliable assessment tool, our international admissions committee can look at an IELTS band score and know instantly what the English level at which the applicant is able to function.

Additionally, we can see if there is one specific area where the student can be successful but may need some additional support, such as writing, for example. We also appreciate that the verbal section is done with a live interview vs. with a computer.  IELTS is a critical part of determining admissibility in our international admission process.

Q: Can you explain the difference between rolling admissions, early decision, early action, and regular decision at U.S. colleges?

A: Rolling admission is a process that allows students to apply within a wide time range of time rather than submitting to specific tight deadline, like January 1st, for example. However, rolling admission also means that students are admitted on a first-come, first-served basis, so places can fill up. Once places for a class are full, applications won’t be accepted. If applying to a school with rolling admission, it can be better to apply earlier than later.

Some U.S. institutions, usually highly selective, offer Early Decision (ED). Students submit their applications early and receive a decision early. If a student applies to a university ED, then they are promising to attend that institution, if admitted. Students should only apply ED if they are certain they want to attend the ED institution and they have assessed both their financial situation and type and level of aid offered by the ED school.

Early Action (EA), like ED, gives students the opportunity to apply early to institutions and receive a decision early. However, unlike ED, Early Action is not a contract, and not binding. Students can apply to multiple institutions that offer EA. If a student is admitted EA to 5 U.S. colleges, for example, they can choose which one to attend.  There are a very limited number of colleges that offer Restrictive or Single Early Action, requiring students to apply EA to only one institution.

Many institutions offer some combination of ED, EA and Regular Decision. Whitworth, for example, offers Early Action I and Early Action II, as well as Regular Decision. A regular decision deadline is the deadline after any ED or EA deadlines and is usually considered the final deadline for applying.

Q: What are institutions looking for in an application essay/statement of purpose?

A: Institutions look to the essay to gain additional insight into an applicant, beyond their grades, test scores and any extra-curricular activities.  The essay is an excellent opportunity for an applicant to share something about themselves that we otherwise would not know. Some students have compelling life stories, or a hobby or passion, or some unique perspective.

Q: How important are deadlines in the admission process to U.S. institutions?

A: Very important! Many U.S. institutions have strict admission, scholarship and financial aid deadlines. If you miss a deadline, even by an hour, your application may not be considered, or you may not receive any financial aid. I always tell students to begin their applications early because they often take more time than students expect. Don’t miss those deadlines!

Q: What needs to be in a letter of recommendation that my teachers/professors are asked to write?

A: Colleges look to teacher/professor letters of recommendation to find out what type of student an applicant is. Of course we know that a student with a 3.74/4.00 GPA is competent academically, but we want to know more: how does the student learn? How does he or she contribute to the classroom and interact with the teacher and classmates?  Does the student do the minimum work required or go beyond that to learn about a topic in-depth? Is a student who struggled academically in year 11 now making good progress?

Q: Once a student sends in all the required documents to complete their application, how soon after that point will he/she receive an answer?

A: Some institutions will give admissions decisions within 2-3 weeks; others can take months to respond. Some institutions have pre-set dates for releasing their decisions. Every institution has its own policy and this policy should be written on their website.

Improving Intonation (Part 2)

In a previous post, we spoke of why it’s useful to better your ability to use various intonation patterns while speaking. We also looked at two common types of intonation, falling and rising.

In this post, we’ll first consider some more intonation types and then give you tips on how to improve your intonation.

Types of intonation

3. Rise-fall intonation
In this type, you raise the pitch of your voice and then drop it. This pattern is often found in:

  • alternative questions
    E.g. Would you like tea or coffee?
  • lists (pattern in the example – rise, rise, rise, fall)
    E.g. We’d need milk, sugar, flour, and eggs.
  • conditional sentences
    E.g. If you seeDanny, please ask him to call ➘ Rebecca.

4. Fall-rise intonation
In this type, you drop the pitch of your voice and then raise it. This pattern is commonly used to suggest that something is uncertain or incomplete. Have a look at these examples:

I don’t like drinking tea in the morning.

(perhaps hinting that the speaker enjoys drinking tea at other times of the day)

The first half was exciting.

(perhaps hinting that the second half was boring)

Do you think this is allowed here?

(perhaps hinting that the speaker is not sure if something is permissible)

I can’t afford a car at the moment.

(perhaps hinting that the speaker may be able to buy one in the future)

Ways to improve intonation

Here are some tips to help improve your ability to use various intonation patterns.

  • Listen carefully to short recordings of native speakers of English, paying particular attention to the way their voices rise and fall. Then, imitate their intonation by just humming along, without saying the actual words. Remember to focus on the melody, not the words.
  • Record yourself saying a sentence with absolutely no intonation, just like how a robot would do. Later, repeat the same sentence by using stress and intonation. Listen to both versions to know the difference that intonation can make.
  • Record yourself saying any common word over and over again, changing your attitude each time. For example, repeat the word ‘coffee’, giving it different meaning each time to indicate different emotions, such as enthusiasm, displeasure, surprise, and relief.

Remember, it’s difficult to listen to our own pitch, so working with audio materials is the way forward for improving your intonation.

Improving Intonation (Part 1)

A key pronunciation feature that helps you convey your thoughts and feelings with precision is intonation. In its simplest sense, intonation can be described as the melody of spoken language, i.e. the rise and fall in your voice when you speak. The focus here is on how we say things, not what we say.

It goes without saying that the concept of intonation is common to all languages; yet not many pay attention to this area while they speak, as they are so caught up in choosing the right words to express what they want to say. What they don’t realise is that intonation can be as important as word choice if not more.   

Why improve intonation

Here are a few good reasons why it is worthwhile to work on your intonation:

  • Bettering your understanding of intonation helps you become a skilled communicator.
  • Failing to use intonation could mean that listeners may soon lose interest in what you’re saying and switch off.
  • Getting your intonation patterns wrong might give rise to misunderstandings, with listeners even taking offence.
  • Not having enough awareness of intonation can impair your listening comprehension too, as you’re likely to misinterpret what others say.

Types of intonation

Here are some common intonation patterns found in English speech.  

  1. Falling intonation
    In this type, you drop the pitch of your voice at the end of the sentence. This pattern is usually found in:
  • statements
    E.g. I’m going for a stroll on the beach.
  • commands
    E.g. Get your hands off my coat!
  • wh-questions that seek information
    E.g. What’s your name?
  • question tags that invite agreement
    E.g. It was such a lousy film, wasn’t it?

2. Rising intonation
In this type, you raise the pitch of your voice at the end of the sentence. This pattern is generally found in:

  • yes/no questions
    E.g. Do you like my newdress?
  • question tags that seek an answer
    E.g. You haven’t had a fight with Tom,have you?

We’ll be back with more in the next part. Meanwhile, think about whether your pitch goes up and down when you speak in English.

The View From Campus – The Value of International Student Orientations at US Universities

As the new academic year begins at many U.S. colleges and universities this month, we hear from Mohinder “Holly” Singh, Senior Director of International Students and Scholars Center, Arizona State University, on the very timely topic of the value of participating in new international student orientation on U.S. college campuses.

Q: Describe your institution in 10 words?
A: #1 public university in the U.S. chosen by international students. 

Q: For what is your institution best known overseas?
A: According to U.S. News and World Report, Arizona State University is #1 Innovative School in the U.S. ASU is a comprehensive public research university, measured not by whom we exclude, but rather by whom we include and how they succeed. Many international students select ASU to study our undergraduate business programs and graduate Engineering programs.

Q: What are your top academic programs (undergrad & grad)?
A: Grad: Homeland/National Security and Emergency Management, Information and Technology Management, Local Government Management, Supply Chain Management and Logistics, Urban Policy.   

UG: Supply Chain Management and Logistics, Business Management, Quantitative Analysis, Business Management Systems, Teaching.

Q: What are the top 5 countries represented at your college?
A: China, India, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and South Korea.

Q: What is the role of an international student office on campus?

A: At Arizona State University, the International Students and Scholars Center works to facilitate the success of our students’ and visiting scholars’ time in the U.S. Our core goal is to ensure compliance of our students and visiting scholars with Department of Homeland Security and Department of State immigration regulations.  In addition, we work to assist our students and visiting scholars with academic integration, cultural adjustment issues, leadership development and any other support they may need.

Q: What steps do U.S. universities take to help international students adjust to their new environment?

A: ASU helps new international students feel welcome even before they arrive in the U.S. All new international students are invited to complete an online introductory module, which provides information about campus culture, ways to get involved, how to ask for assistance and introduces the many resources available to students after arriving on campus.  Additionally, each semester ASU hosts an International Orientation Week prior to Welcome Week to officially welcome new international students to campus.  These orientation experiences includes information on immigration regulations, on-campus employment opportunities, U.S. classroom culture and other information about student life at ASU.  Students from around the world are also provided with opportunities to engage in social settings to build relationships and connections with their fellow students. 

Q: Why should an new international student attend orientation?
A: ASU’s International Orientation Week program is specifically designed for new international students as it will introduce them to important resources, allow them to meet new friends, show them how to succeed academically at an American university, and offer opportunities for them to have their questions answered by university staff and officials. 

Q: What should new international students remember when attending orientation at ASU?
A: ASU’s fall semester begins in late August, which is an extremely hot time in Arizona.  New students must remember to drink lots of water and dress in layers as the air-conditioning inside buildings makes it very cold indoors. 

Q: What is the most important piece of advice you’d give new international students attending orientation?
A: Ask questions.  We understand that asking for help is hard for some individuals from certain cultures, but ASU’s President, Dr. Crow, always encourages students to raise their hand and ask for help when they need it. 

Q: What should new international students do after orientation if they need support or have questions?
A: New international students are always encouraged to reach out to the ISSC for any questions they have whether they are regarding immigration regulations or other topics.  If they ISSC cannot provide the support directly, we will reach out to the appropriate department to provide the information needed by the student. 

IELTS Test Day Advice (Part 2)

In a previous post, we spoke of how it’s important to be well-rested, well-fed, and comfortably clothed on the test day so that you can give a good account of yourself in IELTS.

Read on for some more tried and tested tips that can help you on the day.

Take your ID document along

On arrival, one of the first things that a test taker needs to undergo at the test venue is an identity check. When registering for IELTS, you receive information on what type of ID you’ll be expected to carry. In many regions, this would be the test taker’s passport. If you fail to take along your ID, you will not be allowed to sit the test. So, whatever you do, do not forget your ID.

Carry enough stationery

If you’re taking paper-based IELTS, you’ll have to write mostly in pencil. Time is invaluable, so anything that helps you save precious seconds is good news. Have 3 to 4 pencils ready to be used so that you don’t lose time sharpening when one goes dull. Similarly, an eraser, a pencil sharpener, and a couple of pens are also essential.
In some cases, the stationery is provided to you at the test venue. But, if this is not clearly mentioned to you when you book the test, ensure you carry enough stationery with you on the test day.

Leave electronic devices outside

Mobile phones or other electronic devices shouldn’t be taken into the test room, so leave them at home. At some test venues, designated places may be available where personal belongings can be stored. Remember, if an electronic item is found on you while you are in the test room, it would be considered a serious breach of test rules.

Arrive early

It’s really in your best interest to arrive on time at the test venue. For one thing, when you’re running late, you slip into panic mode. More importantly, test takers who report late may not be allowed to participate.

Watch how much water you drink

The Listening, Reading, and Writing tests are conducted one after the other, with no breaks in between. If you do choose to use the toilet, you’ll lose that time. Hence be mindful of how much water you drink during the test. It might also be a good idea to pay a quick visit to the toilet just before you enter the test room.

Remember these tips, and you should have a stress-free test experience.

IELTS Test Day Advice (Part 1)

Sitting an exam can be pretty nerve-wracking for most, even if it happens to be a straightforward language test. Often test takers are so caught up in exam preparation that they fail to get the simple things right.

Every year, thousands take IELTS, the world’s most popular English language proficiency test for higher education and global migration. If you are thinking of having a crack at it anytime soon, we have some handy advice to help you perform to the best of your abilities.

Get adequate sleep

The IELTS test is considerably long, with the test taker spending 2 hours and 40 minutes to complete the Listening, Reading, and Writing tests alone. Add to this the time taken by venue staff to check identity, collect biometric data, and give instructions, and the test taker might spend close to 4 hours under examination conditions.

To get through test day without having your energy levels drop, it’s important that you give yourself sufficient sleep. Once you’re well-rested, you’ll arrive at the venue feeling fresh, ready to take on any challenge. 

Have a heavy meal

It is common to experience pre-exam jitters on the eve of a high-stakes test such as IELTS. Test takers are so consumed by the anxiety to do well that they don’t always eat adequately.

If you begin the test on a near-empty stomach, you’ll soon suffer hunger pangs, and consequently lose your concentration or feel nauseous. See to it that you have a hearty meal before you set off for the exam venue. Food and drink cannot be taken into the test room, so what you eat has to be substantial.

Wear something comfortable

Formal or casual, the clothing you wear has no bearing on your test scores, so choose wisely. While you may be tempted to dress to impress, comfort should clearly be the priority here.

Wear something that you’ll be comfortable in and that’ll give you confidence to perform. At many test centres, the air-conditioning will remain switched on throughout, so don’t forget to take along an extra layer of clothing to keep warm.

We’ll be back soon with more simple yet effective exam tips.

Understanding the IELTS Speaking Section

Being able to speak with confidence and clarity is a reliable indicator of an individual’s language proficiency. Naturally, all language tests have a component that assesses the test taker’s oral skills.  

Here’s an overview of the IELTS Speaking test.

Parts

Part 1: Introduction and interview (four to five minutes)

This part aims to put test takers at ease by getting them to talk on familiar topics, such as home, work, studies, family, and interests. Being the easiest part of the test, it’s a great chance to overcome nerves.

Part 2: Individual long turn (three to four minutes)

The test taker receives a task card with a particular topic. They get one minute to prepare, after which they have to speak for up to two minutes on the topic. They may need to draw on their personal experiences and feelings to do well.

Part 3: Two-way discussion (four to five minutes)

Thematically linked to the previous part, here the examiner asks the test taker questions about more abstract issues and ideas. Since questions tend to be of a complex nature, it gives test takers the perfect opportunity to show off their language skills. 

Skills tested

Over three parts, IELTS Speaking assesses a wide range of skills. Initially, test takers get to communicate opinions and information on everyday topics. Later on, they need to exhibit an ability to speak at length on a given topic without much effort, organising ideas coherently as they go along. Towards the end, they also have to express and justify opinions, analyse situations, and speculate about issues.

Marking

Speaking interviews are conducted and assessed by certificated IELTS examiners, who hold relevant teaching qualifications and have sufficient teaching experience. Tests are marked according to the IELTS Speaking test assessment criteria (Fluency and Coherence, Lexical Resource, Grammatical Range and Accuracy, Pronunciation). To do well, test takers have to produce a wide range of language throughout with accuracy. The wider the range you display, the higher the accuracy, the better the outcome.  

Unlike other tests, the Speaking section in IELTS is a face-to-face interview that is as close to a real-life situation as a test can get, so prepare well to make the most of it.

Pitfalls to Avoid in IELTS Letter Writing (Part 3)

So far in the series on letter writing, we’ve considered four ways in which you could end up losing marks – not stating the purpose clearly, employing an inappropriate tone, not fully covering bullet points, and failing to notice plural forms. 

Now, read on for some more advice on what not to do when attempting Writing task 1 in IELTS General Training.

5. Poor organisation

Structuring the letter shouldn’t be too much of a challenge, as test takers have enough help, a fact that not many cotton on to. The bullet points on your examination paper will always be ordered logically, so all you have to do is follow it.  Do not waste time trying to rearrange the sequence. There’s absolutely no point in you reinventing the wheel!

Similarly, there is a misconception that the more linking expressions a letter has, the better its organisation. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. Just like how underuse of linking expressions is a problem, overuse too is something to be avoided.

Remember, there’s no substitute for clarity of thought. This means even a generous sprinkle of linking expressions cannot help you achieve good organisation if the ideas you’ve presented aren’t clearly related to each other.

6. Memorizing model letters

Like with any other exam, success in IELTS demands a disciplined effort from the test taker. So, it’s best to draw up a timetable and work on your English skills systematically. When you’ve not been able to do this, last-minute exam jitters can get the better of you, and you begin searching for shortcuts. It isn’t uncommon for test takers to memorize entire model letters in the hope that one among them might appear in the exam.

However, there are no quick fixes here. At first sight, tasks may appear to be the same, but there’s always a difference. Besides, IELTS examiners are language experts trained to spot and penalise memorised responses. A better approach would be to learn language chunks that help you perform common letter writing functions, such as apologising, making suggestions, and turning someone down.

And here’s a final tip: friendly letters may look easy, but they are often the hardest to write if you are a non-native speaker. So, don’t forget to give yourself loads of practice.

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