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.

Pitfalls to Avoid in IELTS Letter Writing (Part 2)

In a previous blog post, we considered how to avoid two potential pitfalls when attempting the letter writing task in IELTS. 

Here are a few more things to watch out for if you wish to achieve a good writing band score.

3. Not covering bullet points adequately

In IELTS, test takers are told exactly what information to add in the letter, in the form of three bullet points. It goes without saying that these three points form the very heart of the task, so they have to be sufficiently developed. Failing to do so will mean a lower band score on Task Achievement, one of the four assessment criterions. Of course, a lower band in one area equals a lower overall writing score.

See to it that you read the bulleted list carefully, thinking up ways to extend each point purposefully. Everyday situations are used to set IELTS letter writing tasks, so use this knowledge to your advantage. Imagine yourself in the situation detailed in the task, and you’ll soon have enough ideas to flesh out each bullet point.

4. Failing to notice plural forms

One thing that snares even competent users of English is the use of plural forms in the task. The bulleted list, or the part above it that sets the context, may have plural nouns (e.g. problems) or determiners (e.g. some) that refer to an indefinite quantity.

Test takers need to pick up on any suggestion of plural forms in the task and respond appropriately. For instance, if the task states that you have some furniture to sell, make sure you include details of more than one piece of furniture. Similarly, if you’ve been asked to explain problems you are facing, the letter should mention at least two problems. If you happen to write about only one, you’ll get penalised for sure. To avoid running such a risk, it might be a good idea to underline plural nouns, or determiners such as some, as soon as you see them. That way, you’ll remember to include enough information later on while drawing up a plan.   

Remember, in an exam situation, staying alert is as important a thing to do as anything else. We’ll be back with more advice on letter writing.

Understanding the IELTS Reading Section

Reading comprehension is a key language ability that determines how much of a text an individual understands when they go through it. Not surprisingly, most language tests assess this skill.

Here’s what you can expect in the IELTS Reading section.

Skills tested

The Reading section in IELTS is designed to test a range of skills that we employ to read various kinds of text and derive meaning. This includes forming a general understanding of a long text, looking for specific details (e.g. a date, figure), identifying the writer’s opinion or attitudes, and following how an argument develops.

Content

In both IELTS tests, Academic and General Training, candidates receive three sections to read, each accompanied by a set of questions. Texts are normally adapted from books, newspapers, magazines, and journals, and tend to be of general interest. So, no specialist knowledge is required to understand them.

One key difference between the two tests is that the IELTS General Training Reading section is simpler, as it focuses mostly on basic survival skills.

Timing

The Reading section in IELTS lasts 60 minutes, and test takers are recommended to spend 20 minutes per section. Unlike IELTS Listening, no extra time is given to transfer answers, so they have to be written directly on to the answer sheet. Managing time can be tricky here, as candidates aren’t really told when to begin or end each section.

Questions

A total of 40 questions need to be answered in the Reading section. A variety of question types is used so that the difficulty level remains uniform across test sessions. Answers tend to be short, with most of them being a word or short phrase. Sometimes, a letter or number will do.

Scores

Each correct answer is worth one mark. A raw score out of 40 is calculated and later converted to the IELTS 9-band scale using a conversion table. Scores are reported in whole (e.g. 6, 7, 8) and half bands (e.g. 6.5, 7.5, 8.5). To score well in IELTS Reading, see to it that you read up on the format and spend enough time understanding the various question types. Good luck!

IELTS Test Day Journey (Part 2)

 

In a previous blog post, we looked at how the IELTS journey begins when test takers arrive at the test venue, following which they deposit belongings, and get registered. Read on to know what happens from then on.

 

Entering the examination room

On completing registration, test takers are ushered into the examination room, where they’ll be spending the next few hours doing the Listening, Reading, and Writing sections. Once the test taker enters this space, they are expected to remain there until the end of the session.

 Each individual is allotted a specific place in the room as per a seating plan that is prepared beforehand. Test takers are sat at a distance from each other to prevent malpractice of any kind, such as copying from one another or helping each other in any other way.

Attempting the written part

The Listening, Reading, and Writing sections of IELTS last approximately 3 hours and are completed on the same day, with no breaks in between them. Should the test taker decide to go to the restroom during this time, they lose that time. While the restroom is out of bounds during the Listening section, test takers may choose to quickly use the loo during Reading or Writing. Time checks are provided periodically to help test takers manage time efficiently.

In the Listening and Reading sections, answers have to be written on the answer sheet in pencil. For the Writing section, though, test takers get a choice between pen and pencil.

Attending the Speaking interview

The Speaking section is a one-to-one interaction with a trained examiner, which can be held before or after the written test. The date and time of the interview is normally announced a week in advance so that test takers have enough time to prepare. On the day, they are asked to report 20 to 30 minutes before the interview along with the passport or ID document. At this stage, biometric data is used to verify that the same individual has appeared for the speaking and written parts.

Once the test is over, IELTS results are made available online on the 13th day. A Test Report Form (TRF), which has individual scores as well as an overall band score, is also issued to the test taker.

 

IELTS Test Day Journey (Part 1)

 

Say the word ‘test’ or ‘exam’, and it’s natural for some to turn into a bundle of nerves. Let’s face it, exam fear cuts across different age groups, with both the young and old likely to get sweaty palms.

Many of us tend to harbour a deep-seated fear of the unknown. So, one way to get around exam fear is by familiarising yourself with the test that you’re planning to take.  In this post, we’ll trace the IELTS test day journey undertaken by candidates.

 

Arriving at the test venue

An IELTS test taker’s exam journey usually begins when they arrive at the test venue on the chosen test date. Depending on which part of the world you sit the test, this may be early in the morning or around noon.

At most test centres, only three sections of the test are conducted on the test date – Listening, Reading, and Writing. Speaking, on the other hand, can be scheduled before or after the written part. At small centres, however, all four sections may be held on the same day, especially if test takers numbers are low.

 

Depositing personal belongings   

As IELTS is a high-stakes test, there are strict regulations that need to be followed by test providers. Test venues tend to have designated areas where personal belongings are to be left. Only authorised items (e.g. pen, pencil, eraser, sharpener, identity document) can be carried into the examination room.

 

Test taker registration

IELTS uses cutting-edge technology, such as biometric registration and verification systems, to ensure that test security isn’t compromised at any point. Apart from fingerprints, the candidate’s photograph is also taken at the time of registration. Their identity document, which is usually the passport, is also subjected to close scrutiny.

Test security is safe in the hands of expert venue staff, who are hand-picked for the job. Once selected, they have to go through extensive training that prepares them to spot fraudulent behaviour or imposters.

 

In a later post, we’ll talk about the rest of the journey undertaken by millions of test takers who have chosen IELTS, the world’s leading English proficiency test.

Describing a Process (Part 2)

 

In the first part, we suggested doing two useful things when describing a process – identifying logical stages and using powerful verbs.

Here are three more tips to help you.

 

3. Be descriptive

Processes carried out in the modern-day factory are either fully or partly automated, which means that there is extensive use of machinery. One way to improve your score is by forming the ability to describe the appearance of machines in detail. Here’s an example:

The next stage involves use of an injection moulder, which is a long, narrow cylindrical apparatus with an outlet at the top through which liquid can be funnelled in.

 

4. Use linking devices adequately

A process has various stages that are interconnected, so it’s important that pieces of text which describe various stages blend seamlessly with each other. To achieve this, skillful use of linking devices (i.e. words and phrases) is a must. The reader will then find it easier to follow the order of information in a piece of writing or identify how parts are related. Here’s an example:

To begin with, oranges are sourced from large groves where they are grown in optimal conditions. The fruit collected is then inspected and graded before being transported to the production site. On arrival, the oranges are rinsed while they pass over rollers, and are segregated thereafter.

 

5. Choose tenses appropriately

In a process, some actions may take place naturally (e.g. the fruit ripens in about 3 months), whereas others are performed by humans (e.g. the ripe fruit is pulled off the trees by pickers). When describing things done by workers, we often use passive structures, as the doer of the action is not important. Here are some examples:

  • Oranges are sourced / are grown
  • The fruit is inspected / is collected / is graded

 

In each activity mentioned above, the result is important, not the person who does the action. So, before choosing the tense, think whether the doer of the action needs a mention.

 

Do remember to follow these tips the next time you attempt to describe a process.

Describing a Process (Part 1)

 

Have you ever wondered how orange juice is mass-produced for our consumption? If you haven’t, maybe you should, because the ability to describe such industrial processes can be a plus in language tests such as IELTS.

 

In IELTS Academic writing, for instance, the test taker may receive a diagram showing a process. This is generally a pictorial representation of the various activities involved in turning raw materials into finished products.

Here are some things to do when describing a process.

 

1. Divide process into logical stages

If it’s a process, then it’s got to be made up of various stages, with each involving one or more steps. In the case of orange juice production, the process might involve typical activities such as harvesting, grading, cleaning, extraction, pasteurization, and packaging.

It’s important to have clear descriptions of what happens at each stage, and how the various stages are interlinked. So, begin by dividing the entire process into logical stages. Sometimes thinking about simple stuff like what raw materials are required, what happens to them in the factory, and how the end product is made ready for sales can help you with this exercise.

 

2. Think up main verbs that describe industrial activity

A diagram illustrating a process is likely to contain several technical phrases which appear as labels. It may not be always possible to rephrase such terms in order to show off your vocabulary skills. Instead, generate a list of main verbs which clearly describe various activities happening at each stage. Here are some examples:

 

  • Oranges are sourced from large groves
  • The fruit is inspected and graded before being transported to the production site
  • The oranges are rinsed while they pass over rollers, and are subsequently segregated

 

Remember, precise use of vocabulary can make your descriptions absolutely clear without having to write too many words.

 

We’ll be back soon with more on interpreting and describing process diagrams.

Describing Visual Data (Part 2)

Image courtesy of John Jones via Flickr (CC 2.0)

 

In the previous part, we looked at some useful advice to produce a good report – adding data to descriptions and choosing data carefully.

Here are some more tips on report writing.

 

3. Use comparative language

As well as choosing the right kind of data, a report writing exercise tests the writer’s ability to compare information where relevant. In other words, for a report to be good, you need to be able to look at trends in the graph and identify both similarities and differences.

Naturally, use of language to compare things is a must here, so keep looking for opportunities to use comparative phrases such as greater than, a lot less than, and relatively unpopular. Superlative adjectives (e.g. the tallest, the fastest, the costliest, etc.) also come in handy when something is being compared to a group of objects.

 

4. Use appropriate vocabulary

There’s no doubt that the wider the range of vocabulary used, the clearer descriptions get. A powerful word like skyrocket or plummet can help the reader visualise the trend being described even without having to look at figures. Of course, range alone will not do the trick. What is equally important is that vocabulary gets used precisely.

A graph is usually full of trends, which means that skillful use of trend vocabulary can better the overall quality of a report. Learning such vocabulary can go a long way towards improving your descriptions.

 

5. Look at the big picture

An overload of statistics can possibly suck the writer in, meaning that they spend all their energies on details. When writing a report, if you can’t see the wood for the trees, then that definitely is a major handicap.  Always look for the big picture, that one overriding pattern or trend that captures the essence of the graph that you are interpreting.

 

Practise using these tips, and report writing should be manageable even if you aren’t mathematically inclined.

 

 

GLOSSARY

do the trick
Form : phrase
Meaning : used to mean that something achieved what you wanted it to
Example : Complaining to the manager did the trick, as we got a discount on the meal.

 

not see the wood for the trees
Form : phrase
Meaning : used to say that someone is so focused on details that they fail to notice the main point
Example : People who lack experience are often unable to see the wood for the trees.

 

handicap
Form : noun
Meaning : a disadvantage
Example : Playing in Canada was a handicap, as they were used to warmer conditions.

 

the big picture
Form : phrase
Meaning : an overview of a situation
Example : The article focuses on the big picture of how the internet influences what we buy. 

 

 

Describing Visual Data (Part 1)

Image courtesy of John Jones via Flickr (CC 2.0)

 

Describing information that is presented in visual form can be a hard row to hoe, especially if Mathematics isn’t your thing. For a start, there could be so much data that you wouldn’t know where to begin. Identifying the overall trend that captures the essence of the graph isn’t easy either.

 

It then comes as no surprise that different types of tests commonly use graphs to assess the test taker’s ability to interpret and describe data with some degree of precision. In IELTS Academic, Task 1 is a report writing exercise that can be based on visual data – line graph, bar graph, pie chart, or a combination of them.

 

Here are some handy tips for writing a good report.

1. Add data to support descriptions

Sometimes we get so caught up in making any sense out of all the numbers that are plotted on a graph that we forget to get the basics right. A fundamental part of report writing is effective use of figures. Leave them out, and your descriptions could make little sense to the reader.

Imagine reading an automobile sales report that includes various trends but has absolutely no numerical data to support descriptions. The chances are you wouldn’t be able to make head or tail of the situation just by reading about trends. So, add figures wherever needed to support trends or patterns you describe.

 

2. Pick data wisely

Although it is important to include numerical data when describing trends, it doesn’t mean that every number plotted on a graph needs to find its way into your report. Too many figures can make a report less effective, just like one without any data.

One ability that report writing assesses is whether the writer can pick key figures out as well as leave those out which are non-essential to the task. While there are no shortcuts to making this decision, thinking about the purpose of the report should help you decide what numbers to include and what not to.

 

Remember, time spent analysing the graph is time well spent.

 

 

GLOSSARY

hard row to hoe
Form : phrase
Meaning : difficult to do
Example : With just four matches left this season, winning the championship will be a hard row to hoe.

 

isn’t your thing
Form : phrase
Meaning : used to explain that you are not interested in something
Example : Camping under the stars isn’t really my thing, so I think I’ll pass.

 

not make head or tail (of something)
Form : phrase
Meaning : unable to understand something
Example : All the dialogues were in Italian so I couldn’t make head or tail of the play.

 

Acing the IELTS Speaking Section (Part 2)

 

In the first part, we spoke of how it’s important to sensibly utilise the one minute allotted for preparation during the IELTS Speaking section.

 

Read on for more advice on how to do well in the IELTS Speaking section.

2. Generate some main ideas, not many

Test takers commonly but wrongly try to produce as many different ideas related to the topic as possible, which doesn’t always work. After all, thinking up new ideas is a lot harder than extending ideas you already have. What they really should be doing is to come up with a few main ideas and then think of ways to develop them. Wh-words (what, when, which, where, why, and how) come in handy when you wish to elaborate a point. Learn to put them to good use, and you should be able to keep talking until the two-minute time is up.

 

3. Be descriptive

Topics used in the second part of the IELTS Speaking section often encourage test takers to draw on their own experience and feelings. And when doing so, it’s a good idea to vividly describe people and things you include in your talk. If you’ve been asked to talk about your favourite type of food, for example, talk about its appearance, smell, texture, and aroma. That way, you’ll have a lot more to say, meaning that you are less likely to dry up. As well as this, the examiner might also find your response more impressive, as detailed descriptions involve use of precise vocabulary.

 

4. Speak at a steady pace

It’s only human nature to talk faster than usual when we are fairly stressed out, and exam conditions can do just that sort of thing to you. The problem, though, is that the faster you go, the more content you need to produce to last the two-minute duration. Going at breakneck speed can also interfere with your diction, lowering your pronunciation score. It is best to stay calm and speak at a steady pace – not too fast, not too slow.

 

Equip yourself with these sound strategies, and speaking non-stop will be a walk in the park!

 

 

GLOSSARY

 

come in handy
Form : phrase
Meaning : be useful
Example : Some ability to speak European languages will come in handy in this job.

 

draw on (something)
Form : phrasal verb
Meaning : to make use of skill or experience that you have 
Example : The book draws heavily on the author’s experiences as a tourist in Asia.

 

a walk in the park
Form : phrase
Meaning : something that is easy to do
Example : I’ve been a cop for over two decades, so investigating petty crimes is a walk in the park. 

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