Structuring a Letter (Part 2)

 

We’ve already looked at two ways to help lend your letter better structure – beginning with a fitting salutation and stating the general purpose of your letter.

Here are some more tips for organising information effectively.

 

3. Match letter to the purpose of writing

A good letter is always a purposeful one, with its different parts sewn up together to achieve clear progression. So, before beginning writing, ask yourself why you’re doing so in the first place.

Once you identify the purpose, think of information that’ll help you achieve it and decide on an appropriate way of ordering it. For instance, if it’s a complaint letter, begin by explaining what the issue is, and then say how it is affecting you and what you’d want the recipient to do.

 

4. Have one main idea per paragraph

As far as writing goes, experts swear by one rule in particular: less is more. A letter that is verbose tends to be harder to follow, so it makes sense to keep things simple.

What is also important is that there’s sufficient paragraphing, helping the reader move from one point to another effortlessly. And the best way to achieve this is by creating short paragraphs, each with about two to four sentences. That way, when reading a new paragraph, the reader knows that they are looking at new information.

 

5. Use an appropriate ending

Just like how having a fitting beginning is important, so is the need to end your letter in a suitable way.

If a formal letter begins with ‘Dear Sir’ or ‘Dear Madam’, end it using ‘Yours faithfully’. If you’ve used a title and surname at the beginning, then the ending should be ‘Yours sincerely’. In friendly letters, like with salutations, the ending also needs to have a casual feel to it, so use something informal such as ‘Lots of love’ or ‘Cheers’.

And here’s a final tip: formal letters have more fixed rules than friendly ones, so not following them can make you sound rude.

 

 

GLOSSARY

fitting
Form : adjective
Meaning : suitable for the occasion
Example : Keith served us a tasty Asian dessert, which was a fitting end to the lovely meal.

 

sew up
Form : phrasal verb
Meaning : to put different parts of something together to get the desired result
Example : It took them almost a month to sew up the business deal.

 

swear by
Form : phrasal verb
Meaning : to have great confidence in something
Example : My parents swear by this herb’s ability to cure various ailments.

 

verbose
Form : adjective
Meaning : describes writing that has more words than needed
Example : His letter was both illegible and verbose. 

Structuring a Letter (Part 1)

 

Electronic means of communicating, such as emailing and text-messaging, may have long made letter writing passé, but the skills required to put together a letter remain relevant.

While vocabulary and grammar top the list of things that people most want to get right, not many give due consideration to a key component – structure. In some cases, the vocabulary may be precise and the grammar accurate, but the fact is that a letter without a clear beginning, middle, and finishing paragraph is likely to confuse the reader.

Although a one-size-fits-all approach clearly doesn’t work when deciding how to organise your writing, here are some useful pointers on what to include and in which order.

 

1. Begin with a suitable greeting

Opening a letter with a greeting is something that everyone does, but the beginning they choose may not always fit the context. How a letter should begin depends on two things: who the reader is, and just how well they know the writer.

A formal letter typical begins with ‘Dear Sir’ or ‘Dear Madam’, unless you’ve already spoken or written to the recipient. In that case, begin with the full title and their surname (e.g. ‘Dear Prof Higgins’, ‘Dear Ms Jackson’, ‘Dear Dr Floyd’). Friendly letters, on the other hand, usually begin with the word ‘Dear’ followed by the recipient’s first name.

 

2. State the purpose

It’s best to make clear right at the beginning of your letter why you are writing to someone. The benefit is that the reader knows straight away what the context is, making it easier for them to comprehend the information that is to follow.

If it is a formal or semi-formal letter that you’re writing, you simply can’t go wrong when you begin with the phrase ‘I am writing to’. By comparison, friendly letters are quite chatty right from the word go, so begin with an informal phrase (e.g. ‘It’s been a while since we last met.’) before you get to the topic.

 

Remember, how well you structure your writing depends on how well you’ve planned it.

 

 

GLOSSARY

passé
Form : adjective
Meaning : describes something that is no longer popular or effective
Example : I’m not surprised Pete’s film flopped. His ideas on film-making are so passé.

 

one-size-fits-all
Form : adjective
Meaning : describes something that is suitable for all circumstances
Example : In teaching, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all method that works for all types of students.

 

(right) from the word go
Form : phrase
Meaning : from the very beginning
Example : The band’s first performance was a disaster from the word go.

 

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. 

Acing the IELTS Speaking Section (Part 1)

 

Talking about any topic at length, in itself, is never too easy, so imagine having to do it without any prior preparation.

 

Giving an extempore speech, or an impromptu speech, is something that many people find daunting. For one thing, the speaker needs to be able to think on their feet. With zero preparation done beforehand, they have to make up content as they go along. Another challenge is that the speaker also needs to organise the ideas they generate as they speak. If not, there is every chance of the talk becoming directionless, with ideas popping up randomly.

 

An extempore task brings to the fore a person’s ability to think, organise, and talk all at the same time, when little to no preparation time is available. No mean feat, right? No wonder then that B-schools commonly use such tasks to measure the speaking as well as logical thinking ability of applicants. Several international language tests also have a component that assesses the test taker’s ability to speak at length without preparation.

 

In IELTS, the second part of the speaking section, known as the individual long turn, requires the test taker to speak on a particular topic for up to 2 minutes uninterruptedly. Of course, there is the advantage of having a minute to prepare and make notes, but the task is essentially extempore speaking.

 

Here are some ways to perform well in the extempore part of the IELTS speaking test:

1. Use prep time wisely

Test takers do get time to think about the topic and make notes before they start talking, but one minute is not a lot of time. So, do not write in full sentences. Instead, jot down keywords that can help you talk elaborately on the topic. For instance, if you have been asked to talk about an unforgettable meal you’ve had, add words such as ‘exotic’ and ‘flavoursome’ to the notes you make. Once you begin talking, they’ll serve as a reminder to describe the origin of the food and its distinctive flavours.

We’ll be back with more IELTS Speaking tips in the next part. Stay tuned!

 

 

GLOSSARY

at length
Form : phrase
Meaning : for a long period of time
Example : The ministers spoke at length about the need to bring down crime rates.

 

think on your feet
Form : phrase
Meaning : to have the ability to think and react quickly 
Example : Stand-up comedians need to have the ability to think on their feet while doing live shows.

 

no mean feat
Form : phrase
Meaning : not easy to do
Example : He has played in over 300 international matches, and that’s no mean feat.

 

Ways to Improve Your Vocabulary (Part 3)


Image courtesy of Jil Wright via Flickr (CC 2.0)

 

So far in the series, we’ve spoke about four different ways to increase your word power: reading extensively, learning words in context, listening, and practising using new words. Here are two more tips to help build your vocabulary.

5. Keep a dictionary close at hand, always

When it comes to vocabulary building, an obvious place to start would be somewhere you are likely to encounter thousands of new words: a dictionary. If you don’t have one, invest in one, for a good dictionary is worth its weight in gold. Maybe you prefer to do things the old-fashioned way by consulting a printed, unabridged version. Or maybe you wish to have something more sophisticated, such as an app or online version. Whatever your choice, it hardly matters. The one thing that does is that you always have a dictionary close at hand while reading. Why? You are more likely to use it that way.

 

Apart from the meaning of a word, a dictionary also has alternative meanings, pronunciation, word origin, useful expressions and phrases featuring the word, collocations, and lots more. In short, it’s a treasure trove of information, so make the most of it.

 

6. Make it fun

Let’s face it, learning of any kind could be a pretty dreary affair after a while, even if you happen to be an eager beaver! So, try as best as you can to make vocabulary building a fun activity.  A game of Scrabble, for instance, is an enjoyable way of getting introduced to new lexis. If board games aren’t your thing, you can always play a spoken word game. A quick online search should get you a list of ideas. If you wish to push yourself, then try a crossword puzzle or perhaps an anagram. Crossword puzzles can be a right challenge, as creators are typically forced to use unusual words so that everything fits into the puzzles they design.

 

Remember, there’s no one perfect way to acquire an extensive vocabulary. Feel free to chop and change learning strategies so that you find out what works best for you.

 

 

GLOSSARY

 

worth its weight in gold
Form : phrase
Meaning : very useful
Example : A good cookery book is worth its weight in gold.

 

unabridged
Form : adjective
Meaning : describes a book or article that has not been shortened in length
Example : I’ve seen the unabridged version of this play, and it is just too long.

 

close at hand
Form : phrase
Meaning : near
Example : Is there a hospital close at hand?

 

treasure trove
Form : noun
Meaning : describes something containing many useful things
Example : The encyclopedia is a treasure trove of information.

 

 

chop and change
Form : phrase
Meaning : to keep changing what you are doing
Example : Football coaches sometimes chop and change players to find the right balance.

Ways to Improve Your Vocabulary (Part 2)

Image courtesy of Velaia (Paris Peking) via Flickr (CC 2.0)

 

In Part 1, we looked at two sure-shot ways to build your vocabulary: forming a reading habit and learning words in context. Here are some more suggestions to increase your word power.

 

3. Listen to natural speech

Want to learn new words and pronounce them right at the same time? Listening to lots of natural speech can be the answer. From a lexical point of view, it can introduce you to several new words within a specific context, making it easier for you to retain them in your memory. Should you choose to give this method a try, be sure to watch videos that come with transcript. That way, you get to listen to new vocabulary as well as see it. A good place to begin is TED Talks (www.ted.com), where there are plenty of short, powerful talks to choose from. When you watch a TED video, see to it that you read the transcript and jot down new vocabulary. You may also want to pay attention to how words are pronounced so that you say them just the right way.

 

4. Try using new words or risk losing them

Learning new vocabulary is one thing, but forming an ability to recall them when needed is something else. Not putting newly learnt words to immediate use could mean losing them in the long run, as they may no longer be fresh in your memory by then. One way of getting round this problem is to focus only on vocabulary that is personally relevant, as you are sure to have opportunities to use them at regular intervals. Keeping this in mind, before you decide to learn new lexis, ask yourself whether the word or phrase is something you would use in your day-to-day conversations. And make an effort only if the answer is a resounding yes! Your task doesn’t end there, though. Use the newly acquired word at the earliest opportunity. Once you’ve used it a few times, it usually sticks in your mind, becoming a part of your active vocabulary.

 

We’ll be back with more vocabulary tips in the next part.

 

 

GLOSSARY

 

sure-shot
Form : adjective
Meaning : certain to be successful
Example : Continuous practice is a sure-shot way to improve your sporting skills.

 

transcript
Form : noun
Meaning : the words that someone says in written form
Example : The police have transcripts of all the telephone conversations made by the suspect.  

 

in the long run
Form : phrase
Meaning : at some time in the future
Example : Although expensive, new machinery will help us cut costs in the long run.

 

stick in your mind
Form : phrase
Meaning : stay in your memory for a long time
Example : He has won several tournaments, but his first ever final sticks in my mind.

 

Ways to Improve Your Vocabulary (Part 1)

Image courtesy of Thad Zajdowicz via Flickr (CC 2.0)

 

One striking feature that sets proficient English speakers apart from those less competent is their lexical range. Quite often they exhibit a near-magical ability to summon just the right kind of word or phrase, with the result that they convey with precision what they wish to say.

Considering that words are the basic blocks using which we give and receive information, the broader your lexical range gets the easier it becomes to communicate. Here are some handy tips to expand your vocabulary.

1. Read regularly!

Anyone who has tried to work on their vocabulary must’ve had this advice time and again. After all, reading is the most obvious way to learn new vocabulary, because it exposes you to the same words and phrases at regular intervals. That said, building vocabulary may not be a priority when you are reading interesting stuff. So, note down unfamiliar words while reading. Afterwards pick out useful ones you wish to learn. Remember, reading can also provide reinforcement. When you come across vocabulary you’ve learnt recently, and you understand what it means, it is proof enough that you have learnt it well.

A confusion that many learners face is deciding what to read and what not to. While there are no hard and fast rules, see to it that you pick materials that interest you. And if that happens to be a lowbrow magazine on fashion, so be it. What’s important is to choose something you find enjoyable, with a view to possibly learning new words.

 

2. Learn vocabulary in context

Some learners make the mistake of learning vocabulary in isolation. In other words, they try to learn a random collection of new words off by heart. Instead, learn vocabulary in chunks or sentences so that a context begins to appear, helping you understand when and how the word can be used. The added benefit is that this way you get introduced to a lot of new words at the same time.

If done the right way, building vocabulary can be enjoyable and beneficial.

 

 

GLOSSARY

 

reinforcement
Form : noun
Meaning : the act of making an idea stronger
Example : Jokes can sometimes be a reinforcement of gender stereotypes.

 

hard and fast
Form : phrase
Meaning : not able to be changed
Example : There are no hard and fast rules about how a film should end.

 

lowbrow
Form : adjective
Meaning : lacking serious cultural or artistic value
Example : Although his books are quite popular, critics consider them to be lowbrow literature. 

 

in isolation
Form : phrase
Meaning : separately
Example : Environmental damage cannot be considered in isolation, as it affects humans and animals.

 

by heart
Form : phrase
Meaning : to learn something so well that you are able to remember it without having to read it again
Example : Mike knows all the poems in his text book by heart. 

 

British vs American English (Part 2)

Image courtesy of Secabtien Wiertz via Flickr (CC 2.0)

 

In the first part, we spoke of how Britons and Americans tend to spell and pronounce a lot of words differently. Here are some other ways in which UK and US English differ.

3. Vocabulary

This is arguably the most striking difference between the versions of English spoken on either side of the pond. Let’s do a quick comparison: in British English ‘you take the lift from a friend’s flat to the ground floor of the building’, while in American English ‘you take the elevator from a friend’s apartment to the first floor of the building’.

 

There are hundreds of such everyday things that are described using different terms. That said, Britons and Americans are generally able to guess the meaning of unfamiliar words from the context. On rare occasions, though, it could cause confusion. For example, the phrase ‘first floor’ can be found in both versions, but it carries a different meaning in each.

 

Here are some common examples of different words describing the same things:

 

British English American English
biscuit cookie
flat apartment
petrol gas
trousers pants
chips French fries
crisps potato chips
aubergine eggplant
mobile phone cell phone
torch flashlight
football soccer
the cinema the movies

 

4. Grammar

Like spelling, the way speakers of UK and US English use grammar can also be slightly different at times. For starters, Britons use question tags (a phrase added to the end of a sentence to turn it into a question; e.g. You don’t eat meat, do you?) a lot more than speakers of American English.

 

Here are some more grammatical differences:

 

British English American English
Preposition Are you in my team or his?

 

I’ll see you at the weekend.

Are you on my team or his?

 

I’ll see you on the weekend.

Tense Use of the present perfect to describe something that has happened recently

 

I’ve just had dinner.

Use of the past simple to describe something that has happened recently

 

I just had dinner.

Verb forms Some verbs are considered irregular

 

dream, dreamt, dreamt

learn, learnt, learnt

The same verbs are made regular

 

dream, dreamed, dreamed

learn, learned, learned

Collective nouns Collective nouns can be singular or plural

 

My team is / are in the lead.

Collective nouns are always singular

 

My team is in the lead.

 

 

All in all, these two versions of English have a lot more similarities than differences, so if you can understand one, the chances are that you’ll be able to understand the other too.

 

GLOSSARY

 

the pond
Form : noun
Meaning : an informal term for the Atlantic Ocean, which lies in between Britain and America
Example : This rock band is huge in Britain but relatively unknown on the other side of the pond. 

 

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