Structuring Your IELTS Letter (Part 2)

In a previous blog post, we began exploring a formula called ODAC, which basically breaks up your IELTS letter into four key elements – Opening, Details, Action and Closing. If used appropriately, it could help you structure your IELTS letter effectively, improving your chances of securing a high band score for the task.  

Read on to find out more about the remaining two parts of the formula.

Action

As mentioned previously, there are always three bullet points presented in the question for you to address in your letter. Although there are no hard and fast rules about formulating the bullet points, one of them, which is usually the third, will very often be something action-oriented – for example, say what action you would like the company to take or suggest someone he/she could take in your place. In other words, you will be asked to perform some kind of action, such as making a request, giving instructions, proposing solutions, providing an explanation, laying out a plan or making suggestions.

In order for you to explicitly state what you are intending to do next or what you would like the recipient to do, spend some time learning useful functional language (i.e. set phrases). That way, you will find it easier to finish writing the task in the recommended twenty minutes.

Closing

The opening, as well as closing of your letter, should perfectly fit the tone you’ve used in the letter. The word ‘tone’ refers to the way in which (formal or informal) you write the letter. Generally speaking, the tone is decided on considering who you’ve been asked to write to, the context, and the purpose.

Even though getting the closing of the letter right might seem to be the least of your worries, please be aware that using an inappropriate closing formula will most definitely have an adverse impact on your final Writing score.

So, now that you know how the ODAC formula can help you structure your Task 1 response in the IELTS General Training test, it’d perhaps be a good idea to give yourself some practice using it before test day. Good luck!

Making Your IELTS Essay Sound Formal (Part 3)

So far in this blog series, you’ve read about some handy tips that can help improve your use of academic English, such as avoiding statistics that are made up and limiting the use of personal pronouns.  

In this final part, we’ll introduce you to a few more essential features of academic English.

6. Learn to use passive voice

The passive voice is often used to change the focus of a sentence. Unlike a sentence in active voice, here, who or what gets affected by the action gets more importance than the performer of the action. 

People often destroy woodlands to make way for development. (active voice)

Woodlands are often destroyed to make way for development. (passive voice)

It is clear that people in general are the performers of the action in the above sentence, so the passive version does not even mention them. If used appropriately, passive structures can make your writing impersonal.

7. Avoid vague language and short forms  

One noticeable aspect of academic English is clarity. There is no room for ambiguity when you are putting together an IELTS essay, so avoid language that will make your writing sound vague. For example, do not use the phrases ‘et cetera’ or ‘so on’ – it sort of indicates indolence on your part. Stating one or two specific examples in support of your point will work better, making your writing clearer. Similarly, avoid using short forms such as ‘e.g.’ and ‘i.e.’ in your essay; write phrases like ‘for example’ and ‘in other words’ instead.

8. Do not use sexist language

In the past, it was okay to use words such as he, him and his to refer to all humankind, but not anymore.

If an employee is running late, he will have to inform his line manager without fail.

Sexist language, such as in the sentence above, is language that excludes one gender, or which suggests that one particular gender is superior to the other. In the present-day world, not every police officer is a he, and not every nurse is a she. Because of diminishing gender differences, people are increasingly finding sexist language offensive, so you would do well to avoid it. You could use alternatives such as ‘he/she’ or ‘they’ in place of ‘he’.  

Finally, remember that what you have read here are some basic rules of academic English; getting the tone of your essay right each time will take some practice.

To get more Writing tips and practice, visit the British Council’s LearnEnglish website by clicking here.

Making Your IELTS Essay Sound Formal (Part 2)

In the first part, we looked at some features of formal language and ways to ensure that your IELTS essay has an academic tone throughout.

Picking up where we left off, here are three things to avoid if your IELTS essay needs to be appropriately formal.

3. Avoid slang words

Choice of vocabulary is arguably the key to controlling the level of formality of your written work. Naturally, it goes without saying that informal words or expressions that are commonly found in spoken language have no place in your IELTS essay. For instance, do not replace the word ‘children’ with an informal expression such as ‘kids’, as this would be inappropriate.

4. Do not use contracted forms

Contracted forms, also referred to as short forms, are words or phrases that have been shortened by dropping one or more letters. Here are some examples:

  • I’m (short form of I am)
  • they’re (short form of they are)
  • I’ve (short form of I have)
  • she’d (short form of she would and she had)
  • we’ll (short form of we will)

When forming a contraction, an apostrophe is used in place of a missing letter, or missing letters. Although contracted forms are very common in English, especially in everyday speech, they are considered inappropriate in formal writing. In IELTS Writing, the only time you can confidently use contractions is when you have been asked to write an informal letter in the IELTS General Training test.

5. Avoid clichés

A cliché is a stale phrase or proverb that has been overused and has, therefore, lost its charm. When you use a cliché like ‘all that glitters is not gold’ in your essay, you end up making your writing dull and unimaginative. A far better approach is to convey this idea in your own words – for example, something that is superficially attractive may not always be valuable or true.

Remember, clichés tend to be inherent in our everyday communication, so they may creep into your writing unnoticed. For this reason, do keep an eye out for clichéd expressions when your proofread your essay. And should you find any, paraphrase without any hesitation.

You can find more information on academic English in the final part in this series.

Making Your IELTS Essay Sound Formal (Part 1)

The choice between formal and informal language boils down to one key consideration: context. While informal English is casual and spontaneous, which is ideal for communicating with friends or family, formal English tends to be less personal, making it suitable for work or academic purposes.

Whether our style of communication sounds formal or informal depends on the tone, type of vocabulary and complexity of grammar used when we write or speak. Generally speaking, though, formal language is more common in written than in spoken English.

In IELTS, it is important that Writing tasks have a formal tone throughout. Of course, there is the possible exception of an informal or semi-formal letter being set as Task 1 in the General Training test, but otherwise you will be expected to use an academic style of writing. In this blog series, we will consider some ways in which you can make your IELTS essay sound sufficiently formal.

1. Limit the use of pronouns

Although the tone of an IELTS essay does not have to be as serious or impersonal as that of a research paper, it is always a good idea to limit the use of the first person pronouns ‘I’ and ‘we’. Of course, if the essay asks for your opinion, it would be quite natural for you to state it by using a phrase such as ‘I tend to believe’ or ‘I am of the opinion’, so go right ahead. Just don’t overuse pronouns, that’s all!

2. Do not invent statistics

While putting together an essay, it is commonplace for test takers to use statistics in support of their arguments or ideas. However, on test day, you are not expected to come armed with precise data obtained from research papers or articles that will fit your essay topic. So, do not make up facts or data in an attempt to make information in your essay appear authentic. A general phrase like ‘There is enough evidence to suggest that…’ will suffice to get your point across. Besides, you could use expressions such as ‘majority’ or ‘vast majority’ instead of inventing numbers or percentages.

Do read the remaining parts in this series if you would like to get pointers on how to improve your academic English.

IELTS Writing Myths Debunked (Part 3)

Internationally acclaimed language tests like IELTS are known for their transparent and robust assessment methods. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always stop people from drawing conclusions about the test experience, based largely on hearsay and guesswork.

Read on to know about some more IELTS myths that we’ve laid to rest for you.

Myth #7: The more linking words or phrases in your essay, the better.

When you aren’t well informed about the test, you may feel that achieving cohesion is all about peppering your response with cohesive devices, such as firstly, however, and despite. Further, reading ‘poor’ model essays will only reinforce this misconception of yours.

The truth: Too much of any one ingredient can ruin a dish, and the same rule holds good for essays. While prudent use of discourse markers can make your writing cohesive, overuse is definitely something to avoid. A quick look at the IELTS Writing Task 2 band descriptors will help you see what we mean. 

Myth #8: No word should be used more than once.

Many a test taker has wasted precious time during the Writing section trying to identify synonyms so that they don’t repeat words. And if some can’t think of any synonyms, they invent new words!

The truth: Exhibiting a wide range of words and phrases can boost your vocabulary score, no doubt. However, nowhere does it say that test takers shouldn’t write any word more than once. In fact, some technical words (e.g. computer, robot) may not have synonyms at all. Focus on words, such as verbs and adjectives, which can be easily replaced so that you present the examiner with a nice variety of vocabulary.

Myth #9:  It’s useful to learn up answers to past essay questions.

When you aren’t adequately prepared for the test, it’s natural to get desperate and look for shortcuts at the eleventh hour. Some take the easy way out and mug up answers to past IELTS essay questions.

The truth: IELTS essay questions are hardly ever repeated in the same form! This is done to dissuade test takers from reproducing answers from memory. A more fruitful approach would be to identify common IELTS essay topics and read up on them.

The next time you hear an IELTS myth, do check with an authentic source before you make up your mind.

IELTS Writing Myths Debunked (Part 2)

In Part 1, we spoke of how handwriting has no bearing on your band score, why overwriting should be avoided, and how bombast won’t help push your vocabulary score up.

Here are some more misconceptions about IELTS that prospective test takers tend to believe.

Myth #4: It’s not important to meet the word limit.

Many test takers think that the word limit set for each IELTS Writing task is just a recommendation. This could be the reason why they don’t bother keeping track of the number of words they write while practising their writing skills.

The truth: A good number of test takers get penalised in IELTS Writing for the simple reason that they fail to meet the word limit prescribed for Writing Task 1 (at least 150 words) and Task 2 (at least 250 words). Learn how many words you normally write per line; use this information to estimate the length of your responses. That way, you won’t fall short on test day.

Myth #5: In the essay task, only your language skills matter, not your ideas.

Being language assessment tools, the main purpose of tests such as IELTS is to ascertain the proficiency of the test taker. However, by no means does this mean that the ideas introduced in an essay don’t really amount to much.

The truth: The ideas in your essay are just as important as anything else. If the points you make aren’t pertinent to the topic, it’d be virtually impossible to achieve logical progression throughout the response. The end result would be a lower band on the Task Response criterion.

Myth #6: The personal pronoun ‘I’ should not be used in the essay.

This one has got to be one of the most amusing IELTS myths – the personal pronoun ‘I’ should be avoided at all costs in Task 2, or you run the risk of getting penalised for informal writing style!

The truth: Most IELTS essays ask the test taker to express their opinion about a particular facet of the topic. And when you wish to give your view on something, the personal pronoun ‘I’ is the obvious choice, so it’s okay. Just don’t overuse the word and make your essay sound too personal.   

There’s more to follow, so please do watch this space.

IELTS Writing Myths Debunked (Part 1)

When a language test has been around for 30-odd years and has been taken by millions of test takers, then just about everyone has opinions about what strategies might or might not work. Unfortunately, notions born out of half-baked research are often little more than misconceptions about the test.  

In this series, we’ll debunk some of the popular myths surrounding the IELTS Writing section.       

Myth #1: Good handwriting automatically leads to higher writing scores.

There’s no doubt that good handwriting makes a great first impression on the reader. Perhaps this has helped peddle the myth that neat handwriting is the key to securing high scores in IELTS Writing. And every time a test taker with good handwriting gets a high Writing score, more people tend to believe it.  

The truth: Such a misconception fails to take into consideration the fact that good handwriting simply cannot be equated with language proficiency. The most your IELTS examiner will expect is for your answers to be legible.

Myth #2: It’s a good idea to write as much as you can.

A common strategy that test takers employ is to write long responses to questions, especially in the essay task. This is usually done with the intention of showing the examiner just how much language they are capable of producing. Additionally, some also believe that a longer response indicates fluency in written English, something they hope will improve their chances of getting a high score.  

The truth: Examiners only ever consider the length of a response if there’s any doubt that the word limit hasn’t been met. Ideally, you should aim to write only about 20 to 30 words more than the prescribed word count for each task. Remember, a lengthy answer often lacks coherence because of being wordy and repetitive.

Myth #3: High-sounding words are necessary to get a high score on vocabulary. 

Many test takers mistakenly believe that fancy words are a must when you aim for a vocabulary score of 7 or above. Cramming your essay with high-sounding words won’t really help your cause. This is because examiners consider various aspects of lexis and vocabulary before awarding you a band score.

 The truth: While you need to use some less common words, it is more important that the vocabulary you choose is appropriate for the topic. Other equally important aspects of vocabulary assessed include collocation, paraphrasing, and connotation. 

We’ll bust some more IELTS Writing myths in the next part.

IELTS Test Day Advice: Writing (Part 3)

So far in our blog series on IELTS Writing test day advice, we’ve explored eight different ideas that can help you up your game when it matters most.

In this final part, we’ve got more practical guidance for you to ensure things go smoothly on the day.

9. Don’t copy from the question

In school exams, students don’t think twice about beginning their writing response by copying the question. Do that in IELTS, and the chances are that it may disadvantage you. If entire sentences, or even fragments, are copied from the question paper, they won’t get assessed. It may also send out the wrong signal that perhaps your language level isn’t up to scratch, forcing you to copy the question instead of paraphrasing it.

10. Avoid rambling answers

Like in other language tests, test takers need to work against the clock to complete the two tasks in IELTS Writing. Naturally, long rambling answers should be avoided at any cost. For one thing, it would mean spending more time than you should. Such a response may also turn out to be incoherent due to the inclusion of too many ideas.   

11. Write answers in full sentences

As you may already know, textspeak (use of initials, symbols, and short forms of words that are common in text messages) is something to avoid in IELTS Writing. What is equally unacceptable is writing your answers in bullet points or short notes. It’s important that test takers write their answers in full sentences. If not, they’ll be penalised for inappropriate format.

12. Don’t remove test materials from venue

Although it might be tempting to pass on some questions from your test to a friend or teacher, do not attempt to remove any test materials from the venue. On rare occasions, test takers have been found attempting to jot down the writing questions on pieces of paper. Trust us when we say, it’s simply not worth the trouble! If you get caught, you’ll have to kiss your test results goodbye. You may also have to face disciplinary action.

On test day, remember to do the little things right, and everything will be just fine!

IELTS Test Day Advice: Writing (Part 2)

In Part 1, we had some IELTS Writing advice for you about choice of stationery, model answers, task weighting, and understanding questions.

In this part, we’ll take a look at four more handy tips.

5. Always have a plan

Previously, we said how important it was to take a close look at the question before you begin writing. Once that’s done, it is wise to spend some time planning. Like in most high-stakes situations, failing to plan could mean planning to fail in IELTS too. Making notes almost always helps to write a coherent answer, so feel free to use the blank space on the question paper to jot down a plan.  

6. Learn to meet the word count within an hour

Managing time efficiently is something that demands considerable practice before you can be ready to sit the real test. IELTS recommends that you spend about 20 minutes on Task 1 and the remaining 40 odd on Task 2. What’s equally important is to successfully meet the recommended word count, failing which you’ll lose marks. Keep in mind that you need to write at least 150 and 250 words respectively. 

7. Include all key features / bullet points (Task 1)

In IELTS Academic Task 1, the pictorial data on your question paper will have key features – the most important and the most relevant points in the diagram. Similarly, in the letter-writing task in IELTS General Training, test takers are told what information to include, in the form of three bullet points. Failing to include all key features or bullet points in your response will definitely mean getting a lower band on Task Achievement.

8. Answer all parts of the task (Task 2)

IELTS essay questions can have up to 4 sentences, with more than one part that’ll need to be answered at times. Since test takers need to provide a full and relevant response, leaving a part out unwittingly will lower their chances of securing a good band score. Solution? In order to be doubly sure how many parts the question has, reread the question several times, carefully considering the meaning of the text in front. If it helps, translate the question into your mother tongue. That way, you’re less likely to miss anything important.

There’s more IELTS Writing advice coming your way – watch this space.

IELTS Test Day Advice: Writing (Part 1)

There are 2 tasks to complete in the Writing section of IELTS. Task 1 can be report writing (Academic) or letter writing (General Training), whereas Task 2 is an essay writing exercise.

Here are some handy tips to help you get a good Writing band score.

1. Choose your stationery wisely

Answers in IELTS Writing can be written in pen or pencil, so doing some writing practice under timed conditions before test day is highly recommended. Among other things, it can also help you decide what you’d be more comfortable using on test day – pen or pencil. Should you discover that a pencil slows you down, practise with pen.  

2. Avoid memorised answers

Writing answers are assessed by qualified individuals with relevant teaching experience. All of them have to undergo intensive training before they can get certified as IELTS examiners. One of the things they learn during the time is to spot memorised or plagiarised responses. Of course, such ‘model answers’ invite a severe penalty, lowering the overall writing score of the test taker. So, don’t bother mugging up answers to popular topics!

3. Remember the weighting of tasks

Although each task is assessed independently, it is worth remembering that Task 2 contributes twice as much as Task 1 to your overall Writing band score. Put simply, it means that if you write a decent Task 1 answer and a very good Task 2 response, you should still get a good Writing band score. Sometimes test takers spend so much time on Task 1 that they aren’t left with enough time to do a good job of Task 2. And as you might imagine, the result is usually disappointing.

4. Analyse questions thoroughly

Answering without trying to fully understand the question should be a definite no-no in any exam. However, when panic sets in, common sense flies out the window. Off-topic answers are all too common in IELTS Writing, and they get penalised for irrelevance. Whether it is Task 1 or 2, never be in a mad rush to begin your response. First, read the question over and again, underline key words, and then identify what the question requires you to do.

We’ll be back soon with more IELTS Writing test advice. Meanwhile you can check other test tips we shared before.

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