IELTS Writing: Describing a Life Cycle

In the Academic version of IELTS Writing, test takers can be asked to write a report describing the life cycle of a living thing, such as a butterfly or frog.

Here’s some advice to help you do a good job of it.

Introduction

Like other question types in Academic Writing Task 1, a life cycle needs only a one-sentence introduction. The easiest way to introduce the task is by paraphrasing the information given in the question. Here’s an example:

QuestionSuggested introduction
The diagrams below show the life cycle of a species of large fish called the salmon.The diagrams provided illustrate various stages in the life of a large type of fish called the salmon.

Main Body

A life cycle is the series of changes that a living thing goes through from the beginning of its existence to the end. In general, most creatures begin life as fertilized eggs, develop into juveniles and later become mature adults. Since a life cycle is a set of scientific facts, most of your sentences will be in the present simple tense. Begin with the first stage and then describe each stage in some detail, using descriptive adjectives (e.g. immature juveniles, sandy river bed). Don’t forget to use sequencing words such as to begin with, later, and at this stage so that the descriptions you write stick together. Remember, overusing discourse markers can make your writing look artificial, so use them only when necessary. To avoid repetition, look out for opportunities to use synonyms and reference words (e.g. it, this, their).

Overview

As far as Academic Task 1 goes, the overview you write can pretty much decide the fate of your response. A quick glance at the IELTS Writing band descriptors will tell you that in the absence of a clear overview, the best score you could hope for on Task Achievement is a band 5. Naturally, it’s common sense to invest sufficient time so that you’re able to produce a well-thought-out overview that summarises the main stages.

Broadly speaking, it is easier to write a response to a life cycle than to most other task types, provided that you know what to do and that you’ve had enough practice.

Using Capital Letters (Part 3)

In this final part in our series on capitalisation, we’ll look at some more important rules that’ll help you punctuate with confidence.

Rule 8: Capitalise titles of people

Just like how we capitalise the first, middle, and last names of people, we also capitalise suffixes (e.g. William Frank Jnr, Alexander the Great) and titles (e.g. President, Governor, Senator). If the title appears just before the individual’s name, especially when it replaces the individual’s first name, it should be capitalised. However, if the title appears after the individual’s name, or if it is followed by a comma, then we do not capitalise it. 

Let’s compare:

  • Carol is a huge admirer of President Obama. (Appears before last name)
  • George W Bush served as president of the USA from 2001 to 2009. (Appears after the name)
  • The president of the club, Frank Moorcroft, has resigned. (Title separated by comma)

Formal titles that are used to address individuals should also be capitalised.

Examples

  1. Why do you think I’m losing so much weight, Doctor? (Used as a direct address)

2. I’m afraid we can’t continue funding your project, Professor. (Used as a direct address)

Rule 9: Capitalise names of family members

When we use the names of family members – such as dad, mum, and grandpa – to address them, such words should be capitalised. Also, if such a word appears just before a personal name, it gets capitalised. However, if the same words are used to denote relationships, they need to be in lower case.

Let’s compare:

  • Why are you being so difficult, Dad? (Used as a form of address)
  • My dad has been in a bad mood this entire week. (Refers to relationship) 
  • I have always been incredibly close to Aunt Cathy and Uncle Will. (Appears before personal name)
  • I have an aunt and uncle living in Canada. (Refer to relationships)

Rule 10: Capitalise letter salutations and closings

In letters, the first word in salutations (Dear Sir, Dear Cathy) is always capitalised. Similarly, when ending a letter with a closing (Yours sincerely, Lots of love, Warm regards), the first word should be capitalised.  

Capitalisation is an area of punctuation that is tricky, so the more you read and write, the more likely that the rules stick in your mind.

Using Capital Letters (Part 2)

In an earlier blog post, we looked at some situations when it is essential to use capital letters – at the beginning of a sentence; when writing the names of people, institutions, companies, and brands; when referring to cities, countries, nationalities, religions, and languages; and when using the personal pronoun ‘I’.

Here are some more rules to help you capitalise words appropriately.

Rule 5: Capitalise days, months, holidays

The names of the seven different days of the week, twelve months of the year, and holidays are all proper nouns. Do make it a point to begin with a capital letter when you write them. However, the names of seasons (e.g. winter, summer) do not fall into the same category, so they shouldn’t be capitalised unless they appear in a title.

Examples

Can we meet early next week, say Monday or Tuesday?

Both my sons were born in the month of May.

Where did you spend Christmas last year?

Haley and Tom got married on Valentine’s Day.

Rule 6: Capitalise key words in the title of a book, movie, poem, etc.

As far as capitalising words in a title is concerned, be it books, movies, poems, or other works, much depends on what style guide you choose to follow. Generally speaking, all content words get capitalised. This means that nouns, main verbs, adjectives, adverbs, etc. need capital letters at the beginning. By comparison, smaller words, such as articles and prepositions, tend to be in lower case, unless they appear as the first or last word in the title.

Examples

Alice in Wonderland’ is a fascinating tale.

The Lord of the Rings’ is a series of epic fantasy films.

Have you read ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ by Charles Dickens?

Rule 7: Capitalise the first word of a quote

When quoting someone, or quoting from a literary work, always capitalise the first word if the quotation forms a complete sentence. On the other hand, if the quote is just a phrase, it doesn’t need to be capitalised. 

Let’s compare:

Cindy said, “My husband is far from loving.”

Cindy said that her husband was “far from loving”. (No capitalisation required, as the quote is a phrase) There’s more to follow, so watch this space if you’d like to learn more about capitalising words.

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.

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.

Sounding Polite (Part 3)

So far in our series of posts on politeness, we’ve looked at four different approaches that can be adopted to communicate appropriately in English.   

Read on for more tips on how to sound well-mannered when you speak or write.

5. Question forms

Using question forms is a great way of sounding diplomatic when giving advice or suggestions. One option is to form yes/no questions when requesting people to do things. Another is to use negative questions in order to introduce your views gently. Here are examples of both:

Close the door.

Could you close the door, please?

I want directions to the airport.

Could you possibly give me directions to the airport?

We need a better proposal to win the contract.

Don’t you think we need a better proposal to win the contract?

We should paint the cabin blue.

Wouldn’t it be better if we painted the cabin blue?

6. Qualifiers

If you make a direct statement to express your thoughts, the chances are you’ll upset others. This is particularly true when what you’re saying is something negative. In order for you to sound more diplomatic, you could use qualifiers, such as a bit, a little, or kind of. A qualifier can decrease the intensity of anything negative that you say. Here are some examples of how qualifiers can decrease the intensity of your words when you complain or criticise.

This curry is too bland!

This curry is a bit bland.

Jeez, it’s so hot in here!

It’s a little hot in here. 

Derek is extremely boring!

Derek is kind of boring.

7. Passive voice

We can use the passive voice to shift the focus of a sentence from the doer of the action to the action itself. It’s particularly handy when we wish to avoid blaming people for things that they fail to do. Using the passive structure makes the sentence impersonal, creating distance from the immediate present. Here are some examples:

You forgot to switch the outside lights on last night.

The outside lights were not switched on last night.

Looks like you have made a lot of spelling errors.

Looks like a lot of spelling errors have been made.

Remember, more often than not, non-native English speakers sound impolite unwittingly, because they take the wrong approach. 

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.

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