IELTS writing

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.

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.

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.

 

5 Tips to Ace the IELTS Letter Writing (Part 1)

 

Image courtesy of torbakhopper via Flickr (CC 2.0)

 

In the IELTS General Training format, test takers are given a situation and asked to respond to it by writing a letter, which may be informal, semi-formal, or formal.

 

Situations deal with everyday topics, such as writing to a friend about recent changes in your life, writing to a neighbour inviting them to an event, or writing to the council about some problem that people in your locality are facing.

 

Letter writing might look simple, but if IELTS test takers disregard certain aspects of the task, they could end up scoring a lower band than what they are capable of.

 

So, here are 5 tips to help you ace the letter writing task in IELTS…

 

  1. Follow general letter-writing rules

This task assesses the test taker’s ability to follow English letter-writing conventions, so it’s important that you provide enough evidence of it: start and end the letter appropriately, organise information logically, and use an appropriate style of writing.

 

For example, if the salutation at the beginning is Dear Sir or Madam, you should end the letter with something suitable, such as Yours faithfully. Similarly, a letter should have an opening sentence that is appropriate and sets the scene for what is to follow. Here are a couple of examples:

 

Formal Dear Sir or Madam,

I am writing to express my dissatisfaction with a meal I had at your restaurant last Friday.

Informal Dear Jane,

Thanks once again for agreeing to look after Bruno over the weekend – you’re a star!  

 

 

 

  1. Make your letter look authentic

You may be attempting this task as part of an exam, but the reader should still find your letter authentic. So, how do you do it? Simple! Keep adding finer details that make your letter believable. For instance, if you are asked to write to a friend inviting them to an event, make sure you add enough details about the location.

Bad example

The party is at a popular club in Central London.

 

Good example

The party is at the Grooves club in Leicester Square, London. It’s directly opposite the National Art Gallery, so you won’t miss it.

 

Remember, the more authentic your letter looks, the better your chances of getting a high score.

 

 

GLOSSARY

 

disregard
Form : verb
Meaning : to not consider something as important or ignore
Example : Mary burnt after disregarding her mother’s advice to wear sunblock.

 

Ace (slang)
Form : verb
Meaning : to succeed/perform in a competitive situation
Example : Clive studied hard so I’m sure he’ll ace the exam.

 

convention
Form : noun
Meaning : A well-established rule
Example : Her novel doesn’t follow the narrative conventions of modern fiction.

 

 

 

set the scene (for something)
Form : phrase
Meaning : to give someone enough information so that they understand what comes next
Example : He set the scene by telling us a bit about life in 19th-century New York.

 

authentic
Form : adjective
Meaning : The original / genuine
Example : Criminals try to make fake banknotes look as authentic as possible.

 

How to Master Letter Writing in English (Part 2)

stamps

Image courtesy of Chris (CC Flickr)

 

In the first part, we looked at the concept of tone and its importance in making your letter sound appropriate. To decide what kind of tone is suitable, we said it’s useful to consider who you are writing to (the recipient).

 

Another important fact to think of is the purpose, i.e. the reason for writing.

 

The purpose

How we write may change depending on why we are writing, even if the recipient happens to be the same person. To understand this better, let’s consider the following:

 

Situation A: Write a letter to your manager informing him/her about some problem you face at work.

Situation B: Write a letter to your manager inviting him/her to your house-warming.

 

Though you’re writing to the same person in both cases, situation B is personal, whereas A is work-related. Naturally, situation B may make use of language that’s less formal than the one in A.

 

Consistent use of tone

Once you identify the appropriate tone, how do you then ensure it is used consistently across a letter or email? Here are some ways to do this:

 

More formal Less formal
Do NOT use contractions

E.g.: We are pleased to…

Use contractions

E.g.: We’re really happy to…

Use long words / less common vocabulary

E.g.: hold a discussion

Use simpler vocabulary

E.g.: have a chat

Do NOT use abbreviations

E.g.: February, Monday, as soon as possible

Use abbreviations

E.g.: FebMon, asap

Complete sentences

E.g.: I am sorry about the confusion.

Incomplete sentences

E.g.: Sorry about the confusion.

Use one-word verbs

E.g.: Can you visit my office and collect the files?

Use phrasal verbs

E.g.: Can you drop into my office and pick up the files?

 

So, the next time you attempt a letter writing task, begin by identifying what tone is appropriate for the given situation. Then, use various language features (some are given in the table above) to keep the tone consistent throughout your letter.

 

 

 

GLOSSARY

 

concept
Form : noun
Meaning : an idea related to something
Example : Oliver finds it difficult to understand even the simplest concepts of science.

 

appropriate
Form : adjective
Meaning : suitable for a particular situation
Example : I think it isn’t appropriate to wear jeans to work.

 

abbreviation
Form : noun
Meaning : a short form of a word or phrase
Example : St is an abbreviation for the word ‘Saint’.

 

Pin It on Pinterest