How To Get A High Score In IELTS Writing
Every IELTS article and every IELTS book seems to parrot the same old advice: take IELTS practice tests! Whilst this is, of course, essential, there is a whole lot more you can do to get a high score on your IELTS test. In his How To Get A High Score In IELTS… series, The IELTS Teacher offers his top five tips for IELTS success.
1. Quality over speed
Before you become a fast writer, you must become a good one. It only works this way round. Once you have mastered the art of quality writing, then you can train yourself to become faster.
So, how do you become a good writer?
Feedback. Feedback is the only way to bring real quality into your writing – the sort of quality the examiners are looking for. Without feedback, you’re just taking shots in the dark.
You need to have your writing assessed by someone who knows what the IELTS examiners want. You also need to be given instructions on how to improve; what to keep doing, what to stop doing, and what to change entirely.
The feedback you receive must be clear, concise, contain useful comments, and, most importantly, allow you to fix your mistakes yourself. This will give you not just fast, but permanent improvement.
There are other IELTS teachers out there who will assess your writing; they will modify and correct everything you wrote themselves, add some comments, and then hand it back to you. This is helpful, but it is not the fastest way to better writing.
The fastest way to better writing is to understand why your mistakes are mistakes, and then to figure out how to fix them. This understanding will be much more complete and develop much faster if you learn how to correct the mistakes yourself.
The end result will be writing that is of an extremely high quality and skills which will stay with you not just for IELTS, but for life.
2. Learn the structure
Fortunately for you, the structure is easy to remember.
For example, with Task 1 of the Academic module, the structure is simple: introduce the diagram; give an overview; give details. Task 2 is slightly different, and the content will vary from question to question, but the answer should still consist of a basic introduction-body-conclusion skeleton, with a separate paragraph for each idea.
The structure may be easy to remember, but students often find it difficult to implement when it comes to actually writing their answer. Also, as mentioned above, without feedback, they may think they know what they’re doing, when in reality they’re well off the mark.
‘Task response’ and ‘coherence and cohesion’ are two of the four criteria which assess which band score you receive. And the structure of your essay will influence how the examiner marks you against these criteria.
In case your maths is a little rusty, let me break it down for you: 2 out of 4 = 50%! You could be losing half your marks due to poor structuring. But structuring does not take long to perfect; it just requires you to practice with real past test papers, and to have your practice tests assessed by an experienced and qualified IELTS tutor. The IELTS Teacher’s Writing lessons feature both.
3. Plan first, write second
I want you to take a whole ten minutes out of your writing time.
Don’t freak out. You know the story of the tortoise and the hare, right? “Slow and steady wins the race.” And that’s exactly the situation here.
These ten minutes will go into your planning, and this planning has the potential to bump up your IELTS score by whole bands. A good plan can take you from a 6.0 to a 7.0, an 8.0, maybe even the exalted 9.0!
So many students underestimate the importance of planning, and they consequently get lower scores than they’re capable of achieving. Why do they underestimate? Well, there are 2 reasons.
The first is that they have planned in the past, and haven’t felt any benefits from it. In the vast majority of cases, this is because they aren’t planning correctly or are planning too hastily.
The second is that they believe they can transfer their thoughts in perfect logical order onto the page. But, even for natives, this just isn’t possible. The head is a scattered mess of thoughts, and the only way to piece these thoughts together coherently is to lay them out, see how they fit together, organize them into a plan, and transfer that plan to the paper.
What happens if you don’t plan? A number of disastrous outcomes are possible.
Some candidates run out of steam after the first paragraph, and don’t know what to write. Some write far too much, often throwing in ideas which are completely irrelevant. Some get their ideas muddled up, thus skewing the structure, and get themselves into a real mess.
Avoid all that. Have a teacher show you how to create an awesome plan in just 10 minutes, and then you’re still left with plenty of time to write your two essays. In fact, even with 10 minutes of planning, it works out that you still have 2 minutes to write each sentence. That’s plenty of time, even for the weakest students.
4. Answer the question
Ask that to the thousands of IELTS candidates who have lost entire band scores because they didn’t do something as seemingly obvious as answering the question.
There’s a reason that a whole 25% of your mark comes from ‘Task response’. If you’re not answering the question – the question laid out in front of your eyes – then how are you going to survive in university or work abroad?
And yet, if it seems so obvious, why do so many students mess this bit up? Again, there is a variety of reasons.
One is that, as I have pointed out, they don’t plan properly. They’ll see the question on the page, think “oh, I don’t need to plan, I know exactly what to write”, and 250 words later they have an answer totally unrelated to the question. Their confidence runs away with them and they simply ignore what the question is asking for.
Another reason is that they don’t read the question. Yes, once more it seems an almost impossible mistake to make, but it happens. They skip over an essential word, misunderstand a phrase, wrongly assume what isn’t written down. This leads to answering questions in the wrong way, such as giving advantages and disadvantages about one topic when the question asks for the different advantages of two topics, or exclusively discussing a topic like obesity when the question asks for why healthy food is more expensive than unhealthy food.
There are ways to deal with this problem. One of them is the tried-and-tested classic: underline or highlight key words. It’s a tip that’s lasted because it’s a tip that works. Keep glancing over these key words as you write and ask yourself if you’re addressing them.
Another tip is to rewrite the question in your own words. You can do this in under a minute as part of your plan. Writing the question in your own words will give you a better understanding of the question, make it stick in your head more effectively, and may even prompt some good ideas for what to write about.
5. The little things
Little thing #1: Don’t repeat ideas using different words. Examiners see right through this. It wastes time and can lose you marks. Instead, plan before you write. This way, you won’t run out of ideas.
Little thing #2: Start with Task 2. You get twice as many marks for this task, and many candidates actually find it easier. You’ll also feel more confident after getting the longer task out of the way first.
Little thing #3: Avoid informal language. Save this for the speaking component of the exam. If you’re unsure about what separates informal language from formal language, there are lots of useful articles online. I also give help on this topic as part of my Writing lessons.
Little thing #4: Don’t count your number of words. This is a huge time-sink. Instead, practice a lot, and learn to recognise how long 150 words or 250 words of your writing looks like. Trust your judgement in the test, it will be right.
Little thing #5: Read a lot, and read a wide range. Besides being an enjoyable activity, you will actively soak up the grammar and vocabulary on the page and this will translate to your writing skills. What’s more, the more you read, the more opinions you will have on IELTS topics, meaning you will have plenty of intelligent ideas to write about. And, of course, it will help with the Reading component too. Oh, and the Speaking component, come to think of it…