Tuesday, 23 October 2012

IELTS Writing - a British Council, Saigon, Teachers' Workshop

This is a summary of a workshop I attended at the British Council in Ho Chi Minh City.  It was presented by Ian Kitching and the subject was the IELTS writing test.

Overview of IELTS writing

The test comprises of two parts:

Task 1    20 minutes     150 words
  • Academic - describe information from a chart, graph or diagram or describe a process.
  • General - write a letter based on a given situation.  The candidate needs to use his or her imagination and creativity.
Task 2    40 minutes      250 words
  • Academic and general - write an essay.  The form is usually 'advantages/disadvantages' or 'to what extent do you agree with this opinion?'
  • For an advantage/disadvantage essay, the candidate needs to present both sides whereas for an opinion essay, he or she can choose to agree, to disagree or to present a balanced view.
  • The most important thing with task two is to read the question properly and analyse it: sometimes it's a two-part question, in which case both parts must be answered.
  • The idea with task two is to present a written argument or case to an educated reader with no specialist knowledge of the topic.
  • The candidate should use his or her own ideas, knowledge and experience and all arguments should be supported with examples and relevant evidence.
What are the examiners looking for?

Scripts are given a band score from 1 to 9 under each of four criteria and the final mark is an average of the bands given.  The criteria:
  1. Task achievement/response - this looks at content and ideas.  How fully is the question answered?  In task one, how effectively does the candidate identify key features and give an overview or respond to all points in the task?  In task two, how effectively does he or she analyse the argument and present an opinion?  Is all the content relevant?  Did the candidate write the minimum number of words?
  2. Coherence and cohesion - Is the writing organised into paragraphs?  (It's a good idea to advise candidates to leave a line between paragraphs for clarity.)  Does it follow logical stages?  Are sentences fluently linked together?  Is there a range of cohesive devices?  Is there use of reference and substitution?
  3. Lexical resource - Is the vocabulary used accurately?  Is there a wide range or is there repetition of the same words?  Can the candidate use less common or idiomatic language appropriately?  (The latter is needed to achieve a score above band 6.)
  4. Grammar - Is the grammar accurate?  Is there a wide range of structures?  Are there complex sentences or mainly simple ones?  (Even if students make mistakes, it's better for them to try than not.)

Teachers can use the public version of the band descriptors to advise students what they need to do for the band they require.

Task One Sample Graph
Task One Academic IELTS

1  Hints and tips
  1. Underline key words in the question.
  2. Analyse the graph and plan an answer.
  3. Paraphrase the question - if candidates just copy the question word for word, then those words are deducted from the word count and they could lose marks for not having written enough.  For example, 'The table below shows consumer durables (telephones, refrigerators, etc.) owned in Britain from 1972-1983' could become 'The chart gives information on how the ownership of consumer goods changed in the UK between 1972 and 1983.'
  4. Practise paraphrasing the question many, many times!!!
  5. The answer should include an overview, either at the beginning or the end - if this is missing, the candidate can not score higher than a band 5.  The overview should describe the general trend and note any exception.
  6. Key features of the chart need to be commented on.  To do this, it is best to look for things that can be grouped together (e.g. things which are similar in terms of large increases, small increases, no differences, etc.).
  7. Decide on what to leave out - not everything needs to be described.
  8. Use comparatives and superlatives when describing the chart.
  9. Analyse model answers and look for common phrases (e.g. The most notable feature shown by the data is that......).
  10. Check the word count - an examiner will look at every piece of writing and judge whether the candidate has written the correct number of words (words per line multiplied by the number of lines).  If he or she thinks it is close, every word will be counted.  On the examiner banding guidelines, there are clear rules on what is a word and what is not.  Hyphenated words count as one word.
  11. Task one should be organised into three or four paragraphs.
  12. Write a short conclusion, but DO NOT give an opinion - e.g. Overall, the chart shows....
2  Problems for Vietnamese learners
  • No experience of analysing charts
  • Inability to structure sentences correctly
  • Problems using passive voice to describe processes
  • Errors with subject-verb agreement
  • Lack of lexical range
  • Missing connectors/linking words
  • No clear grouping of ideas which adversely affects the overall structure
3  Skills needed
  • Analysing quickly - overall trends; can the data be put into groups?; what are the extremes?; what are the exceptions?; what information is not worth mentioning?
  • Editing - judging how much to include, organising into paragraphs, giving an overview.
  • Proof reading - correcting mistakes, looking for repetition of language.
4  Language areas
  1. A range of tenses
  2. Paraphrasing
  3. Describing trends - the number rose, there was a slight fall, it levelled off.
  4. Comparatives, superlatives and other ways of contrasting - higher than, the most significant change, it did not change to the same extent as....
  5. Discourse markers - however, similarly, in contrast, turning now to the figures for the UK...., overall we can see that....., in conclusion.
  6. A range of lexis to avoid repetition - e.g. the data shows, this amount demonstrates, the total number represents.
5  Activities to use in the classroom
  1. Analyse model answers and use them as a basis for exercises.
  2. Practise paraphrasing the question.
  3. Practise identifying key points from charts, graphs, etc.
  4. Jumble the paragraphs of model answers and get students to put them in the correct order.
  5. Give students a list of statements about a graph or chart and get them to decide if they are major points, minor points or irrelevant.  Should they be included or not?
  6. Match a graph with the correct description.
  7. Match vocabulary with the same meaning - e.g. a significant increase, a sharp rise.
  8. Take the linkers out of a model answer and get students to complete it as a gap fill.
  9. Use bad texts to find and correct errors or to re-write.
  10. Give a continuous text to students and get them to separate it into appropriate paragraphs.
  11. Get students to highlight the linkers in a text and then write a new text using the same linkers.
Task Two Academic IELTS

1  Problems for Vietnamese learners
  • Inability to understand the question
  • No opinions or ideas to write about
  • A lack of experience and knowledge to support ideas
  • Mistakes when writing complex sentences - e.g. when using relative clauses
  • Incorrect (or no) referencing (pronouns)
  • Problems with paragraphing (no topic sentences or clear purpose)
2  Skills needed
  • Understanding the question to avoid irrelevant or tangential answers (candidates must stay on topic).
  • Brainstorming ideas and examples quickly.
  • Selecting and organising the main points.
  • Writing enough in the time - underlength answers are quite common in Vietnam.
  • Writing concise and relevant introductions and conclusions.
  • Proof reading - self correction.
3  Language areas
  1. Cohesive markers - firstly, secondly, however, another advantage is..., on the other hand, the main argument against x is.....
  2. Using relative clauses (and other clauses) to avoid predominantly simple sentences.
  3. A range of grammar and vocabulary to avoid repetition - a good knowledge of synonyms and antonyms can help here.
  4. Correct use of language for addition (also, in addition, furthermore), contrast (however, nevertheless, even though), and result/consequence (so, therefore, leading to....)
  5. Collocations - particularly prepositions (involved in -ing, prevent from -ing, responsible for/to)
  6. Agreement of singular/plural.
4  Activities to use in the classroom
  1. Use real questions to practise with.
  2. Practise highlighting keywords in the question.
  3. Rewrite questions.
  4. Match simple questions to IELTS questions.
  5. Give students a sample answer and get them to write the question.
  6. Group discussions to generate ideas.
  7. Practise brainstorming topics and selecting the best points.
  8. Cut up paragraphs and re-order a model answer.
  9. Deconstruct sample answers to analyse the language used.
  10. Read to widen content and vocabulary knowledge of unfamiliar topics.
  11. Write introductions as a group.
  12. Antonyms and synonyms matching activities.
  13. Prepositions and verb collocation activities.
  14. Self-correction and peer-correction activities.
  15. Work on cohesive devices - with gap fills, for example.
  16. Label the purpose of the paragraphs in model answers.
  17. Use running dictations.
  18. Replace linkers with another one with the same function.
Online resources to help you teach IELTS writing


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  2. A very good reminder for me and a useful insight into some of the issues I will face in the classroom when I get to Vietnam. Phil.

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