You put down your pen. The essay and report / letter are written. Yes! But there are still 3 or 4 minutes left on the exam clock What do you do in this time? The temptation may be to read through your essay from start to finish to check for errors, but is this really the most efficient way to find your errors? And which mistakes should you actively be looking for? Find out today as Nick and I talk IELTS error correction!
Below, you can find a summary of the episode, which includes all of the links to useful materials and the times of each part of the discussion (so you can go directly to the part you want to listen to) 🚀
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What should you NOT be checking for in the final 3 minutes?
There are definitely small changes that you can make in the final moments of your test that can have a dramatic effect on your final score, but you have to be realistic. There is absolutely no way, for example, that you could rewrite an entire paragraph in the dying minutes of an exam. What you should be looking for are simply the small errors that are naturally made when you are writing under pressure (particularly in a second language)
That means that the organisation of your essay (i.e. how you will structure the paragraphs) and the content of your essay (i.e the arguments our will present) need to be be decided BEFORE you write. There is no use realising right at the end of the exam that you have misunderstood the question or have forgotten to add topic sentences to your paragraphs!
If spending 5 minutes checking your work at the end is vital for finding any unintentional Lexical Resource or Grammatical Range and Accuracy errors, spending 5 or 10 minutes planning is necessary to make sure that your arguments are on-topic and progress well. Skipping either step can spell disaster.
Checking for grammar errors
Grammar mistakes are the most obvious types of error to check for in the final 5 minutes of the exam. However, I have found that while almost every student I work with one-to-one is able to identify their own errors when I highlight a sentence, very few can do it when they are self-checking.
This is because most students check their word passively
It is no good just reading through your work in the hope of stumbling across a mistake – students rarely find errors in this way. Instead, you need to be aware of the errors that YOU commonly make, and then actively look for them. These errors will depend on a number of factors, but your first language is usually the strongest influence. I find, for example, that my students from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh struggle with fragments whereas my students from China often make mistakes with word form and articles.
Some errors, though, are universal, with almost everybody having problems with them. Good examples of these are subject / verb agreement and punctuation, which seem to affect almost every student no matter where they are from. In any cause, whatever your common problem areas are, try to be as specific as possible when you analyse your errors.
For example, rather than saying “I have a problem with fragments”, it is better to say “I have a bad habit of using ‘although’ and ‘but’ in the same sentence. Or, rather than saying “I make mistakes with articles”, say ” I have the habit of using the definite article before plurals when I am talking in general”. The more specific you are in understanding your errors, the higher the chance you will be able to spot them in the test.
Here is a list of grammatical structures that students often make errors with:
- Subject / Verb agreement
- Punctuation – in particular comma splices
- Word form
- Making comparisons
- Conditional sentences
- Passive voice
However, this list is not exhaustive and it is unlikely that you will have problems with every structure here. So, why not sit down now and look back at the last 3 or 4 essays that you wrote. Can you see any common errors? What were they? Write them in a list and then check for them next time you write.
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Why is it difficult to find spelling errors?
Have you noticed that it is very difficult to find spelling errors? I don’t mean that there are words that you do NOT know how to spell, but that there are many that you do know the correct spelling of, and yet still get wrong when typing under pressure. Don’t worry – you are not alone! In fact, it is common for people to make these errors in their native language, especially when they are typing.
That is because when you are writing an essay, you are trying to convey a message. That means all of your energy is focused on creating sentences with meaning (and which are grammatically correct!). As a result, small spelling errors in words can go unnoticed as they do not affect the main message.
This is particularly true if you consider that our brains work using a process known as selective filtering
At any given moment, the human brain is being constantly bombarded by signals from at least four of the five senses. With this onslaught of input, how do we manage to not go completely insane? We simply only pay attention to a small proportion of it and throw much of it away. Spelling, it seems, is first on the list of things that are thrown!
How can we avoid this problem? Well, we have to trick our brains into really paying attention to what we have written. Have you ever gone back and read an essay that you wrote last week or last month? Did you notice that it was far easier to spot your errors after some time had passed? That is because your brain no longer has the original version stored and is “seeing it for the first time”.
When you’re proof reading your essay, you also need to trick your brain into pretending that it’s reading it for the first time.
There are two ways that you can do this. If you are taking the computer-based test, you can change the font colour and size at the top right of your screen. One of the options is yellow writing on a black background. While I think these colours would be very off-putting when writing your essay, it can be a great cloud to choose when proof-reading as it is SO different! You will be surprised how many spelling errors jump out at you when you check in this way.
Sitting the paper-based test? No problem – we have a solution for you too, and it is one that can be combined with the colour change above. Remember, the main problem with proof reading is that our brain remembers what it has written, so it doesn’t really read properly (i.e. it is remembering for meaning). Therefore, we have to the present the information in a different way.
The easiest way to do this is to read your essay backwards!
Yes, start reading from the final sentence. That way you will focus less on the meaning of each sentence and more on the mechanics. Also, take care to really look at the spelling of each word and not just the shape – it is very common for students to have the right letters, just in the wrong order!
IELTS Error Correction – a vital part of essay writing, but not the most important
Finally, as we discuss in the podcast, having a few minutes at the end of your exam to look back over your work can help you to identify and correct small errors that can have a large impact on your score. However, it is far more important that you finish your essay. Nothing damages a score more than an essay without a conclusion or a sentence that is abandoned in the middle.
I have seen some teachers recommend that you error check at the end of every sentence, then again at at the end of every paragraph, and finally once more at the end. Although I can see benefits to this, particularly in terms of staying on-topic, I also worry that this is very time consuming. Remember it is better to hand in a finished essay with some errors than one without a conclusion!