Welcome to the fifth and final lesson in our IELTS 101 series – an introduction to IELTS Writing. Academic writing has been my on true love since I started teaching English for Academic Purposes at the University of Newcastle 15 years ago, so this is the episode that I have been looking forward to most! The good news is that Nick loves writing just as much as me, so this is a cracking episode of My IELTS Classroom Podcast!
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In fact, there is so much to say about IELTS writing that it was hard for Nick and I to stick to the basics today, but I think that we did a great job of including all the information you need for a broad overview of the two exams (General Training and Academic).
We start by having a look at the content of both tests and the explaining the skills you will need to demonstrate to get a high score. Then we introduce you to the IELTS band descriptors, which are what the examiners use to grade your writing. We will explain the four writing skills that the band descriptors assess and give you a brief explanation of how your writing can satisfy them.
I want you to know from the absolute start of your IELTS preparation that the only thing you need to do to get a high score for writing is write essays, reports, and letters that satisfy the band descriptors!
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).You can also find every episode of the podcast here 🚀
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Podcast Summary: Introduction to IELTS Writing
00:00 – 05:07 Introduction to the episode (and the effect that not having a haircut is having on Nick’s shopping)
05:08 – 08:25 Basic facts about the IELTS writing test.
- The writing test is the third and final test on your exam day.
- The test is different for General training and Academic students.
- The test lasts 60 minutes, in which time you must complete two tasks.
- In the General Training test, Task 1 asks you to write a letter based on a prompt. For example, you may be asked to give advice to a friend, or complain to a company, or invite somebody to a celebration. Your letter should be at least 150 words long.
- In the Academic Test, Task 1 asks you to write an academic report based on a chart. For example, a line graph, a bar chart, a pie chart, a table, a map, or even a process. You report should be at least 150 words long.
- In both the General Training and Academic tests, Task 2 asks you to write an academic essay based on a prompt. You may be asked to discuss a problem and provide a solution, or respond to an argument, or compare and contrast opinions. The topics may be slightly different between the two tests, but the skills you will need to show are the same for Academic and General Training. Your essay should be at least 250 words long.
- Your work will be assessed by two examiners – one for Task 1 and one for Task 2. The examiners never meet and do not discuss your scores. Each examiner will give you a score from 0 – 9 in four areas:
- Task Achievement / Task Response (i.e. how well you have addressed the question and justified your arguments)
- Coherence and Cohesion (i.e. how well you have organised and joined your ideas)
- Lexical Resource (i.e. the quality of the vocabulary in your responses)
- Grammatical Range and Accuracy (i.e. the quality of the sentence structures in your responses)
- The scores for Task 1 and Task 2 will then be combined to give you your final writing score. Nobody knows how the scores are combined (and if they tell you that they do, they are lying!) However, what we do know is that Task 1 is worth one third of your final score (or 33%), and Task 2 is worth two thirds (or 66%) so you should spend roughly 20 minutes on Task 1 and 40 minutes on Task 2.
New to IELTS Writing? Start your preparation in the right way, but learning the basics of IELTS essay writing from an ex-examiner
08:26 – 12:55 What happens if I write less than 150 words for Task 1 or 250 words for Task 2?
There is no longer an automatic penalty for scripts that are under length. However, if you write less than the required amount, it is unlikely that your ideas will be extended enough for a high score. Remember, the examiner can only give you points for the words they can see!
There is NO UPPER WORD LIMIT. You are free to write to write as many words as you like (and the examiner will always read every one of them) However, writing more than 220 or 340 is not a good idea. The more you write, the more likely it is that your writing will contain errors. Try to make every word in your report, letter, or essay count, and leave time at the end to check for errors.
We think that they ideal length for a Band 7.0 response is between 180 and 220 words for Task 1, and between 280 and 340 words for Task 2.
In the computer-based test, there is a word counter. If you are sitting the paper-based test, you should know what 150 words and 250 words in your handwriting looks like on the test paper so you do not waste time counting the test. You can download the official answer booklet here.
12:56 –13:55 How should I divide my time?
Time is also a factor. It is hard to write long, accurate responses in just an hour. You are given both tasks at once so you are free to start with Task 1 or Task 2 and divide your time as you wish. I recommend you spend roughly 20 – 25 minutes on Task 1, and the remaining time on Task 2.
I also recommend that you start with Task 1 to get it out of the way (and to give you subconscious brain some time to come up with ideas for the essay!) but if you would rather focus on the essay first, that is totally fine. Just don’t overlook Task 1 – you are unlikely to get a high score if you don’t finish both tasks.
13:56 – 16:59 How is my final score calculated?
Just like the speaking test, the scores for writing are rounded DOWN. In other words, the examiner must give you a 7 in each of the four marking criteria for you to achieve this score (a 7776 is a 6.5 – you can read more about this here) However, this is for the individual parts of the test.
What nobody knows is how your scores for Task 1 and Task 2 are combined. This is done by a computer and the algorithm is a mystery. I personally suspect that if you get a 7.0 for Task 2 and a 6.5 for Task 1, then you will receive a 7.0 overall, BUT NOBODY KNOWS!
The only way you can be sure to get your desired band score is making sure you achieve that sore in both tasks.
17:00 – 24:50 What do I have to do in General Training Task 1?
In General Training Task 1, you will be asked to write a letter based on a prompt. The prompt is fairly similar to the cue card that you are given in IELTS speaking Part 2 i.e. it explains a situation and then gives you a list of information that you must include. However, the major difference between the cue card and the GT writing prompt is that YOU MUST INCLUDE EVERY PIECE OF INFORMATION ASKED FOR IN THE BULLETS IN YOUR LETTER. If you don’t, you will automatically get a low score for Task Achievement.
Just like the other areas of the IELTS test, the General Training writing paper is testing if you could function well in an English-speaking country.
- In the listening test, it checks that you can understand a transactional conversation.
- In the reading test, it checks that you can understand short texts found in social and work situations.
- In the writing test, it checks that you can write a range of letters that each perform a different FUNCTION.
For example, you may be asked to make requests, offer advice or make suggestions, thank people, explain a situation, give news, make an invitation, apologise, or complain. You will only have to write one letter in your exam, but you must be prepared to perform ANY of these functions (and this is just a small selection of the possible functions you could be asked).
To make things even more difficult, IELTS also wants to see that you can write each of these letters at three different three levels of formality – informal, semi-formal, and formal. This means that you will need to know how to adapt your language to create the correct TONE. For example, if you are making a formal request in a letter, you may say:
Could you possibly send me some information about the accommodation available on campus?
However, if you are making a request to a friend, you may say:
Nick, you couldn’t drive me to the airport, could you?
Both are great request in the right context. If you used the formal request in the letter to your friend, then this mixes the tone of your letter and have a negative effect on your score for Task Achievement.
Even though writing letters seems like an old-fashioned skill, I think that it is the part of the test that provides students with the most opportunity to learn the language that they will need when they move abroad. For that reason, I love teaching GT Task 1 and it is the favourite of all my four writing video courses (don’t tell the academic students!)
In fact, you can watch the first FOUR lessons in my 12-hour course for free right now. These contain all of the basic information that you need to to know about ILTS General Training Task 1, including
- how to understand the prompt properly (lesson one)
- how to organise your letters, and open and close them well (lesson two),
- how the examiner will use the band descriptors to assess your letter (lesson three)
- and how you can change your language depending on the level of formality of the letter (lesson four).
24:51 – 35.42 What do I have to do in Academic Task 1?
In Academic Task 1, you will be asked to write a report based on a chart. There are lots of different types of charts (line graphs, bar charts, pie charts, makes, etc) but your report will always contain the same three elements:
- An introductory sentence (based on the task)
- An overview (which is a paragraph that contains the key features)
- Specific details paragraphs (one or two paragraphs that explain the specific changes in the chart and which are supported with statistics)
In the same way, although there are many types of charts (pie chart, line graph, bar charts, tables, processes, or a map), you will only really need to have four main sets of language to describe them:
- language to describe CHANGE (i.e. increase, decrease, remain stable, fluctuate, etc)
- language to COMPARE (i.e. the majority, far more than, an equal number of)
- language to describe a PROCESS (i.e. the passive voice and time connectors)
- language to describe changes to a MAP (i.e. was cut down, was replaced, was extended, etc)
I know that for some students Academic Task 1 can be a real challenge. However, there is a real logic to the way that you can approach the report, and once you understand this, even students who hate maths can get a very high score. The key is knowing what to look for in the charts to find the key features and knowing how to organise the items in the chart so that you can make relevant comparisons. Once you master those skills, it really isn’t as hard as it first appears! And, the good news is that I have made the first three lessons in my 10-hour Academic Task 1 Writing course FREE so you can learn the basics right now.
Just click here to start learning the recipe for a perfect report!
35:43 – 39:45 What type of essay topics are common in Writing Task 2?
General Training and Academic students both have to write an essay for Task 2, but although the types of questions that you can be asked are broadly similar, there are slight differences in the topics you will be asked to discuss. Guess what? The General Training test asked questions related to everyday life whereas the Academic test checks that you can discuss topics that are more abstract. However, there is some overlap. Here are the topics you can expect to find in each of the tests:
- General Training and Academic Topics: work, money, education, cities, and health
- General Training only: travel, leisure, family, young people, technology
- Academic only: environment, society, law, the arts, communication, and government spending
However, please note that this is only a rough guide and you should be prepared for any topic. IELTS has a history of asking some really philosophical questions every now and then, such as what makes people happy or whether or not hobbies have to be hard to be enjoyable! The key to doing well is practicing a range of topics!
39:46 – 49.13: What type of essay do we have to write in IELTS Writing Task 2?
There is no consensus on the exact number of essays that you are asked to write in IELTS. I have always divided them into eight groups, but there are some who say there as many as five and others who say as few as one. However, although every essay is marked using the same criteria, and there are some parts of essays that never change (for example, you will always use paragraphing and have clear topic sentences), the truth is that different questions naturally require you to use a different set of language and to organise your essay in different ways. Here are some the different questions that you may be asked and what you will need to show the examiner to get a high score:
Type of essay Example What this type of question tests
Discuss both sides Some people think that it is better to have the same job all of your life. Other feel that changing jobs regularly is better. Discuss both views and give your own opinion. You ability to give your own opinion and present views that are not your own
To What Extent University education should be free. To what extent do you agree or disagree. / Do you agree or disagree? Your ability to present an opinion and support it
Best Way The best way to tackle the problem of obesity is to educate people about healthy eating. To what extent do you agree or disagree? You ability to evaluate an idea
Problem / Solution Many people today do not know their neighbours. Why is this? What can be done to solve this problem? Your ability to evaluate a problem and offer a relevant solution
Classic Advantages / Disadvantages Today more people travel abroad for their holiday. What are the advantages and disadvantages of this trend? Your ability to compare and contrast
Outweighs Advantages / Disadvantages Today more people travel abroad for their holiday. Do the advantages of this trend outweigh the disadvantages? Your ability to compare and contrast and present an opinion
Positive / Negative Development Many people today communicate with their friends using only social media. Is that is a positive of negative development? Your ability to evaluate a trend
As I said, each of these essays is going to require a slightly different organisation, and a different set of language. For example, the language you use to describe cause and effect in a ProblemSolution is going to be different to the language that you use to discuss different views in a Discus Both Sides essay, so you should learn how to write each essay type well before you book your test.
49:48 – 53.17 How will the examiner assess my writing?
They will use the band descriptors! (click to download a copy!) This is just an introductory lesson so we are not going to go into much detail about the band descriptors. However, it is really important that you understand this key piece of information – you can only get a high score in writing if you satisfy the band descriptors.
That means, your IELTS essay needs to do certain things for you to be able to get a high score.
There are FOUR different areas where you are given a score – Task Response, Coherence and Cohesion, Lexical Resource, and Grammatical Range and Accuracy. However, we can divide these into two groups:
- two that test your language (Lexical Resource and Grammatical Range and Accuracy)
- and two that test you academic writing skills (Task Response / Coherence and Cohesion).
In other words, 50% of your score will be based on your language and 50% on your academic writing skills. And this is the problem – lots of students have got great language skills, but very few understand how to l to write a good academic essay.
53:17 – 56:04 – What is Task Response / Task Achievement?
Very basically, Task Response / Achievement assesses how well you have completed the task that you were given.
For the essay, this means that you have to write an essay that 100% addresses the question, has a clear opinion, and has arguments that are well-supported. If you don’t have a clear opinion, you are going to get a low score no matter how good your language is. In the same way, if you just give me a list of single sentence ideas that are not extended or justified, you are going to get a low score no matter how relevant they are to the question. You see? Having no clear opinion and no extension means a low score irrespective or language!
In the same way, for Task 1, in the GT test, I need to see that you have covered all of the information asked for in the prompt and that your letter functions properly. In other words, your letter needs to contain all of the information asked for and should function as a successful letter in the real world. This is why tone is so important – if you wrote a letter to a friend in the real world, you would never end it with the “I look forward to your response” – your friend would think you are crazy (and for this reason, you will get a low score for Task achievement)
Finally, in Academic Task 1, for a high score for Task Achievement, I need to see that your report summarises the information in the chart clearly. In other words, you should not describe every small detail in the chart. Instead, you should find the main trends and make comparisons between the items in the chart to make your report meaningful. Again, none of these skills are connected to language – they are all purely academic and need to be learned and practiced.
56:05 – 1:01:44 – What is Coherence and Cohesion?
Coherence means how well your writing can be understood and cohesion is how well your writing is joined. To get a high score here, you will need to learn how to logically organise not just the paragraphs in your essay, letter and report, but the sentences inside them.
Plus, you will have to show the relationship between your ideas, which often means using transition signals, and how to use referencing to avoid repeating words. In my experience, Cohesion and Cohesion is the one area of assessment that students overlook, which is a real error as it can be easy to get this one wrong. You can read more about this area in this blog post.
1:01.45 – 1:04.05 What is Lexical Resource?
The remaining two areas of the marking criteria do focus on your language. Lexical Resource assesses the quality of your vocabulary. If Coherence and Cohesion is themost overlooked area, then Lexical Resource is easily the most misunderstood. Students think that to get a high score you must never repeat a word from the task and every sentence should contain the most complicated paraphrases possible.
THIS IS NOT TRUE!
All you need to get a band 7.0 for Lexical Resource is a few high-lexical items.
In fact, my top tip for Lexical Resource is to focus on making your arguments as clear as you can.
Students often do the opposite – they think of difficult words that they know and they try to force them into sentences – and that’s when you end up with crazy sentences that mean nothing. The most important thing to remember its that all of your words should make sense in context. Again, I have a blog post with much more information about lexical resource and the common errors that students make!
1:04.06 – 1:06.01 What is Grammatical Range and Accuracy?
In IELTS, you are rewarded for using complex language, which is most commonly complex sentences. If you don’t know what those are, then I strongly recommend that you watch my free video lesson, “An introduction to Complex Sentences” which clearly explains what they are, how you form them, and how you can avoid some of the most common errors made by IELTS test-takers. However, here is a chart that I made that shows some examples of complex sentences and what scores you can expect if you demonstrate them in your test.
However, your score for grammar is not just based on the level or your language but also your accuracy in using it. In other words, you have to be able to produce language that is both complex and error-free. In fact, one of the main criteria for a 7.0 is that “the majority of your sentences are error-free”, so it is not enough to learn some nice high-level sentence structures, you must be able to use them accurately. Again, have a look at my IELTS course to find out which types of sentences you should aim to include in your writing by going to my course.
1:06.02 – END – Final Advice about IELTS Writing
Students are often afraid of the IELTS writing test or afraid when their scores don’t match their expectations. My advice is to take 3 or 4 weeks to really build your academic writing skills. Don’t rely on tips and tricks, but really try to focus on learning the basic building blocks of academic writing such as how to write a good topic sentence, how to hedge to avoid being over-general, and how to reference.
If you can build these academic writing skills (and others like them) and address the question, you will do well and get the score you need on your first attempt. My only other piece of advice is to always use authentic questions from the Cambridge IELTS books when you practice. Using questions that contain grammar errors or ask you to discuss topics or questions that will never be included in the exam is a waste of your time and energy!