What not to write in the IELTS exam

An IELTS student told me that he had spent the whole weekend studying for the IELTS writing exam. I was impressed – this student was known to be a little lazy sometimes and I was impressed that he was finally taking his IELTS exam studies seriously. I was not looking forward to the extra marking that this student might reasonably expect me to do. I asked him how many pieces of writing he had written. The answer was none. Zero. The student hadn’t written anything but had spent the whole weekend studying for the IELTS writing exam. I was confused but pushed for time so I didn’t ask too many questions.

I taught the same student the following week in his IELTS class. I gave the class a timed piece of writing to complete during the class because I was concerned that many of the students in this IELTS weren’t as familiar with the IELTS writing exam time constraints as they could be. I did some administration while the students scribbled away in silence. The “hard-working” student suprised me by finishing the piece of writing with 10 minutes to spare.

“Are you sure you have finished?” I whispered.
“Yes,” he grinned. “I have been practising every day.” He was clearly very pleased with himself. I let the student leave the class early to have a coffee and I decided to mark his piece of writing immediately. What I read shocked me and I started to understand what the student had been spending his free time studying. It became clear why his studies did not involve any IELTS writing practice.

The student had been learning IELTS writing model answers “parrot fashion.” The piece of writing that he’d presented me with was an exact copy of a model IELTS writing answer that I’d given the class a few weeks earlier. The purpose of the model had been to highlight language for presentation of opinions in a piece of IELTS writing. The model was very “generic” in that it wasn’t an answer to a real IELTS part two writing question. As I said, its purpose was to present a specific group of expressions for my IELTS students to learn. The students were supposed to pick out the expressions and use them in their own writing. Unfortunately, this student had misinterpreted my reason for giving him this model answer. He thought that by reproducing what I had given, he would produce a piece of IELTS writing worthy of a IELTS grade 6. The part he’d failed to understand is that it’s all well and good to be able to say “in my opinion….” but what is more important is the ability to express clearly in the written form exactly what your opinion actually is. This student clearly thought that the secret to IELTS writing success was learning model answers. IELTS exam books and the Internet are full of these model answers but learning the model answers in not enough for IELTS success. It is important to be able to pick out relevant and useful language from a model answer but it the ability to add to and extend this language that proves you are deserving of a good IELTS band score.

The student had to express his opinion about whether the Internet was making the world a smaller place. He wrote the following sentences near the end of his piece of writing:

In my opinion Internet make our world a smaller place. It is clear everyone uses it to make communication and this takes less time.

The expressions in my opinion and it is clear are great (though the former should have a comma after it) but what follows each phrase could be improved. Internet should be preceded by the definite article (the Internet.) The Internet is an it and is followed by the third person singular – makes. The idea expressed after it is clear could be expressed much better. We do not make communication. We communicate. It is not clear exactly what takes less time (what is being compared?)

Learning words and phrases from a model IELTS answer is a positive thing for an IELTS student to do but it is also crucial that the student knows how to express their ideas and opinions after these words and phrases. How can you learn to do that? The only way is by learning English and practising as often as you can. Learning complete model answers by heart is not the answer!!

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