In this episode, Jay sits down with Barrie Brown and Reza Tasviri from IDP to discuss how to conquer IELTS Writing Task 2.
Speaker: Welcome to E2talks. It’s a podcast in which we chat about the English language landscape, conversing about topics relevant to students like you. In this episode, Jay sits down with Barrie Brown and Reza Tasviri from IDP to discuss how to conquer IELTS Writing Task 2
Jay: Hello guys, it’s very, very nice to have you here. I’m very pleased that you would come down from the offices of IDP to visit E2language, so thank you very much for being here.
Barrie: You’re very welcome thanks for the opportunity.
Jay: Just before you introduce yourselves I just thought it would be good to set the context as to why I’ve invited you down to E2Language, and that it is, we’re sort of getting to a size now where we have a bit of a social responsibility to make sure the information that we’re giving IELTS candidates is accurate as can possibly be. A hundred percent accurate would be great. So on our IELTS YouTube channel, for example, we’ve now just reached a quarter of a million subscribers which is a lot. We’re now getting 50,000 views per day, we’ve had 12 million views in total which means that we’ve had actually – people have watched our videos for 1.6 million hours.
Barrie: Wow, fantastic reach, that’s great.
Jay: It’s fantastic isn’t it. It’s a hundred and eighty two years of watching IELTS videos on our channel and we’re now signing up about – actually in January we just signed up 17,000 members to E2Language, so, yeah, so the point is to give people the best information possible. With that background would you be able to introduce yourself please.
Barrie: Yeah sure my name’s Barrie Brown, I’m one of the ESN managers at IDP, now, my responsibility is looking after the conduct of the test, the marking of the test and monitoring the performance of examiners that – to ensure that everyone’s marking to the standard. My personal background is, I’ve been – my career has been in teaching and for the last twenty years or so I’ve been involved in language teaching and for most of that as an IELTS examiner or examiner trainer and worked for many years in Bangkok, in fact, for IDP.
Jay: Okay interesting, is it true that you were once involved in physics?
Barrie: I was originally. I was doing research in particle physics, in fact, and decided, it was a very turbulent time in Australian history, and decided I wanted to do something more useful, then I became a teacher in a very tough working-class school.
Jay: Right, very interesting. Very interesting. And Reza?
Reza: It’s good to be here and talk to your listeners. My name is Reza Tasviri and I work as a senior team leader for IDP, I oversee the writing – marking the writing of the computer-delivered IELTS test and as for myself I’ve been in the language teaching industry for twenty-one years and for eleven years of that I’ve been involved in different ways with IELTS. I’ve been working for IDP and I’ve had different roles. Currently I, well as I said, I oversee the marking of computer-delivered IELTS writing scripts.
Jay: Fantastic. Well, we couldn’t have better people here to talk about IELTS Writing that’s for sure. Yes, so as I may have mentioned, the focus of this podcast will be on IELTS Writing Task 2. So, basically we want to give candidates the best possible information so they can get the scores that they need. I thought we might start off by just talking about, just some sort of common errors that examiners might see and some things that people should just avoid.
Barrie: Yeah probably just the biggest problem that we see in Task 2 is when the test-taker doesn’t actually answer the question that they’ve been asked. Now you could understand that in the pressure of a test situation which is often extremely important to the test taker, they might read the question quite quickly, think they’ve understood it, then start to write their answer and quite often it’s not answering exactly the question that’s been asked and I can give you a simple example. Let’s suppose that a question is asking about the causes of some problem and what the solutions are. Now we would see a number of candidates who would respond to one part of that and not the other part and I can tell you that if you look at the public band descriptors you see that that kind of partial answering of the question is given a band five for task response for how well they’ve answered the question so it’s a huge penalty to someone whose English ability is actually very high to not fully answer a question. So that’s the – that would be the number one thing that I would say, that you’ve got to be really careful to make sure you’re answering all parts of the question.
Jay: That’s interesting, yeah, because people may have perfect language skills and yet write slightly off-topic and that could be the difference between the score they want the school they –
Barrie: Yes exactly, and the penalty is huge if they do that if they’re very good if they’re for example a native speaker right, and after the test that person probably won’t remember what they’ve done. They’re going to think “I wrote a really good answer to that” and they probably did to the question that they were answering, it’s just not what they were asked.
Jay: So what’s your suggestion then, what planning obviously?
Barrie: The number one is to simply read the question very carefully and answer the question that you’ve been asked. Don’t jump to any conclusions read it very very carefully and then as the test taker writes the essay they need to be reflecting about what part of this question am I answering. So they do their introduction, they get into their first body paragraph and reflect back on what was the question. Am I answering some particular part of the question and that step should go on all the time through the essay so when they move to paragraph two, what am I now answering, am I getting more support to this part, to the first part of the question or am I now starting to answer the second part of the question? So they need to constantly reflect on what am I answering in the essay that I’m writing which part of the question am I focusing on?
Jay: Yeah, yeah, yeah that’s right and test day is a different day because the pressure, the anxiety…
Barrie: Exactly, yeah so you can read something quickly and think you’ve understood it and I would include myself in this right. I’ve seen that before I understand that. No, read it carefully because you may not have understood it.
Reza: And just to add a bit, the stress of the test they may get to someone so, as a piece of practical advice, it is always important to, for the candidate, just to completely ignore the time constraint for a few minutes and not to worry about the time at all and think critically about the question – just look at the question and try to analyze it. That for sure is going to save them time when they’re actually writing their – the answer. So if they don’t spend that three, four, five minutes at the beginning to completely understand the question and, well, organize their ideas then it’s going to eat up their writing time. While if they do, it’s going to help to speed up their writing so that might help in a sense.
Jay: Good one, yeah, I agree. The analogy that I use when I’m talking to my students is your friend has just moved to the other side of the city. Are you going to use the map or you’re gonna get in the car and just use your intuition to get to the other side of the city to find that precise destination?
Reza: That’s a good example.
Jay: Exactly you want to map out what you’re gonna do first. Cool, yes, okay so that’s the most common area. Good one. Okay Barry you mentioned something about a public band descriptors and I want to talk about them specifically but what are they first? Let’s define that.
Barrie: The public band descriptors are available originally from IELTS.org. I think they can be found but I can never find them on the IELTS.org website, I just Google for IELTS Task 2 Writing band descriptors and you’ll get them very easily and they are a very accurate reflection of how a candidate is assessed in the exam. In fact, when I used to train new examiners, I would give them a homework exercise before the training based on the public band descriptors and there’s really everything that a test taker needs to know in those public band descriptors. Things like, only partially answering a question, it will tell you what the penalty is so don’t worry about the penalty, worry about what you’ve got to do. It means I’ve got to answer fully what the question is right. There’s other things related to Task 1 that it tells you clearly in the descriptors right that you must use numbers for example when you answer questions you must have an overview. So they’re they’re extremely useful in knowing exactly what you need to do. The problem with the public band descriptors is that they’re hard to understand, right, and the test taker may need the assistance of an expert, like yourself, to help them understand exactly what the different profiles mean at the different levels
Jay: Good one, yeah, well they definitely inform everything we do here at E2language obviously, everything is directed towards them. Is there a big difference between the public band descriptors and the ones that the examiners use?
Barrie: No significant differences between the two. Everything is there if you wanted a band seven, a band eight, even a band nine every piece of information that you need is in the public band descriptors to do that.
Jay: Okay, okay, great, cool, all right, well let’s start with the first one which is task achievement. Reza, what does task achievement mean?
Reza: Perhaps we should say task response as we are focusing on Writing Task 1?
Jay: I’m glad we’ve got the experts here.
Reza: That’s fine, it’s basically in simple language how well you answer the question and that goes back to how well you have understood the question. So in any IELTS test you’re given a question for Task 2, or what we call the prompt and it asks you to do something, to express an opinion, to compare something to something else, or to, for example, describe two different views and then express your own opinion. It all depends on how well you answer that question and depending on how well, or how completely, or how fully you have answered that question you will get a score for task response.
Jay: Okay interesting does your opinion matter, like if you have a different opinion to the examiner or something that may offend the examiner, for example, does that matter? Are you marked on that?
Reza: Not necessarily, you shouldn’t, because it’s not a test of your knowledge or what you think, it’s not a test of your ideas but the thing is that your opinion you’re expressing should be logical enough in light of what you have already put forth. So you explain something, you describe something, you give some ideas within your writing and then you reach some personal opinion as a conclusion, for example, that should be logical. You cannot say something and then say something else which is completely irrelevant.
Jay: Got it okay, relevance is key there.
Reza: And given that it’s a test situation it’s an – it is a structured test situation you wouldn’t want to say something outrageous but people are not judged on their ideas that’s what I can see.
Jay: Good yeah, I have a personal tendency to get way too philosophical in these exams and sometimes I need to simplify my ideas rather than, you know, try to impress someone with how outrageous they can be.
Barrie: You know, that’s a really good point, in fact, because it’s possible to get a really good score a very high score in the IELTS exam, but being fairly simple and straightforward in the response, you know, making sure you’re answering the question that’s been asked, making sure you’re backing up your answer. If you look into public band descriptors at Band 7 for Task response, it talks about expanding on your ideas, right, so someone who presents, for example, just a main idea with no support, that’s not going to get a very high score because it’s not supported and tells you that at Band 7, right. So you’ve got to have your main ideas and then those ideas have got to be expanded with supporting information and you can do that in a very simple way you don’t have to have huge amounts of knowledge to be able to do that but as Reza said it’s got to make a logical argument, right. It can’t be internally contradictory, for example. You asked before about opinion, a test taker has got to be consistent in what their opinion is. So you might be asked about the advantages and disadvantages of something and what’s your opinion about these. Is it more advantageous than disadvantageous? So the test taker in that case would have to talk about both advantages and disadvantages and at the same time make their opinion clear about which side they’re on in the argument and you don’t need complicated arguments to do that. My strong advice would be, do it simply, use the example of some of the best writers in English, right, and write in a simple way that’s that easily communicates your ideas.
Jay: Yeah, clarity. Clarity is key, exactly. All right, great, fantastic. So what about the various prompts that people might see on test day? I understand there’s a variety and we’ve sort of been able to identify about sort of five main ones. Would you be able to speak to that?
Barrie: Sure, there are a range of questions that get asked, I looked at one time, a few years ago for my own students when I was teaching in Bangkok and I looked at – there was about 20 different sorts of questions that were asked. Now I can’t be specific about the kinds of questions that do get asked in the exam but I can tell you that they are publicly available in the sense that Cambridge publish IELTS – the Cambridge IELTS books numbered one through I don’t know what the last one is, it’s up 10, 12 somewhere around there, now, I think and in each one of those books they have four academic tests and two GTs. General training tests. And the prompts that are used in those books are real test questions and so what you would do if you were a test taker and you wanted to see what’s the likely form of questions you can be asked, you’d go and find the latest issue of one of those Cambridge books and have a look at some of the examples of questions that are in there looked as good and bad information on the Internet. My concern is with the terrible information that’s out there. I’ve read IELTS blog sites that have given sample essays and said it’s band nine and it’s a string of main ideas and so the ideas are not expanded as we just talked about and to give that as an example to students is a terrible thing. But there’s also good information out there as well and just by googling IELTS Task 2 Writing questions you get literally hundreds and hundreds of examples and whilst there will be some rubbish among them, if you’re familiar with what’s available in the Cambridge books you’ll have a pretty good idea of what form of question gets asked in the exam.
Jay: Yeah, yeah, I spend a lot of time talking to candidates about being careful on the internet with YouTube or things their friends have told them or even teachers give them some terrible advice and on that, what I see is a teacher, a lot of template answers and one of the things I tell my students is structure’s fine. Memorizing a structure, an essay structure. Everyone, you know, that’s what you’re learning in high school. That’s what you should take in your mind into the exam but what is, you know, the difference between a template and a structure? Can one of you talk to that?
Barrie: I certainly used to teach my students structure for essays about and I used to teach students to start with an introduction that addresses both sides of the issue of these two questions. You’ve got to answer and makes your opinion clear right there upfront at the start and then in the body of an essay in the paragraph I would tell students have a topic sentence in the paragraph, have a couple of main points and have a support one and a support two for each of your main points. Right, now that results in, for me, quite a wordy paragraph of a paragraph that’s really a bit too long but it’s a basic structure it’s a really good structure to use. Now you could take that model and apply it to any essay question and if you follow it you’ll get a fairly good score simply because you’ve got main ideas and the ideas are developed and provided, they’re logical and provided, they’re connected to the question. Then you’re going to score quite well. The problem arises when teachers – and I’ve seen teachers do this – where they say ‘begin with this sentence’ and there’s a couple of gaps and they say ‘fill the gaps with the main noun from the question’. That is the absolute worst advice, even if the candidate is able to do that and pick the right noun, so that the sentence actually makes sense anyway, at some point the candidate is going to have to use their own language skills to put content into the essay and the difference between the learnt sentences and their own sentence grammar and structure is going to be plainly obvious. There’s no secret about that, it’s just, you can’t do it right and it’s the worst possible advice and just as an aside, when I was in charge of a DPS Language Centre in Bangkok I would not employ a teacher who did that and if I found a teacher who did it they’d be warned and if they continued to do it I would not continue to employ them. It pays a terrible disservice to candidates.
Jay: Yeah, well, yep, great advice, I agree, templates are dangerous.
Reza: You asked about the difference between structures and templates. I would say that candidates or test takers should avoid templates at any cost because, as Barrie said, learning how to structure your writing is the way to go, in the sense that you read the question you analyze the question and understand it and ask yourself of this question, okay I have these ideas, how should I put them in a good logical order to write a piece and then we’ve got the ways of doing it, bring in support sentences and things like that. Now the problem with templates is that I know there’s this tendency among some teachers that would categorize different prompt types and then they would ask their students or they would recommend their students to memorize certain templates. For example, they said that if you’ve got an agree or disagree question, right, like this and that’s where the danger is because although the prompts might be the same, but the ideas that you have to develop are not always the same and you fall into this trap of writing a template, reproducing a template, which is not suitable to the prompt that has been given. So practicing structuring your essay is very important but maybe you should all keep your distance from templates and if anyone comes up with the idea that you should stick with the template that I’m giving you, be cautious.
Barrie: I’ll just add one thing to that, it brought back a memory to me where I had a young man in tears in front of me because his school had told him that there were three types of questions, type 1, type 2, type 3 and that he needed to learn responses to each type. Now the – you mentioned before about having five main types of question. The danger in thinking of IELTS questions as a type is that sometimes they’re not. Sometimes it’s a mixture of one type and another and that’s why the only advice I ever give to students is read the question and answer the question you’ll be able to do that. It won’t be hard. You will be able to do it but if you start with the headache of thinking, well, what type is this and okay now what do I do how do I answer that time? That’s a whole lot of extra baggage you’ve got to carry that may not help you in the end. It may actually be a disservice in the end.
Jay: It’s quite funny that such a critical piece of advice is ‘answer the question’, there’s such great lengths to sort of memorize things and think themselves under enormous pressure to imagine memorizing a 250-word template, it’s extraordinary. Instead of remaining flexible answering the question they’ll probably do much much better.
Jay: That’s quite funny. Good one. Just quickly on word counts. Is it important to reach the 250 words?
Barrie: It is important in this sense, that the word count of 250 words is an indicator of how much you’re probably going to have to write to produce a good response to the question. There’s no doubt you can write an answer to a Task 2 essay in 80 words but we talked about having main points and then developing those main points. You’re probably not going to be able to do that in 80 words. So the fact that that word count is indicated as 250 words is a flag to say, look, you’re probably going to need to write this much in order to get a good score on this task because you’re going to need that many words to develop the ideas that you’re going to come up with in the essay. So it is really important in that sense because it can play into all parts, in fact, of your response, right, to help you get a higher score. So write to the word length, the recommended word length would be my strong advice. Don’t write more, right, you wouldn’t want to go much over 250 words. You use the time if you’re a really good writer, use the time for better planning or for reviewing your work to pick up errors that you might have put in your work. It’s much better to do that than produce a 500 word essay or a 1500 word essay and have lots of little errors that you could have fixed if you’d gone back to look at it, so the word count that’s given is really important from that perspective.
Jay: It’s interesting. I’ve taken both exams paper-based and computer-based and I’ve noticed that I can type a hell of a lot quicker than I can handwrite so I’m guessing that you’re seeing responses that are a lot longer on the computer, is that right?
Reza: It’s not unlikely. It’s not unlikely. What would be good for the candidates to remember is that on the computer-based IELTS platform there is no spell-check so if they are fast typing and they can write long pieces it’s always good to pause or to stop before the test finishes and go back and have a look at what they have written, get rid of the typos or those spaces that you might have entered where spacing is not necessary or in things like – that you might have created a paragraph which shouldn’t be there. So in terms of the length, yeah, if you’re good at typing it is – you might get carried away and write a 700 piece work
Jay: But there’s no point is there to do that?
Reza: Yeah, well, you can do it and you won’t lose any marks for doing that but there’s always the risk and the risk is that you may not be clear about everything you have written so you might lose clarity. It might affect how you develop your ideas and also the bigger risk is you might create more errors. Spelling errors, grammar errors, errors with paragraphing, for example, as I mentioned punctuation errors. It is good to use your time wisely if you can write 250 words which are clear and it gives you some time to go back and review. Use that time to go back and review instead of writing more.
Jay: Good one, yeah. Yeah I found it enormously helpful actually in the computer-based exam. I just had more time so I could go back, take my time, edit, make sure there were no errors make sure my ideas were clear, make sure I had supported them and had examples. So, yeah, we’ll get to the computer-based test at the end I think. Okay, the next criterion is coherence and cohesion. Can somebody please just explain, what does this mean?
Barrie: Coherence and cohesion is really looking at how the essay is written, how does it hang together, does it follow logically from paragraph to paragraph, from sentence to sentence. How are the paragraphs linked together, how are the sentences linked together. Is there an internal logic within the entire response. So that’s what that coherence and cohesion criterion is looking at.
Jay: Okay interesting, and okay, so we’ve talked about sort of macro structure which I’m guessing it has some bearing here but also micro structure so the way that the paragraphs are structures. Well, what would be your tip for structuring paragraphs and connecting sentences, what’s the linguistic aspect of that?
Barrie: Well, I’ve kind of given you the way that I would structure a paragraph. I mean, different people have different ways of putting paragraphs together.
Jay: What about connecting sentences?
Barrie: Well the important thing there is to make sure that ideas flow smoothly so if you’re building in an exception, right, using something like ‘however’ to connect that idea with the one that went before or a consequence of something so using a word like ‘therefore’ to connect that idea to the previous one, that’s quite important so that the language flows fairly smoothly through the paragraph and it’s not just jumping from one idea to another idea. So that’s one of the things that’s measured in CC.
Jay: And pronouns are important here for connecting the noun to the referent pronoun?
Barrie: Well yes, in fact if you look in the public band descriptors it talks about referencing and substitution and that use of pronouns so that you don’t have to repeat the same word over and over again. That you find some other ways of referencing, so, there’s a number of different things that get looked at, right. One is how sentences are connected together and then referencing, so using pronouns to refer back to maybe the main noun that’s in the sentence in the essay and substitution which is the same kind of thing but using another word that essentially means the same so all of those things come into that category.
Jay: Good. You mentioned a couple of discourse markers there, ‘however’ and ‘therefore’ one of the criterion says something about overuse and underuse of discourse markers. So, sometimes I see essays that are just peppered with discourse markers. Every sentence has a ‘therefore’, ‘as a result’, you know, and I think, woah, too much, it’s clunky. So what’s the – how do we strike a balance between using discourse markers and using enough of them?
Barrie: Yeah it’s not so often that you’ll see essays where you’ve got that kind of situation right it’s more a case of where you’ll have overuse. For example, we’ll link to different ideas together and if I continually say and, and, and, and then that’s the clear example of overuse, alright, because I don’t have another choice which is also a cohesive device but if the only relative clause structure that I use in the essay is which, which, which, which, and then that again is overuse of that kind of connecting device.
Jay: One of the pieces of advice that I give is if you’re using discourse markers like ‘however’ and ‘therefore’, for example, is to sometimes put them in the middle of the sentence rather than at the beginning. Is that a good way to sort of –
Barrie: Excellent advice, yeah, absolutely excellent advice. It’s one of the first examples I used to give to my students, in fact, in a sentence like ‘although it was raining we went swimming’, now, lots of people will put the discourse marker at the beginning of the sentence but of course you can say it the other way around and say ‘we went swimming although it was raining’. Now, what the research shows is that higher-level language users will put that discourse marker in the middle of the sentence more frequently than they will put it at the beginning of the sentence in relation to lower-level users of the language. So just from a research perspective you know what you probably should do in the IELTS exam and that’s use a mixture of the two approaches so it’s excellent advice you’re giving.
Jay: Good, good, good. Next one is everybody’s favorite, grammar, but this criterion is split into two. Range and accuracy. What does this mean range and accuracy.
Reza: Well, when it comes to range, sometimes you can write or you can speak using very simple language in the sense that you can make all your sentences simple sentences without any errors. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily. But for the test that is not a good thing, because the test is going to see how well you can use language and because of that you have to aim at using both simple structures and complex structures. So, for example, if you say I’m a student, I’m studying English at E2language, I love my school. So these are three perfectly formed sentences and if all your writing is like that you’re not going to get a good mark for your grammar, you need to do a bit of work on your grammar in the sense that you have to use subordination, for example. You have to use some linking words and you have to mix these structures to show that, well, I can work with different grammar structures so that’s when the question of range comes in. Now, you use a different set of structures at the same time you have to be careful not to make a lot of mistakes because it is possible that when we are mixing different elements for example you’re writing a passive structure or you’re using a second conditional, you don’t use one of the verb forms correctly, that’s when accuracy comes in. So range is there because we do not use English or any language in simple form all the time so we need some complexity to be able to express complex ideas and that’s when we need to write some complex structures. So instead of making those three sentences that I mentioned, we can simply say I go to E2language or E2language school to learn English and I’m happy because it’s a good school. So I have done a very simple way of mixing these structures to make a complex structure just to give you an example and that’s how we use the language on an everyday basis the same way we should do it in the test. Do not stick with simple structures all the time because we feel confident that we are going to produce perfectly well-formed simple structures, we need to use different structures.
Barrie: And just further to that, I mean, it might come as a surprise to people that you could write a grammatically perfect essay and get a low score for it but if you did what Reza suggested and use just simple sentences to structure an entire essay, the public band descriptors will tell you that you’re going to get a band four for that because a band four under grammar range and accuracy, it says subordination is rare so if there’s no subordination at all it absolutely is rare and you’re going to get band four for your grammar even though every sentence was perfectly correct, but the range wasn’t there.
Jay: Just briefly describe subordination to the audience.
Barrie: The concept of subordination is that you can fit more information into a shorter sentence and there’s different forms of it so relative clauses are one example. So ‘I like food which is hot’ or ‘I like food which is spicy’. That’s a relative clause. It actually does exactly the same job as I like spicy food but that’s a more complex structure and puts more information into that sentence. So you’ve got relative clause type subordination and then you’ve got other subordinate structures like the use of ‘although’ that I did before – ‘although it was raining we went swimming anyway’ – and then you’ve got choices about where you put the subordinating conjunction at the beginning or in the middle of the structure. So that’s a couple of different examples of subordination, there are a number of others but those are two very common ones.
Jay: Well, what advice would you give to somebody who’s grammar is not that good? Should they be focusing more on accuracy or should they still try to extend themselves a little bit with range?
Barrie: Yeah, good question. Both of those things matter and they made it equally. So you can’t get a high score if you’ve got one and not the other. I mean, a candidate might have a huge range of sentence structures and they might all be wrong and that’s going to bring their score way down. The range might be good enough to get a band eight but if nothing is correct, they’re going to be very much lower than that, maybe as low as a band four. So both things matter, you can’t consider one without the other but the range is absolutely important as we saw with that criterion at band four and that says without subordination you won’t go above band four so there’s lesson number one, I’ve got to learn some subordination and I can’t memorize that. I’ve got to actually learn how to do it.
Jay: That’s right, that’s right, because it has to express an idea.
Barrie: That’s right.
Jay: Yeah, yes, okay, great, interesting. Alright, and the last criterion is lexical resource which is a complicated phrase for vocabulary, right? So again with vocabulary as I understand it they need to have precision and range and one of the problems that we have with – actually there’s problems with both of those – I see a lot of essays that have words that people have tried to put in there because they sound fancy. Can you just talk about precision for a second?
Barrie: Look, with lexical resource, it’s very similar to grammar range and accuracy because two things are important. One is the accuracy and the other one is the range and you’re dead right that an essay can be peppered with very high level vocab that may or may not fit in the essay and we see lots of examples of high level vocab that actually doesn’t. It’s not used correctly, it doesn’t fit in the particular essay and so that score is going to come down because of that because it fails to be accurate. Yes, it’s got some high level vocab but that’s not good enough. It’s not enough to simply learn high level vocab. It’s got to be used accurately in the essay. So, you know, I’ve certainly met students that have been told by teachers to learn a particular list of vocab.
Jay: There’s a few YouTube videos out there that say use these five words to get an IELTS eight. It’s like ‘Oh my god don’t do that!’.
Barrie: Yes it’s terrible terrible advice yeah and again, you know, I think the research shows that on average in English native speakers use about 4,000 words per month or so in their normal language. Native English speakers actually don’t use huge numbers of high-level words and if you read newspapers and magazines you can often tell before you look at the author whether they were a native speaker or not because non speakers will use much better vocab than native speakers will in their writing. Look, having a wide range of vocab is a really good thing, right, learning new words all the time is a really good thing but you only use the language you need in the test to answer the question that’s in front of you and if you’ve got some really good vocab that you can use in that process and you know for sure that it fits exactly the purpose that you want it for then use it, right. Go ahead and use it but don’t try to learn a series of words and then put them into an essay regardless right. Sure, go away and learn vocab but don’t automatically try to squash it into any essay question you can.
Reza: And just to add a bit to what Barrie said, when candidates want to get better scores at higher levels and they are thinking about how to use words, one of the things they have to be careful about is collocation because that’s what shows whether you can use language precisely or not. I can give you a simple example, for example, you’re talking about your experience at a supermarket and talking about the items and you want to say that things were expensive. I’m using pretty simple language here ‘things were expensive’. I can say, well, ‘the cost of the items were high’ so I’m using slightly more complex vocabulary because I’m using ‘cost’ and ‘high’. Now, I might try to use more complex language but I may not use it precisely, for example, I might say the costs were lucrative while I should have said well actually the cost were exorbitant so that’s where the precision comes through. I might use a bit of a range there in using ‘lucrative’ or, I don’t know, things along those lines if I have memorized lists of synonyms but I may not use them precisely so it is important to use the words precisely what sits with what. So what word goes with what other word? Which noun goes with what other, for example, adjective or which adjective goes with which? Now that’s where the precision comes.
Jay: I had a student recently for E2language who couldn’t pass his writing and I looked at his writing and his command of English was excellent and what he’d done is he’d taken collocations, natural sounding phrases, and he’d change them by putting a more fancier word in because he thought he’d get a higher score and it ruined this sort of naturalness – natural – you know, the language didn’t sound natural anymore when in fact he should have just used the simpler collocation. I mean that was actually his error. That was his error – it was a point five difference that he couldn’t get and it was simply noticing that and going ‘okay this is what your little issue is but it’s actually having a profound effect on the readability of your essay’ because I’d have to read his paragraphs twice, three times and think ‘oh okay what he’s trying to say is this but he’s changed the collocation’. Interesting. One of the questions that I have from students all the time is about synonyms and people get quite obsessed with, you know, there’ll be a key word in the prompt and they’ll, you know, they’ll try not to mention that same word twice and they’ll come up with a range of synonyms and of course imprecision kicks in and the other thing is that I’ve found is some words don’t actually have synonyms. Like the word ‘child’, for example, or ‘high school’, it’s very difficult to create synonyms. What should a candidate do there?
Barrie: Well they shouldn’t create synonyms that don’t fit so words like those and there’s some technical words too that you probably wouldn’t try to find a synonym for, so it is important to vary language where you can. So, for example, in Task one a test taker might say that the sales of apples go up and every time they talk about an increase they use that language ‘go up’ and ‘go up’, ‘go up’ and that indicates they’ve got no other way to describe that and so that’s a weakness in their language whereas there’s a whole lot of other words that they could have used to mean an increase and then what part of an increase it was. So in those sorts of obvious cases then, yes, the same word should not be repeated but where it’s a more technical word like a ‘high school’, for example, or a ‘child’, I mean, you can replace child with young person but young person is maybe a bigger range than child. I wouldn’t try it – do it where it’s possible and sensible to do it and not in other cases. Actually, you know, you talked about my experience in physics before. When I changed from physics to writing articles, in fact, for newspapers and magazines I did some work on how I should best be able to write and I read a book that was written by – I think he was the, then editor of The Wall Street Journal, when it was a good newspaper and he talked about a journalist who was writing a story about a company in Central America that produced bananas and at one stage in the in the article he talked about the ‘bent yellow fruit’. So they didn’t have to reuse the banana and that’s a classic example, you know, that actually, in professional writing, a main noun might get reused multiple times and in the case of a banana what else do you say?
Jay: That’s right.
Reza: And the other thing is that I know some candidates are worried about copying or about not copying the actual question onto their response and well they’re supposed not to do that but that fear gets them into using synonyms for every single word that is used in the question and then they end up having written a sentence which doesn’t make sense. So, if they want to paraphrase the question material and write it back onto their response perhaps it’s better not to look back a lot, read a question, try to remember the idea and then use your own language to produce it and if you want to use synonyms perhaps use synonyms for adjectives and adverbs. If you focus on the nouns, well, you will be struggling to find a synonym for metropolis or big cities or, I don’t know, children. You would be struggling for them because these are words that are commonly used repetitively so that’s one thing to remember which might help.
Jay: Just the last thing on this is what about word forms? If I use the word popular and I don’t want to use the word popular again but I use the word popularity, is that considered a range of vocabulary?
Barrie: Restructuring the word is fine in the test, I mean, even – you’ll see test takers do that, where they restructure the words that are in the rubric itself, in the prompt itself and that’s regarded as fine if the test taker does say.
Jay: Yeah, that’s good, yeah paraphrase, good, paraphrase. All right. So we’ve just spoken about the criteria and the criteria really encompass everything. Is there anything else outside the criteria that the candidate needs to be aware of or is everything in there? I suppose there’s always the psychological aspects but –
Barrie: Yeah, I mean, probably that advice about just being a little bit relaxed. I know that’s useless advice coming from me when your whole life might depend on the score you’re trying to get in the exam. Your visa or your university entrance, right. It’s high stakes for a lot of test takers so for me to say relax, it’s pretty useless but that’s kind of what you’ve got to train yourself to do because I know when I’m at an airport I lose my passport every time I go to the airport because I put it in a pocket somewhere and I forget which pocket I put it in and I panic and then I can’t find it and it’s kind of that situation, right, that you’ve just got to calm yourself down a little bit so you don’t get caught out by misreading a question in the test. That’s really important advice. Not easy. I’m not suggesting it’s an easy thing to do and and some people suffer worse than others as well in test situations, so it’s difficult but certainly you’ve got to somehow calm yourself down so you can read carefully what you’re being asked to do.
Jay: Reading can actually really help if you actually, sort of, instead of focusing on yourself, focus and try to understand that prompt and you forget your anxiety.
Reza: I agree with Barrie that it’s a tough task to not be stressed when you’re actually going to do a test which might have a big impact on your life but still it is very important to be relaxed. A piece of advice that I used to give to my students and I followed it myself, I do follow it whenever I have to see the test not IELTS though, is that if you can’t afford to spend the day before the test or maybe one afternoon before the test, if you’re going to do the test in the morning the day after just do nothing with the test try to enjoy English in the sense that, read what you enjoy, watch the movie that you enjoy, listen to the podcast that you enjoy, talk to the people you like in English and that puts you in the right headspace. It activates everything that you have learned and it keeps you sharp for the test day. So if you are interested in reading novels just pick a good novel, read a good magazine that you like or as I said, go out with friends have a good chat in English that helps you unwind a bit before the tests.
Jay: Good one, yeah. Yeah and I’ll just add a couple of things because having set this test myself a big breakfast is important because it’s a bit of a marathon on test day, it’s good, how long is it? Two and a half, three hours?
Barrie: It’s nearly three hours, the written part.
Jay: Yeah I mentioned we’re burning a lot of energy so if you go with an empty stomach that’s not good and that can also increase anxiety as well so a nice big breakfast is a good idea. The other thing that I’ll sort of spruik E2language here is we’re running these live online classes for writing and we do sort of mock tests where you’ll be safe, you’re at home in front of on your couch with your laptop but we put you under timed pressure and that’s excellent because you get to you get to go through that whole process of planning and writing.
Barrie: That’s excellent advice actually. I’ve seen this in practice where I’ve had students in class who, every time they wrote for me, wrote absolutely excellent essays and the problem was the time when they meant to do an exam they were getting band fives constantly and it turned out that they were spending three to four times the amount of time writing their essay when they were doing them for me than they had in the exam. So the ability to write the essay in the allowed time, that’s really important to practice doing that and it’s, you know, when you’re doing it on your own it’s really easy to give yourself an hour for a Task 2. You’re gonna have 40 minutes approximately for a Task 2 in about 20 minutes for a Task one is the way that you’re kind of should split up your time and you need to practice writing to those requirements. Now, what I used to do with students is I would give them exactly 40 minutes for a Task 2 or 20 minutes for a Task 1 and they’d have to stop writing at that point and then the essay would have to be rewritten from scratch and if you do that you don’t have to do that a huge number of times. You’re not doing that for a month. You will increase your speed of putting your ideas together fairly quickly if you do it that way then if you write for an hour and say ‘okay well next time I’ll write for 50 minutes’. Don’t do that. Give yourself just the time that you’re going to have in the exam to practice it, putting your essay together.
Jay: One of the shocks that I had on test day was – writing with the paper based exam – was writing with a pencil too, so if you are taking the paper-based exam don’t type your essays as practice. Write them by hand because, you know,you may not have done that for a long time. So, you know, feeling that muscle in your hand going oh my god.
Barrie: Yeah and also if you’re doing the paper-based test – in Australia we don’t do that anymore – but if you are doing a paper-based test use the paper that they use in the test. You can download it from my IELTS.org. They’ve got the samples on there, so download it and use that paper.
Jay: It also gives you a good idea of your word count.
Jay: Yeah, all right, so everything we’ve spoken about, it’s been about Writing Task 2. What applies to Writing Task 1, the letter for general or the graph description or image description?
Barrie: For academic pretty much everything that we’ve said applies, for example, in the letter for general training there’ll be three dot points that have to be addressed. There might be multiple parts within a dot point and as we said before, read the question and answer the question. So that means that you’re going to answer three dot points. Don’t answer two. The penalty for answering two and the public band descriptors tell you, is band four, so make sure you fully answer the question. With academic I would say the same thing. Make sure you’re answering the question but here life is a little bit more complicated because you have graphs and diagrams and all sorts of things that you can get asked, but there’s additional things to worry about too and the public band descriptors point this out for example they tell you that at band 5 if you don’t have an overview, sort of a summary statement of what does this data show, that will get band five in the exam. So, you know, you can be a native speaker and certainly when I began to look at IELTS it’s not something I would have automatically done, written an overview that would have gotten me a high score, but that’s a requirement in the exam and the public band descriptors make it clear. It’s also possible to write a really good answer to a Task 1 and not use a single number but give a good indication of what’s been happening and if you do that in the exam, again, the public band descriptors tell you will get band five for doing it. You must support your answer with data from the graph or diagram, whatever it is that you’re looking at. So those are a couple of things, overviews and data that candidates miss quite regularly and I mean quite good candidates can miss those things.
Jay: There’s a lot to juggle isn’t there? From this conversation I’ve sort of realized the importance of getting somebody who fully understands the public band descriptors and puts it into a good teaching practice for you because I imagine there are a lot of good writers who aren’t getting the scores they need simply because they’re just not paying attention or they haven’t been taught the right information.
Barrie: Yeah, look, that’s right and I mentioned before how I had used the public band descriptors as a homework exercise for a group of examiner trainees and to my surprise when we began the training. To a man they told me, and to women in the group they all told me that they didn’t understand the public band descriptors and yet every one of those people were teaching IELTS prep courses and I asked them how can you teach a prep course if you don’t understand the public band descriptors. So just because somebody tells you that ‘look I teach IELTS to people’, it doesn’t guarantee that you’re going to get good advice, right, you really need someone who knows what I do, who’s really spent the time and delved into the descriptors to understand them, to help give the clarity to them that’s needed to get a good score in the exam. As I said earlier all the information you need to get a really high score is available there in the public band descriptors but every word means something.
Jay: That’s right. You need somebody to translate it almost because there’s a lot of technical linguistic jargon in there like subordination. If you miss that the impact can be enormous. Yeah great. So I’m comfortable everything we do here at E2language, our teachers know all of this back to front and we also have the ability to explain it in a way that the candidate can understand without the technical linguistic jargon because after the exam they don’t need to know what subordination is anymore.
Jay: Good. I just thought lastly we’d talk about – what I think is a really exciting development with the IELTS is the computer-based test. I’ve taken this test and I thought it was it was a great experience. It was really comfortable. It was convenient. I thought because of the environment, the test was still challenging but I thought it was a simpler experience. So Reza, I understand you’re sort of managing part of this and I also understand that there’s now – I just read yesterday – there’s 55 computer-based testing centers around the world.
Reza: Right and growing. Well as you said it’s a different experience for – and I assume – for some or many candidates it might be a less daunting experience and more familiar experience of sitting behind the computer screen and doing things. They may like the cleaner shape of things. You just type in your responses and they go away and you can deal with the next part. When it comes to the writing section of the test and I think I already mentioned this, it’s not different to the paper-based IELTS in the sense that the questions are the same, the word length that you have to stick to is the same and you have to – you will be assessed on the very same criteria for which the paper-based scripts are assessed. Perhaps the only thing you should be mindful of is that because the platform is different and now you’re typing, you need a different set of skills. If you are not particularly good at typing you might be at a disadvantage or if you are particularly good at typing you might produce long responses that may contain spelling errors for example and the test platform doesn’t have a spellcheck so you might confidently type a lot of words without thinking that a word, well I may have misspelt certain words there and that’s not a good risk to take. Well, apart from that I don’t think there is much to add, it’s essentially the same thing. It’s just the convenience of doing it on the screen and also the advantage of getting the scores or the report form a bit earlier than you would in a paper-based test.
Jay: Yep, so you guys are happy with the way the computer-based test is rolling up, the success of it and popularity?
Barrie: Yeah it’s been ramping up fairly quickly, in fact, it’s much better from our perspective because it’s typed and we don’t have to worry about reading handwriting which can be a struggle to do that at times. The other thing that I’d add with the computer-based is students, as Reza, said do need to concern themselves about their typing skills to some extent so how do you show a paragraph? What should you do at the end of a sentence? Those sorts of technical things. If you’re not used to typing they should be a concern and make sure you find out about those things before doing the test because it can lead someone for example who hits ‘return’ at the end of every sentence then now they’ve created paragraphs right now if it’s the only thing they do throughout the essay then that would be an issue for example. So there are some additional skills but as you mentioned before about being able to type more quickly than you can write by hand, that’s certainly in general the case and so we tend to see longer our responses to questions and as we said before you don’t need to go much over 250 words, you know, in a Task 2 to be happy with the content of your answer. Make sure you see the test takers has got some time to review what they’ve done and particularly to pick up things like typos and other errors that they might have made.
Jay: Cool, good stuff, great. Well, thanks very much for coming down and we appreciate enormously.
Barrie: All right, yeah, thanks for the opportunity and thank you also for the work you do in making visible and transparent the rules by which the exam is marked. We think that is extremely important so well done from your end.
Jay: Good one, thank you.
Reza: It’s good to be here thank you.
Speaker: Thanks for listening to E2talks. Next month Jay talks with Alex E2 expert teacher about E2school. Remember to check out E2language.com for all your test prep needs. Thanks.