You will rarely, if ever, hear of people getting a 9 in either Speaking or Writing. Personally I have never heard of these scores. This should not be the case, since there is a clear mark scheme for each band. If you make no grammar mistakes, answer the task set fully, have a logical and coherent structure, handle complex arguments well and use language appropriately, there is no reason you should not get a 9. Yet, almost everybody loses 0.5 here. So, you must assume you will too and try not to lose any more. In a way, these sections are marked negatively, unlike the other sections. Realistically, you start out at 8.5. So if you want a 7.5, if you lose one band, you will make it. But if you lose two bands or even 1.5 bands, you will not get your required score. Sounds unfair? That’s life. Brace yourself, move on and learn how to beat ’em at their own game.
From what I understand, in Writing there are several common mistakes that can lose you a band, or even more. I have put what are probably the more dangerous mistakes in bold.
- Not understanding the task fully, and answering less than required, or more. In the words of an IELTS examiner, the exam is a transaction between the candidate and the examiner.
- Not reaching the word count (more than a fifth of candidates, according to e2language), or going high above the word count.
- Inconsistent or wrong tenses throughout an essay
- At least half of your sentences have grammar mistakes (and at least 2/3 should be correct if you want band 8)
- Writing after you have been told to stop writing
- Not sticking to the theme of a paragraph
- Using arguments that are too complex to comprehend
- Using words you do not fully know how to spell or use in a sentence
- Failing to structure your essay according to what examiners are used to
- Using only simple or compound sentences, or using sentences that are too long and complex to make sense of easily.
From this long, sad list you can see that your essay is a boat that you need to navigate carefully through troubled waters and jagged rocks. The good news is that most of these mistakes are surprisingly easy to avoid, if you learn how to. I’ll leave the teaching to the experts, but I will refer to a few resources and compile a list shortly. However, before that, let’s elaborate some of the above mistakes. Bear with me, I know this is well above 250 words.
So this is a big concept to understand, which is why I thought it deserved a section on its own. Answering the question sounds simple, but it is really? The answer is yes, if you know what they are looking for. Most people, including those who get high scores, don’t. The Cambridge IELTS books contain sample answers, but very few of those answers have a very high score; I couldn’t find any above 7. However, many free YouTube videos have tutorials who take you through each question type and how you can structure your answer to score the highest possible marks. Let’s run through some examples of failed task achievement to clarify this further.
You run out of time
It’s never happened to me, but it does to a lot of people. Time flies under pressure. And once it starts flying, you’re panicking, and if you miss for example the conclusion…
You give them too little
They asked you for reasons, or advantages and disadvantages. In the plural. That means you should give at least 2 each. If you gave one reason why you agree and one reason why you disagree, you lose points no matter how convincing your arguments were.
You give them too much
Writing too much can be detrimental for two reasons (see what I did there?). Firstly, giving irrelevant information weakens your argument. If they asked you why you agree or disagree, and you give both sides of the argument, you then have to state that you partially agree. This itself is a tricky position to be in. One of my friends insists that it’s not problematic, but with her skills perhaps it isn’t. For most of us, “to what extent do you agree” is a question that is difficult to answer accurately unless you completely agree or disagree. And in task achievement, accuracy and precision are everything. So why not state a strong opinion, and then support it with only reasons why you agree/disagree. With the introduction and conclusion this makes four paragraphs in total. Easier to write, easier for the examiner to read. I typically use absolutely agree/disagree as a synonym.
Secondly, you’re using up your precious time. This adds to the risk of running out of time. If your time management is great, why not use that sweet, sweet extra time to improve your essay, recheck for mistakes, count the words exactly, substitute words for more appropriate, fancier words, turn simpler sentences into more complex ones, add linking words, etc. See what I mean? Why on earth would you want to waste this time on writing something the examiner will sigh and ignore (best case scenario), or burst into tears at?
Hence, I recommend picking a side and limiting yourself to two reasons for that side if that is what the question asks for. We know you’re all brilliant and bursting with ideas but the examiners are not looking for you to convince them. They’re just looking for task achievement. If the question is, give advantages and disadvantages, give 2 each. If they ask for your opinion state it clearly and plainly, and if they do not, do not give your opinion. In task 1, you have to be especially careful not to make any assumptions, give opinions or draw conclusions from the data. The most frequent advice I get about my own essays is “rein it in mate”.
For help with this, I advise going to a teacher. Practice the various question types; they all ask you for something slightly different. You can find many tutorials online and in academies, both for free and paid. If you follow the instructions and format these wonderful people have devised, it’s easy to achieve the required word count as well without going too high either.
Before you skip this paragraph, you must fully understand what encompasses cheating. For example, speaking or signalling to a candidate from after you have entered the examination hall to the time they allow you to leave. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have the test in front of you at that moment. Use this time to pray, daydream, sleep, perform silent yoga, whatever. Just do not talk to others. Ignore them if they talk to you. Look down or straight ahead. Raise your hand to call an invigilator. Another action labelled as cheating is writing after the time has ended. You must be vigilant about time; a good practice is to write down the start and end times on your question paper. Know when time is up before the invigilator announces it. Put down your pencil, close your question paper and sit back and relax. You’ve done your best and you will be rewarded. The consequences of being accused of cheating are often terrible. You will not get a result and may be banned from future exams. It’s not worth it.
Grammar, punctuation, tenses, spelling
This is the probably the only component of the exam where your English skills are tested. This is bad news for those who think their English is “perfect” because perfect English has no additional marks, and very bad news for many non-native speakers because this is probably their weakest area and this supposedly puts a limit on the band score they can achieve. Many a post have I read on Facebook, stating they do not understand why they keep getting less than 7, with multiple mistakes in the post itself. If you are making this quantity of mistakes in 5 sentences, more than half of your sentences in Writing will be marked as incorrect in the exam. You might also lose points in the other components as well.
However, before you jump off the roof, this can be remedied. Speak in English with others and at home. Listen to the radio and television. Copy their sentences. Talk back to them. The BBC radio/TV/website is a strong recommendation for “the Queen’s English” (BBC Radio 1 and 5 are my personal favourites). Read good literature, which is sadly rare in popular modern books. Go to the classics. Practice grammar books on the toilet. Learning English can be lots of fun. Watching movies and chatting to friends? Who else gets to do that and call it studying? There is no need to be ashamed of your accent either. Somebody recently told me accents score higher in Speaking because they want to promote diversity. Many native English speakers make mistakes too so do not be embarrassed to make mistakes and importantly, accept criticism. You should be proud of who you are and the effort you are putting in, not shy.
A few tips I can give especially for Writing are:
- Pay attention to what tense you use throughout the essay. Simple past tense for task 1 and simple present tense for task 2 are the most common requirements, but be careful. They may give you predicted data for the future in task 1. They may give you opinions about the past or future in task 2. I’ve noticed that it’s best to avoid the past present tense or other complex tenses. Even if you use complex tenses accurately, the examiner may disagree with your use.
- Avoid semicolons altogether; personally, I think they are a beautiful invention, but again many examiners disagree over how they should be used. Similarly, best to avoid hyphens (-), colons (:), exclamation marks (!), brackets [( )], forward slashes (/), and about any other interesting symbol you can think of.
- It is okay to use the Oxford Comma, and I will defend its use to my last breath.
- Do use capital letters at the start of each sentence and put a full stop at the end. Practice doing this even while texting or posting on social media.
- Avoid abbreviations such as e.g., i.e., it’s, you’re, etc., and so on. They class as informal language. In task 1, you can use the UK or the USA but don’t forget to add a “the” in front of them. In task 2, it would be even better to write them out in full on the first use and put their abbreviation in brackets. Example: It rains a lot in the United Kingdom (UK). Locals in the UK are well prepared for this and carry an umbrella or raincoat at all times.
- You must obey these rules in Reading and Listening as well. If the fill-in-the-blank is at the start of a sentence or a proper noun, make the first letter of the word a capital letter. If it is in the middle of a sentence and a common noun, use small letters. Spell correctly; copy spellings from the reading passages. Use the time at the end to keep double checking all of this. These two sections have fixed answers and are marked with no bias, so you can lose the mark for that question even if your answer is correct. This is a mistake people with good English make often as well.
That’s all for now, folks. My initial post was extremely long, so I decided to make this into a series of posts. Stay tuned for the rest.