22 May 2009

Teaching IELTS writing - keeping it simple

One of the big problems with all of the IELTS writing books is that they use very complex high-level examples of writing to demonstrate how it’s done. This is the most ridiculous thing!

I talked to a couple teachers who supported such an idea and they told me that the student will not learn everything from the samples but they will catch some of it.

I disagree.

If you want to learn how to ride a bicycle it will not be very useful to practice on a Vincent Black Shadow motorcycle. If you want to learn to make paper airplanes the best way is not to go study how to be a space shuttle pilot.

What students need is language that is at their target level or very slightly above. This kind of language is accessible. This kind of language is highly learnable.

Here are two paragraphs from a Task 2 sample taken from IELTS Preparation and Practice by Oxford University Press. I have put some of the bits of complex language in UPPERCASE.

“It seems that salaries often DO NOT RELATE
TO skill, education or THE VALUE OF THE
EMPLOYEE TO SOCIETY. In my opinion this
is wrong, and I feel CHANGES SHOULD BE
MADE to ENSURE that people such as pop
stars do not earn such huge amounts of

“If we take the example of a pop star such as
Madonna, it is HARD TO SEE in WHAT WAY she
even have a NEGATIVE EFFECT on young people
and encourage them to EXPERIMENT WITH SEX AND
In addition, her job does not require SPECIAL
SKILLS or years of training and education.
Therefore, there is no JUSTIFICATION for her
receiving so much money. Although she provides
entertainment for people, I do not think this

Look at "DO NOT RELATE TO". This sort of language is rather idiomatic and if you are going to use it you have to use it in this way. It's not the same if you say, “It seems salaries do not compare to…” or “It seems salaries are not suited to….”

Now if we look at "THE VALUE OF THE EMPLOYEE TO SOCIETY" we see some conceptual language. It is a beautiful idea which is supposed to mean that we have some sort of social duty to be a benefit to others. Of course, Madonna does have value to society, millions of dollars a year value. But this phrase is reaching for a nobler idea than that. And if we are to teach this phrase to our students so that they can use it correctly then we have to make sure they capture that nuance.

Of course, we can teach all of these phrases to our students but the problem is that when they take the writing test they will not need any of them. They will need some other phrases, other idioms. To be able to deploy the right phrase at the right time they would need to first learn thousands and thousands of phrases and be competent in using all of them. In short, they would need to be Band 8 or Band 9.

But if our students' target is Band 6 then this high level language is just clutter that will confuse them. It is unlikely they will need that particular complex language in the sample above and even if we do try to teach it to them it is likely they will get it wrong and instead of saying "experiment with sex and drugs" they may say "do experiments with making love and medicine".

So I believe we should provide our students with a lot of examples that are within their reach, examples at Band 6 and 7. We could rewrite something like the above example.

"Many people in the entertainment business get paid a huge amount of money. I think this is wrong and should be changed to make sure that they don't make too much money.

"A good example is Madonna. She doesn't really do anything to help people. In fact, some of the things she does are bad samples for young people. A lot of her music is about sex and this could cause young people to form the wrong ideas about sex. Some of her music is about drugs and may make people want to use drugs. She did not have to study for many years to learn how to do her job. So I believe there is no reason that she should get paid so much money. She is a very popular singer but I do not think this is a good reason."

In teaching IELTS, it's important that we give our students materials that are within their reach and are learnable.

1 comment:

  1. Very useful comments.

    I have a Chinese student in Bournemouth, UK,who achieved IELTS 5.0, writing 3.5, in her last test. She needs to score 5.0 and 5.5 to qualify for a pre-master's course at Bournemouth uni. Having reviewed her IELTS practice books I've decided that the language is too high level and started her off on a few reading, comprehension and precis exercises using the language of UK tabloids. I'm certain that this move will will put her development on the right footing. I'll share progress here as it happens!

    Gordon C