Each time I share my post about how to write a quick plan in your #IELTS writing, people say to me: ‘But what about when it says…?”

The main issues seems to be with what people call ‘agree or disagree’ essays. I’ve also seen essays labelled as ‘discussion’ and ‘argument’ essays’. These descriptions only exist outside of the test. They can be helpful for teachers to plan their course and to make sure they cover different types of language. But, the message often gets confused when people start to say things like ‘With a discussion essay you must only do xyz while in an argument essay you must do a,b,c’.
In reality, there is only one type of essay question in IELTS – a question that forces you to take a position and clearly outline your argument and ideas.
Apart from bad or confusing advice, the biggest problem with using writing tasks you find online is that they force you practise doing the wrong thing. Here is an example someone shared with me today:

Some businesses now say that no one can smoke cigarettes in any of their offices. Some governments have banned smoking in all public places. This is a good idea but it also takes away some of our freedom.
Do you agree or disagree?

This is not a good example of an IELTS test question because it has too many different components, so it would be impossible to answer fully in 250 words and in 40 minutes. If you attempted to answer it in 250 words and 40 minutes you would not be able to fully address all of the parts in a balanced way. Other questions I have seen do not force you to take up a position, which you will ALWAYS need to do in the test. So these types of questions force you NOT to use the skills that you MUST use in the real test.

If you want to just practise writing, then these types of question are fine – just don’t aim to answer them in the time limit or the word limit. But if you want to practise for the test, then you need to use authentic writing test questions.



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How writing task 2 is assessed – Coherence and Cohesion

I have already talked about Task response at bands 6 and 7 and in this post I’ll look at Coherence and cohesion. 

Coherence refers to how easy it is for the reader (the examiner) to understand and follow your ideas.  Cohesion refers to how you connect those ideas together, and this also affects how easy it is to follow your ideas.  

Again, if you already know your IELTS band score, and you are hoping to change your score, then the description of your current band shows you where you are going wrong and the description of the band you would like to be tells you what to need to improve and work on.


1.  With the first bullet point we can see that, for band 6 and band 7, ideas are presented clearly and coherently. The difference is in the ‘progression’ of these ideas.  This means how your ideas lead from one to another and build up on each other to create your argument.  With band 6 candidates, this is done clearly ‘overall’, but with band 7, this is much more consistent. So, we could say that, with a band 6 or 6.5 answer, we can generally follow the argument, but with a band 7 answer, we can follow the argument ‘throughout’ the essay.

2.  That idea may be linked to the second bullet point, which refers to paragraphing. At band 6, the ideas within a paragraph sometimes appear a little odd or as though they belong in another part of the essay.  But a Band 7 candidate is able to logically present their ideas.  I always maintain that you can only achieve this by planning your answer before you begin to write. 

3. The third bullet point refers to cohesive devices. We are told that, at band 6, candidates may make mistakes with cohesive devices, while at band 7 they are used well (even though sometimes they may be over-used).  A criticism of band 6 is that the cohesive devices may be either ‘faulty’ or ‘mechanical’.  So, what are ‘cohesive devices’ and what do the terms ‘faulty’ and ‘mechanical’ mean?   This links very nicely to questions I am often asked about using common phrases that some people see as too simple.

Several people have recently asked me if it is ok to use phrases like this: ‘On the one hand….on the other hand’.  They referred to them as ‘cliches’, and were concerned about these phrases being ‘too simple’.   Here is what I think.  Firstly, I don’t believe it is accurate to call these phrases ‘clichés’ – they are good examples of cohesive devices, in other words, words and phrases used to connect ideas together.  Some other examples of cohesive devices are: as a result, in spite of, although, despite, however, nevertheless etc. 

A ‘cliché’ is a phrase that is seen or heard often, the term cliche tells us that an idea is not very original.  For example, ‘My wedding was the happiest day of my life.’  But the only people who need to worry about using clichés are professional writers, who are supposed to write in an original and fresh way. IELTS candidates don’t need to worry about entertaining the examiner, you just need to communicate your ideas as clearly as possible.  Phrases like ‘On the other hand’ are natural and accepted ways of joining ideas together.  Your examiner will have seen these phrases being used in a ‘faulty’ way (e.g. ‘Another hand’ or “On other hand’ or when it isn’t appropriate to use it) so seeing them used effectively will be rewarded. 

If you were building a wall, we would not think that it is a ‘cliché’ to use bricks and mortar.  What the examiner is looking for is whether you choose the right bricks at the right time and whether you join them together effectively and skillfully, so that your argument stands up.

Let’s look in more detail at this idea of ‘faulty’ or ‘mechanical’ use of cohesive devices.  At band 6, candidates may have seen these words being used, but they haven’t yet learned how to use them correctly.  So, at band 6 we see mistakes like these:

Despite of these problems, many people still choose to travel.  On the other hand, the number of international flights rises every year.  

These two sentences show ‘faulty’ use of cohesive devices.  In the first sentence we need to say ‘Despite these problems, (without ‘of’)…’ while the second sentence contains an idea that is the result of the previous fact – not contrasting information, so it should say:   Because of this,  or As a result, …

‘Mechanical’ cohesive devices come, I believe, as a result of people learning lists of words and phrases to slot into an essay without really thinking of their meaning or whether they are appropriate.  I often see sentences using phrases like these: This is nowhere more evident than…’; This essay will provide evidence in support of this position; This will be proven by analyzing…; After analyzing the above it can be concluded that…; Following the above examination…; As the above shows // As the above essay explains’  

These are ‘mechanical’ or artificial ways of connecting ideas and generally don’t fit naturally into the essays where I have seen them.  Those who write in this way are seeing language as similar to a piece of furniture that comes in a box that you simply need to assemble.  That isn’t how language works.  That isn’t how to score band 7 or above.

4. The final bullet point in the band 6 description mentions ‘referencing’, which is another way of joining ideas together. Referencing is when we refer back to a previous idea. We can do this either with pronouns or with synonyms.  At band 7, this comes under the idea of a cohesive device being used appropriately.  At band 6, these may not always be used clearly.  Look at these examples:

 Travel can be expensive and dangerous.  Despite being expensive and dangerous, many people still choose to travel.  Because of them, the number of international flights rises every year.

Instead of repeating ‘expensive and dangerous’ in the second sentence, it is better to refer back to these with a synonym like this: Travel can be expensive and dangerous.  Despite these problems, many people still choose to travel.

The pronoun ‘them’ in the third sentence is referring back to ‘people’,  but we need to refer back to the whole idea of ‘many people travelling’, so ‘this’ is better: ‘Because of this, …’

Learning language is the only way to improve your IELTS score. 

My IELTS books and apps teach you the language you need and show you how to use it effectively and accurately in the test.

How writing task 2 is assessed – Task Response

If you want to improve your IELTS writing test score, then it is very important to understand how your answer is assessed.  If you already know your IELTS writing test score, and you are hoping to increase that score, then the assessment criteria for your current band will help to show you where you are going wrong and the assessment criteria for the band you would like to be will tell you what to need to improve and work on.

Since most people who contact me are currently stuck at Band 6 or 6.5 in writing and would like to score band 7 or 7.5, let’s look closely at the assessment criteria for those two scores.  In this post, I will look at Task Response, this means that way that you choose to answer the question you are given.

This is what the criteria for Task Response says:

1) The first bullet point refers to the essay question itself. This bullet point is the reason I always tell you that you must stop thinking that there are different approaches for a ‘discussion essay’ or ‘an opinion essay’.  As this bullet point makes very clear, if you do not address every part of the essay question, you will not score band 7.  This is particularly important when you are given a question that asks ‘To what extent do you agree or disagree?’  I see too many people who are taught that they should only mention the part that they agree with.  Doing that will guarantee a lower band score for you because you will not ‘address all parts of the task.’  See this post to find out how to answer that type of essay question:  If I agree with the opinion in the task 2 question, should I only mention that?

2) According to the second bullet point, band 6 candidates may ‘reach a conclusion’ but then repeat that conclusion within their essay.  Again, this is one of the main reasons I say that you should not write what some call a ‘thesis statement’ in your introduction.  I believe this is typical in American essay writing, but it isn’t necessary to do that in IELTS.  If you do, you must be very, very careful not to sound too repetitive in your essay.  Often, band 6 students have one or two main ideas about a topic that they introduce, mention again in their body paragraph, and then repeat in their conclusion.  Look carefully at your own essays to see if you are making this mistake.  Notice that a band 7 candidate, ‘presents a clear position throughout’.  So, if you want to score band 7, you must do the same.  Again, the post I have shared above as well as this post about using personal pronouns will show you how to do that. 

3)  The third bullet shows that  you must fully develop all of your ideas. This means, you should not simply make a statement as though it is a fact. Instead, you need to present your ideas and then explain why you think this by offering support or an example.  

In the example below, I have presented my idea in pink and then given my support in green:  

Travelling can very educational, particularly for young people traveling independently.  As children, our main experiences are with our family doing familiar things, but when we travel alone, we are forced to meet new people and experience the new and the unfamiliar.

A band 6 candidate would simply write: ‘Travelling can very educational for young people.’ without offering any explanation or support. 

In my next post, I will look at coherence and cohesion.

Can I use personal pronouns in #IELTS writing task 2?

Can I use personal pronouns in #IELTS writing task 2?

Many people are taught that you must not use personal pronouns, such as I, you, we etc., in IELTS writing.  This advice comes from the belief that academic writing must be impersonal, which is generally true (although there is a recent move away from this idea and towards more direct and accessible language).  Nevertheless, IELTS writing task 2 is NOT an academic writing task.  You are not being asked to write a report on a research study, instead you are being asked to write a formal essay giving your own views and opinions.  In the IELTS test, you must make your own position clear in your essay if you want to score well. In fact, it is essential if you want to score band 7 or above. 

Band 7 candidates ‘present a clear position throughout’ their essay, while for Band 6 candidates, their position is sometimes ‘unclear’. 

Why is the advice to avoid personal pronouns a problem?

The reason this is such an important issue is that, in trying to avoid the use of personal pronouns at all costs, many candidates resort to using the passive. So, instead of saying ‘I believe…’ or  ‘I feel…..’ they write ‘It is believed // It is felt….’  etc. But this does not tell the reader anything about your own position. In fact, it is very unnatural to use the passive in this way.  A native speaker would never write this.  We only use the passive when the person (the subject of the verb) is unimportant or unknown.  Look at these examples:

Examples of the correct use of the passive:

  1. At the factory, the different parts of the car are manufactured and checked before being assembled. (NB This is done in a factory and we don’t know which individual person is doing this)
  2. It has been decided that the test will be postponed until next term. (NB Using the passive tells us this has been a group decision, not made by one person).

What can I do to show my position?

There are many ways you can make your position clear, including through your choice of positive or negative vocabulary, and through using conditional tenses and modals ( to show if you think something is likely or unlikely). You can also show your position by using personal pronouns, which can be very effective if this is something you feel very strongly about. ‘I firmly believe..’ is much stronger than ‘In my view..’ for example.  What is important is understanding that phrases such as ‘It is felt..’ or ‘It is agreed…’ do not give any information about your views and are an unnatural use of language and so should be avoided. 

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How to answer IELTS True False Not Given questions

The following video shows a talk I gave at conferences in Dubai and the UK about how to answer #IELTS True/False/Not Given questions.  Here are some comments people have made about the video:

This is a real eye-opener!!! I saw some materials I have been using.’
‘Really useful….Your speech makes me feel so relieved when it comes to this type of questions.’

(The original version of this video has been removed, but thankfully one version still exists, with subtitles added by a follower of my Facebook page.)

Click on the image below to watch the video and learn the best ways to practise for IELTS True False Not Given questions:

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Do you make these Common Mistakes in the IELTS writing test?

I have created a quiz to help you to see if you are making common mistakes in your IELTS writing. At the moment, it is only available by downloading a free app called Bookwidget:
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The code for the quiz is:Z73TB

Take the test to see if you might find my book ‘Common Mistakes at IELTS Intermediate’ helpful.

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If I agree with the opinion in the Task 2 question, should I only mention that?

On my Facebook page, many people ask questions like this about writing task 2:

‘Shouldn’t we paraphrase the topic sentence first then just answer the question?’

‘My teacher says I should write a background statement then the thesis statement, so if I don’t agree with the topic sentence there is no need to paraphrase it? For example: ‘Violence in the media promotes violence in society, to what extent do you agree?’ If I don’t agree I don’t have to write something like ‘aggression in the media could encourage violent actions in the society?’

‘Could you please tell me, for agree/disagree questions, what is the best approach to achieve a higher score? In my previous IELTS exam, I completely disagreed with the question and mentioned all points related to that whereas my friend wrote about both sides (advantages and disadvantages) and he scored 7.5. Can that be the reason for my low score?’

I receive these questions whenever I talk about discussing both sides of the question in your answer.  The people who question this view, tend to be people who have studied a set formula to use in each essay question.  In my experience, people who try to follow a set formula:

  • do not fully cover all parts of the task
  • do not present a clear position throughout
  • produce conclusions are unclear or repetitive

If you look at this extract from the IELTS band descriptors that the examiner uses to assess your writing, you can see that these are problems for Band 6 candidates, but not Band 7 candidates:  

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So, using a set formula can mean that you are stuck at Band 6 or 6.5.  Don’t think about a set formula for answering a type of question.  Instead, think clearly about the meaning of what you are writing.

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Watch my video to learn more about how to achieve Band 7: go to video

You might also find my new app useful:

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