Monthly Archives: February 2017

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.