Friday, April 20, 2018

IELTS: How To Grade Your Writing

Do You Know the IELTS Marking Criteria for the Writing Section?

When I first started working 20 or so years ago, it was teaching high school graduates who were applying through UCAS to attend a university in Britain and whose mother tongue wasn't English. The IELTS, therefore, was a 'must' for them. 

Through my experience dealing with both year-long students, with whom ample time preparing was available, and intensive course candidates who needed to sit the exam in a few weeks time, I learned that writing was the area most were having trouble coming to grips with.

This, apparently, seems to be the case with the majority of IELTS candidates around the world as well, as I've been seeing a lot of discussion on forums, social media groups and other online communities in general about the writing section on the IELTS exam lately. The overwhelming question is "How do they [the examiners] grade the writing?" and the usual post is one where an essay is attached and the prospective IELTS candidate (who has decided not to attend a special preparation course), all worried, is urgently requesting that someone comment regarding the score the essay would get.

The first shock for me is that these justifiably anxious candidates have no idea how to tackle the exam as a whole. What I mean to say is that in all likelihood they haven't even searched for the marking scheme the IELTS has uploaded onto its website to see what examiners are looking for and what is being graded. 
Having written the essay, they should have taken the printed IELTS Band Descriptor sheet and gone through each category point by point to estimate the overall result they would get by themselves. Only then should they have proceeded to ask for second and third and fourth opinions from other people online to see what the general consensus would be.

This is what they should have printed out before writing the essay they want strangers on social networks to assess (click on the link for the pdf version): 

Becoming your own Marker

The key to success in the IELTS writing section when you decide you don't need a preparation course or tutor of some sort is to be able to critically assess your own work. The only way to do that at the moment is 
  • to compare what you've written with the marking scheme provided by the IELTS
  • know what level your grammar is at 
  • know if your vocabulary range is wide and your choice of words accurate
  • evaluate whether you have fully discussed the topic given
  • recognize if your essay is coherent and cohesive with proper linking of sentences

Let's be honest. If a candidate believes he or she can manage to know all of the above and grade their own essays, they probably shouldn't be taking the exam but teaching others how to take it or think about becoming IELTS examiners themselves.

That said, there are ways candidates can become more aware of what markers look for in written papers, but unfortunately that would take more than a week. So, if you're thinking of improving your writing, your primary objectives are to
  • practice writing as often as possible
  • study your grammar
  • learn vocabulary
Let's see what that means in practice. In this post I'm chiefly going to discuss Task 2 of the IELTS Writing component.

Tackle grammar

No one wants to take the IELTS and sweat out the waiting period until results are due, their grade teetering between a 6.0 they don't want and the 6.5 the university or employer are asking for. This is why whatever they do while preparing for the test should aim far above the level they need.

That translates to learning Proficiency (C2) level grammar. Start by making a checklist and learning the proper use of each item on that list. Read my C2-level Grammar List to get the ball rolling. If I haven't posted clarifications for each grammar point yet, search online. Once you've understood the grammatical construct, apply it to your writing. 

Let's illustrate this.

Some clear C2-level grammatical structures to use in essays (and the Speaking section, for that matter) are inverted conditionals, the subjunctive, inversion, impersonal passive voice constructions. These four are by no means the definitive shortlist to success, but just by incorporating each into your essay, you will manage to obtain points for the "grammatical range and accuracy" category included in the IELTS Band Descriptors.

  • example of an inverted conditional sentence:
    • "Were the government to take measures to combat this issue, the benefits for all would be tremendous."
  • example of the subjunctive:
    • "It is vital that an individual learn to curb their urge to spend an exorbitant amount of money on meaningless things."
  • example of inversion: 
    • "Under no circumstances should we allow ourselves to sanction the production and proliferation of nuclear weapons."
  • example of impersonal passive voice:  
    • "It is believed that capital punishment has little effect on reducing criminality." 

 Tackle Vocabulary

This is the hardest Band Descriptor category to improve in a short while. If you happen to have fantastic photographic memory, then by all means gobble up lists of words. If you're not the type to study column after column of lexemes, then reading as much as possible and noting down 20-30 C2-level words should do the trick. 

Now "What are C2-level words?" you might ask. That's another unfortunate obstacle for someone who wants to take the IELTS without guidance from an expert, but not one which can't be bypassed to a certain extent.

The solution is found in the types of reading texts you decide to use as part of your preparation. If you read texts aimed at sixth graders, chances are you won't find complex words. However, articles from good journals or newspapers are bound to contain the words needed to get at least a 7.0 or 7.5 in IELTS. 

Find good online newspapers (I've posted a list of news agencies under the section entitled Get General Information about the Issues on the Agenda in my blog post MUN Resources - Where Do I Start?) or do as many of the texts from the Reading sections of self-study IELTS Practice Tests books. As you read, note down those 20-30 words mentioned earlier and start incorporating some of them into your writing. Systematic use will help you remember them as your exam date draws near.

Tackle the Question

Many students who don't write often, won't know what to expect on the day of the exam or might not have a clue as to how to address the question in the rubric. 

Regardless of the ideas you have, you must concentrate on answering the question and not going off topic, as some candidates tend to do. Understanding the question is a crucial first step. Knowing how to organize a proper answer that will respond to the rubric in the best possible way is a second. It is therefore necessary to 

  • locate the topic and the direction of the topic in the rubric
  • know which type of essay is required 
  • know how to write paragraphs (ie. what each paragraph should contain)

To improve in writing, you can read sample essays provided in self-study IELTS textbooks or read as many C2-level type essays as possible. To that end, read What do I do with the sample writing found on this blog? in addition the sample essays I've provided (under the C2 category, you'll find a variety of topics) and follow the pointers I've given.

The IELTS is not as straightforward as it may seem. It needs perseverance and practice. Just remember to focus on grammar, vocabulary, organization of paragraphs and ideas, and read as many sample essays as possible to get ideas. If you do this, you will have covered each of the four categories found in the Band Descriptors provided by IELTS and should get a better score than expected.

So, to answer the question "How can I grade my own essay?", learn your C2-level grammar, gather words and phrases from sample essays to know what is expected at a higher level, know how to organize discursive essays, and take down arguments seen, yet again, in a variety of sample essays. Once you know what examiners want, compare the details given for each of the IELTS Band Descriptors to narrow down your grade.


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