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IELTS writing – band scores explained

How is your IELTS band score calculated? This is an important question for any IELTS candidate because many mistakes can be  avoided by knowing what the examiner is looking for and how your writing is graded. More than that you may be surprised by some of the detail. Many candidates are.

This post gives you a brief outline of the grading criteria, how band scores are calculated and how examiners typically grade the writing.

The 4 grading criteria

There are 4 criteria:

Task response How well you answer the question
Coherence and cohesion How well your writing links together
Lexical resource How good your vocabulary is
Grammatical range and accuracy How good your grammar is

What do these criteria mean?

This is IELTS and IELTS examiners are trained to interpret these criteria in a particular way. In theory it should not matter where you take your test as all examiners grade consistently. I suggest you should spend time understanding the detail here as that way you can avoid many common mistakes.

Task Response in detail – how to avoid some common mistakes

Coherence and cohesion in detail- how to avoid some common mistakes

Lexical Resource in detail- how to avoid some common mistakes

Grammatical range and accuracy in detail- how to avoid some common mistakes

How are band scores calculated?

All the criteria count equally

One mistake candidates make is to focus on one or other of the criteria (normally grammar) or forget about one altogether (normally cohesion and coherence). Why is this wrong? They all count equally.

What happens is that you get a score out of 9 for each of the criteria, they are added together and then that score is divided by 4.

An example: So let’s take an example. Here is someone who has forgotten to think about coherence and hasn’t fully answered the question. S/he has good general English so does well in grammar and vocabulary, but sadly that is not enough.

  • grammar 7
  • vocabulary 7
  • task response 6
  • coherence 4

7+7+6+4 = 24  and 24 divided by 4 equals 6. The message is grammar and vocabulary are not enough – you need to focus on all the criteria as you write.

All the criteria are complex – you need to understand it all

If you read through my in detail posts on the criteria, you will see that each criteria is complex. Task response is not just about answering the question, it is about extending and supporting main ideas and maintaining a clear position throughout the essay. This may not be simple, but it is worth understanding. To get your target band 7, you at least need to average 7 in each of these sub criteria. This means that if you do everything to band 7 in task response, but you do not write enough words, you may not get a 7 for task response.

Penalties

This bit is the really bad news. There are certain penalties you can get if you make certain mistakes. This means that if you make this type of  mistake, you can’t get above a certain score for that criteria. Here is a selection of penalties I have borrowed from the British Council site:

  • Band 5 (for Task Response): the essay only partially addresses the task.

IELTS writing is graded

This score might be given if the candidate writes about the need to increase the salaries of doctors and nurses at government hospitals, rather than about the banning of cigarettes.

For example, the question might ask the candidate to not only say whether cigarettes should be banned, but also suggest some other ways to reduce the problems caused by smoking.

An essay would be penalised if it answers the first part of the question (i.e., should the sale of cigarettes be banned) but doesn’t offer any other solutions.

  • Band 5 (for Coherence and Cohesion): the essay doesn’t use paragraphs, or paragraphing is inadequate.

This means that the answer isn’t written in the style of an essay, with an introduction, two or three body paragraphs, and a closing paragraph.

  • Band 4 (for Task Response): the answer is tangential.

Here, the word “tangential” means “of little relevance.” This means that the answer presents an argument that’s only slightly related to the essay question.

As an example, a candidate might start writing about the problems caused by smoking cigarettes, but then go on to write about the problems caused by alcohol and illegal drugs.

  • Band 3 (for Task Response): the essay has few ideas, or the ideas are largely undeveloped or irrelevant.

To illustrate, the answer might give very few, or very weak, reasons for banning cigarettes, such as it will reduce air pollution in cities. (Urban air pollution is caused by the emissions from vehicles and factories, but not cigarette smoking.)

  • Band 1 (for Task Response): the answer is totally unrelated to the essay question.

I would emphasise that these are only a selection of penalties and that you should spend time getting to know the IELTS format before the exam.If you read the British Council article, it advises you to take a preparation course. That is good advice.

It is also good advice to look at the public version of the grading criteria for yourself.

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15 Responses to IELTS writing – band scores explained

  1. Name February 25, 2010 at 1:23 am #

    I have been looking for a best we site in teaching IELTS since a week ago,and I am so happy because I believe I have found the right one finaly here.
    I would highly recommended this blog to any one interested in IELTS.We can find almost every thing that we need to know before taking the exame.
    You are really good teacher and I would really appreciate you.

  2. nyce marie March 8, 2010 at 4:40 am #

    Wow! thank you so much for the information. It will really help me a lot, especially now that I am going to take the IELTS examination soon.

  3. JL November 18, 2010 at 6:32 am #

    Thank you very much for the concise and clear explanation!

  4. Steven McGee August 16, 2011 at 12:03 pm #

    Great website. Lots of help for me in teaching a young Japanese doctor who would like to go to work in Australia. I plan on recommending it to him and others.

  5. jasmine August 30, 2011 at 12:22 pm #

    hi dominic..i find it really really hard to score in writing..my speaking score was 8..but i really couldn’t score above 6 n writing..how to improve..my listening score was 8.5..my vocabulary isn’t really bad..but i seriously dont understand how to get through writing..the problem is,we dont get any sort of feedback from the exams..so i find it difficult to understand where exactly do i go wrong..plz help.

    • Dominic Cole August 30, 2011 at 1:04 pm #

      That’s a strange set of results for sure. What happens when you get one score very different from the other scores (like you in writing) a second examiner will look at your writing.

      You are clearly doing something very wrong with the writing as your 8 in speaking shows you have excellent English (8 is very very good) and theoretically your speaking and writing scores should be close.

      My best suggestion is that the examiner doesn’t think you are answering the question and that you are losing out on Task Response. This can happen with high level candidates who try to do too much in the exam. My guess is that if you are an academic your essays are 350 words plus and too complex.

      The solution is to treat IELTS like an exam and not academic writing. Sometimes you need to simplify things and that is not always easy for high level candidates. Take a look at some of my sample essays – they all follow a pattern pretty much. 4 paragraphs. One simple idea per paragraph. 3/4 sentences per paragraph, making sure you explain and illustrate your ideas. Most of all don’t worry about being “clever”, remember that’s it’s only a language test.

      • Anonymous September 2, 2011 at 3:58 pm #

        hi dominic..thank you very much for your reply.this is the first time i am asking someone for some advice.this is because your website is of high standards and above all you seem to respectfully respond to each one of your candidates problems.now coming to my writing problem,you have mentioned about the number of words..i did keep the number of words under control.they did not exceed 275 for sure.i had already given ielts twice,first one in 2005 and the second one in 2008 and i cleared both the times,each time i made sure my writing standard improved.this time when i gave it recently,i did a lot of practice in writing but still i failed.this shocked me.how can this happen?but i would say,my writing score was never high,it was always in its passing border,nothing more than that.but what put me down was,this time i didnt even score that much as i scored before.

        • Dominic Cole September 3, 2011 at 3:29 am #

          Hard to say what went wrong but it does happen that your scores vary from paper to paper. I once had a Korean student who took the exam almost every week and each time she got slightly different results! The most likely source of variation is Task Response but if you get the “wrong” question, it may be that your score in vocabulary will differ quite a lot too.

          One of my standard bits of advice is to book 2 tests at once if you can afford it – this always gives you a second chance and you won’t complain if you pass first time.

  6. Anonymous September 2, 2011 at 4:05 pm #

    yeah after i went through your writing tips i’ve gathered some more ideas..thanx.they were really really important..

  7. Petya December 3, 2012 at 4:22 am #

    Dominic,
    I can hardly express my gratitude for the invaluable help I’ve got from your blog.
    I appreciate all the time and effort you have put in every single lesson. I didn’t have much time to prepare and on top of that I decided to take the Academic just as a challenge, even though I am taking the IELTS for work related purposes. I had only one opportunity to take the test and I couldn’t count on a second attempt.
    I feel that I owe my results in the writing section to you and Simon (http://ielts-simon.com).
    It initially took me a while to sift through all the teaching resources available online. After my research I decided to trust you both. Now that I know my results I don’t regret my decision:
    L:8
    R:8
    W:7.5
    S: 8.5
    I think I’ve read everything on your blog and I find the WRITING TASK 1 and TASK 2 related articles enormously useful.

    And a final twist in my story…during my preparation I have written all in all 3 essays. I am not saying this is the right way to go though. But the truth is that it isn’t a matter of chaotically producing quantity. One has to analyze his own mistakes and deconstruct good essay examples – the kind of examples I found here and on Simon’s site. Then I would suggest reading very carefully the “how to put together” kind of advise that accompanies a lot of the texts here.

    Once again I admire your straightforward approach to teaching and the fact that you are sharing this knowledge for free. If I could I would pay for your services.

    Take care:

    Petya (Bulgaria)

  8. maria dean December 30, 2012 at 4:32 am #

    As an IELTS examiner, I would like to verify for your readers that what you say is 100% correct. I get many candidates who have never looked at the criteria and make amny of the classic mistakes that you mention. Another major one is not reaching the required word limit, which can drop your score by 1 point for approx every 50 words or so that you are short in the category of Task Response.

    The wording of the band criteria is crucial. For example, many candidates in speaking complain that they have sat the test many times and do not know why they ae not getting 7+ when they ‘speak so well’. In fact, just being fluent and understandable does not mean they speak ‘well’. If you make over a dozen errors combined in grammar, word formation, word choice or collocation you would not get above a 7. The same would probably be true in writiing as well.

    In the General test, it is amazing how many good writers mess up the letter as they do not take it as seriously as the essay, whereas the weaker writers do a better job on the letter than on the essay. Please use paragraphs in both tasks, in Task 1 to separate each dot point and in Task 2 to separate each point you wish to make.

    A number of candidates each week misinterpret the question or fail to answer all parts of the question as you stated. This is a major problem and can greatly affect your score – enough to stop most people getting a 7.

    Please avoid trite phrases and idioms you have translated from your first language. I scream quietly in my brain every time I hear that there are 2 sides to every coin or we live in a technological era or something similar. Also avoid memorised phrases or paragraphs as we penalise heavily for these. So not copy sentences from the task as we do not count these in the word count – paraphrase the topic you are given.

    My advice is to read the criteria carefully, using a DICTIONARY to look up key words in the band secriptors to be sure you properly understand them.

    And finally,

    best of luck to all candidates. We really do want you to do well.

  9. Eli March 10, 2013 at 4:50 am #

    Hi Dominic;
    thanks for your helpful blog, I have to say that I have the same problem that Jasmine has. I took the IELT exam on Feburary 23rd, I scored 7.5 overall, but I did expect higher. the main reason was my writing; it scored 6!, while my speaking was 8.5, listening 8 and reading 7.5!
    I am totaly shocked as I did my best to give an overall coherent and understandable text and I guess i did mention quite enough examples but I dont know what went wrong. do you think asking for an enquiry on my result is of any use?

  10. Karna January 21, 2014 at 12:40 am #

    I appeared IELTS for two times,During first i got 6.5 over band but i got only 5.5 in writing though university i am trying wants minimum of 6 in all four bands.So i tried second time but unfortunately though i got 6 in writing but i got only 5.5 in reading….so i wonder if would accept my score ???

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