Is it possible to assess your own essays? Not completely of course: writing is a complex skill and you probably need a teacher for a fully-informed view of what went well and what badly. Computers are a wonderful tool, however, and this lesson shows you one place you can get an idea of your writing skills. The general idea is that by thinking about some fairly basic ideas, you can assess if you are writing in an appropriate way. These ideas are:
- how many sentences do you use in an essay
- how many words does your average sentence have
- how complex is your vocabulary
I should emphasise that this will only ever give you a guide to your writing skills, but it is a fact that this idea is increasingly use din mainstream education.
Test what you know
Before you read on, you might want to try this quick test about readability and essays.
Assessing your own essays
Readability with Flesch-Kincaid grade level
One thing you want to think about is making your essays “readable”. One tool to do this is the Flesch-Kincaid grade level. What this does is measure how complex your language is by looking at the average number of words in a sentence and how long those words are. It then gives you a score showing how many years of schooling someone would need to read that piece of writing.
Readability and IELTS writing
Why should you aim to make your essays readable? The simple answer is that someone is going to read them: the examiner. More than that, I would suggest that there is a quite close relationship between the writing criteria of range of vocabulary and coherence and cohesion with readability. If you write coherently and cohesively and with the correct range of vocabulary, then you should get an appropriate Flesch-Kincaid score. I explain this more below.
Where to find the tool
You can find this tool in many places, but the one I suggest is:
I suggest this tool because it gives you very helpful links to understanding what these scores mean in detail.. This post is somewhat simplified because as you will see below there are in fact quite a few readability tools and I recommend this one as it allows you to see your score for other tools as well.
Your target score
What I have done is put one of my own essays through the tool and then done the same with an essay written by Ryan Higgins of IELTS Writing Blog – Model Task 1 and 2 Responses. I chose Ryan for this simply because he writes very well and, like me, provides answers that are designed for students to model their own writing on. If you can write like Ryan, 9.0 is yours tomorrow! So do check out his site, if you haven’t found it already.
Generally, the idea is that you should aim for a similar score to Ryan or myself. Here’s what happened:
Ryan’s essay Dominic’s essay
Understanding the results
You should see that Ryan and myself get really quite similar average scores. His is slightly higher, but the essays are in the same range of readability – asking you to write an essay that is readable by someone who has finished high school and/or is in the first year or two at university. If you think about it for a minute, this should make sense for academic IELTS – one of the main “uses” of IELTS is for university entrance.
The number of sentences
We both use around 12/3 sentences. This makes sense. There are normally going to be 4 paragraphs in an IELTS essay and each paragraph should be well-developed. Note that in practice this means:
- you should normally write at least 3 sentences per paragraph
- if you have a much higher sentence count for an essay of at least 250 words, then your writing is probably lacking coherence and cohesion
Words per sentence
Again our average sentence length is very similar – in this case around 20 words. Note that:
- this is an “average” figure – you may well (and perhaps should) have some longer and some shorter sentences
- if you want to develop your ideas properly and link your writing together to improve your coherence and cohesion score, then you want to avoid too many short sentences
Syllables per word
Ryan has slightly more “long” words here, but again we are in the same range. The thing that may be “surprising” is that our score is so low – we don’t use that many long words.
The one area in which Ryan and I score differently is “Reading ease”. My higher score shows that my essay is easier to read than Ryan’s. His lower score means that his essay uses more “complex” language. Which of us is right? Well, I’m fairly certain that we would be both score 9.0; it’s just that we get there in different ways. In itself, I think that that is an important message. I am always distrustful of people who say it must be done this way or that way: writing is often a matter of personal style. I would also note:
- My simpler style requires you to be able to be flexible in the simpler words you use to get a good score for vocabulary: you can’t keep using the same simpler words, you need to think synonyms, word families and collocations.
- Ryan’s more complex style requires you to be very accurate in your use of vocabulary: it is no good using longer words, if you get them wrong, this is a particular danger with longer words as they often have very restricted uses – they can be used only in particular ways.