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Where do you start teaching IELTS essays?

This is a big question and a tough one to answer, not least because IELTS candidates vary so much in ability and experience. My typical approach, however, is to start with how IELTS writing is marked. You will find a downloadable resource further down the page that I use and you are free to adapt for yourselves.

Let me try and explain, however, why I start here when I am teaching IELTS essays.

Seeing the problem – a distinct approach to essays

IELTS may be an international exam taken by candidates all around the world, but it  imposes Anglo/Australian writing standards that are by no means universal in academic institutions around the world. This means students may need to “unlearn” how they write essays because that is not how they need to write essays for IELTS. Depending on where you/they are from, it may be worth pointing that out.

Finding a solution – look at the grading criteria

The solution – happily – is ready to hand. All IELTS essays are marked to a fixed set of criteria – and there is a public version of this criteria. Why not introduce candidates to it? If they know what they need to do, then they can/might be able to do it!

Some common problems

The problems you meet in teaching IELTS essays will depend very much on the background of your students. Here though are a few of the more common that I meet. Introducing candidates to the band score scheme can help address all of these>

1. It’s not just about grammar and vocabulary

If I tell candidates that the writing is marked for 4 things (the criteria) and I ask them to tell me what they are, I very rarely get the right answer. Interesting no? Even more interesting to me is that the first two mentioned are almost always grammar and vocabulary. In IELTS, they count for a mere 50% of the mark. My guess is that most candidates are undervaluing coherence and cohesion and task response.

2. It’s coherence and cohesion and not just “organisation”

I am fairly fearless in introducing teacher/meta language to my students. I real think it can help to give things their proper name. Coherence (the linking of ideas) and cohesion (lexical linking) are two precise skills that need to be learnt – they count for 25% of the mark. I believe there is a real problem if students just think of “organisation” – a very imprecise word. If they do that, then they may some of the skills that will get them that 25%, such as:

  1. the organisation and progression of ideas
  2. each paragraph has a controlling idea
  3. the linking of sentences
  4. using referencing

3. Grammar needs to be varied AND accurate

I also tend to insist on talking about grammatical RANGE and not just accuracy – it really isn’t (just) a simple error count. More than that, many students need to be encouraged to use the grammar they know – there rare rewards for people prepared to use “if clauses”. Just because there isn’t an English in Use paper doesn’t mean they can forget grammar.

4. You have to answer the question

This is another biggie. Task response is 25% of the score. The question must be answered – but also in a fairly specific way. Under task response candidates need to identify a clear position and maintain throughout the essay. They also need to extend and support their main ideas and not over-generalise. These are concepts that candidates from some backgrounds find “different” – not what they are used to.

The teaching IELTS essays resource and how to use it

The resource is a simple hand out in two parts. The first part is simply asking candidates to name the four marking criteria and say how much they are worth. The second part is a simple matching exercise where I have taken descriptions of various skills and asked candidates to decide which criteria they belong to.  The rationale is to get the students thinking as precisely possible about what Task Response, Coherence and Cohesion, Lexical Resource and Grammatical Range and Accuracy really are.


Worksheet - IELTS writing criteria (1123)

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2 Responses to Where do you start teaching IELTS essays?

  1. M February 23, 2014 at 12:22 am #

    Hi Dominic,

    I was wondering what do you mean by (but it imposes Anglo/Australian writing standards that are by no means universal in academic institutions around the world.)

    Is there any style special for Anglo?Australia?

    • Dominic Cole February 23, 2014 at 1:30 am #

      I really just mean that IELTS is an exam made by the British and Australians for entrance to the British/Australian university system. Having taught abroad extensively I know that those standards are not universal – different countries/cultures do things in different ways. This is I think apparent in the weighting of the marking which allocates 50% to vocab and grammar and 50% to task response and coherence. Many, many students I’v had have been surprised by that – it’s not what they are used to.

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