There is a huge amount of conflicting information online about improving your IELTS score. Some is good information and some is mind-bogglingly bad. Some students come to me with pre-formed sentences that they try to shoehorn into every essay, no matter how inappropriate, and others claim to have been taught by famous IELTS gurus, who promised them a band 8 result in just four weeks. There’s no easy way to trick the examiners and ace the exam, but there are plenty of people who are trying to profit by saying you can. It’s not surprising that so many students get overwhelmed.
One such example was a Russian student who was due to take the exam in two weeks and felt completely lost with her writing. She was a computer programmer, and not adept at thinking in depth about creative solutions or many topics outside her field of work. She told me each essay response (which should take 40 minutes in the exam) took her two to three hours because of her tendency to overthink and make it ‘perfect’. Although her general level of English was B2/C1, she didn’t feel confident of passing the exam, all because of her writing weakness.
In such a short time, it would be difficult to focus on improving grammatical errors in her work, or on extending her vocabulary on certain topics, so we decided to look closely at essay structure. My teaching style is to try and simplify all of the complex information students have processed before reaching me. In classes, we looked at model answers and noted that they all used a particular structure when presenting their main arguments - point, evidence, explanation. Getting students to understand what is required is the first step to helping them produce the same.
We practised writing paragraphs in class, and the student improved her ability to present ideas according to the PEE structure and to link her sentences. But, one problem remained: she found it difficult to generate ideas and opinions in the first place.
I suggested that rather than write an essay for homework, the student complete ten plans for different questions. At the very least, it would help her make a quicker plan during the exam. When we came to look over her work, I was able to point out which ideas and examples would be easier to deliver in one paragraph, and which ones would be harder. Did they relate exactly to the topic? Did they back up her conclusion? As we talked them over, the student developed her ability to explain them by using the point, evidence, explanation structure.
Each day, she would excitedly tell me how much quicker she was able to write her essays - ninety minutes, one hour, and eventually down to forty-five minutes. Writing 250 words on the given topic would still be a challenge, but she knew she could do it.
I also had to convince her to stop forcing the overly formal and archaic phrases she had learned by heart into her work. Feedback on each attempt is crucial for students, and I try to work with their level of language, not get them to put Stephen Fry level sentences into a short essay!
After a few weeks, my student messaged me to say she was over the moon with her results. She had been in such a panic about the writing section and was grateful that I was able to simplify things and give her the confidence to produce the work.
Top tips for coaching IELTS writing:
- Get students to read model answers appropriate to their level, so they know what to aim for
- Simplify structure so they have a clear idea of how to deliver an answer
- Train skills in class. Drill sections such as writing plans, paraphrasing, introducing an idea and explaining thoughts.
- Work with the student to improve the language they have
- Give positive feedback on what they are doing well. It’s easy to get demotivated with writing
Based on her experiences, my student recommended me in a social media group and I often get new students saying they heard her story. I work with other students on academic, professional and fiction writing, but many of clients need help with the IELTS exam. I make sure to tell them that I can work with them to improve their answers, but I am not a false prophet or even an IELTS guru!
From Writing Coach Phil (https://www.italki.com/teacher/4643568)