In this article, IELTS teacher Iffaf Khan offers practical tips and strategies to help teachers plan and develop their students' writing.
Doing IELTS writing well is about more than using good grammar and vocabulary. It’s also about writing responses that fully address the task. Young students, or those new to IELTS, can often fail to understand this. To do well, these students would benefit from: stopping to think, trying to understand the tasks fully, identifying information and planning answers, rather than rushing ahead or writing responses based on what they feel comfortable writing about. This article will provide some ideas to help students identify the requirements of the task and plan their responses for both the General and Academic Training exams, which have slightly different demands. For more information about the exam questions, visit https://www.ielts.org/about-the-test.
Tip 1: Face to face
Problem: In the academic paper task 1, students have to summarize what they have noticed in a pie chart, a bar chart, a flow chart, a line graph, a scientific process or a map/building layout. For students who have not done this before, or are not familiar with all of the diagrams, it is stressful. Very often, they don’t know how to even begin writing. Rather than writing observations, they simply copy information in the instructions.
Solution: To make your students feel more comfortable with task 1, familiarize them with the different types of diagrams that appear in the exam. These don’t necessarily have to be examples from the exam; this is about familiarization and training students to observe. If students can do this with real diagrams, they should feel confident about those they see in the exam. The more questions you show them, the better they’ll feel.
- Before class, open your web browser and use a search engine to find the following:
- Pie chart
- Bar chart
- Flow chart
- Layout of building
- Line graph
- Look for very simple examples of each type of diagram. Choose diagrams where it is clear what is being evaluated and the criteria (e.g. the info on a Y axis, or the proportions represented in a pie chart).
- Copy examples of each type of diagram on separate documents.
- In each document, label each diagram with a name and a number and print them.
- Before class, write out a list of questions on a worksheet for students to answer about each diagram. These questions will help them take notes. For example:
What does the horizontal axis represent?
What do the lines inside the graph represent? Which is most significant? Why?
For pie charts
What is the pie chart about?
What is the largest section?
For process diagrams
Is the process a cycle or a product?
How many stages does it have?
The questions need to help them find the trends (the general direction or behaviour of the numbers or objects), as well as explain the diagram.
- Divide the class into five groups.
- Give each group one example from each category of graph (six in total) and the list of questions.
- Give each group about 10 minutes to discuss what they see in each graph, using the questions as a basis.
- Give each group another 10 minutes to take notes for each diagram, using the questions as a basis.
- Circulate the sets of diagrams around the class after 10 minutes to ensure each group sees a different example of each diagram. Repeat the process of discussion and note-taking.
- After 20 minutes, ask students to find a partner from another group and then compare ideas about each diagram type.
- Ask students to choose one diagram from the various sets to discuss with the whole class.
Tip 2: Planning general training writing task 1
Problem: In writing task 1 in General Training, the candidate has to write a letter in response to a problem or idea. The task is divided into bullet points of issues that the candidate needs to address (see www.ielts.org/sample questions for an example). Students unfamiliar with letter writing may not understand the task and end up writing incohesive paragraphs as a result.
Solution: Show students the format of a model answer letter; prepare your students to develop their ideas so that they can write a complete paragraph for a bullet point; write out a letter in groups in response to an exam question.
- Before class, find an exam question and find or prepare your own model letter for the task, with a paragraph for each bullet point.
- Read the task out loud to your students. Don’t read the instructions or bullet points.
- Elicit from your students how they would answer the question.
- Since the questions usually have three bullet points, divide the class into three groups.
- Give each group a bullet point and ask them to brainstorm what they can include in their paragraph, based on the details requested. Discuss how they would write them out .
- Monitor closely, advising them to order the points they want to make for their paragraph.
- Regroup the students so that you now have one student from each group in a new group.
- Ask them to explain what their previous group decided.
- Give each new group paper and ask them to work as one team to write out their letter.
- Before they begin writing, display your model answer on the board and elicit the format for letters and responding to the exam question (appropriate salutation, opening line, a paragraph for each bullet point and an ending salutation).
- Monitor the new groups to make sure that their handwriting is clear, their sentences are linked and their ideas aren’t in bullet form.
- Put the completed letters on the wall in the classroom.
- Ask the students to walk round the round the room and read each other’s letters.
- Point out the good points in each letter (clear points, linked sentences and clear paragraphs; not just appropriate vocabulary or accurate grammar).
- Show your own model afterwards and elicit any letter format conventions they may have missed.
Tip 3: Generating ideas and planning an essay
Problem: In the writing test part two – for both the academic and general training sections – the candidate has to write an essay. Students not trained for the exam can struggle to develop ideas that answer the actual question, instead writing answers that go off-topic. One reason is that the stress of being in an exam can lead to students wanting to write immediately, rather than stopping to think and plan.
Solution:Develop your students thinking and planning skills in class so that they are encouraged to do this before they start writing in the exam. Encourage this skill using sample essay questions from the exam.
- To activate schemata, find two pictures to show two different, opposing ideas that represent the topic of the essay (e.g. oil field drilling vs environmental groups for a question on the environment).
- Put the pictures on the board and ask your students what the topic of their essay could be, in order to get them thinking .
- Let them shout out their ideas before showing them the question, checking they understand it or any difficult words within it.
- Ask your students to work in pairs to think of the opposing arguments and ideas that answer the question.
- Give them one or two minutes to write out bullet points, categorising them into opposing arguments.
- Get them to quickly read out their ideas.
- Divide the class into different teams (one team to represent each argument).
- Give the teams 10 minutes to share and come up with as many ideas as possible to support their side of the argument.
- Re-group or pair students so that they can compare opposing arguments with those from other groups.
- Instruct each new group to write bullet points for each side of the argument.
- Instruct them to number their bullet points, from most important to least important.
- Get them to select the top three, as the basis for their essay.
- Now ask them to try and write the essay in class so that you can monitor, ensuring they use their bullet points
Tip 4: Planning and timing
Problem: In writing task two – the essay-writing section – many candidates often fail to reach their desired level because their essay hasn’t included all the basic sections of an essay: an introduction, a main body of 2–3 paragraphs that consider the opposing views, and a conclusion. This is often because the candidate has run out of time and or hasn’t planned adequately.
Solution: Work on timing in each class, encouraging your group to use an essay plan as a basis. Time each paragraph so that they get used to writing the introduction, main body and the conclusion in 40 minutes.
- Give your students an essay question, preferably one they are familiar with from previous classes (you could try this after tip 3). Otherwise, discuss the possible arguments and ideas for the question.
- The first time you work on planning and timing, work as a class, selecting three or four ideas as a group that you could use in the essay.
- Get the whole class to decide on the order of the ideas in the essay. Give them a template to work from and ask them to add their ideas to it, e.g.
|Introduction – my opinion is ….|
Point 1 is ….
Point 2 is …
My opinion is …
My concluding point is …
- In a follow-up lesson, give students a new question and ask them to plan on their own.
- Give them a time limit for their plan – ten minutes initially. You can try to bring it down to five minutes, over time, so that they can include essay planning in their essay writing.
- Cut out five pieces of paper of the same length for each student.
- Give each student one piece of paper.
- Tell them that they have eight minutes to complete each piece paragraph, except the introduction.
- Give them two–three minutes to write the introduction and take the paper away from them.
- Handout a new piece of paper and instruct them to write their next paragraph. At the end of the eight minutes, take the paper away from them.
- Repeat this process for the other three paragraphs.
- Hand them back all their paragraphs and ask them to read through each one, making any changes they want to make.
- Each time you do this activity; shorten the time limit by 30 seconds. Hopefully, after a few weeks, your students will be able to write a complete essay in 40 minutes.
You’ll find some sample IELTS writing exam questions on the IELTS website: www.ielts.org/sample questions
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IELTS practical tips: Planning and developing your students' writing