I see this situation several times a year: the candidate trains for IELTS Writing for many months on their own but repeatedly scores band 6 or 6.5 on the exam. They are understandably frustrated by the low mark, but what makes it all worse is that they have no idea why all of their studying hasn’t led to improvement. When the candidate first explains the situation to me in an email, the message usually reads something like this:
I need band 7+ in all skills as part of my residency requirements here in Australia.
I have sat the IELTS twice in the past three months. On my first take, I got 9 in Reading, 8.5 in Listening, 8 in Speaking, and 6 in Writing. I was not aware at the time that essays perform better if they demonstrate good structure. I mistakenly thought that as long as the grammar is accurate and the question is answered, I should be fine. I was thus especially surprised after my second exam when I used an essay structure and still received band 6 in writing! I have lost my faith in IELTS!
After a few more back and forth emails, the candidate usually reports they have been preparing for IELTS alone without any study partners, classes or tutor. This is an instant and very telling red flag.
Candidates preparing for IELTS Writing require ongoing feedback on their work. Without this, they don’t know how to improve. Studying without knowledgable feedback sets up a situation where the candidate spends months or even years experimenting with vocabulary, essay structures, and test taking strategies, blindly hoping that one of these methods will be the golden answer to a good IELTS Writing result. Unfortunately, success rarely comes from this approach. The simple reason for this is that candidates can’t identify errors in syntax in their own writing, regardless of how many IELTS study guides they buy. The missing link between repeated band 6 performance and IELTS Writing band 7+ is personalised grammatical and lexical feedback. Feedback can turn years of unproductive, gruelling study into a few months of stable progress and eventual success.
Why does syntax matter so much?
Grammatical and lexical errors undermine the candidate’s writing band in a systemic way. Such errors are usually the root of clarity issues in the response, and this leads directly to a reduced score for Coherence. However, this is only one of the many ways unclear writing lowers the candidate’s overall writing band.
Clarity issues cascade to problems of register, otherwise known as the formal/informal voice of language. For example, in General Task 1 it may be appropriate to write with informal tone if the letter is to a friend. However, in Task 2 your writing should present a much more formal voice to communicate the academic nature of the response type. These variations in voice are deeply affected by poor grammatical and lexical performance.
In addition to this, grammatical and lexical problems distort the ability of sentences within the response link to each other, and this negatively impacts the candidate’s mark for Cohesion. Further, the manner in which the response links to its question may not be clear, a this of course is problematic for overall Task Achievement.
You can thus see how unaddressed syntax issues drain the writing mark in a variety of ways, and it is an especially unfortunate state of affairs when the candidate doesn’t even know this is happening.
When I work with candidates via my online writing course, they are often shocked when I return their writing to them with markup indicating multiple errors in every sentence, such as seen here:
As you can see, the candidate makes multiple mistakes in each and every sentence despite producing a recognisable essay structure that includes an introduction and valid supporting points. Some of the errors –such as the misuse of English articles– happen repeatedly, indicating poor habits have been developed and need to be broken.
On average, I usually need to exchange around 10 Task 1 and 2 pieces with a band 6-6.5 candidate to get their work more in line with the demands of band 7. After 10 corrections with me, the candidate is very aware of the core syntax issues they need to address, and they have a library of personalised, corrected works they can consult to reinforce their understanding of what effective IELTS Writing should look like.
Working smart thus accomplishes much more than working hard, and it does so at an accelerated rate. A few weeks of quality feedback can allow a candidate to accomplish what months of independent study cannot. If you are a candidate that is repeatedly scoring the same disappointing band in IELTS Writing despite all of the independent preparation you have done, you need to seek feedback from a quality IELTS professional to make sure you’re on a path to success and not trying to pull a wheelbarrow with square wheels.