Using sample answers
I am often asked for sample answers to #IELTS writing task 2 questions. However, in my view, these only have a very limited use. In this post I will explain why.
An educated native speaker should be able to achieve Band 7, 8, or 9 in IELTS writing. The difference in their scores will depend on how much time they have worked on their writing skills and so how much fluency, skill, and style they have developed in their formal writing. It may be useful to note here that in most English-speaking countries, formal essay writing skills are generally not taught beyond the age of 10 or 11 unless the students study an essay-based subject such as history or economics.
A native speaker who is an IELTS writer by profession is in a completely different category. These are the people who write most of the model answers in test practice books. Most candidates are not writers by profession in their own language, yet, many expect to be able to mimic the style and level of the sample answers they find in test books. Some even tell me that their aim is to write in a way that is similar to the passages in academic reading. IELTS does not expect you to reach the level of a professional, academic writer. In fact, I often think of that level as the invisible band 10 of IELTS.
Model answers simply show you one answer out of countless possibilities. I am often concerned that these answers could do more harm than good because many people analyse them to try to find the one trick or formula they believe will show them how to do well in the test. Watching a master chef at work will not help you to create your own meals. Similarly, in sample answers, you will not find a special trick or formula, or one single way to answer any question.
A further problem is illustrated by the following comment I recently received about the model answers in The Official Cambridge Guide to IELTS:
‘In your Official guide to IELTS, you have provided sample essays. In the essay for test 2, ‘look after’ is repeated three times and ‘than + past simple form’ is repeated 3 times.’
The one clear benefit of a sample answer is that it can show how native speakers write. This benefit is lost if you read a sample answer and critique it using your own ingrained ideas of how to write an IELTS essay. Native speakers naturally repeat words and phrases, and, as I pointed out in my post about writing an introduction, so can you.
Repetition is not measured by counting words or phrases, it is something that the reader (and you yourself) can ‘hear’ when you read an essay. It is not at all unusual to find the same word written 3 or more times in an essay, particularly when the word is crucial to the whole topic. For example, if I was writing an essay about hospitals, I would not be at all surprised to have to write that word at least 4 or more times throughout the essay. Similarly, the use of grammatical structure or tenses are not counted in this way by the examiner. Grammatical repetition matters when the same basic structures are used because this is all the candidate is able to use. To put this into perspective, I recently assessed an essay sent to me that used the word language 19 times and half of those where within one paragraph. That is the type of repetition that matters and that is very clear to the reader.
How should I use sample essays?
First, ensure that you are using sample essays written by native speakers with good writing skills. Second, read the answers several times and focus on something different each time. Here are some ideas:
- To focus on task response, think about how the writer has made their position clear in the essay.
- To focus on coherence and cohesion, identify the main idea within each paragraph. Think about how this idea is explained, supported, and connected to the question.
- To focus on grammar, look at one paragraph at a time and think about 1) tenses 2) connecting ideas 3) articles 4) relative pronouns
- To focus on vocabulary, notice any words you would never use yourself. If there are none, think about how a native speaker uses vocabulary to talk about this topic. Try to write out 5-10 words and phrases you would like to be able to use. Make a note of how they are used and then try to use them yourself.
- Read the essay aloud – this is often helps you to notice something you may have missed from reading alone.
- Without looking back at the sample, try to write the same answer yourself, in your own words, but practising as many of the words and phrases you noticed as possible.
Read the grammar and vocabulary chapters of The Key to IELTS Success, as well as the chapters about task 1 and task 2, to learn more about repetition.