Voices from “the other side”

Don’t you just hate it when IELTS teachers do not agree on key questions!

One of the really important questions in IELTS writing is whether it is necessary to present the other side of the argument.  It is not an idle question.  Given the word count and time limitations of IELTS exams, devoting attention to something other than your own argument is a big step, especially when you are expected to “present a clear position throughout the response”.

So why don’t the IELTS teachers agree?

Imagine you are an Olympic diver, getting ready for your final dive with the gold medal in sight.  You need to select your final dive.  You could go for your favourite double-somersault dive that has a lower degree of difficulty but is one you know you can you execute well.  Or you could try the much harder triple-somersault which will score much higher if you perform it correctly.  Which would you choose?

This is essentially the choice that IELTS teachers are confronted with.  To present a “well-developed response” in academic writing requires a consideration of the other side.  Debate and argument are cornerstones of Western thought – think of how English law courts operate, or parliamentary democracy.  To present your own arguments and ignore any alternatives is considered one-dimensional, and therefore an incomplete response.

The problem with presenting the other side in an essay is that it requires a higher level of writing skill.  For example it is very easy for a description of the other side to begin to sound like your own argument and result in coherence problems.

“To begin, some argue that second languages should never be taught at the primary school level.”

“To begin, second languages should never be taught at the primary school level.”

The difference between clarity and confusion in these topic sentences rests on just two words.

Most IELTS students are aiming for a 7 score in writing.  If your essay presents only one side then you are likely to score a 6 for TA, so you will need to make up ground in the other scoring elements.  If your essay presents both sides of the argument and does so with clarity then you could potentially score a TA of 8.   However, if you present the other side incorrectly then you could end up with only a 6 for TA and possibly a lower score for CC as well.

So an IELTS teacher who tells you to focus on only one side is not making a mistake – he or she is simply taking you down a safer path, likely based on your underlying writing ability.

So I suggest that instead of asking whether you should discuss both sides in an IELTS essay, it may be more helpful to ask whether you yet have the necessary writing skills to do so.







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