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.







Back From A Break

Hi everyone.

First, let me apologise for the radio silence over the past couple of months.  I am involved in a couple of new work projects that are taking up much of my time, and these have forced me to scale back on my IELTS activities.

Things are settling down a little now workwise, and while I am still forced to restrict the number of students I can help I at least have time to answer questions and offer suggestions.  Starting this week, I have decided to offer a weekly post setting out my own thoughts on some of the most difficult questions that come up in IELTS writing.  We begin today with one of the classics:

How many paragraphs should I write?

Almost every student has asked this question at some point, and almost every student must have been dismayed to discover that expert views vary between anywhere from four to seven paragraphs.

So let’s look at the question logically.  We need an introduction and a conclusion, of course, so there are our first two paragraphs.  The key question then becomes how many body paragraphs we need in order to respond adequately to the prompt?  Some IELTS prompts seem to invite two body paragraphs, by asking you to respond to two related questions (so one paragraph per question).  Other questions, however, ask you to “discuss both sides and give your opinion” which suggest that three paragraphs are needed (one for each side and one for your opinion).  Still other questions give no hints at all and simply ask “What is your opinion?”

In my view the ideal approach is to write a four-paragraph essay with two body paragraphs.  The reason I like this approach is that it is possible to cover all the various forms of IELTS prompts in four paragraphs, and so it allows students to practice a single structure.  It also forces students to write concisely.  One of the major reasons for poor scores in IELTS writing is time management.  A tightly-written four paragraph essay is one that students are more likely to be able to complete within the recommended time limit of forty minutes.

This leads us to the question of what should be included within the four paragraphs.  For that, however, you will need to wait for the next post.

Please feel free to leave your comments and/or questions.



Wrapping Up the July Workshop

Hi everyone.

Today is the final day of the July Writing Workshop.

To everyone who has participated in the Workshop please let me extend my congratulations.  The improvement that I have seen in your writing over the last 30 days has been quite remarkable.  All of you have begun to write 7-score essays, and in some cases essays that are close to an 8.

The purpose of this Workshop was to demonstrate what I believe to be the simplest approach to scoring 7+.  As you have seen from some of the discussions on the IELTS For All page, there are other approaches that are equally valid.  For example, in the Band 9 course we also teach an Outline C, which can be used when you want to strongly agree or disagree or when you really only have one idea that you want to build your essay around.  This was too complex to include in a 30-day course, but is another very useful approach to consider.

For those of you who want to continue to develop your writing skills, our Band 9 program will allow you continued access to the video library, the Workshop materials, as well as personalised guidance from Ben and I.

If you have an IELTS exam due soon, please remember that the key to successful writing is time management.  I did not suggest time limitations when writing the twelve essays as I felt it was more important to work on structure and technique, but once you have mastered these elements it is important to practice completing your essays in 40 minutes.

I will continue to review and score your essays, and you can continue to submit your essays up to 7 August.

Finally, I take this opportunity to wish each one of you every possible success.


August Writing Workshop Registration

Hi everyone.

We are now only seven days away from the commencement of our August Writing Workshop.

For those of you who have already registered your interest, there are two steps that you need to complete:

  1. Join the IELTS For All Facebook group here  We use this group to post messages and updates during the workshop.
  2. Complete your registration and arrange payment for the Workshop here.

While we are no longer offering a seven-day trial, the cost for the August Workshop has been maintained at $50.  For those who join the Workshop after 1 August, and for future Workshops, this cost will increase to $100.

When you register you will also see that you gain access to our Band 9 Basic program for free, which provides access to a video library covering strategies for all four IELTS skills.

If you have any questions please feel free to post them on the IELTS For All page.

The July Workshop is showing some great results already, and we look forward to sharing insights on how you can achieve a 7+ score for Writing.


A 7+ score essay grom the Writing Workshop

On Day 18 of the Workshop we move to writing full Task 2 essays, implementing the skills covered over the previous 17 days.  The very first essay prompt is one of the most challenging:

Over the last few decades, the media has promoted the image of young thin women as being ideal. What problems has this caused? What solutions can you suggest to this issue?

Here is a 7+ score response submitted by one of our participants.

People have long been influenced by the media and its perspective about anything and everything. Of late, the media has been focusing on projecting the image of an ideal women being slim and young which has led to multiple issues. In this essay, I will discuss the problems associated with this and suggest couple of solutions to fight the condition.

The problems associated with media portraying lean young women as ideal, are many. To begin, women who are not so thin and young suffer damage to their self-esteem and confidence. A not so ideal women, as per the media metrics, will not feel comfortable interacting with others or even making a public appearance, let alone appearing for an interview or forging a successful career.  Moreover, in order to achieve or maintain an ideal image, they may fall prey to risky diets and harmful chemical treatments resulting into poor health conditions. Some diets, like the GM diet and other quick fixes do more harm than good.

There are two effective solutions to the problems stated above. One way to deal with the situation is by ensuring the media focuses on and brings into THE limelight the healthy old women as much as they have the thin young women. By doing this, the general public will have a change in their perspective and respect every woman equally. Another way to tackle the condition is through the Government taking action against the media, restricting them from instilling biases in the society. This will keep the media under control from broadcasting information which leads to partiality like the unnecessary importance given to thin young women.

In conclusion, the media’s attempt to portray slim and young women as ideal has led to issues in women like low self-esteem and higher health risks due to improper diets and chemical treatments followed to achieve or maintain an ideal image. If the media and the government take above stated corrective measures like promoting women of any shape and age equally this will definitely solve the issues. 

Early Results from the Writing Workshop

Hi everyone.

We are at Day 17 of the Writing Workshop, and the participants are well on their way to achieving 7+ scores.  Here is one sample of two body paragraphs written in response to this prompt:

Many processed foods and ready-made meals contain preservatives and chemicals. What are the advantages to this? Do you think the advantages outweigh the disadvantages?

(The student believes that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages)

Some people argue that it is advantageous to add preservatives to processed food They are convinced that the chemical preservation of food will increase its shelf life. As a result of extended life, food will be readily available off season; people will not have to wait for so long to eat their favourite food products at any particular time of the year. Moreover, as additives in food will hinder the growth of microscopic organisms, such as fungus, bacteria, and viruses responsible for the degradation of food items, it may be exported to numerous countries which will boost the overall growth of economy as well as create employment in chemical and food industries which will surge the production level.

I believe, however, that the disadvantages associated with using chemicals and preservatives in food outweigh any advantages. Firstly, adding supplements and foreign chemicals to food may result in unforeseeable health problems. Although they extend the life duration of food commodities, these substances may reduce nutritional value which will have detrimental effects on health. Secondly, fresh food contains a range of vitamins and other vital minerals which are necessary for the mental and physical growth of the body. Usage of various additives may degrade their values and some even destroy the original properties of those minerals by treating them with bleaching agents such as sodium. Henceforth, it leads to some health issues and the loss of nutrients in food items.

This essay is well on-track for a 7+ score.

Our August Workshop will be commencing in two weeks.  We already have 57 registrations, so if you would like to join please drop me a line soon.


Scoring 7+ for CC

Hi everyone.

The July Writing Workshop has reached its half-way point.  Here’s a sneak look at what we covered yesterday – how to create cohesion and coherence in your essays:

Today is a really important lesson.  In the workshop exercises to date, quite a few students have drifted away from the outlines and guidance we have provided, perhaps lapsing into long-established writing habits.  While that is understandable, it is also likely that these habits will prevent you from achieving your 7+ score.  Today, we will illustrate why it is very important that you should closely follow the approach we are developing.

There is nothing more frustrating for an IELTS student than to be told that “you need to improve your cohesion and coherence”.  How exactly is an improvement in these elements achieved?

The answer is that cohesion and coherence cannot really be studied as separate elements of writing.  They are developed as part of the structure of your essay, its paragraphs and sentences.

The good news for you is that this workshop has been teaching you cohesion and coherence since Day 1 – you just didn’t realise it.  The essay outlines, topic sentences, paragraph structures and sentence counts we have shown you are all designed to ensure that your essays are both cohesive and coherent.

To illustrate, let’s look at one of the essays that I have built up over the last few days in response to this prompt:

Many processed foods and ready-made meals contain preservatives and chemicals. What are the advantages to this? Do you think the advantages outweigh the disadvantages?

I haven’t actually done an introduction for this prompt yet, so I need to add that.  This is an advantages/disadvantages prompt so I will use Outline B, with a context/paraphrase/thesis introduction, as follows:

Food safety is an increasing concern in many countries.  Many processed and convenience foods today contain additives and preservatives.  In this essay I will argue that the advantages of adding chemicals to such foods outweigh the disadvantages.

Some people argue that there are significant problems associated with adding chemicals and preservatives to food.  They are convinced that adding foreign substances to foods can have unanticipated effects on our health.  Some chemicals used as food preservatives, such as MSG,  have only been developed in recent years and so the long-term effects of consumption are unknown.  Moreover, the long shelf life that preservatives and chemicals provide has an impact on local economies.  Chemically-preserved foods can be transported over long distances and stored for lengthy periods, meaning they are widely-available at all times of years.  For the producers of fresh, organic produce it is extremely difficult to compete with the convenience of processed foods, and so the livelihoods of such people is placed at risk.

I believe, however, that the advantages associated with using chemicals and preservatives in food outweigh the disadvantages.  Firstly, by extending the shelf life of many foods, preservatives permit suppliers to sell foods at a significantly reduced cost.  Perishable foods must be sold quickly, or they will spoil, and suppliers allow for this in their pricing models.  By extending the period before foods must be withdrawn from sale, food preservatives place many foods within the reach of more people.  Secondly, chemical additives in foods often protect us from potentially harmful bacteria.  Treating food with chemicals is often intended to prevent the growth of dangerous fungi that pose a health risk.  In the case of bacteria such as E Coli, the risk is not only of illness but even of death.  Treating foods in order to protect consumers from the risks of food poisoning is an essential aspect of food safety.

In conclusion, the economic and health advantages of using chemicals and preservatives in food easily outweigh any disadvantages.  Low-cost, non-perishable food may well hold the key to eliminating hunger in those countries unable to produce sufficient food to feed their own people.

OK, now here is the official IELTS scoring rubric for a 7 score in cohesion and coherence:

  • logically organises information and ideas; there is clear progression throughout
  • uses a range of cohesive devices appropriately although there may be some under-/over-use
  • presents a clear central topic within each paragraph

The Outline B structure gives a logical overall organization, while the approach of starting from the general and moving to the specific via short, clear topic sentences that do not attempt to answer the question in one sentence gives us organization within paragraphs

The simple and clear language of our introduction gives us a base for progression.  We then use BP1 language to make it clear we are not presenting our own view, followed by BP2 with our own view.  This is a logical progression, and you can see at every point where the essay is heading.

I have underlined the cohesive devices.  Notice that I have used a couple of different ones – I have not repeated firstly/secondly or any of the other devices in both paragraphs.  I have also not used too many cohesive devices – it is easy to overuse such devices and end up with the “mechanical” cohesion that scores a 6 for CC.

A couple of subtleties here:

  • My use of “they” in BP1 is an advanced cohesive device, linking to the reference to “some people” in the previous sentence. This can work for you too, but ONLY if you follow the guidance around writing a clear and simple topic sentence.  If the topic sentence is complex, it is much harder to correctly refer to it in the next sentence.
  • I moved “however” away from the start of the sentence in BP2. This small change means that my cohesive device is more advanced, moving toward the level where cohesion is managed so well that it is not noticeable (a 9 score CC requirement).

Here is a video by Ben McBride giving further details on how to create cohesion and coherence……………………………………

Our August workshop will be starting soon.  For more information, message me at http://www.facebook.com/ieltsguy.


There are no exercises today.  Rest assured that you are already learning how to write in a manner that will score you a 7+ for CC!

Tomorrow we will explain strategies for maximizing your