Grammar and IELTS writing
Sunday 4 September 2011
I’m Lewis Richards, co-author with Richard Brown of ‘IELTS Advantage Writing Skills’, which is a new book published by Delta, aiming to help students achieve a 6.5 or higher in the writing part of the IELTS exam. If you’d like to have a look at some sample pages from the book, have a look on the Delta website, where you can get an idea of what the book’s about.
One of things that we wanted to do in the book was to help students to improve the range and accuracy of their grammar in their IELTS writing. I’ve been teaching IELTS in a school in Portsmouth for many years, and in the first couple of years I was doing it, I was always really surprised to see students who were, for example, in an upper-intermediate general English class, writing task 2 IELTS essays with basic grammar mistakes in them. I couldn’t work out why someone whose level of grammar was so high could keep making errors in essays with tenses or grammar items they had studied before lots of times.
After a while, I realised that the problem was a lack of tailored grammar exercises, exercises specifically designed to train students in how to apply grammar items directly into writing. Let me give you an example. I’ve got in front of me a (really good) upper-intermediate coursebook, and the grammar on these two pages is relative clauses. The students are given a typical pair of sentences, and asked to talk about the difference between them:
My brother, who is a doctor, lives in New York.
My brother who is a doctor lives in New York.
You’ve probably seen, and taught this kind of thing before. It’s designed, obviously, to elicit the idea that the first sentence contains some extra information (‘My brother lives in New York’ is the main idea of the sentence, and the fact that he is a doctor is additional information about him), and the second sentence defines which brother I’m talking about (it implies I have more than one brother, and you would expect the next sentence to be something like ‘However, my brother who is a teacher lives in London’). Now, nothing wrong with this, but how do students go from knowing this to producing good relative clauses in an essay?
I think there are two things to do with each piece of grammar.
1. Decide exactly in what way we use this grammar in writing.
2. Make exercises with examples of the kind of language you will want your students to write in their essays.
So, with relative clauses, it seems to me that one of the most common type of sentence used in IELTS writing is the type of sentence which contains a relative clause at the end, to give more information or a comment on the main idea. For example:
The most important museums are free to enter in the UK, which is a good idea, because it allows everyone to have access to culture.
If you run your own business, you can make the decisions about the company yourself, which means that you are in control of your working life.
And when I started to think about which verbs are commonly-used with the relative clause, I came up with these: means, enables people to, allows people to, gives people a chance to…,makes it possible/easy/difficult to.., prevents/stops people from…, encourage people to…
Here’s an exercise, based on this – try it for yourself:
Complete these sentences with a relative clauses, using one of the verbs above:
Example: 1. In many countries, governments give scholarships to students from low-income families, which makes it possible for poorer students to go to university.
2. House prices tend to be very expensive in big cities, which…
3. The government in my country is going to cut the price of public transport next year, which…
4. A lot of people who own their own businesses work extremely long hours, which…
5.Travelling by public transport is free for people over 60 in the UK, which…
6. Sports centres are highly subsidized in many countries, which..
I’ve done this exercise lots of times with IELTS classes, and overnight students come back with essays with this type of sentence in. Very pleasing for the teacher, and it seems to me much more effective to do this kind of tailored grammar than to hope that rules learned in general English classes will somehow find their way into students’ essays.
What do you think? How would you tailor the teaching of, for example, the present simple or condionals, to IELTS writing? I’d love to hear your feedback and comments.
(By the way, my answers were:
2. which makes it difficult for young people to get on the property ladder 3.which will encourage more people to leave their cars at home 4. which means that they often have very little time to spend with their families. 5. which makes it possible for pensioners to visit friends and family in other parts of the country 6. which means that sport is affordable for the majority of people.)
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