Model Answers and IELTS Writing – why and how?
Saturday 29 October 2011
In his last blog, Richard Brown described the thinking behind how we organised ‘IELTS Advantage Writing Skills’, and in this one I’d like to talk a little bit about the thinking behind one of the key components of each unit of the book – model answers.
Our book has nine units, and each unit starts with an essay or task 1 question for students to try before they study the unit. We’ve called this ‘Try it first’, and what we’ve done is to give a little bit of advice as to how to structure each answer, and what to include in each paragraph.
For instance, in unit 1, which looks at ‘advantage/disadvantage essays’, where students need to discuss the pros and cons of an issue and then give their opinion, we wrote this in the ‘Try it first’ section:
Essay Question: What are the advantages and disadvantages of leaving your country to live or study abroad?
Try it first: try writing an essay on this subject before you study this unit.
You will need to:
- · Write an introduction to the topic
- · Think of two advantages of living abroad and provide clear examples
- · Think of two disadvantages and write about these with good support
- · Write a short conclusion giving your overall opinion
- · Write a minimum of 250 words
Having had a go at writing an essay, students then study the material in the unit, which includes lexis on the topic, work on writing introductions and conclusions, grammar for this type of essay, and so on. Halfway through the unit, we then include a model answer on the same topic, which students can compare with their original essay, and notice the differences. They then study some more language for this type of essay, such as how to write topic sentences, and finally at the end of the unit get a chance to write another essay, on a similar topic.
Why include model answers?
I’ve come across some IELTS teachers who don’t believe using model answers is a good idea, mainly I think, because they see a danger that students will simply copy the teacher’s model, rather than working through the process of writing, editing, and re-drafting an essay by themselves. There is certainly some truth in this, and there’s nothing worse than receiving an essay that has simply copied whole chunks of the model provided by the teacher.
However, I think there is definitely a place for model answers, provided that they are used at the correct stage of the writing process, and that the teacher uses the model as a springboard for vocabulary, structure or grammar work. As mentioned above, the idea of ‘try it first’ is to encourage students not to simply copy a model, but to write their own essay as a starting point, and then use the material in the unit, including the model, to improve, edit and reflect on that essay. It is also based on the principle of noticing the gap between what they can produce, and what a better essay contains.
There is also, I think, a need for students to know what IELTS examiners are looking for. Naturally, when they start studying IELTS, most students do not really have much idea of how task 1 or 2 writings should be written, and at some point they do need to see what we as teachers, and also the examiners in the test itself, are looking for. Another point is that writing conventions and what is considered a ‘good’ essay or statistical report vary dramatically from country to country, and without a model, students are likely to write in the style expected in their L1, which may not be suitable for the exam.
I’d also add something from personal experience. About ten years ago, I took a Spanish exam, called the DELE Diploma Superior, and having lived in Spain for a few years when I took the exam, I found the speaking, listening and reading pretty straightforward. The problem came in knowing how to write for the exam. I had no idea how I was supposed to write – how to structure a piece of writing, what type of language to include, and so on. Only when I was shown a few examples did I start to be able to write decent pieces of writing, and feel confident that I was doing the right thing. Until looking at model answers I was writing in the dark, in a way, and wasting time writing in the wrong style. So I’m convinced personally that we do need to use model answers in class.
What can you do with a model answer?
If a teacher is going to go the trouble of writing a model answer, it is essential that you get the most out of it. If you follow this link, you can have a look at one of the model task 2 essays from the book, from unit 5, on problems in cities and possible solutions.
What would you do with the model in class with your students?
Here are a few suggestions of ideas of exercise types you can use, to maximise students’ learning from model answers.
- Find and underline the topic sentences in the model answer.
- Circle all the linking words and discuss with a partner what they do.
- Write down my essay plan for me. What were my main points, and supporting ideas?
- Find synonyms in the model answer.
For example, find a word which has the same meaning as ‘large cities’ – students scan the model and write down ‘urban conurbations’
- Check the meanings of lexical items from the model answer in a dictionary.
- Scan the model and complete the collocations:
(i) build _____________ houses [answer ‘affordable’]
(ii) ______________ ticket prices [answer ‘slash’]
- · Write down 10 key items from a paragraph of the model answer. Cover the model, and try to re-write the paragraph exactly as it is in the model.
For example, from paragraph 2 of the model:
Biggest – property prices – average salary – commute – London – prohibitive – cost – solve – government – housing.
Cover the model, and turn this into a full paragraph.
- · Ask the students to find five lexical items they like, and write them down in their notebooks.
- · Give a model answer without the conclusion, and ask students to write it for you, in pairs or groups.
- · Cut up the model into sentences, jumble them up, and ask students in groups to put the sentences back in the right order. This is great for practising linking words, coherence and structure.
Students’ model answers
As well as the teacher providing model answers for students, students looking at each others’ writing has a lot of value as well. In IELTS Advantage, we included 12 real pieces of writing from our students, which we then commented on, highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of them, and a guess at a possible score in the exam. These sample student answers have proved really popular, and give a really good idea of what is required, for example, to get a 6.5 or a 7.0.. We made sure to include a range of student writings, in terms of levels and nationalities; the strongest answer is likely to get an 8.0, while the weakest one is around a 5.5, and we have essays written by students from Europe, Asia and the Middle East.
Here’s an example student sample answer, taken from the book. This is an essay written by a Korean student from my IELTS class earlier in the year.
People who live in large cities face a range of problems in their daily life.
What are the main problems people in cities face? How can these problems be tackled?
The expansion of cities with development of industries and technologies has brought a remarkable changes and enhancement in our society and in every aspect of our life.
However, alongside it, significant problems have also emerged, which hugely affect people’s life.
In this essay, main issues people in large cities are confronting and the solutions are discussed.
Due to many benefits of living in a developed city in terms of business, culture, education, infrastructure etc., vast amount of people have been moving to urban places.
This has contributed to population jump which entails scarce of housing, congestion of traffic, high commodity prices etc. Furthermore, the remorseless increase in crime and environmental issue are more significant challenges.
In terms of emotional aspect of people, they are living in hectic life surrounded with skyscrapers, it seems more stressful relative to local life. Thus people can be indifferent to others and the relationships can be dry with less communication.
Then, how can those problems be overcome and what is the prerequisite?
The role of government is critical. With government initiatives, strategic place development management is vital in a long-term perspective. As activities involving in policies based on public consensus and needs, such as controlling prices, supplying houses, strengthening security system etc. can not be undertaken by private sector. Moreover, it should be managed on a basis of eco-friendly vision with pragmatic policies prior to others.
What is more, government and also, private sector should provide spaces where people can enjoy and recharge their life, for example, city park, nursery facilities, cultural facilities, educational programmes etc.
Overall, in order to tackle problems arising in a large city life, government should seek to establish a long-term perspective vision with practical application considering not only development in size but also quality of people’s life. And efforts by people themselves to engage with community and to be active in solving those issues are needed.
Here’s an exercise for students to do:
What do you think about this essay? Discuss with a partner
- · Does it answer the question fully?
- · Does it have good organisation and paragraphs?
- · Are the ideas well-developed?
- · Does it have accurate grammar?
- · Does it have a wide range of vocabulary?
- · Write down 5 nice items of vocabulary.
- · How could this essay be improved?
Followed by our comments on the strengths and weaknesses of the piece of writing:
The essay has excellent vocabulary, a wide range of good collocations and phrases. Grammar is good, quite accurate, but with a few errors with articles and singular/plurals. The paragraphing is weak – the paragraphs are too short. Also, there are too many ideas, and they are not sufficiently developed. It would be better with 3 clear ideas which are clearly explained. The solutions are given in a list, rather than being described in any detail. The essay is also missing some concrete examples – she could talk about how one or two of these problems affect her home city.
However, the overall quality of the English, particularly the excellent vocabulary, is such that it would score 6.5. With better paragraphs and better-developed ideas, the score would be even higher.
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