Meet Julia, a very keen student, working from the Cambridge first to the Cambridge DELTA. She shares what strategies worked best for her, from both a student’s and teacher’s point of view.
In this episode you will learn:
- How to get ideas for essays.
- How to think like an examiner when viewing essays
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Click to read transcript
Hello there podcast listeners. Just a quick introduction this time. This podcast is from Julia. She shared some advice on Academic Task 1 a few months ago and later she shared advice on how she prepared for exams when she was a student. She’s done them all, she’s done the first, the Cambridge exams, she’s done the first, the proficiency, advanced, all of them and she even did the CELTA then DELTA which is for teaching English afterwards. So, she offers some advice about how to get ideas for essay writing, how to improve your essay writing and how to make sure you’re on track for writing what the examiner wants. This is a great episode, so listen tight. Hope you enjoy it.
What other advice would you give for Task 1?
Well, I personally as a student, because I have taken Cambridge exams myself. I haven’t taken IELTS but I have prepared, taken and passed successfully the FCE, CAE and CBE exams and as a student I find working with samples, sample essays or sample graph descriptions very useful. I obviously mean good samples but sometimes as a teacher, I bring the not so good examples to class and make sure that my students mark them as examiners and they can actually see what’s missing or they can explain why they have given the overall grade and so on and so forth. And so they are all available in the what’s it called? The thing that you can download from IELTS.org it’s for students and for teachers, the handbook for students and the handbook for teachers. If you are a student, don’t worry, you can download the handbook for teachers. It’s actually a good idea to download the handbook because it will show you different options of writing samples and it will actually tell you which band the sample scored and it will give you the examiner’s comments why it scored this band. So as a student I find it very reassuring, you know, when I know exactly what I’m going to be marked upon.
So with Task 1 in Academic IELTS, a lot of formulaic expressions can be picked up from good sample writing and phrases that could be useful for any description, be it a line graph or a diagram or a process. Some structures that, you know, compare, structures that contrast, structures that present general information, structures that present specific information. So if you have a good bank of those at your disposal, I feel that this task is actually very easy. You just need to change the keywords whether you are talking about televisions, whether you are talking about online courses or whether you are talking about, I don’t know, the number of babies families have. You know, for everything else, you just have a skeleton and you just need to put some, you know, new information.
Excellent point there, Julia. Just one question. So, when you, you entered Google obviously. You put in “IELTS sample essays” and you downloaded them. On IELTS Podcast there’s, I don’t know, I think I’ve got about ten or twenty essays up there. They’re all Band 8 though. Task 2, not Band 2. I just want to, they’re all probably about Band 9 because yeah, it’s perfect English. However, when you used the sample essays, did you have a process or did you just go through, underline useful phrases? How did you use them?
Well, as a student, I would first attempt the task myself, so time myself like have an alarm clock which will ring in twenty minutes and, you know, sit down, write as if it is an exam. And then have a look at the same task done by somebody else, their example. Compare what’s better, what’s worse and only then have a look at what Band it actually got, and only then have a look at look at why the examiner gave this writing this band. So, it’s not only choosing the useful phrases but it’s, you know, seeing what’s wrong. For me, it’s very important to understand why I’m not getting Band 7 or whatever. What’s wrong with it?
So if you have an explanation that, you know, the choice of language isn’t challenging enough or this whatever data is missing, or it’s just too long, it exceeds word limit and so on and so forth. Then again, with Russians it is a very common point. They think that if they write more, they are going to, you know, impress the examiner by the quantity. And like that’s not true. That’s so not true! I mean sometimes it’s easier to write more than to write less because to write less you have to be able to analyse and summarise. But, write more, you can just start from the very beginning and gradually, as I said, in three pages come to the end. You don’t have so much paper and you don’t have so much time.
Excellent, yeah. That’s true. It’s with the selection isn’t it? Choosing the correct data, being selective. But I like the method you used. You would attempt the same task as one that had been of value.
Yes. If you can’t compare then yeah, I done some tasks where it doesn’t show me anything but if I’m doing the same task which I’ve got a sample of, then I can compare them. And sometimes, you know, the first one is terrible and then you think OK, my weak point is let’s say linkers. So I’m going, after I’ve done this first attempt, I’m going to study some linkers and the second time I do a different task. I’m going to make sure that my linkers are perfect or close to perfect. So you’ve battled one of your troubles, then you compare the second one, read the examiner’s comment and you realise that you’re lacking I don’t know, passive voice. Then OK, you’ve done the linkers already so you study some passive voice and you attempt the third one. Already, you know, you’re equipped with a good selection of linkers with a good variety of passive voice construction so there isn’t a lot to worry about when you’re doing the third one. So then it just becomes a matter of, you know, choosing what’s relevant for this particular picture.
I see, great advice. And do you have any more advice from your days as a student when you were doing these exams?
As a student myself and seeing students now that I’m a teacher, it’s like when you get to know the exam and when you get to know the grading criteria and you know what’s expected, you become quite good at you know, those fixed expressions and semi fixed phrases and so on and so forth. So, it’s not actually that difficult but what you do find difficult is getting ideas. OK, so it’s not the picture description because the information is in front of you, it’s not that long to begin with. But other parts of the exam, speaking or the Task 2 writing where you do need to state a personal opinion, you do need to come up with quite a lot of details to write about. So, what’s important is that you, it’s not only the how to write it that you must learn but also you don’t get held back by not knowing what to write or what to say.
So to have, you know, this ability to generate ideas, you basically need to make sure that your brain is occupied. And yes, a lot of the time the samples help so it’s not only writing samples. Now and again on the internet there are a lot of examples of speaking, the candidate that is actually taking the speaking test or other parts of the exam. So you could listen to those or you can leave those and you can compare them with yourself and some students. But the ideas of what am I writing about or what am I going to speak about, me myself I can’t remember doing it. I can’t say that I was actually sitting and doing it myself at home but as a teacher, I do it quite often, either at the beginning of the lesson or at the end of the lesson. Or, if the lesson is long, like three hours or four hours, the we could do it in the middle because it switches the attention. At the same time it does keep the brain working. So you need to come up with a list of like most ridiculous things, I don’t know know. I tell my students OK, now you need to make a list of all the food that is red. They have like one minute to write it down. And then I say, now you need to categorise your food into what you buy, I don’t know, in a supermarket and what you buy in a street market. Then you put them into two groups or you have three groups which is, you know, supermarket, market or both. Then organise group of red food that could be used to make a drink and stuff like that.
So sometimes I ask my students to write about ridiculous things like when you need to present advantages and disadvantages let’s say. I tell them OK, you have to compare the colour green and the colour blue. Which one is better? Present your arguments. So we need to come up with something that is very puzzling and something that you don’t do, you know, in your everyday life. You don’t normally go and compare why blue is better than green but if you stop and think about it you will, and again I say no one is going to you know, actually talk to you after the exam or chase you down or call you or whatever to actually find out whether or not your favourite colour is blue.
So you have to be able to think on the spot and make up the necessary information if it’s lacking. So you can say blue is better because it’s the colour of the sky and sky is proving is with the weather and if there was not weather people wouldn’t know which season it was outside. You know, it doesn’t matter which reasons you give, but if you train yourself into being able to compare anything or come up with any list or try the odd one out. OK, you have a list of red foods. Choose one of this food that doesn’t belong to this list and give me the reason why.
I was just going to say that’s great advice. It develops the ability to think on your feet and to think faster. A piece of advice I tell my students is just to fill their head with information because a lot of the time, you might get a question related to the society, to the crime, to politics. And if you’re regularly reading information about this, from the BBC, from the Guardian, from wherever, in English of course, you’re acquiring the vocab but you’re also getting ideas and forming opinions which you can just pull quick from your memory. So you don’t have to be thinking about ideas. You can be thinking about your writing.
Exactly and what we do about this when, you know, I’m not an expert in economics so how am I to answer this question about society? So what we do is we come up with the spidergram in which we have life in the middle. I’m like, OK, tell me all aspects of people’s life, yeah. So they come up with family, other people, environment, economics, politics, psychology, religion, anything. And then I’m like, OK, so look at the spidergram and make sure that you have anything to say, at least something about each of these things, yeah about environment. What do you have to say? Yeah maybe you don’t know the particulars, but you know that it’s worse than it was fifty years ago. You know that some things, you know, the government are doing something about it.
So basically if you don’t know, go and research. That’s your homework. You could use Google, I mean sometimes I find if, you know, if a fifteen year old teenager is taking IELTS, well they don’t really have these ideas in their own language let alone in a second or a foreign language. So sometimes it’s useful to give them these research tasks and for adults as well. I mean, I’m not ashamed to admit that know nothing and I understand nothing in politics and I’m, you know, it’s not my thing. But, if I were to take an academic module of the IELTS exam, I know that in the speaking part, in Part 3 where you are asked more expert questions, there could be something. Obviously there won’t ask me, you know, who I’m going to vote for in the next election, but something related to politics. So probably make sure that I know at least, I know what is in the news at the moment or whether or not I agree with the, I don’t know, the measures that the government is taking at the moment or whatever. And again, if you don’t agree or if you don’t know, just say something. Because as I say, the examiner is not going to check afterwards and even if you say yes, everything my government is doing at the moment is perfect, fine. The are not going to you know, deduct marks because they think that it’s more perfect.
Yeah that’s a good point. Like you said, you do the research before. If you know that you know nothing about economics or you might not know anything about biology or something like that, you know the sciences. I had one girl, she hated technology. She hated it. Everything. And I was like Maria, you’ve got to just brush up a bit you know. You need to get your head down. I know you don’t like it.
If you think about it as a temporary measure because you take this exam, get this Band and then do whatever your intentions were, like get into a university or get a good job or get to live in a different country because you got the visa. And then you can forget about your technology and go and celebrate. But at the moment, these are the sacrifices that you have to make. You have to probably know something about subjects that are not very interesting.
Excellent point. OK then Julia. If a student wanted to get in contact with you, first of all you are doing Skype classes aren’t you?
Yes. My Skype account is Juli_ivanes. So you could just require to add me to your contact list and say that you are interested in IELTS preparation and then we’ll take it from there and talk about days and times and lengths of sessions and prices and whatever else. You could also write me an email and we’ll see if, for example some people only need guidance with writing. In that case, a Skype session wouldn’t be so helpful because they could just you know, email me their essays or graph descriptions of you know, depending on which IELTS mode they are preparing for. And I could email back to comment and offer that. So for that kind of preparation you could send me an email and again it’s [email protected]
Awesome. Awesome. OK. You are accepting students at the moment, yes?
Yes I am and I mean if you are only thinking about IELTS in the distant future, say you know that you are going to apply for a visa in five years time when your children are old enough to move to a new country, you’re probably interested in some general English if your level is quite low at the moment. I’m not only doing IELTS preparation so if you need to brush up your daily English because at some point in the future you are taking an IELTS exam or any other exam, you know Cambridge, whatever, you could also contact me at the above addresses and we’ll see if we can help each other.
Awesome. Awesome that’s great, yeah. So it’s exam preparation and general English and you also help out by email if it’s for the writing.
If it’s for the essays, yes. Not only for the essays but writing sections of various exams. Or, again, writing in general if you know, you’re struggling with your job because it involves writing emails to overseas colleagues and they have to be in English and they have to be polite and they have to be you know, to the point, then we’ll work on them as well. It’s not only for exam candidates.
OK. All right then well thank you very much Julia. It’s been an awesome interview.
Thank you and I wish everyone luck with their exam preparations.