How to be an effective IELTS writing teacher

How to be an effective IELTS writing teacher

Tips and advice on teaching possibly the most difficult part of the IELTS test

Richard Hallows, a teacher and teacher trainer for 30 years, is the Co-author of IELTS Express, a multi-level IELTS preparation course book. He is the Academic Director at Westminster International School of English and IELTS Test Centre. He has recently developed the IELTS Teacher training Course at Westminster International.

Scenario number one: Your boss is looking for someone to teach an IELTS class – you've never taught it before, do you volunteer? Is it your moment to shine, to prove to your boss that you are worthy of more than only teaching the present perfect for the 300th time? 

Scenario number 2: your boss puts an IELTS course book in your hand and tells you to go and teach the IELTS prep class starting tomorrow.

How will you not only survive, but also impress? 

There is an assumption in the request by your boss that if you can teach the English language, you can teach exam preparation classes. Of course, this is nonsense, yet it is a very commonly occurring learning curve that English language teachers have to climb. 

So, what are you going to do? The obvious thing would be to go on the internet and find out what those who have gone before you have to say on the matter. And perhaps that’s how you ended up here.

I can’t hope to cover everything in one sitting, but here are my hot tips for teaching what is arguably the most challenging aspect of teaching IELTS, that is, delivering an effective and enjoyable IELTS Writing Task 2 course.

Know the exam

If you want to get somewhere, you have to know where you’re heading – isn’t that what they say? So, in this case – you have to know the exam. Know what the task looks like, understand how the students need to respond to the task, but the backbone of it is knowing what the examiner is looking for. But – how can you find that out? has the official public descriptors available on their website and it is safe to assume that this non-examiner version of the criteria will suffice for now. 

In a nutshell, you need to help the students answer the question and keep on topic (Task response). They also need to make their writing logical and easy to follow. This is achieved through clear and simple organisation of ideas, linked together with strong cohesive ‘glue’, think linking words and words that refer to earlier words or ideas (coherence and cohesion). That’s 50% of the scoring – and the rest is vocabulary and grammar. 

But don’t be fooled into thinking that students only need to write accurately – they also need to show that they have a range of grammar and vocabulary. This is both a challenge and an opportunity for students, and therefore a chance for you to help students get a higher band score – let’s come back to this shortly.

Let’s talk about the first of the criteria, Task Response. 

Answering the actual question

A very common problem is that students know something about the main topic, but they ‘can’t think of any ideas’ to respond to the controlling idea, that is, the specifics of the question. I saw a question recently asking about technology, but the question was specifically asking about how technology has affected the way people make relationships. 

Imagine an intermediate learner seeing this question. They may well talk about technology and its advantages; they may stray off into talking about ‘doing business online’, or ‘shopping online’, but none of these addresses the question. The point is that we need to help students focus on the controlling idea in the question, and then work towards thinking of ideas. There are two main points to make here:

Students can practice focusing on main and controlling ideas without writing full essays, that is, thinking is a discrete skill that can be developed through practice.

Ideas will be assessed for language etc, not for intellectual brilliance! Students often get caught up trying to think of ‘good ideas’. Keep the ideas simple but developable, and the language sophisticated.

The second criteria is coherence and cohesion, and it’s worth a quarter of the marks, so let’s be clear what we mean by it. 

Take the following: “Michael was so embarrassed as he couldn’t remember his colleague’s name. His ears went bright red!” The coherence here is the order of the ideas – in this case it’s implicit and clear, that is, his ears went red as a result of his embarrassment, but the only cohesion is the word ‘his’ to refer back to Michael. Cohesion is very simply the mechanics of how the logically ordered ideas are locked together, it’s the nuts and bolts of linking words and anaphoric referencing, that is, referring back to words and ideas using synonyms and pronouns. 

Simple suggested activities include such things as having students putting sentences in order and then highlighting both ideas and also the linking – I think using Microsoft Word is a great tool here as you can reassemble text quickly and cleanly, and you can highlight ideas and cohesion using different colours. Focus on paragraphs, how they connect, and what goes inside them. 

Vocabulary range

Which takes us to the easy part – the language. If we assume that we are all good at teaching our students vocabulary and grammar, and that we know how to help students write accurately, I think the more helpful aspect to focus on here is the range. In other words, how can students include vocabulary and grammar which will help them get a higher band score?

Let’s look at Grammar Range and Accuracy; take a look at the assessment criteria, and you’ll see ‘complex sentences’ running through most band scores. This means we have to teach students how to use these sentence types in an IELTS context. In my opinion, it’s impractical (and unnecessary) in a relatively short IELTS course to start teaching everything there is to know about using relative and subordinate clauses, but what we can do is teach students how to include complex sentence structures lexically. 

The easiest way to explain this is to look at some examples. Take an essay where a student has offered a suggested action: “Smoking should be banned in public”. This suggestion offers a golden opportunity to evaluate using a second conditional “If this were to be done, disease caused by passive smoking would decrease”. 

You can teach the first clause as a set phrase, and the second clause as simple would + base form. Another alternative, which is very easy to use in agree/disagree type essays, might be to consider the opposing view before stating your own position. For example: “Although it can be argued that (view A), I maintain that (view B)”. Students can throw in a quick and easy defining relative clause by referring to “Those who believe that…”. And of course, the easiest (arguably less impressive) way is to get students to connect ideas together with because, as and since – or jazz things up a little and have students put the ‘because’ at the beginning of the subordinate clause. But whichever way you do it, you can see the approach taken here, I hope.

Which means we arrive at vocabulary, or more precisely Lexical Range. When helping students develop vocabulary and improve their vocabulary choice, the one ‘IELTSY’ thing that most teachers know is that to improve range, students must avoid repetition. While there is truth in this, doing it may be tricky as there may not always be an easy synonym. Of course, please teach students, for example, alternatives to such things as ‘I think’ (believe and would argue are good choices), but we can also help students by showing them ways of using vocabulary flexibly. 

Is the student writing about communication? Make sure they know the verb ‘to communicate’ too. Using both of these parts of speech is not repetition, and in fact, will score credit for the student in the examiner’s thinking. Also, think of words in terms of precision – is it a table, or more precisely, is it a desk? And get them to think about words not as single entities, but as working well in combination with other words. Teach pairs and groups of words. These ‘lexical chunks’ will enable students to learn vocabulary more quickly and use it much more naturally.

Improving student writing

Should we only correct students’ writing, or should we make suggestions to improve it too?  Imagine a student has written ‘get a lot of money’ in an essay. While this is correct, it can be improved by choosing more precise, lower frequency choices that go together well. If you are correcting homework using Microsoft Word or Google docs, you can add suggested improvements in a comment box ‘get a lot of money’ may be correct, but ‘earn a sizable income’ is better. 

Our marking mantra therefore should respond to both accuracy and range, that is, correct and improve. Think about using comments such as “use a complex sentence here?” or a more directing comment might be “use an ‘if’ sentence here’?” Guiding students to self-improvement is better for students’ learning, and we don’t want to simply rewrite the whole essay!

Your role as the IELTS writing teacher

So far, these tips have been quite technical and related to the assessment criteria, but I think it’s worth talking about the approach and style of the teaching. In my experience of the thousands of students that have come through the doors of Westminster, students studying for the IELTS exam want to do well in the IELTS exam – that’s it. They may be happy to improve their level of English as a result, but the primary objective is to get the certificate and be on their merry way to the UK or wherever. 

Your teaching situation may be different, but in the case of the vast majority of our students, this type of cohort has two implications for your teaching: firstly, teach what students need to know, and that’s it. Thinking back to my earlier point about grammar, don’t teach everything there is to know about relative and subordinate clauses, but rather teach them how to include some complex sentences in their writing. 

Secondly, don’t ‘waste time’ playing games in class. Sure, make it fun, have some levity, but balance hard work and a feeling of making good progress, with some kinaesthetic ‘writing on the board in pairs’ type activity, as much relevant speaking practice as you can fit in, and some light-hearted banter punctuating the hard work. In my experience, and this is only my experience, the students will love you for pushing them, and too many games make students feel panicked about not being able to get on the plane to their dream year away.

So, in brief, there’s a lot. But of course, you have the coursebook to follow. Try to understand what aspect of the assessment criteria the coursebook exercises are getting at – and bring your knowledge of the criteria to the party too. Not that it will be a party – it is IELTS after all.

Richard Hallows, a teacher and teacher trainer for 30 years, is the Co-author of IELTS Express, a multi-level IELTS preparation course book. He is the Academic Director at Westminster International School of English and IELTS Test Centre. He has recently developed the IELTS Teacher training Course at Westminster International.


Westminster is an outstanding professional school. Richard is one of the best. It’s true everything he says and it takes time to master IELTS but extremely rewarding too.

By IELTS Guru, Nonthaburi (19th February 2022)

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