So you’ve taught your students lots of grammar and vocabulary and now they are eager to write their first essays. You assign them a question and they write one massive screed with no paragraphing. Each sentence is a totally new idea and everything is just rammed together into this incoherent list of words…
When I was teaching IELTS at a university in China, I was shocked that my students could not write essays. Of course, I understood the difficult of writing in another language, having tried Korean and Chinese, but most of my students could speak English pretty well.
The problem is that writing an IELTS essay is not just about having good English. It’s a test of thinking skills, too. You need to be able to use good English but put it into a logical essay and this is where cultural differences tend to be pretty significant.
In this article, I’ll explain a little about how to teach IELTS essay structure to your students.
What is IELTS Essay Structure?
I’m sure that everyone reading this is familiar with the need for paragraphs in writing. You’ve probably heard the old adage:
ONE IDEA; ONE PARAGRAPH
Essentially, a piece of writing should be divided so that it’s ideas are sequenced logically and the reader can understand it. Writing a book or a 100-page thesis is going to require a lot of planning and though, but generally an IELTS essay is pretty easy. After all, it’s only 250 words.
The first thing I tell my students is that they should write an essay with four paragraphs:
- Body paragraph #1
- Body paragraph #2
Yes, it’s true that you could write a five-paragraph essay and it could be excellent. I marked one this morning that was band 8! However, it’s easier and more sensible to start with four paragraphs. (For a discussion on 4 vs 5 paragraphs, see this article.)
How to Start Teaching Structure
There are lots of different ways you can do this, but one possible way is to hand out some sample IELTS essays. I have a collection of them here. Feel free to copy and paste any of them for classroom use, but please don’t share online without permission. 🙂
Here is how I would use the sample essays in the class.
STEP ONE: Give the students an IELTS writing task 2 question. Have them discuss it with a partner or in small groups. Tell them that they will now plan their answer.
STEP TWO: Gather their answers. Write up their ideas on the board. Discuss.
STEP THREE: Hand out the model answers. Explain that these are band 9. Give students time to discuss. Then ask questions – “How many paragraphs?” etc.
This will draw their attention to the use of paragraphs and allow them to see the flow of ideas from one to the next.
Note: Another variation on this is to give them a band 9 sample answer and also a band 4 or 5 one. Ask which is better and tell them to explain why. This may help the students better appreciate the flow of ideas through an essay.
PPTs for Essay Structure
Recently, I made this PPT for explaining essay structure to IELTS students.
Previously, I had used this PPT, which is a little more detailed:
In any case, both of these can be incorporated into a classroom for teaching IELTS structure to university-level students.
Useful Exercises and Activities for Teaching IELTS Writing Structures
It can be a little boring to teaching IELTS writing, but it doesn’t have to be. I’ve gathered a few useful or fun exercises here to help you teach your IELTS students how to use structure better in their classes.
First of all is the cut up game. In this exercise, you take a model essay (like the ones mentioned before) and cut it into strips. Then, you can have your students try to assemble the full essay. This is really important because it helps them understand internal paragraph structure. My best students can easily figure out the basics, but it takes a while to practice the finer points of linking ideas.
It is also helpful to show student an annotated essay so that they can appreciate the purpose of each part. Here is one that I used recently. It looks like this:
Other exercises include removing the punctuation from essays or taking away the cohesive devices (or transitional phrases). You can also have them look at model essays with the introductions or conclusions removed, then practice writing those.
Finally, the most important thing in practicing English is to get feedback. It’s not really a game or activity, but I cannot stress enough that you need to be giving constant feedback on your students’ writing in order to help them avoid mistakes and generally improve.