Taking a genre approach towards IELTS writing (Part 1)

Photo Credit: AlaskaTeacher via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: AlaskaTeacher via Compfight cc

In a previous post, I looked at how a genre approach could help students who need to produce a specific type of writing. IELTS is a perfect example of this, and in this post, and the next one, I want to look in more detail at ideas for helping students to become familiar with the genres required for the IELTS Writing Test.

At first, the IELTS Writing Test (whether as a teacher or student) can seem rather intimidating. Many people are not particularly familiar with the kinds of texts required, and students are penalised for not producing exactly the right kind of text.

However, as a teacher of General English we ask our students to produce many different genres. For example:

  • Thank you letter
  • Letter of complaint
  • Narrative
  • Description
  • Biography
  • Form filling
  • Short message
  • Email to a friend
  • Postcard
  • Letter of application
  • Instructions
  • Report
  • Summary
  • Poem
  • Anecdote
  • Magazine article
  • Newsletter
  • Essay

In contrast, IELTS requires much less:

Part 1: Describing data

  • Graphs and charts
  • Process
  • Map

Part 2: Essay

  • Argument
  • Balanced opinion
  • Problem-solution

In addition, although I have separated out the different kinds of tasks in each part of the Writing Test, they do in fact have a lot in common. Learning what the features are of these different genres is quite manageable and, while it won’t solve problems like not having an opinion on the topic in Part 2, it will go a long way towards helping students produce a decent answer.

The features of a particular genre can be grouped under the following headings:

Content or communicative purpose

Layout 

Organisation

Grammatical structures

Lexis/formulae

So, looking at the most typical IELTS Task, describing a graph, chart or table, we could say:

Communicative purpose

  • Summarise information  (not to give your opinion about it)

Layout

  • Should use paragraphs
  • About 150 words

Organisation

  • Introduction which rewords the rubric to summarise what is shown.
  • Clear overview
  • Identifying key features- not every little detail
  • Logical grouping of information

Grammatical structures

  • Comparing and contrasting
  • Describing changes over time

Lexis/formulae

  • Rise, fall, plummet etc.

Once you’ve identified the key features, you can start to devise activities to work on each of them.

Rewording the rubric

This comes under organisation, so we aren’t starting at the top,  but it is the first thing the student needs to be able to do.  Students who ‘lift’ phrases from the rubric will be penalised, so it needs to become second nature to paraphrase.

You can start by doing this together on the board, eliciting different words and phrases for the underlined sections. For example:

‘The table below gives information about changes in modes of travel in England between 1985 and 2000

Don’t forget that you can change the sentence structure too, so ‘changes’ could become ‘how…have changed’. This is particularly useful if students can’t think of a synonym. Once students have got the idea, and a few useful phrases up their sleeves, this can become a regular warmer, with a competition to see how many appropriate paraphrases they can produce in a time limit. E.g.

The table illustrates how methods of transport in England changed between 1985 and 2000.

In this table we can see the changes in how people in England travelled between the years 1985 and 2000.

This table shows changes in modes of transport in England over a 15 year period, from 1985- 2000.

Summarising information/identifying key features

This is probably the biggest challenge of Part 1, and it takes lots of practice.  Depending on their educational background, students may not be very used to interpreting graphs and charts, so you need to try and familiarise them with how they work. A good way to do this is to start off by getting students to make their own, based on information about themselves or the class. In this way they will really understand the data, making it easier for them to identify the most important features.

Next, you could try giving students model answers without the graph or table, and ask them to draw it based on the answer. They can then compare it with the original.

There is usually some kind of contrast in these types of questions-e.g. some sales fell while others grew, so train your students to look for similarities and differences, and any particularly striking contrasts.

One way to practise this is to take a kind of jigsaw approach. Divide students into pairs and ask A to look for similarities between the pieces of data and B to look for differences. They can then share information and decide together on the most relevant pieces of information to include.

Giving a clear overview

This is related to identifying key information, but requires students to summarise the main point(s). It is really important that they are able to do this, though it doesn’t really matter if they give the overview at the beginning, as part of the introduction, or at the end, as a conclusion.

Show students a chart of graph with three possible overviews and ask them to decide which one is best, and why. As they become more familiar with this task, they can write their own choice of three and swap with other students to decide on the best overviews.

Using paragraphs/logical grouping

Once students have identified the key features, they need to decide how to group them.  There are different ways of doing this, depending on the information. For example, they might choose to organise it from smallest to biggest (though still not describing every little detail), or first look at similarities and then differences.

Again, model answers can be very helpful. Try asking students to decide how they would organise their answer to a question, and then compare their ideas with the model answer.

Language focus

Students are very often asked to compare and contrast in these tasks, so a good grasp of the kind of language they need to do this is really helpful. ( Incidentally, it’s also really useful for the other IELTS tests, especially Speaking) This can be achieved through work on formulae (e.g. In contrast, we can see that..) , comparative and superlative structures and linkers such as whereas, while, however.

They might also be used to describe changes over time, which also involves comparing and contrasting, but will need more complex use of tenses (not just present simple).

An excellent resource for typical language can be found on Alex Case’s website

Try using model answers for students to find examples of comparing and contrasting (or any other suitable language focus). Then ask them to look back at a Part 1 task they have written and ask them to improve it by adding similar language.

Essentially, this approach involves breaking down the component parts of the IELTS genres and practising them separately, rather than simply writing practice paper after practice paper. Of course, you can then put it all together and do some practice papers as well.

In my next post, I’ll look at some more ideas for developing familiarity with the features of Part 2 type writing tasks.

20 Comments

Filed under IELTS, Writing

20 responses to “Taking a genre approach towards IELTS writing (Part 1)

  1. Hi Rachel,

    Very useful post. I’m especially grooving on rewriting chart/graph information in paragraph form. The TOEIC test (the main standaridized test students take here in Japan) doesn’t have a writing component, but I think getting students to transform this type of information into paragraphs could be a very useful exercise in my TOEIC prep classes. Will definitely give it a try.

    I also dig your summary/paraphrase activities. Summarizing is definitely a skill (made up of many sub-skills) which requires a lot of practice. Good to have another technique to get the students practicing. I also find having students write their own questions and then use those questions as the basis to write a summary can be helpful.

    Thanks again,

    Kevin

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  9. This is an interesting article. I came across it through a link from another website. I’m an IELTS private tutor in Singapore and I spend most of my time teaching writing as that’s the most difficult part for students.

    I pretty much do what you’re suggesting in my teaching. I think it’s important to teach by genre and use model answers (catered to the level they are at). I find this is the best method to teach.

    Thanks, I’m going to read the next part!

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  11. John Curran

    Rachael this is excellent. I recently retired to Melbourne after many years in Tokyo where I used the Halliday – scaffolding – genre approach.
    I have been asked to assist a friend with IELTS writing (General).You have covered part 2 beautifully. Have you written anywhere on part 1 of General IELTS writing? If you have anything – along the lines of Part 1 Academic it would be so useful.
    Regards,
    John

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