- A strategy for describing graphs (line, pie charts etc)
- A component you must have (without this you won’t get more than Band 5!)
- How to make relevant comparisons and contrasts.
- Tips for flow diagrams / cycles.
- How to experiment with complex vocabulary structures
- Tips for the language of change.
- …and what the Russians are notoriously famous for NOT doing!
After this we discus WHAT NOT TO DO IN THE EXAM….
Include every single piece of data presented in the graph
Why certain words should be avoided
What data should NEVER be included.
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As you can see Julia is a very popular teacher:
She currently has a few spaces in her diary for IELTS tuition via Skype: juli_ivanes
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This afternoon or in this episode, I’ve got a very experienced teacher. She’s been teaching for about eight years, five of those years have been spent preparing students for official exams ranging from the Cambridge exams to the IELTS exams, and on this episode, Julia, she’s going to share with us a big list of the dos and don’ts – things that you should do, things that you shouldn’t do for the IELTS exam. Okay then, welcome to the podcast, Julia.
Julia: Hello, welcome.
Ben: Okay, so Julia, could you just tell us like a bit about yourself and where you’ve been teaching, your teaching style?
Julia: Yes. I am originally from Russia, and this is where I began teaching. I’ve been working for this school in Moscow, which is BKC-International House, which is one of the schools of the International House Network, and I’ve been with them for a very long time. I started as a student myself. I came to study English when I was a teenager. And then when I was at university, I came there to work just as a receptionist because I needed some money, and when I graduated from my university, this was when I did my (indiscernible 02:37), and I returned to the same school as an English teacher. And this is where I’ve been doing lots of professional development courses because the school in Moscow is – there is a very good teacher training department, and one of the courses or a couple of the courses were specifically dedicated to teaching exams: Cambridge exams and IELTS, so when I had those students or those groups, I always made sure that if there is something that I don’t know, I go there and ask people who do know because they can be quite specific, those questions and those students.
And now, I got married, and my husband is from England, so we moved here, and I do have exam students still, but at the moment, I’m only doing Skype teaching because my students are either Russian or Polish or from other countries around the world, and we basically meet in front of our monitors rather than me coming to a classroom or a group of panel, whatever.
Ben: I see. Right, okay, and one thing, when you were doing the exam preparation classes and you were seeing lots and lots of students, could I just ask your opinion like which students generally succeeded more, and what were the characteristics they had?
Julia: Well, I think it depends on why the students need the exam, particular exam, and how much time they have in order to prepare for this exam, and it’s not really the age that matters because older people say, “Well, teenagers are immature and it’s very difficult to motivate them.” Well, I found with teenagers knew why they needed the exam, like they wanted to study abroad and they only had a year, and they had to do all the application process a lot in advance. They did put in the effort and they were motivated and they did ask questions and they did do their homework, so I guess if it is a clear goal, if you’ve got a clearer goal and you’ve got a limited time period, and well, obviously, you’re willing to do it and it’s not somebody who decided for you that you need to take those exams. Then it doesn’t matter whether you are 15 or 50 or 75. I think anyone can do it.
Ben: Yeah, yeah. That’s definitely the case. I see that with the adults as well, the ones I teach. Yeah, I think it comes down to motivation. There’s different like advantages. Young children, they seem to be – well, young adults, their brains are a lot fresher, but adult learners can also grasp more complex structures or ideas faster than younger students can. So I think there’s a balance as well.
Julia: Yeah, you’re right. I would agree with that.
Ben: Yeah. Okay then, let’s get cracking. So from your experience, showing on your experience, you’ve made a list of what students should do and what they shouldn’t do.
Julia: Yeah. Well, that refers to a particular task in the IELTS exam, so we are talking about the writing section, and we are talking about the academic IELTS where there are two tasks – well, there are two tasks involved: the academic and the general, but only in the academic IELTS, you need to describe graphs or charts or bar charts or stuff like that. And a lot of people seem to be very scared of this task because you only have a very short time to do that, and since it is academic, it implies that you should be using clever words and complex structures, and with such a short period of time, people tend to panic.
So maybe they’re like easy, and to actually show them that it’s not that difficult, well, eventually, over the number of years and having lots of students struggle with it, I’ve come up with this list, so I guess we’ll start with don’ts. Like what shouldn’t you do, because you can get lost in the list of, “Oh, I must do that. I must do this,” and forget that there are very important things that you should avoid in this particular task.
So one of them is that you shouldn’t or I would even say mustn’t include every single piece of data presented in the graph on the chart or in some sort of visuals or presentation, because the task is summarize, select, and reports the main features, which means that if you start to analyse, even if you have the best English in the world, say you are a native speaker and you have five hours to do this task, it will just mean that you will come up with like three pages of text, and that’s not what the exam is about, yeah?
Julia: So you have a word limit and you have a time limit, so there’s no way you will have enough time to talk about every single detail. So it’s important to show that you can choose the main features and analyse the main features and report them.
Ben: Right then. So just to summarize, that’s a question of selecting the correct information, just the main information, and having the ability to be –
Julia: To be concise.
Julia: To be concise.
Ben: Exactly, exactly. Well, to be discriminatory as well, to eliminate the ones that we’re not going to use, yes.
Ben: Okay, good point, good point.
Julia: Another thing that I find students sometimes do because it’s probably easier is state a personal opinion.
Julia: You shouldn’t do that. It’s not what the task is about. It doesn’t ask what you think about this trend or why you think people started buying more of this or less of that. So here, I normally tell my students that they shouldn’t use words like “favourite” or “popular” because these are very common words, but they do show emotional attitude. How do you know that say people started doing more online courses because they are becoming more and more popular every year?
Julia: Well, it might seem logical and you might be – as an educated person, aware of the situation, but the graph doesn’t tell you anything about the courses being popular. It just shows the number of people taking online courses and the number of people taking face-to-face courses. So don’t say that. Just state the obligingly obvious. This is something that people are sometimes scared of, again, because well, everyone can see that. Why should I write it? Well, because that’s the task. Just write what you see.
Ben: Exactly, exactly. It’s being objective.
Ben: And I always tell my students, I say, “Look. You may have the reason. You may know the reason,” for example, “why television sales have fallen the last 20 years,” for example, but the exam or the actual task is not interested in the reason. It might be the most intelligent reason in the world, but it’s not requested, because at the end of the day, this is a language test testing your language ability, not your intelligence ability. So yeah, excellent point there, Julia. Excellent.
Julia: And the next point is sort of related to this, one as well. We’ve kind of
mentioned it already. So people, students shouldn’t include the data which is not presented in the diagram. So part of it is what you said about reasoning, yeah? So you might know why, but it’s not presented in the diagram or part of it can be about what’s going to happen in the future. You have a graph which finishes in – I don’t know, 1995, and yes, now, it’s 2013. So obviously, you know what happened in – I don’t know, 2000 and 2005.
Julia: But again, it’s not asked of you. This data is not in the diagram or chart or graph or whatever. So do not write about it. Do not include the data which is not presented.
Ben: Good point there, because you might think, “Oh, I know the answer,” and even though you may think it’s the answer, but like you said, it’s not required, it’s not asked, and you’re not going to get any points. In fact, you’ll probably lose points for adding that information.
Julia: Well, yes. You would probably just spend more time which could have been spent on what’s required of you, and you might as well make more mistakes in those parts which are not presented in the diagram, and you would still lose points for making mistakes, so it’s just not – it’s not something you should do.
Ben: Yeah, good point. Right then. Okay, do you have any more tips to what students shouldn’t –
Julia: These are the main three. Of course, it can be some others, but I guess if you stick to these three, do not include everything, do not state your personal opinion, and do not include the data which is not in the picture. I think you will be fine.
Ben: Excellent, excellent summary. Okay, now then, now for the dos, what should students do to get a higher score to pass the IELTS?
Julia: Yeah. So to get a good band in this particular writing task, you obviously need to fulfil the task, and the task asks you, as we said, to summarize the way it’s going to report the main features. So in order to do that, you need to make relevant comparisons and contrasts, and what it means is that you need to look at the picture, the graph, the chart, whatever it is, the diagram, and make sure that you analyse all the important bits, and in order to do that, some people I find who are visual learners, it helps them to try and visualize the diagram and think of it, say, if it is a bar chart, don’t think about – I don’t know, the male and female learners of whatever is represented on the scale. Think about it as a city skyline and what can you see? You can see a part of the city with skyscrapers and you can see a part of the city with huts. So what are you going to analyse? You’re going to analyse the number of skyscrapers and the number of huts, and the difference between the huts and the skyscrapers or if it is a pie chart, obviously, you can think of – I don’t know, a birthday cake. So there is a big piece, like a quarter of a cake that probably the birthday girl or the birthday boy is going to get. And then there are smaller pieces for everyone else. Are they equal? Are they different? How are you going to show that? Stuff like that.
So for different line graphs, it’s important to remember that you should compare the information both vertically as well as horizontally. So you’re not only talking about the difference throughout the years, for example, if one of the axes shows the years, you’re not only talking about them. You’re also talking about the numbers shown on the other one. And as you know, one of the possibilities in this part of the writing section is that you get a natural cycle to describe or a flowchart or a process.
Julia: And in this case, it’s important – so here, you’re not comparing anything. You’re not comparing the production stage with the preparation stage, but it is important that you describe all of the stages. Again, state the obliging obvious. Say there are three stages in the process. During the first stage, this and this is happening and so on and so forth, right?
Ben: That’s right.
Julia: Okay, another do that just students feel very apprehensive, I would say, about is using complex grammar and vocabulary structures.
Julia: Because obviously, you need to show as much as you know, and you need to try and impress the examiner, and this is when I tell my students that you actually get more points for trying and experimenting with the language and trying to use a more difficult structure, and maybe making a mistake while using it rather than not attempting it at all.
Ben: I see.
Julia: So the thing is, yes, maybe you will make a mistake while trying to use a cleft sentence, but if the examiner understands while reading it that you have attempted the cleft sentence, you will get bonus points for that. So instead of writing everything in present simple or everything in past simple, it’s better to try and use something that is beyond your comfortable zone, but at the same time, getting more points for brave attempts.
Ben: I see. I see. So being ambitious and making a jump.
Ben: I see.
Julia: Well, there are some obvious things like for line graphs, you will need the vocabulary like to rise, to peak, increase, decrease.
Julia: So these are usually in all IELTS courses in any course book, and students who are preparing at home, they again find lots of material online, and it’s usually not such a difficult thing to learn. Sometimes, students have difficulties with vocabulary for chart description and comparison. Instead of saying like – I don’t know, “This year, people bought 50,000 something,” and the bar chart shows that the next year, they bought 100 items of something, instead of just saying the numbers, it would be much better if you could say that they bought twice as many items as the previous year, or – I don’t know, “Every third of the way, the number was increasing,” or decreasing, or whatever.
Julia: So these things help as well.
Ben: That’s great advice that if a student can find a list of those, learn them and experiment with sentences, exactly like you said, twice as many, three times as many, almost double, just under half. All of these kinds of expressions make the writing much richer and it shows more command of the language. So that’s great advice, Julia.
Julia: You’re right. And the thing is that I always tell my students not to just copy what they have in front of them. So yes, you have the task and yes, you can use this line of the task to write the overview, but you need to make sure that you’re using your own words, so you need to find – need to be able to find synonyms and other ways of expressing the same idea. That’s why these things like “almost a half” or “not as much as”, they help you to not actually say the number or write the number which is in front of you on the diagram.
Julia: So it shows that you look at the number and you understand the comparison between this number and the next number and you can express it using this phrase which is exactly what the examiner wants.
Julia: The things that would be useful for the process description when you have natural cycles or processes different passive constructions because normally, you have – I don’t know, some materials which are being prepared by this and that, and then they are distributed over a variety of something. So you have to be very confident in your use of the passive voice.
Julia: But then again, I don’t find it very difficult, and even students who do not attend regular classes and a group who study at home, they can just study those verbs to describe a stage or describe a process and different passive constructions that could be used with those verbs.
Ben: Exactly, yeah. And can I just add? Learning the passive, I think it can be done in one evening because it’s not difficult at all.
Julia: No, which isn’t – no. It’s just – what happens is I’ve met students who have learned this like “formula is produced” or “is converted”, and they get rigid with it and they can’t change “is” to “are”, or they can’t change “is” to “isn’t”, and they get stuck with as if the passive voice is the only construction and so on.
Julia: So what if it was produced or what if it is being produced and they continue, so when I say to learn the passive voice, I mean a variety of passive voice constructions, not just present simple singular.
Julia: It should be all of them.
Ben: Exactly. Good point because assumedly, I remember one examiner, she said that, “Okay, the student uses it at the beginning. Excellent.” Extra points, but if they use it like two or three times, it’s just all gone down the drain, and it doesn’t show the examiner the ability that you may have with the language. So excellent point there. Not to just learn one form of the passive. Learn three or four different ways or two or three – I don’t know. Yeah, but learn the different variations and guarantee to pick up points that way. Good point, Julia.
Julia: Yeah. Another thing is how you organize your ideas together because you’re not just writing a bullet point list, right? It is a summary. So it is a connected text. So you do need to use linkers, reference words, you do need to use sequences particularly with stages, what happens first, what happens next, and so on. And what I find with them, particularly with the Russian students is that every now and again, there is a person who wouldn’t stop using “and” at the beginning of the sentence. “The graph demonstrates blah-blah-blah-blah-blah,” full stop, “and we can say that blah-blah-blah-blah-blah,” full stop. “But it’s not clear blah-blah,” and “How many times do I need to tell you?”
So this is very important. You cannot start your sentence with “and”, you cannot start your sentence with a “but”, and you cannot start your sentence with “so”. They’re all good words and they all have their own ways, but this place is not at the beginning of the sentence in IELTS academic writing, okay?
Ben: Good point.
Julia: So what we normally do is I just divide the board into three parts, and we try and come up with as many possible synonyms for “and”, “but”, and “so” that you can use at the beginning sentence, like “also”, “in addition to”, and “however”, and “nevertheless”, and “that is why”, or “for this reason”, and sometimes, I ask students to mark their own writings, like swap writings with the person sitting next to you, and I give them a task of just reading through and circling all the “ands” and “buts” and “sos” if they are still at the beginning of the sentence.
Ben: I see.
Julia: And then they swap back and each student needs to come up with an appropriate alternative to this word because this is not how you write a summary. Some people say – at times, students say that, “Julia, how can I write without ‘and’?” “I’m not saying you mustn’t use ‘and’. ‘And’ is a good word. You can use it in the middle of the sentence.”
Ben: Good point, yes.
Julia: Not part of the beginning.
Ben: Yeah. At the beginning, we can use more sophisticated words like the ones you mentioned. But what you said about the essay correction, I met two students – two very determined students at a language exchange I was attending a few months ago, and I was asking them who’s correcting their work, and they said that they correct each other’s, and I was surprised, and I just thought I’d mention it because it’ll be useful for other students that – I would highly recommend this because if you’re correcting somebody else’s work, you’re going to think very deeply before making a correction of somebody’s work. You’re going to research it, you’re going to be absolutely certain that what you’re saying is right. Otherwise, you won’t write it.
Ben: So I’d highly recommend that exercise of what you did.
Julia: Yeah. If you do have somebody to exchange with and to help each other with the writing, that would be great. However, if you’re just referring on your own and you’re using the internet and you may have bought a couple of books, so you’re doing it all on your own, then I do feel that the checklists help. Again, you can find them on lots of sites, like I have used – I don’t know, three different passive forms, or I have used three different linkers. I have used a variety of tenses. I have used – and so on and so forth. And then you just read through your text and see if how many boxes you can tick, basically, and then what you do is you come back to those boxes which are not ticked and you change your text, your summary, so that you can finally put it in. It’s a lot of work, but I guess if you have chosen to prepare on your own, you should be aware that it’s going to take lots of your time and a lot of your effort.
Ben: Good point, good point. What else do you have there on the list, Julia, of things students should do?
Julia: Yeah. Another thing that they should do – and again, it seems obvious, but as a teacher, I’m surprised at how many people actually don’t do that. The thing is, you should – and again, I would even change it to “must”. You must use paragraphs. So you should divide your text into clearly visible and logical paragraphs.
Julia: It shouldn’t be one chunk which starts in the left top-hand corner and finishes in the right bottom-hand corner.
Julia: You should have clear parts. You should have overview, you should have body, and the Russians are particularly bad at not using paragraphs. And sometimes, I find it because the way of showing that this is a new paragraph, I am starting a new paragraph is different between how we write in Russian and how we write in English. But still, I mean, if you are an IELTS student and if you are preparing for an IELTS test, I guess you just need to use what is clearer. And what is clearer is if you just leave an empty line between your paragraphs.
Julia: Do not presume that the examiner will understand. Make the examiner’s life easier. And clearly show where it starts, clearly show where it finishes, and obviously, with each paragraph, you should have a main sentence which summarizes what you are going to say, then you should have the development of your paragraph with either an example of what you’ve written about in the main sentence, or some detail or some explanation of what you wrote, and it shouldn’t be just, “Okay, I’m going to miss a line every three sentences.”
Julia: So it should be a logical beginning of the paragraph, ending of the paragraph. Beginning of the next paragraph, ending on the next paragraph.
Julia: So that’s another thing that you should do, and that will get you a higher band.
Ben: Exactly. Just a side note, that when I get an essay, which just looks like a block of text, I immediately just send it back. I don’t even read it. I just say, “Put it into paragraphs first,” then, I will look at it.
Julia: I completely agree with what you’ve said before, because writing, in general, yeah, you could have all sorts of number of paragraphs, but here, you are talking about basically two, yeah? We are talking about the overview in paragraph one and the body in paragraph two, and with the overview, what I tell my students from the very beginning is that, “Without a clear overview, you won’t get more than band 5. So if you cannot summarize in the first paragraph, what’s going on in this picture in front of you, 5 is the highest thing that you’re going to get,” because if you look at those band descriptors for examiners, for band 6, it says “clear overview with a summary”. For band 5, it says “unclear overview with a summary”.
So what you need to do is you need to rephrase the rubric. So you have a task, yeah? The graph shows this and that. Please summarize, and so on. So you basically need to think, as I said earlier, of the synonyms of the same words. You cannot just copy this sentence into your overview, but you have to rephrase it by changing the grammar and vocabulary structures. You need to make sure that you include the time periods that are shown in the diagram, the groups of data, the places, whatever it illustrates.
If it is a process description, you need to make sure that in the overview, you include the number of stages, the components that each stage needs. They can be materials or machines, and again, places that are involved. Do these stages take place at the same – I don’t know, facility or are they divided? And so on and so forth.
So this all should go in the overview, and in the body, you get more detailed and you start with the general trends that refer to all the data, and you get more specific with shorter periods of time or narrower number of data, and so on and so forth.
Ben: Yeah. Good point. If a student wanted to get in contact with you?
Julia: My Skype account is juli_ivanez. 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.
Ben: Well, thank you very much, Julia. It’s an awesome interview. Thank you for taking the time to share all that information with us. I just wanted to say before we go that I’d strongly recommend students to get on the email list. Go to ieltspodcast.com, leave your email address, and then from there, you get my email address, my personal email address or one of them, and you can send me your questions, you could tell me what you’re struggling with if you’ve got any problems. Just send me an email. Also, if you’re on the list, you get offers, you get tutorials sent to your inbox, and yeah, I’d strongly recommend it. So go over to ieltspodcast.com, and yes, sign up.