Grammar for IELTS Writing – Using a variety of complex structures – by Danny Robinson

Hi everyone, my name is Danny and I teach IELTS classes here at Agos.  Today I’m going to give you some advice about how you can start to show more grammatical range in your writing.

Why is using a range of grammar important?

To achieve the higher bands for the IELTS Grammatical Range & Accuracy criterion (Band 6 or above) in writing, you have to show that you can accurately and flexibly use a variety (range) of structures, including complex structures. If you only use simple structures, you will be limited to a 5 for this criterion.

This means that you need to be very aware of the structures you are using, otherwise it is very easy to just use the same patterns again and again.  Here are some strategies for avoiding this.

Strategy 1: Changing the order of the sentence

There are many ways that sentences can be structured.  So one of the simplest methods of avoiding too much repetition and showing grammatical range is to simply change the order of the different language “chunks” that make up the structure you are using.  Here is an example of this using a sentence from a typical Task 1 graph analysis essay:

 Over the period shown, the number of crimes committed by children under 15 years of age increased significantly to just over 30% of the total reported in 2010, rising from around 10% in 1990.

 This can be changed to the following sentence, which expresses exactly the same ideas:

Rising from around 10% in 1990, the number of crimes committed by children under 15 years of age increased significantly over the period shown to just over 30% of the total reported in 2010.

Strategy 2: Change the verb forms

Slightly changing the grammar of the verbs can create another different structure:

 Increasing significantly over the period, the number of crimes committed by children under 15 years of age rose from around 10% in 1990 to just over 30% of the total reported in 2010.

Strategy 3: Using a good balance of sentence lengths

However, also remember that good writing is about clearly and precisely expressing what you want to communicate as simply and efficiently as possible.  Unnecessary complexity can also be a problem.  A balance is best.  You should always aim to express yourself in the simplest and clearest way possible while considering the complexity of the idea or information you are expressing.  If you can achieve this balance, it should also have the positive effect of making your writing more engaging for the reader.

A useful starting point for assessing how well you are achieving a balance between clarity and efficiency, as well as showing that you can use complex structures accurately and flexibly, is by considering sentence length.  A series of long complex sentences with several subordinate clauses is just as boring to read as several short simple sentences, and again, may actually reduce clarity by being unnecessarily difficult.

  • Avoid adding subordinate clauses for their own sake:
 The process of industrialization has resulted in the raising of the economic performance of many of the poorest countries in the world.  

 This can be changed to the following sentence, which expresses the same ideas more efficiently:

 Industrialization has boosted the GNP of many poorer countries.

While this first sentence demonstrates impressive complex grammar it isn’t really necessary to express the writer’s point.  It is OK to include some sentences like this, but if all your sentences are this length, your writing may become overly complex and difficult to read.  Also, you will be more likely to make errors, and you will probably find it difficult to include everything you need to say within the time limit of the test.

  • Break up long sentences when possible:
 The immediate effects of reducing government support for the unemployed would probably be to cause protests from charities, to make richer people who pay higher taxes happier, and to scare people on lower incomes, who have long benefited from such programmes.        

 This can be changed to the following sentences, which express the same ideas more clearly:

 Reducing government unemployment support would probably have three immediate effects. Firstly, it would cause protests from charities. Secondly, richer people who pay higher taxes would be happier. Lastly, it would scare people on lower incomes, who have long benefited from such programmes.         

  • Combine short sentences

Equally, if you have a series of one or more very short sentences, see if it is possible to combine them, without losing clarity, by using conjunctions and/or punctuation.  In fact, sometimes this might actually improve clarity as well as efficiency:

 Television can be a useful educational tool. It is a tool that prevents education.

 This can be changed to the following sentence, which expresses the same ideas more clearly:

 Television can be an educational tool, but it may also prevent education.

How can I improve?

Achieving the best balance between showing a range of grammar knowledge and flexibility, without allowing your language to become overly complex and difficult to read requires a lot of practice.  Here are some things you can do:

  • Study different grammar patterns
  • Analyse model answers to see how other people use a variety of grammar
  • Read and analyse texts related to common IELTS topics that you can find in English newspapers and a variety of online sources
  • Apply some techniques to answer real IELTS questions

With study and practice, you can improve your grammatical range and flexibility, and so achieve your IELTS writing scores.  Good luck and perhaps I’ll see you in class soon!

Using Natural English – by James Cort

Hello and welcome to the instructor blog! I’m James Cort and I teach TOEFL Speaking and Pronunciation and Fluency (発音矯正) at Agos.

The year is finally coming to an end, and the winter holidays will soon be upon us. Many of us are looking forward to some time off work or school, some may be travelling overseas and others preparing for important examinations. Whatever your plans, before we forget the year at the next忘年会 (end-of-year party), let’s reflect on our academic progress and consider how to make next year even more successful.

“Well… I can understand you, but it doesn’t sound natural.” Have you ever heard this from a native English speaking friend, colleague or instructor? You might then note down the corrected sentence that your teacher offers. However, you may not understand where you went wrong or how to sound more natural in the future. Today I’m going to talk about naturalness: What is natural English? Why is it important for the TOEFL and IELTS tests? How can you learn to use it?

What is natural English?

Natural English simply means the English that native speakers actually use. This can be quite different from the English you find in many textbooks, and drastically different from English directly translated from Japanese.

Unnatural English is often caused by several types of errors. Have a look at the examples below.

Error Example Natural English
Inappropriate vocabulary choice ‘My friends and I gathered at the bar.’ ‘My friends and I met up at the bar.’
Word order ‘I went to a Japanese traditional restaurant.’ ‘I went to a traditional Japanese restaurant.’
Register (formality/context) ‘There were many people at my birthday party. Moreover, it was very enjoyable.’ ‘There were loads of people at my birthday party and we had a good time.
Direct translation ‘I entered university in 2010.’ ‘I started university in 2010.’
‘Textbook’ English For the first time, I ate dinner at Cici’s some days ago. It was so-so.’ I tried Cici’s the other day – it wasn’t great.’
‘Japanese’ English ‘I went to the hot spring to refresh my mind.’ ‘I went to the hot spring to unwind.’
Wrong collocation (collocations are words that go together) ‘The temples in Kyoto are very amazing.’ ‘The temples in Kyoto are absolutely amazing.’

If you’re told that your English sounds unnatural, then it’s likely that it contains at least one of these errors.

 

Why is natural English important for the TOEFL and IELTS tests?

The ability to use natural English is vital for both TOEFL and IELTS. This is especially true for the speaking sections, where you have limited time to think about and plan your response. TOEFL speaking is graded holistically, which means the grader gives you a score based on their overall impression of your response. Of course, more natural speech will make a better impression, so you’ll get a higher score. The IELTS speaking examiners use very clear and detailed grading criteria, and producing more accurate and natural speech will help you to reach the higher bands.

How can you learn to use natural English?

So, how do you improve? Memorising the corrections your teacher gives you is vital, but this can be a slow process. Here are three important steps you can take to speak more naturally.

  1. Increase your exposure to natural English

The first step is to expose yourself to a lot of natural English material. Tedtalks, Youtube and online radio are great free resources. Netflix, Hulu and Amazon video are useful paid resources. Most of these have English subtitles available that can help you with new language. After listening or watching, make a note of new language, practice shadowing, make your own sentences and say then say them aloud. The material doesn’t have to be difficult. The important thing is to expose yourself regularly to natural English, and try to copy how the native speakers use the language.

  1. Consider the Context

Whenever you hear new words or phrases, think about the setting. What is natural in one context may sound very unnatural in another. Ask yourself: ‘Was the setting formal or informal? Was it at work, home or school? Was the topic serious or light-hearted? What’s relationship between the speakers? What’s the emotional state of the speaker and listener? How is the speaker using intonation? Etc.’ Questions like this will give you clues as to when and where you can use this language.

  1. Get out of your comfort zone

It’s easy and safe to use what you learnt in high school. But if you act in the same way, you’ll always get the same results, you won’t make progress and your TOEFL or IELTS scores won’t improve. Get out of your comfort zone and try out what you’ve learned in the real world. Use the new language with friends, with co-workers, in class, for homework and eventually on your TOEFL and IELTS tests!

 

Try these tips and see if you can start sounding more natural in 2017, and improve your TOEFL or IELTS speaking scores!