One of the strange things about English is that native speakers of the language really hate repetition. It is not just the fact that it is annoying that is a problem for English learners; it also sends a message to IELTS examiners that your English skills are not good enough.
In this lesson, I am going to show you (1) why you need to avoid repetition in IELTS and (2) how you can avoid it successfully. I will guide you through three different methods of removing repetition from your writing in order to help you get a better score.
This article was adapted from the following video:
What’s wrong with repetition?
Although in some languages repetition is perfectly acceptable, in English it sounds really bad. If you say the same word too many times, people will think it is strange. It feels almost uncomfortable to us. When it comes to IELTS, it is a bigger problem, though. It can have a massive impact on your score for the writing test.
Let me explain. In the IELTS band descriptors, repetition is mentioned under both Coherence and Cohesion and Lexical Resource. For Coherence and Cohesion, it notes that band 5 essays “may be repetitive because of lack of referencing and substitution.” For Lexical Resource, it says that a band 4 essay might feature “basic vocabulary which may be used repetitively.” In other words, if your essay is filled with the same words over and over, you might be stuck around band 4 or 5.
This was confirmed by a 2014 study of Chinese IELTS candidates. It found that, whilst repetition occurred in essays at band 5, 6, and 7, it was much more common in the band 5 essays. Indeed, the author of the study noted that “no substitution was found in Band 5 writings.” (The word substitution means an effort at replacing a repeated word with another.)
To further stress the importance of this, we can refer to a 2020 study from Indonesia, which looked at IELTS writing performance and found that, in terms of Coherence and Cohesion, repetition was by far the biggest problem facing candidates. They found that some candidates, when writing about issues of age, would use the word “children” up to 14 times in one essay. Even the least repetitive writer used that same word 5 times.
This sort of problem shows the examiner three things. Firstly, it tells them that you do not have the vocabulary to use a range of words. Secondly, it shows them that you probably don’t understand that repetition is not good in English. And thirdly, it shows them that you lack the skills to replace words not just with synonyms but with pronouns or through omission. (We’ll come back to explain all of this later.)
Our conclusion, then, is that repetition is a big problem when it comes to IELTS writing and you absolutely must try to avoid it unless you are happy with a band 5.
Let’s look now at three ways you can avoid repetition in order to improve your IELTS essays.
Let’s start with probably the best known and yet most troublesome way of avoiding repetition: synonyms. As an IELTS candidate, synonyms are your best friend and your worst enemy. You probably know that they are essential for success in the reading, listening, and writing tests, as well as the speaking test to some extent.
When it comes to IELTS writing, you can use synonyms to avoid repetition, so they are very useful. Let’s say you need to write an essay about retirement ages. You’ll no doubt need to talk about old people, but if you just wrote an essay that said “old people” over and over, it would not be very impressive. In terms of Coherence and Cohesion and Lexical Resource, you’d be looking at very low scores indeed.
Instead of repeating the same word or phrase, you can find another with an approximately similar meaning. For example, you could replace “old people” with “the elderly,” “old folks,” “pensioners,” “retired people,” “retirees,” and so on.
That sounds pretty simple, right? Well, a lot of IELTS candidates know this and try to use synonyms as much as possible. This can be good… but often it leads to rather serious problems. The first thing to note is that words and phrases with nearly similar meanings can’t always be used interchangeably. There are often slight differences in meaning or tone.
Let’s take a look at a thesaurus to see what happens when we search for synonyms of “old people.” The term “geriatric” is a little clinical and perhaps even offensive whilst “oldster” just sounds bizarre to me. A “patriarch” is the eldest male in a family and so you could not use it for women, whilst “old fogey” is very rude and informal. In short, quite a few of these words would be totally inappropriate for IELTS.
In my IELTS writing correction service, I frequently encounter people repeating the word “children,” which was mentioned in the study I cited earlier. I often say to my students, “you’ve used the word ‘children’ far too much!” and they understandably ask me, “Well, what can I use instead?” That presents a bit of a problem because there aren’t many great synonyms for this word.
That might be a surprise for anyone who’s looked up “children” in a thesaurus.” Here, we can see there are loads of synonyms… but how many of them could we actually use as a direct replacement for “children” in an IELTS essay? Honestly, the majority of these words are totally inappropriate. A baby and an adolescent are clearly of very different ages, whilst “offspring” sounds like an animal and “nestling” is a young bird. “tyke,” “urchin,” and “whippersnapper” are really informal and archaic, and “bairn” is Scottish English and probably not known to many English or American examiners.
Sadly, I see many IELTS candidates trying to put words like “anklebiter” and “kiddie” into their essays because they found it in a dictionary or thesaurus, but it just doesn’t work. It is confusing, inappropriate, and shows that you do not have a grasp of the language. It is, in fact, worse than the repetition you were trying to avoid.
So, in cases like that, what else can we do? Well, there are always pronouns…
Pronouns are words like “he,” “she,” “it,” “they,” and so on. These replace nouns in a sentence and they are very important when it comes to your score for Coherence and Cohesion. When you look at the band descriptors and see the word “referencing,” this is what it means.
Let’s say we were talking about children again. Here is an introduction to an IELTS essay about children and computers. As you can see, the word “children” appears twice in this sentence. To a native speaker of English, this does not sound good and to an IELTS examiner it shows a lack of ability to substitute words. That is because there is a very easy and obvious way to fix this problem. Instead of saying “children” twice, we can switch out the second use of the word for a pronoun.
If you can do this properly, it shows the examiner that you have good referencing skills and the ability to avoid the repetition of basic words. Just make sure that you use the correct pronoun for the thing that you are trying to repeat. If you want to replace “children,” you need to use “they.” That’s because “children” and “they” are both plural form. A “child,” however, might be “he” or “she.”
On that note, one thing to watch here is the assumption of gender. In this case, the writer has assumed the child is a boy, but of course we should try to make it clear that it could be either a boy or girl. Nowadays, we use “they,” “their,” and “them” to avoid sexist language. This can be a little confusing for some learners, particularly those who have studied from older textbooks.
Finally, once you know that the pronoun is correct, make sure that it will be obvious to the reader what it refers to. If you mention two or three men in one sentence and then say “he” in a later one, your reader might not be able to figure out which one is being replaced.
To review, if you look over one of your IELTS essays and find that you have used a word too often, it is a great idea to replace some of those words with pronouns. Just be sure that the pronoun matches the original noun in terms of number and gender, and that it is clear to any reader which noun is being replaced.
So far, we have seen how we can avoid repetition by changing a word into a synonym or pronoun, but we will now look at a slightly more difficult skill: omission. To omit something means to remove it. This might seem strange to you because deleting a word might add confusion to a text, and indeed that is why this is a hard skill to master.
Let’s take this passage here. It is all about history, and so the word “history” appears quite a few times. It is not excessive, but we could change this to remove one or two mentions and thereby get rid of any doubt over whether it is too repetitive. For one thing, we could omit “studying history” from after “benefits” because this is already strongly implied. If we still felt like the word appeared too often, we could remove “historical” from before “sources” because again the fact that these sources are historical is pretty clear from the context.
Omission is a tricky skill to master because, like using synonyms, it often requires a very deep and intuitive knowledge of the language to do it with a high degree of accuracy. The important thing to note is that removing the word should leave no ambiguity and should not mislead the reader. If we chose, instead, to omit “history” from after studying, it would seem as though the benefits come from studying anything rather than studying this one subject.
Ultimately, omission can lead to natural and nuanced writing, but it is also easy to make mistakes. If you are uncertain of whether a word could be omitted, then it is better to find another way of replacing it or else to go with the repetition and at least be accurate even if there was one too many uses of that particular word.
As we have seen today, repetition is something to be avoided in IELTS writing. We can do this in three main ways – synonyms, pronouns, and omission. Ideally, a mixture of these will be used in order to create natural and sophisticated answers that avoid repeating the same words over and over.
If you can blend these skills into your work in a way that does not confuse the reader, then you will be well on your way to a better IELTS writing score.