The IELTS speaking and writing tests are marked by examiners trained to assess your answers according to a special rubric. (A “rubric” is a series of guidelines to assign a score against a performance.) You will be given a score from 0 to 9 for each of the four sections in the rubric, and these will be averaged to provide a total score.
In the IELTS writing test, there are different guidelines for task 1 and task 2 but they are fundamentally the same:
- Task Achievement/ Response
- Coherence and Cohesion
- Lexical Resource
- Grammatical Range and Accuracy
To put it in its simplest terms, Task Achievement relates to answering the question fully and appropriately. Coherence and Cohesion is about your structure and the logical linking of ideas. Lexical Resource means vocabulary and Grammatical Range and Accuracy concerns your use of grammar.
In one sense, these are of interest only to examiners and IELTS tutors because the rubric can be quite complicated to understand. Ultimately, it is designed to give you a fair grade and you do not need to know the fine details of the rubric in order to score highly. However, I do feel that it is useful to explain to IELTS candidates what they are being marked upon in order to help them avoid certain problems.
In the following section, I am going to explain a little about the rubric and how it relates to IELTS letters. I will assume that no one reading this book is below a band 5, so I will only look at scores between 5 and 9. If you want to read the actual rubrics themselves, you can find them at the British Council’s website:
To score band 5 for your letter, it must generally address the task and do so in a tone and form that is mostly appropriate. This means that a band 5 letter is often (but not always) inappropriate and may not fully cover the details within the prompt. This band descriptor specifically refers to inadequately covering the bullet points, meaning that the writer of the letter has not fully answered the prompt.
At band 6, a letter will address all parts of the prompt and its purpose will be generally clear. All bullet points will be covered, though some might be inaccurately or inappropriately covered, possibly with some irrelevant details included. The tone will generally be correct but might be inconsistent.
The difference between band 6 and 7 is slight, with the rubric noting that a band 6 letter addresses all parts of the prompt while a band 7 one covers them. This suggests that a band 7 letter is more detailed and direct. The purpose of the letter will be clear and obvious, and the tone will be consistent and appropriate. All bullet points will be covered though more detail could be given.
Band 8 and 9 go beyond the qualities possessed by a band 7 essay. The differences here are very subtle. A band 8 essay will cover all parts of the prompt and a band 9 one will fully satisfy them. At band 8, all requirements are met adequately, but at band 9 they are met as well as could be expected.
Coherence and Cohesion
A band 5 letter will contain some degree of organisation but it will be imperfect due to a lack of progression. In other words, it may be illogical and/or confusing to the reader. The use of cohesive devices here will be inappropriate for several reasons. They might be overused or incorrectly used, for example. The letter might also be repetitive because candidates have not used pronouns or synonyms to replace certain words.
At band 6, the letter will include more logical progression of ideas with generally correct use of cohesive devices. However, from sentence to sentence there may be some problems. The words and phrases used to link ideas may be incorrect. There could also be problems with referencing.
Band 7 letters will be logically organised and contain progression throughout. A range of cohesive devices will be used but they will be not perfect due to some under- or over-use. This essentially means that the linking between clauses and sentences will be a little mechanical or unnatural.
Band 8 and 9 letters will use the aforementioned features very well. All information in the letter will be logically sequenced and ideas will be connected correctly. The difference between these two bands is that at band 9 it will be virtually perfect, with any imperfections being so minimal as to be easily overlooked.
A band 5 letter will feature basic vocabulary that is just enough to express its ideas. There will be some obvious errors in terms of spelling and/or word formation.
At band 6, the vocabulary used will be adequate for the task, using some less common words but with occasional inaccuracies. There will be errors in terms of spelling and/or word formation, but these will be relatively minor, not impeding the reader’s understanding.
Band 7 letters will use a sufficient range of vocabulary that allows the writer’s meaning to be effectively conveyed with subtle degree of precision. There will be some “less common” vocabulary used and an awareness of style. There will be some mistakes, but these will be infrequent.
At band 8 and 9, vocabulary will be skilfully used. There will be a wide range of vocabulary and it will convey precise meanings. Difficult language may cause some inaccuracies at band 8 and there could be some errors, but these would not be frequent. At band 9, any errors could be viewed as the sort of mere “slips” that native speakers also make. Band 9 letters would feature language that is essentially natural and perhaps sophisticated.
Grammatical Range and Accuracy
Band 5 letters only contain a limited range of grammatical structures. The writer would probably be able to produce simple sentences with relative ease, but they would struggle with complex structures. Grammatical errors would abound and punctuation would sometimes be faulty. Most importantly, at this level, mistakes would cause the text to be challenging for a reader.
Moving up to band 6, there would be a mixture of sentence types but these would often include errors. However, the key difference between band 6 and 5 is that at this level the errors do not pose a major difficulty for the reader.
At band 7, candidates will write a variety of sentence structures, many of which will be free from errors. Overall, a letter with this score would include just a few grammatical mistakes and would be quite easy for the reader to understand. Letters of the highest standard would achieve band 8 or 9. Here, there would be a wide range of sentence types and structures, with the majority being totally error-free. At band 9, there would be just a few very small mistakes that could be seen as the sort of “slip” a native speaker might make.
Advice on Vocabulary and Grammar
I would like to offer some additional advice about vocabulary (Lexical Resource) and grammar (Grammatical Range and Accuracy) because these can be confusing even after the marking rubric has been described. This is partially due to the difficulty of learning English and partially due to the astonishing array of bad advice found online and in training schools around the world.
One of the most misleading parts of the IELTS writing rubric is the use of the phrases “less common vocabulary” and “uncommon lexical items.” This has caused thousands of teachers to inform their students that they need to use “advanced vocabulary” or “difficult words,” but this is not true at all. In fact, it is a really bad approach to writing a letter or essay.
What is strongly implied by these phrases is that a high-level candidate will use words that are specific to the topic and appropriate for the precise meaning of that sentence or clause. It is not a matter of cramming obscure words into a piece of writing, but rather using appropriate language. This is a key difference.
For this reason, it is important to learn vocabulary in terms of topics. This will help you to learn words that are “uncommon” or “less common.” For example, let’s say you have to write a letter to the manager of a restaurant. The examiners would note vocabulary specific to the topic uncommon. For example, you might write:
We were seated at a booth near the front windows, with a fabulous view over the river, and your waiting staff were attentive and professional.
In this example, the verb “seat” and the noun “booth” are both uncommon words that relate specifically to the topic. The phrase “front windows” could also be viewed as specific and uncommon, even though both words individually are quite common. The phrase “waiting staff” is again uncommon as most people would say “waiters.” It is also preferrable because it avoids the assumption of the employees’ gender. The word “attentive” is quite specific to this industry, too, and could be seen as another uncommon word.
This would be seen as a great sentence in terms of its vocabulary but the most important thing is that all of these words have been used correctly. That is fundamentally the most important thing. You often see unqualified people on YouTube, Facebook, or Instagram telling their thousands of followers to use the most obscure words possible, but that is a really awful idea. You should never use words that you don’t fully understand. Look at this example:
Dining establishment being exhilarating and cosmopolitian was enticed my uptmost interest and the flamboyant workers provided the top-quality service.
This is a terrible sentence, but unfortunately it is typical of the language encouraged by uninformed IELTS tutors around the world. The word “exhilarating” is not appropriate for describing a restaurant and the word “cosmopolitan” has been misspelled, as has “utmost.” The grammar is pretty poor, with articles misused and an unnecessary use of the passive voice. The word “flamboyant” is not quite right and we would not call the staff in a restaurant “workers.”
Although you may hear or read advice that encourages the use of “advanced vocabulary,” please keep in mind that it is far more important to use language appropriately than to try and dazzle the IELTS examiners. These people are educated, fluent speakers of English, who encounter thousands upon thousands of essays and letters. You cannot mislead them by using weird words that you found in a dictionary. The most likely outcome is that your grade will be lowered because of the lexical inappropriacies and grammatical errors that result.
When it comes to grammar, the same is essentially true. As you can see from the marking rubric, it is important to use a range of grammatical features but of course this should not be done at the cost of your accuracy. It is better to use simple but correct language than to attempt extremely difficult structures and make errors. Ultimately, candidates aiming for around band 7 should seek to achieve a balance by avoiding overly-simplistic language and also overly-complex language.
One excellent piece of advice is to aim for error-free sentences. Try to mix the types of sentences used but if you find yourself unsure of whether a sentence is right or wrong, go back and change it to something that you know to be correct. An essay or letter with no grammatical errors would achieve a higher score than one with very complex language that is incorrectly used.