When learning English, students often focus on learning vocabulary. This is logical because vocabulary is the most important part of communication. If someone said to me, “I want sleep,” I could roughly guess at their meaning. However, grammar gives us some more specific information. “I want sleep” could mean:
- I want to sleep.
- I don’t want to sleep.
- I didn’t want to sleep.
- I wanted to sleep, but now I don’t really need to.
and so on.
Small changes in grammatical construction can have a big impact on the meaning of a sentence. Students often find that writing is the hardest part of the IELTS exam, and this is partly because it requires such fine control over grammar.
Passive and Active Knowledge of Grammar
In language, we can think of passive and active knowledge. Passive means that you generally understand something, whereas active means that you can use it. In the reading exam, you might read the word “awareness” and understand its meaning from context, or from dissecting the word (“aware” + “ness”), but maybe you couldn’t actually use it in writing or speaking because you aren’t confident enough with this word.
English learners typically study a lot of grammar during their school days. It starts very simply, but later becomes more complicated. Hopefully you have done lots of practice to help you. However, English grammar is so complicated that even native speakers often get it wrong.
You shouldn’t worry too much about grammar, but continue to practice it over time. Grammar can be absorbed passively through reading and listening to English, but it also requires active participation. You should continue to study it from textbooks and online resources. Here is a book that I wrote, which can help you to master the basics of grammar for IELTS writing:
How Much Grammar do you Need to Know?
Every student who sits the IELTS exam has some kind of expectation for their result. Some people want to get a 6, and others want to get a 7. Some people even want to get an 8 or 9. Each part of the IELTS exam has different requirements, but grammar will help you with all of them.
Here’s a brief overview of how it can help you:
In the reading exam, you are required to understand both the questions and the text. The questions will usually be quite straightforward, but they may ask you to determine an idea or fact from the text. Sometimes, these will be indicated by subtle grammatical changes. You should be able to tell different tenses apart, and elicit the meaning. Here is an example.
- After staying in a series of hostels for a month, James was exhausted and made the decision to return home to Australia. He couldn’t face the prospect of another long train ride, followed by a stay in an overcrowded dorm room.
- After staying in a series of hostels for a month, James was getting exhausted and would soon make the decision to return home to Australia. He couldn’t face the prospect of another long train ride, followed by a stay in an overcrowded dorm room.
So what is the difference here? There is only a very small difference, but it could affect the answer to a question, if it related to the time when James decided to go home. In #1, James has already felt exhausted and made his decision. In #2, he is starting to feel exhausted, and will soon decide to go home.
Grammar is much less important here than in the other three parts of the exam, but of course it will help you greatly to have a good grasp of it. At its most basic, you should be able to tell the difference between these two sentences:
- Ok, so today we’re going to talk about the impact of climate change on…
- Ok, so today we’ve been talking about the impact of climate change on…
Again, you can see that the difference is small and subtle in the language, but with a big impact on meaning. Fortunately, the IELTS listening exam is more about picking up differences in vocabulary – ie listening for specific words and even inferring meaning.
In the speaking exam, you will be scored according to four criteria:
- Fluency and Coherence
- Lexical Resource (that means vocabulary)
- Grammatical Range and Accuracy
The part we are interested in today is Grammatical Range and Accuracy. Let’s look at the criteria, according to the official IELTS website:
As you can see, there are distinct differences between the band scores in terms of grammatical ability. A person scoring band 7 here will still be making mistakes, whereas they are able to produce a range of flexible sentences. On the other hand, at band 5 mistakes are far more common, and only the more basic sentence types may be used without errors.
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Let’s take an example. In IELTS speaking, it is very common to talk about your own life experiences, and therefore to use the past tenses. I will show you a version using many mistakes, and a version using none:
- When am fifteen I am going to school by bus every day. One day I find a bike by the side of the road, and I ride the bike to school.
- When I was fifteen I went to school by bus every day. One day I found a bike by the side of the road, and I rode the bike to school.
It is clear that these small differences in tense made the story much clearer to follow. This is an example of quite obvious mistakes, but they persist in more subtle ways, too. You should make sure to be totally confident in the English tenses. I have a very simple and effective guide in my book, Grammar for IELTS Writing:
Finally, we come to the most difficult part of the IELTS exam. This is partly the most difficult because it requires the most extensive knowledge of grammar. Your writing will be scrutinized for grammatical errors here more than in the speaking exam. In addition, you have to think about punctuation now – commas, periods, semi-colons, and so on. These aren’t used at all in spoken English.
My advice for IELTS students is to continually improve their grammar through passive and active work. They should follow my “two-pronged approach” to IELTS studies. This will help them build a more developed grasp of grammar, so that they can use it effectively.
It is important for the IELTS writing exam to avoid mistakes, and you should be very confident of the sentences you write. My advice is to master at least three of the four sentence types and try not to include too many clauses in a sentence. Really long sentences are difficult to write, and generally they add little value to the essay.
Remember that Grammatical Range and Accuracy contains two important words: range and accuracy. That means you shouldn’t use the same sentence type over and over. However, it does mean you should avoid making mistakes. Therefore, try to include some simple sentences, some complex sentences, and some compound sentences. You can try reading other people’s band 9 essays to get an idea of this.
In IELTS writing, you are marked on:
- Task Achievement
- Coherence and Cohesion
- Lexical Resource
- Grammatical Range and Accuracy
Let’s look at the requirements for the last one, concerning grammar:
To get a band 7 here, you need a diversity of structures, with only “a few errors”. I have heard some IELTS examiners comment that this means “three errors”. It is therefore very important that you don’t write too much, instead sticking to 260-280 words. If you write more than 300 words, you won’t have time to check your writing, and will likely make more mistakes in grammar.
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In the band descriptors above, you can see references to “complex sentences”. This means sentences which have one independent clause and one dependent clause. (You can find out more about this in my book.) These are the most important types of sentence in English, and they can make your writing much better.
It is possible to write them as:
- Independent + dependent
- Dependent + comma + independent
- We walked through the park after seeing the movie.
- After seeing the movie, we walked through the park.
Complex sentences are pretty easy to learn, but add so much value to your speaking and writing. Once you are familiar with them, you should try to incorporate them into your essays. Don’t forget to use some compound sentences, too, and it’s ok to use the occasional simple sentence, but don’t rely on them.
Look at these two examples:
- I went skiing last year. It was really fun. My whole family went there. We had a great time. We drank hot chocolate at the chalet. It was cold outside.
- I went skiing last year. It was really fun. My whole family went there, and we had a great time. We drank hot chocolate at the chalet because it was cold outside.
Which is better?
The second one, of course!
It has a range of sentence types. In example #1, there are only simple sentences. This is how a small child might speak. In example #2, there are two simple sentences, a compound sentence, and then a complex sentence. This is what we mean by “range” of grammar.
Other common grammatical errors include subject-verb agreement. This means that the subject of the sentence (I, you, he, she, they, etc) doesn’t match with the form of the verb. You need to pay particular attention to this as it is something that is really obvious to a native speaker, and will attract the IELTS examiner’s attention. Here are some examples to illustrate my point:
John like to eat fish on Fridays.
- John likes to eat fish on Fridays.
The government official say that we ought to recycle more.
- The government official says that we ought to recycle more.
I likes to go to the cinema with my friend.
- I like to go to the cinema with my friend.