Why the IELTS Does Not Teach Good Academic Writing Skills
By Josh Gaston
The International English Language Testing System (IELTS) is the most popular English language proficiency exam in the world. According to their official website, there are 10,000 different organizations that use the IELTS as a measurement of English proficiency. The IELTS and other English proficiency exams can open up worlds of study abroad opportunities to internationally-minded students. When those who study abroad return to their home countries, they will most likely have a leg up on the competition in their industries.
IELTS has its proponents and naysayers, and each side highlights different aspects of the exam that either validate or invalidate it as an accurate tool for measuring English language proficiency.
I have a few issues with the IELTS in isolation, but the main issue I have with it is how its prominence and importance have undermined students’ understanding of academic writing.
Up until recently, I was teaching English in a country where the desire to study or work abroad is extremely high, and the opportunities to do so are extremely low for reasons ranging from the bureaucratic to the financial. Therefore, the IELTS occupies a sacred space within the educational landscape. Private language centers that focus exclusively on IELTS preparation seem to be multitudinous and are peppered across the country.
It does not seem as if most students get enough proper instruction on how to write academically within the public school system of my host country. Students have told me, by way of informal class discussion and an anonymous Google Form survey, that they have received very little quality instruction on academic writing in their secondary school experiences. Based on what my colleagues in other parts of the country have experienced, this was not only true in my teaching context but also true across the country.
What happens when students’ academic writing skills are not developed within the classroom, and IELTS reigns supreme? What happens is that IELTS writing tasks become the de facto prototype for academic writing for students.
The problem with this positioning of the IELTS is that the IELTS does not represent, in my opinion, “real” formal academic writing. While I will concede that students develop some transferable academic writing skills as a result of their (sometimes) single-minded focus on passing the IELTS, IELTS writing is missing several components that are central to quality academic writing. Among these are organization, overall quality, evidence, tone, and timing constraints. I will discuss these elements in detail below.
Organization: The Four- or Five-Paragraph Essay is Not “Real”
First, students must understand that the four- or five-paragraph essay found in IELTS writing does not exist anywhere in the “real” world. Of course, this is not just because of IELTS. Many English teachers around the world continue to teach writing using the four- or five-paragraph essay. Nevertheless, the IELTS definitely perpetuates the myth of the four- or five-paragraph essay. While the four- or five-paragraph essay might serve as a good foundation for academic writing, quality writing is rarely reducible or contained by a five-paragraph structure. The detailed, in-depth nature of formal academic writing often demands at least several pages of investigation and explanation.
Quality: Throwaway Introductions and Conclusions
Second, the accepted quality of IELTS-style writing, especially as it concerns introductions and conclusions, is lackluster. Introductions and conclusions are essentially understood as throwaway elements of an IELTS essay. Introductions are reducible to two or three sentences and are merely there to briefly introduce the topic and argument. Conclusions are intended simply summarize the main points of the essay. On the contrary, introductions and conclusions are powerful tools in formal academic writing. A strong literature review lays the foundation for well-thought-out research, and a discussion of results and implications in the conclusion can leave the reader with a clear sense of the value of the research.
Evidence: No Outside Sources
Third, IELTS does not allow for any outside sources. This aspect, while necessary for the exam setting, is a travesty for students because the expectation is that students do not have to support their arguments with objective reasoning based on facts, statistics, and other kinds of data. This means that arguments lie undeveloped and are based solely on background knowledge, intuition, and subjective opinion rather than made robust with evidence. This flouts conventions and standards of formal academic writing in which a large amount of research and evidence is necessary in order to support claims. It also does not do any favors for students in developing their critical thinking skills in the context of formal academic writing. It is one thing to be able to use one’s background knowledge and personal opinion to opine about an IELTS topic; it is another thing to be able to analyze, evidence, and synthesize research in order to support your own claims.
Tone: Personal Language
Fourth, Task 2 of the IELTS allows for first-person pronouns and, thereby, more personal language. Formal academic writing is impersonal and objective. Again, the danger here is that when students are allowed to use personal language, they over-rely on their subjective opinion when engaging in argumentative writing. Similar to the previous issue of evidence, the use of personal language shifts the focus to subjective reasons to support arguments rather than using objective evidence. To reiterate, this does not conform to formal academic writing standards.
Timing Constraints: Short Timeframes
Finally, as a result of the testing context, students are only given a limited amount of time for Task 2 of the IELTS: forty minutes, to be exact. The problem here is that thoughtful analysis of an issue and the supporting evidence is not, and should not, be accomplished in 40 minutes. Careful analysis of evidence and arguments takes time and thoughtful reflection. These arbitrary time constraints encourage students to learn how to produce plug-and-chug essays in a relatively short amount of time. As a result, students focus on having all of the superficial required elements of a standardized IELTS essay without the depth and exploration of formal academic writing. By focusing on writing these once-and-done disposable essays, students are also not learning the valuable skills of editing and revising, which are so integral to the drafting process. Consequently, students are not being taught to be as self-evaluative during the writing process as they could be.
Ultimately, the danger here is directly related to the reason why students want to take the IELTS in the first place: when students focus their writing development on how to attain an impressive IELTS score, they are not actually developing the formal academic writing skills in order to be successful in the international marketplace as students. Yes, perhaps they are developing better task management, coherence and cohesion, lexical resource, and grammatical range and accuracy as writers. These at least are transferable skills. However, students around the world need robust instructional support to develop their formal academic writing skills because, while the IELTS will encourage them to develop their writing in very specific ways, it will not give them the opportunity to develop formal academic writing skills which are so central to being a successful university student in countries where students are trying to study by taking the IELTS.
If you work in a context in which students are unduly concerned with improving their writing skills as it befits the IELTS or another English proficiency exam, what do you do to highlight the differences between IELTS-style writing and formal academic writing? Do you encourage your students to think beyond the IELTS? Do you encourage your students to use IELTS writing as a foundation in order to scaffold their formal academic writing?
Let me know in the comments below.