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Avoiding penalties for IELTS essays

Friday, October 4, 2013

An IELTS student sent me this query about IELTS (International English Language Testing System):

“What’s the maximum score an IELTS essay can lose if a test taker develops an essay in a way that’s different from what the examiner expects?” This is my reply:

I’m not exactly sure what you mean by your question. Are you asking whether there’s a marking penalty if the overall view given by the candidate is very different from the personal view of the examiner? If you are, then the answer is that it makes absolutely no difference at all.

Task 2 of the IELTS writing test requires candidates to develop a clear position in response to a question or statement given in the essay question. Here, the word “position” means “a point of view or attitude on a certain question.”

Candidates are assessed on their ability to present their overall position clearly, and on how well that position is explained through supporting ideas and examples. Based on the examiner’s assessment, the candidate’s essay is given a score from 1 to 9 for “Task Response” (one of the four areas the examiner assesses).

Assessment process

To decide the score for “Task Response,” the examiner considers how fully and appropriately the candidate has answered the essay question. In particular, the examiner considers:

  • How clear and conclusive the candidate’s overall position is.

For example, the essay question might ask the test taker to say whether the sale of cigarettes should be made illegal or not. The candidate might simply conclude the essay with the statement that “there are advantages and disadvantages to making the sale of cigarettes illegal.” A low score would be given for Task Response as the candidate has not given a clear
conclusion as to whether cigarette sales should be prohibited.

  • How well the candidate has developed and supported the ideas given in the essay.

Candidates need to make sure they have enough ideas to support their overall position. Those ideas should be specific and clearly explained, which means that there should be sufficient examples to illustrate the main points.

  • How relevant the candidate’s ideas are to the essay question.

A high score is given if all of the candidate’s ideas are relevant to the essay question. Conversely, a low score is given if the ideas are only partly relevant, or even totally unrelated, to the question.

It’s certainly possible for a candidate to get the highest band score of 9 for Task Response even if the examiner holds an opposing view.

For instance, the candidate might write an essay that argues that cigarette sales should not be prohibited. However, the examiner might strongly believe cigarettes should be banned. This difference in views will have no effect on the score given to the essay. Instead, it’s the way that the test taker has presented and justified his or her overall position that is important.

In other words, the test taker can have a position that is not the same as the examiner’s personal position on the matter being discussed in the essay.

Scoring losses

Let’s consider now the scoring penalties an IELTS essay can get. There’s a range of penalties, and they depend on the type of error that is involved.

Here are some penalties I’ve selected from the public version of the essay-scoring scheme:

  • Band 5 (for Task Response): the essay only partially addresses the task.

For example, the question might ask the candidate to not only say whether cigarettes should be banned, but also suggest some other ways to reduce the problems caused by smoking.

An essay would be penalised if it answers the first part of the question (i.e., should the sale of cigarettes be banned) but doesn’t offer any other solutions.

  • Band 5 (for Coherence and Cohesion): the essay doesn’t use paragraphs, or paragraphing is inadequate.

This means that the answer isn’t written in the style of an essay, with an introduction, two or three body paragraphs, and a closing paragraph.

  • Band 4 (for Task Response): the answer is tangential.

Here, the word “tangential” means “of little relevance.” This means that the answer presents an argument that’s only slightly related to the essay question.

As an example, the essay question might be, “Should cigarettes be banned?” A candidate might start to write about cigarettes. However, the candidate might then leave the topic of cigarettes and move on to talk about the health problems caused by alcohol and illegal drugs. The essay would get a marking penalty as it is tangential – it has gone off the main topic.

  • Band 3 (for Task Response): the essay has few ideas, or the ideas are largely undeveloped or irrelevant.

To illustrate, the answer might give very few, or very weak, reasons for banning cigarettes, such as it will reduce air pollution in cities. (Urban air pollution is caused by the emissions from vehicles and factories,

but not cigarette smoking.)

  • Band 1 (for Task Response): the answer is totally unrelated to the essay question.

This score might be given if the candidate writes about the need to increase the salaries of doctors and nurses at government hospitals, rather than about the banning of cigarettes.

Other factors

Other factors can affect the final score. For example:

  • Candidates are assessed on how well their ideas are organised as well as the accuracy of the language (i.e., their grammar and vocabulary) they use.

  • Candidates are expected to write at least 250 words, and shorter answers are penalised.

Although essays aren’t penalised if they’re longer, candidates who write a very long answer may not have enough time left to check their writing.

As well, because they need to write faster, they may make careless errors, or some ideas may not be relevant to the question.

  • Test takers should not copy phrasing given in the question paper as copied phrasing is not assessed.

Candidates should paraphrase the question paper wording to avoid a penalty for being underlength.

Clearly, to achieve a good score, test takers need to make sure they understand the penalties in the scoring scheme.

That’s why I encourage test takers to do IELTS preparation courses before taking the exam. Courses run by teachers who are experts in the IELTS exam are obviously the best choice.

Visit to see the public version of the essay scoring scheme.

This article was written by David Park, a highly experienced IELTS teacher. Ajarn David teaches at Paradigm Language Institute.

If you have any questions about IELTS that you would like Ajarn David to answer,
or if you wish to do an IELTS preparation course, write to:

IELTS is owned by Cambridge ESOL, the British Council and IELTS Australia.

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