Desire to study abroad

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I. Introduction

In China, the desire to study abroad is very strong, especially for university students, who wish to obtain higher degrees. Those who wish to study in Britain and Australia need to take IELTS examination (Academic) or meet corresponding requirements. I have learned and taught IELTS for a month respectively and I find that Chinese students struggle a lot with IELTS, especially IELTS writing. In Task one of IELTS writing, candidates are asked to explain and represent information in a given diagram, such as pie chart, bar chart, line chart, table, etc. In task two, candidates need to give supporting or dissenting opinions to a given point of view; or to discuss a set of diametrically opposed viewpoints; or to explain the causes of a problem and to provide some corresponding solutions. As a learner, I feel students could get high bands comparatively easier in listening, reading and speaking, but it is quite difficult to achieve a satisfactory band in writing. I got Band 7 in listening, reading and speaking, but only Band 6 in writing. But the fact is that I spent more time and energy in preparing IELTS writing. Additionally, as a teacher, I also find it not easy to improve students' writing because teaching IELTS writing is totally different from teaching writing in universities. But as Harmer(2004, p. 3) says, "we should face the fact that most exams, whether they are testing foreign language abilities or other skills, often rely on the students' writing proficiency in order to measure their knowledge". Therefore, in order to give the examiner a good impression of the candidate's language ability, to improve writing is of great importance.

In part two and three of my essay, I would like to represent some aspects of teaching for IELTS writing in China, using my experience as a learner, and also to see if those teaching aspects focuses are effective. In the fourth part, I will reflect the shortages of the teaching focuses previously listed. Finally, I will make some suggestions about how to teach IELTS writing more effectively.

II. Some teaching focuses of IELTS writing Task 1 in China

A. Emphasis on accurate use of vocabulary

Inexperienced mastery of vocabulary will lead to weak mastery of a whole language. The amount and degree of immobility in grasping vocabulary will directly affect one's accuracy in language expression. In Task 1, candidates need to represent statistics to describe the developing processes in strict accordance with the given diagram, so each imperceptible changing data and fluctuation should have detailed description, which shows the importance of accuracy of vocabulary.

To achieve this goal, teachers often teach students to use more detailed and accurate vocabulary in their descriptions. For example, when describing a rising or a falling trend, my teacher gave us some different more detailed and precise vocabularies (Table 1). In order to make himself understood, he also draws a line chart at will and shows how to choose the most precise verb to describe a trend.

Through the intensive training, students will not repeatedly use the so-called "normal words", like increase, climb, grow, decrease, fall and decline, but use less frequent vocabulary in their essays to make the description more vivid.

B. Emphasis on sentence structure

Most students have not written diagram essays before, so they have no idea about how to describe different diagrams. More importantly, candidates find it difficult for them to write more than 150 words because they have nothing to say. In this case, my teacher gave us the sentence structures of each different diagram. In terms of how to present sentence structures to students, Doff (1988, p. 33) gives the following advice:

When we present a structure, it is important to show what the structure means and how it is used, by giving examples; show clearly how the structure is formed, so that students can use it to make sentences of their own.

We were given three widely-used sentence structures when describing a pie chart,including ...covers (comparatively) a majority/ minority of......, with...%; ... (%) of...are/ were/ should be shared by...; The rest/ remaining...% is/ was for/ attributed to/due to... and were told how to use these sentence patterns by examples. We only need to apply mechanically to each diagram through slight changes according to different situations.

As I said above, students are not quite familiar with how to describe each diagram, and they even do not know where to start. But after being given these sentence structures, students will not find it hard to start writing. Moreover, these sentence structures are quite good and popular in IELTS writing.

III. Some teaching focuses of IELTS writing Task 2 in China

A. Emphasis on rubrics

In task two, candidates should write different essays according to different rubrics. These rubrics are something like different genres, which mean "a lot of writing within a discourse community is very genre-bound, and writers frequently construct their writing so that people within that discourse community will instantly understand what kind of writing it is" (Harmer, 2007, p. 327). So through examining the rubrics, candidates will know what to write and how to write. "The central belief here is that we don't just write, we write something to achieve some purpose" (Hyland, 2003, p. 18). Harmer (1998, p. 4) also points out that "the best activity in the world is a waste of time if the students do not understand what it is they are supposed to do". So what teachers need to do is to lead students to carefully read the rubrics and clearly know what they are expected to do through detailed interpretation or continuous practice.

My teacher classified all the rubrics into four categories, including agree or disagree, discursive, advantages and disadvantages, and PRR (Problems, Reasons and Recommendations). For the first kind of rubrics, candidates could not explain both sides of the argument, for example, when given a rubric like this: Some people think that computers could replace teachers. Do you agree or disagree? Candidates should first give their opinion on if they agree with this statement, and then give their explanations on the opinion. For discursive rubrics, what is different is that, candidates could elaborate both sides of the argument or just explain one side of the argument. Examples include: To what extent do you agree or disagree? How far do you agree or disagree...? Discuss both ...and..., and give your own opinion. The following one is an example of advantages and disadvantages rubrics: Many kids are required to take extracurricular courses at weekends and holidays. What are the positive and negative influences of this phenomenon? Candidates must describe both pros and cons of the topic. The last one, PRR, refers to problems, reasons and recommendations. A case in point is Traditional festivals are celebrated by less and less people. Give reasons and possible recommendations to this phenomenon. Candidates should first represent the problem, then analyze reasons, and finally make recommendations or offer solutions. Of course, different teachers have different classifications of the rubrics, but what is important is that teachers should make students aware of the different structures required when writing.

Focusing on rubrics is vital in teaching IELTS writing, because each type of rubric requires distinct structures. In this way, students will pay more attention to carefully examining the rubric, which is of great benefit for their writing; otherwise it is in vain even if the essay is exceptionally fabulous.

B. Emphasis on variety of vocabulary

We mentioned the use of vocabulary in Task 1, which emphasizes the accuracy of making a choice of the words, but in Task 2, the richness of wording is placed more particular emphasis. IELTS writing has high requirements in candidates' abilities in using diversified vocabularies. If, in an essay, the same vocabulary appears no fewer than three times, students themselves will feel their essays not worth reading, not to mention the examiner. In order to avoid this situation, my teacher gave us a lot of training in using diverse forms of vocabularies. For example, when describing something important, most of the candidates use words like important, great and significant, but these words are too common and are frequently-used, which will cause visual fatigue to examiners. So my teacher showed us some comparatively less frequently-used but more favorable vocabulary. For example, we could also use vital, crucial substantial, considerable, pivotal, of great importance to describe something important.

This kind of teaching in IELTS writing will contribute to students' using of diversified vocabularies, which could make the essay more vibrant and get a satisfactory band.

C. Emphasis on generating ideas and listing an outline

Here, ideas mean arguments and evidence. Sometimes, when coming across a topic, students do not know what to say, but they have to rack their brains to write something, which sometimes may not be close-related to the given topic. That is to say, students could not find evidence to support their arguments, or sometimes the evidence is not adequate or potent. According to Harmer (2004, p. 87), "often, even the most fluent writers in their own language need time to generate ideas and to plan what they are going to write". In this case, teachers should use a process approach to writing, which means "teachers should pay attention to the various stages that any piece of writing goes through" (Harmer, 2007, p 326). For instance, teachers could spend time on encouraging students to brainstorm, discussing the ideas and to listing a clear outline, thus students will form the good habit of thinking and organizing ideas before writing.

Harmer (2004, p. 105) mentions that "One way of helping students to get used to the planning phase in exams is to give them, repeatedly tasks which they have to plan for individually". My teacher always gave us some topics and asked us to list the merits and demerits of them in order to train our abilities of generating ideas and asked us to list an outline according to the ideas we generated in pairs or in groups.

All the training activities are to raise students' awareness of the importance of generating creative and potent ideas and listing an outline. Through the intensive training, students' innovation abilities could be improved gradually, besides, when having an outline in one's mind, students could easily complete an essay.

IV. Reflection

A. Too exam-oriented

"Writing" is a very broad word; it includes writing stories, writing diaries, sending emails, and academic writing. But here, what we discussed above is another kind of writing, which is in an examination. Just as I mentioned previously, the reason why teachers give students a lot of vocabularies, sentence patterns is that they hope their students could pass the examination, instead of improving their writing skills and abilities. So the teaching methods above are extremely exam-oriented, which just pursues a high band. It is quite a narrow target, which could not indeed improve students' writing skills at all.

B. Limiting students' thinking

In the process of teaching, most teachers will indoctrinate to students a mass of sentence structures and paragraphs, which are called omnipotent moulds, and ask candidates to learn by heart because they could apply them in their examinations. Additionally, as said above, teachers and students will discuss and generate ideas for some topics in task 2 in class, and then teachers will ask students to memorize these ideas, because sometimes the topic they discussed is just the same with the exam question. The purpose is to copy the omnipotent moulds or even ideas to the examine paper in order to get a high band. There is no doubt that writing needs continuous accumulation, and to memorize some good vocabularies and sentence structures is of some value. However, when all the students are using all the vocabularies, sentence structures or ideas given by their teacher, the value of the essay will be greatly reduced.

First of all, candidates will not work their brains to think about how to describe something or how to give evidence to support or argue against some point of views. They just depend on their teacher and rely on the given vocabularies, sentence structures and even ideas, instead of thinking creatively and trying their own ideas. On the other side, rote learning and indiscriminately copying will make examiners discover the sticking points of the essay, which will be categorized into tgtsoft. Moreover, some candidates in fact do not understand the words, sentence structures or ideas, which sometimes will cause side effect, such as putting the boot on the wrong leg. Meanwhile, these teaching methods are running counter to the purpose and effect of IELTS examination, which is to test candidates' language abilities.

C. Lack of feedback and revision

It can not be denied that in the process of teaching IELTS writing, most Chinese teachers just input repeatedly to students, but rarely see how much students have mastered or give comments to students' essays. So the fact is that students could rarely receive feedbacks of their writing from their teachers. Hyland (2002, p. 81) writes, "Feedback is seen as valuable at each stage to guide students through this process". Only having received feedback from teaches, could students revise their writing and improve their writing. Revision, an indispensable step in writing, is prior to writing, and even I feel that a good essay could not be written, but to be revised. Through revision, the quality of the essay could be enhanced greatly.

D. Excessive emphasis on the complexity of language

As a kind of language test, IELTS undoubtedly will have the requirements on the complexity of language itself, such as the accuracy of vocabulary in Task1 and the richness of vocabulary in Task 2. If there are all elementary vocabularies and simple sentence structures in an essay, it will not get a satisfactory band definitely. But if teachers emphasize excessively the complexity of language in the process of teaching, and suggest candidates use too many uncommon and difficult vocabularies and sentence structures, it runs to another extreme. Just as I said above, a lot of complex vocabularies and sentence patterns, both in Task 1 and Task 2, are given to students, which actually is not in conformity with the tenet of IELTS.

V. Suggestions

Teaching IELTS writing is totally different from teaching writing in a junior middle school or in a university because of its nature of test. So teachers should take an approach of development towards teaching IELTS writing. Through teaching, not only the band should be raised, more importantly, students' writing abilities and writing skills should be improved.

First of all, writing is a way of sharing personal meanings and writing courses emphasize the power of the individual to construct his or her own views on a topic. "Teachers see their role as simply to provide students with the space to make their own meanings within a positive and cooperative environment" (Hyland, 2003, p. 9). In other words, teachers should not plan and prepare everything for students but to give students more space to voice their views actively and confidently, which could enhance students' creativity and thinking.

Hyland (2003, p. 27) states that "Writing is a purposeful and communicative activity that responds to other people and other texts". It seems to me that the goal of language is to convey information on the nose. No matter what the form of test is, informative should be placed in the first place. Therefore, teachers should not emphasize too much on the complexity of the language itself.

Additionally, giving feedback to students' writing should be paid more attention to because it has been ignored for a long time by teachers. Feedback could come from three aspects, including teacher, peer and the writer. "Teachers should respond positively and encouragingly to the content of what the students have written" (Harmer, 2007, p. 331). When giving feedback, teachers could tell students how they feel after reading the essay orally or in a written form and play the role as audience and helpers, effectively evaluating students' writings in an incentive way. When correcting mistakes, teachers could use some correction symbols to point out some grammar or language errors. Besides, Harmer (2004, p. 12) suggests that "it is not just teachers who can respond to students' writing". Actually, students can also give feedback to their classmates' writings. "It has the advantage of encouraging students to work collaboratively" (Harmer, 2004, p. 115). But "perhaps students will find it challenging to give feedback to others' works; teachers must therefore introduce and then nurture new attitudes and behaviors" (Reid, 1993, p. 209), which could also help absorb others' strong points and reduce teachers' amount of work. It may be more beneficial to use peer response and teacher response on different grafts. Just as Liu and Hansen (2002, p. 29) mention that, "The teacher may respond to the first draft and then utilize peer response for the second draft or vice versa". In the last place, teachers should stress the importance of self- revision because when in an examination room, nobody else could help to make changes. "Writers are continuously reading through what they have written and making corrections to ensure both clarity of expression and factual and grammatical accuracy" (Tribble, 1996, p. 115).

Last but not least, from the experience of being a learner and also a teacher in IELTS, I find that reading and writing are inseparable. If candidates just drown themselves in writing, it will only increase the writing speed rather than writing skills. Just as Harmer (2004, p. 29) suggests, "Sometime we do not have to tell the students everything". "The only way is to let them read examples of the kind of thing we want them to do before we ask them to write" (Harmer, 2004, p. 28). Byrne (1988, p. 27) also believes that "Writing has to be preceded and accompanied by wide exposure to appropriate models of written language". What is worthy of mentioning is that, when reading these model essays, students should consider the following aspects: How does the examiner present and argument his view; what argumentation means does the examiner use; how does the examiner arrange the structure; how do the paragraphs connect (cohesive devices); what are the wonderful vocabularies, phrases and sentence structures. It is best to build on the idea of others. The more candidates read and accumulate, the better students could improve their writing abilities.

References:

  • BYRNE, D. 1988. Teaching writing skills. London: Longman.
  • DOFF, A. 1988. Teaching English: A training course for teachers. Trainer's Handbook. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press in association with the British Council.
  • HARMER, J. 1998. How to teach English: an introduction to the practice of English language teaching. Harlow: Longman.
  • HARMER, J. 2004. How to teach writing. Harlow: Longman.
  • HARMER, J. 2007. The Practice of English Language Teaching. 4th ed. Harlow: Longman.
  • HYLAND, K. 2002. Teaching and researching writing. Harlow: Longman.
  • HYLAND, K. 2003. Second language writing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • LIU, J. and HANSEN, J. G. 2002. Peer response in second language writing classrooms. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
  • REID, J. M. 1993. Teaching ESL writing. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Regents/Prentice Hall.
  • TRIBBLE, C. 1996. Writing. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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