Here's a question that someone asked me yesterday (I've rewritten it in my own words to make it shorter):
I've heard that examiners in China are lowering scores when candidates use prepared writing templates. The linking words "firstly, secondly, finally" are considered as 'template words' for writing task 2, so how can we replace them to avoid getting a lower score?
First, there are a couple of problems with this question:
- It assumes that examiners in one country have decided to create their own rules about how tests should be marked. This is not true! All examiners are trained to use the band descriptors in the same way.
- It implies that the use of just three simple words (firstly, secondly, finally) will automatically bring your score down. This is also wrong! Your score will not be lowered on the basis of just three words.
Next, let's look at what the band descriptors say about this issue:
- The band descriptors refer to "over-use of cohesive devices" at band 5 level. In other words, if you use too many linking words or template phrases, you're in danger of entering band 5 territory for "coherence and cohesion", which is worth 25% of your score.
- On the other hand, if we look at the descriptor for band 7, we can see the phrase "uses a range of cohesive devices appropriately". This tells us that we do need to use some linking words, but only where they help the flow of ideas.
- No specific examples of good or bad linking or 'template' words are given in the band descriptors, so there is nothing inherently wrong with using "firstly, secondly, finally". Personally I dislike the word 'moreover', but I've never lowered a candidate's score just because he/she used this word once or twice.
To sum up, here's a more direct answer to the student's question:
Examiners in every country (not only in China) want to read essays that are full of 'real content'; they don't like essays that mainly consist of 'phrases for any essay'. I think it's true that too many candidates rely on templates, and I believe that people should focus on preparing topic ideas instead.
Having said that, you do need to link and organise your ideas, and simple words like "firstly, secondly, finally" can help you to do that. These words will only have a negative effect on your score if you overuse them, or if you use them wrongly. But if you still want to avoid using "firstly, secondly, finally", there are plenty of other ways to organise your ideas (click here and here to see some examples).