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Wednesday, May 25, 2016


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Dear Simon

I understood 'university academic writing' and 'IELTS academic writing', differ from each other in terms of 'rules'. Thank you so much for clarification.

But it would be appreciated highlighting the rules for us.

Dear Simon,

I am learning phrases and collocations such as a healthy diet, a healthy economy, a healthy appetite, a healthy profit. However, I don't understand the phrase "a healthy disrespect for authority". Could you spend your precious time to clarify it please?

Thank you so much.


Hi Simon
I would like to suggest a rider to your comments on the "academic" nature of IELTS.
The official ielts.org web page specifically states that for the academic writing test "Responses to both tasks must be in a formal style."
For the general training it states: "The essay can be slightly more personal in style than the Academic Writing Task 2 essay."
Surely this would suggest that using the first person in the academic module is prima facie a no-no? If the examiners are instructed otherwise then there must be some element of misrepresentation or misdirection.
[There is also a difference in the reading test also with the 'academic' test focusing on more 'university' or 'professional' material]
I do agree that one make a distinction between 'academic' and 'formal' writing style, with 'formal' perhaps not being quite so strict - but should one not presume that the formality in the 'academic' reading texts is a good guide to the degree of formality required in the writing section?
Finally one must wonder why on earth it is labeled 'academic' if in fact that is a misleading misnomer? Is the usage of 'academic' not then a case of "attempts to use less common vocabulary but with some inaccuracy" ie only band 7 ?
I would submit that there are other more appropriate word choices: IELTS general vs IELTS proficiency/advanced/higher .
Simon, I do realise that this situation is not of your own making, and I have no issue at all with the good work you do on this site; but the confusion is very much created by the ielts organizations themselves.
Best wishes and thank you very much for raising this issue.


'In a formal style' does not actually refer to vocabulary. It refers to 'format'. This means that an essay cannot be written in the 'style' of a letter, for example.

Examiners are trained NOT to expect 'academic' writing in academic IELTS. The reason for this is that many people are doing IELTS to get into university, and therefore it is unfair to expect them to be able to produce 'academic' writing expected at tertiary level. It is labelled 'academic' IELTS primarily because it is often used for an academic purpose, and because the reading test, and Task 1 writing is more focussed on tests and tasks candidates might find at university (although in a simple form).

There is virtually no difference between a General essay and Academic essay. In fact, they are marked to the same criteria and examiners are barely aware that they are marking one or the other. You are expected to use first person on occasions because that is the clearest way to express your opinion. Not doing so can create unusual and unnatural language.

Yes, perhaps it could be clearer to name 'Academic IELTS' something a bit different (maybe, IELTS for Academic Purposes), but it is certainly not 'advanced' compared to General. Both tests are difficult.

Hi Simon
Perhaps you could help me on one other point too (maybe as a separate thread).
In the public IELTS band descriptors it states for band 8 "uses a variety of complex structures". My understanding of this is that 'complex structures' would refer to subordinate clauses, non-finite participle clauses, clefting and so forth.
Given that in task two one would expect to see around sixteen sentences, my assumption would be that to provide a 'variety' one would have to include say several different types of 'complex structures' so that at least half the sentences were complex.
My question is: when I look at some of the example/model answers on this site, some do not seem to meet this criterion - too many simple or compound sentences. Am I misunderstanding the band descriptor?
Thank you for your help on this

Dear Simon,
Do you advice the collocations book called "English Collocations in Use" by Michael McCarthy&Felicity ODell?



I'm sure Simon won't mind me answering this. I deal with these questions every day.

The focus in GR is on 'accuracy' and 'variation', rather than trying to show a range of grammatical features which often come across as 'unnatural'. As a general guide, I would expect maybe four to six 'complex' sentences in an essay, and the remaining sentences to be a mix of simple and compound. The public descriptor for both 8 and 9 is actually 'uses a wide range of structures', and the only difference is related to accuracy.

I can assure you that Simon's essays reach a 9 for GR. The structures have 'a wide range' (a variety of types, with some 'complex' sentences),and the accuracy places them in the 9 bracket.

@sjm Thank you for your prompt comments. I just have on small extra query. I understand that universities are typically asking for 7.5 overall with a minumum of 7.0 for linguistically demanding degrees such as BEd, and for post-graduate diplomas; professional registration bodies sometimes require more. Certainly for post-grads and professionals one would expect them to be able to write in a quasi-academic or professional business/consulting style, wherein the use of personal pronouns would be somewhat uncommon, that is, one might expect instead to see "XYZ is strongly recommended" to clear state an opinion. So the question is at the 7-plus level, would the examiner not expect something more expert than an essay littered with "I believe" or "I think" et cetera?

Hi ginger,

It's good that you refer to the marking criteria while studying, but please make sure that you do not overly focus on it. Here are the reasons in my opinion:

Firstly, the descriptions are very concise that it maybe difficult for candidates to fully understand their actual meanings.

Secondly, I think it's better to follow the interpretation of them by experienced teachers, or preferably examiners because they are trained, and they are native speakers who have the qualification of TEFL. As they are clearly aware what are expected in each band, they can help you to work towards your target.

Finally, one of the many miraculous aspects of Simon's model essays is that they are often easier to read than write. For example, can you ensure the same accuracy in your writing? Have you ever paid attention to the way he makes arguments? Have you noticed that he uses a wide range of paraphrasing to link ideas? It really takes time to reach this level, and of course, through persistent practice.

(From a candidate's point of view)


IELTS is an international test designed to test 'communicative ability'. In order to treat everyone fairly, there is no requirement that anybody needs to be 'academically' trained. When we mark writing, we have no idea who the candidate is, or why they need the score. Therefore there is absolutely no expectation of 'academic' style writing at all.

In fact, I would actively discourage it because IELTS is clearly not the place for formal academic writing, as Simon says in his post. I can tell you that most examiners are NOT academics, and are actually 'turned off' by academic style language.



Ginger's questions highlight the confusion that so many students experience, and I think sjm and James have already done a great job in answering them.

One thing I'd add is that "I" is not an "informal" word. You would hear the word "I" in a very formal political interview, or see it in a formal "opinion piece" by a journalist in a high quality newspaper, or in a text book that contains some subjective commentary from the author. You'll even see "I" and "we" used in academic writing at the highest levels in some circumstances.

Also, "x is strongly recommended" doesn't clearly answer the question "do you agree or disagree?" - strongly recommended by whom?

I tend to avoid writing "I think", but there's nothing wrong with phrases like "I would argue that" or "I completely agree with the idea that...".


Finally, to bypass all of this confusion, please just read the lesson above again, and trust me! The word "academic" is very misleading, so it's best to ignore it.

Dear Simon
Just to be clear, I in no way doubt your sincerity and much appreciate the knowledge that you have chosen to share.
To be honest, we could do with more transparency about the marking from the IELTS organizations themselves. One would hope that other websites would correct the FALSE advice that is at present being given eg:
"The Academic Word List and IELTS writing:
These words are exactly the sort of words you need to be able to use in your writing."

Once again thank you for your help and clarity.


IELTS is actually marked in a very simple way (especially Task 2 - Task 1 Academic is a bit more complicated).

The problem happens because someone gets a good score, and believes it was because he or she used a particular word, or used a particular sentence. This rumour then travels around the world and spreads into all sorts of advice that usually has no relevance to how writing in the test is marked.

If you look at all language tests (PTE, Cambridge, TOEFL etc) you can say the same thing - the marking criteria is not 'clear' enough. That's because testing has to be fair to everyone, and should allow for a variety of styles and education levels.

I'll be perfectly clear. Here's what we look for in an essay:

1. Do you answer the question clearly, and give a clear opinion
2. Do you structure the writing well, so that information is logically divided and ideas are joined together in a natural way
3. Do you use words, and groups of words in a natural (native) way that shows some range, and is your spelling accurate.
4. Can you write a range of sentences and make no errors.

That's it.

I agree with sjm 100%.

Hi Simon and guys.

I had confused a little bit about the usage of would/could/might.

General, those worlds are the past tense of will/can/may hence we use them in the past sentences. However, i had read the article that wrote: "Government could restrict licences for any further low-cost routes and place a minimum price limit that would take into account the environmental caused."

I can not understand why they used could and would instead of will and can in this context.

Any ideas?

Hi Simon and guys.

I had confused a little bit about the usage of would/could/might.

General, those worlds are the past tense of will/can/may hence we use them in the past sentences. However, i had read the article that wrote: "Government could restrict licences for any further low-cost routes and place a minimum price limit that would take into account the environmental caused."

I can not understand why they used could and would instead of will and can in this context.

Any ideas?

Hi all,

I have a question:

I am told on writing classes at the university that we are not supposed to use words like "and" and "but" to begin sentences. However, I've seen a lot of sentences beginning with such words on the Economist and the Financial Times, so I'm wondering if it's ok to write like this in IELTS...

Thx a lot.

Hi, Simon

I noticed that there are a wide use of could/can in your example essay. I am a bit confused with the word can/could, may/might, will/would etc. I know they have same meaning, but can you explain the difference? Like when we should use 'could' instead of 'can' ?

Many thanks!

Hi Simon,
I have been learning a lot from your website since 2014. I always follow your suggestions. Can you please help me with this kind of essay which I've given below.

Cambridge 11 test 2 writing task 2:

Some people claim that not enough of the waste from home is recycled. They say that the only way to increase recycling is for governments to make it a legal requirement.

To What extent do you think laws are needed to make people recycle more of their waste?

My Intro:
It has been demonstrated that there should be a policy by government to increase recycling habit of waste products. This particular worry came in mind to some people because less amount of waste products are recycled from home.

How can I write a balance answer to this kind of essay? and what about my intro part?
Thank You

Hi, Simon.

I have read your example essays for many times, and I still find it hard to write a good essay by myself. When I'm writing my own essay, I can't think of the good vocabulary and collocations that you used, especially in a short testing time. Do you think I need to recite some of your example paragraphs so that I can really remember and write from memory?

Hi Simon! I find your site very useful especially to those who will be taking the IELTS. I'm happy to know your tips and advises in approaching every task. I would just like to ask which type of English should I use for spelling in the writing parts. Should it be the American English or the British English? Most practice questions I see from different sites are written in British spelling. I was just wondering if this will have effect on the scoring if I write in American English. Thank you for the response and information.

Hi Simon,

I was initially very sceptical of your "high school" writing approach. I believed in a complicated, "academic" style writing with flashy words and complex sentences.

I got a 710/800 in the SAT Creative Writing (which put me in the 97th percentile) and a 29/30 in the TOEFL writing section, both of which are way harder than the IELTS. I also got many As in my university assignments. I thought I could ace the IELTS Writing part with ease.

Well, I was wrong.

With that mindset, on the IELTS test day I confidently penned a monstrous 400-word essay with multiple metaphors, symbolism, lengthy sentences, and analyses of complex real-world examples.

I ended up getting a band 7 for writing (L9 R9 S8.5).

I was very surprised. I was not saddened at all; I knew where I stood with my writing. What I came to understand is that the IELTS encourages clear, concise and coherent writing more than anything else. It really is a high school writing task.

If I ever take the IELTS test again, I will make absolutely sure to follow the simple and effective strategy that you advocate.

Great comment Minh Ha! Thanks for sharing your experience.

I'd like to publish your comment as a blog post at some point if you don't mind. I think it would help many other people to read that the "complex academic" approach doesn't work as well as they expect.

Dear Simon,
I am still a little bit confused about using 'I' and 'We' in task 2. My teachers and friends all recommend that I should avoid using all of them, cause they may be informal and personal. Could you please explain about this case and should I freely use these words in my writing?
Thank you for your help

Hello sir, please tell me that whether prima facie could be used in IELTS writing task or not?


When the question uses a personal pronoun (e.g. Do YOU agree or disagree?), it is asking you to give a personal answer! The advice from your teachers and friends is correct for university assignments, but not for IELTS.

By the way, "I" is a 'personal' word but it isn't an 'informal' word.

Remember: at university, you are supposed to use research (not your own opinions) to build an argument. But IELTS questions ask for your opinions - you're not using research.



I don't recommend using Latin phrases like that. It looks like you're trying to show off with some memorised language. Also, phrases like that don't fit the style of an IELTS essay.

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