One question I’m often asked is, ‘is there a GRAMMAR test in IELTS?’ On the face of it, it seems the answer is ‘no’. There are only four IELTS tests: Reading, Writing, Listening and Speaking. However, did you know that a good understanding of GRAMMAR is essential in each one of these?
How Grammar is Tested in the Speaking and Writing Exams?
Examiners are trained to assess candidates speaking and writing using a set of descriptors. For both Writing and Speaking there are four descriptors and each of these carries equal weight.
In Speaking, the Marking Descriptors are PRONUNCIATION 25% FLUENCY & COHERENCE 25% LEXICAL RESOURCE 25% and GRAMMATICAL RANGE & ACCURACY 25%.
You can view them here:
In Writing, the Marking Descriptors are TASK ACHIEVEMENT/RESPONSE 25% COHERENCE & COHESION 25% LEXICAL RESOURCE 25% and GRAMMATICAL RANGE & ACCURACY 25%.
So, for both Writing and Speaking, GRAMMAR accounts for 25% of your overall score.
What exactly does Grammatical Range and Accuracy Mean?
As the title suggests two aspects of GRAMMAR are assessed; RANGE and ACCURACY.
While the grammar descriptors for Speaking and Writing are a little different, the criteria is basically the same. Below is a non-official table that combines the main points of the public descriptors for both Speaking and Writing. You’ll see that for each band the criteria is based on 2 things: 1) the range of sentence complexity (RANGE) and 2) the number of errors and how much they affect communication (ACCURACY).
To summarise even further, we can roughly say:
- To score bands 7-9, you must be able to use a wide range of GRAMMAR , and make only minor mistakes in writing/speaking. In addition, these errors shouldn’t affect communication.
- For bands 5 and 6, you should be able to make some complex structures but there would be more mistakes, and occasionally the meaning might not be clear.
- For 4 and below, there would be frequent errors, lots of misunderstandings and a very limited range of grammatical structures.
Let’s look at RANGE and ACCURACY individually.
Range of Grammar
The RANGE means the variety of different grammatical structures you use. For example, when telling a story do you use all the narrative tenses: past simple, past continuous and past perfect? Or when speculating about the future are you able to use the second conditional in an extended way e.g.
‘If nobody had to work because machines did everything, I think people would get really depressed. They wouldn’t have a purpose anymore and would lose their sense of self-worth. They might also be more isolated without a workplace to go to every day.’
You’ll see that the GRAMMAR descriptors talk about ‘complex sentences’ and ‘subordinate clauses’. A conditional sentence would be considered complex because it contains a subordinate clause (the one starting with if). Subordinate clauses generally begin with subordinating conjunctions, such as for, as, since, therefore, hence, consequently, though, due to, provided that, because, unless, if, once, while, when, whenever, where, wherever, before, and after. They can also begin with relative pronouns such as that, which, who, whom, whichever, whoever, whomever, and whose. to learn more about subordinate clauses, click on the link below:
Flexibly, Naturally and Accurately
The GRAMMAR descriptor for a band 9 state that the candidate uses structures ‘flexibly, naturally and accurately’. Native speakers tend to use a combination of short/simple and long/complex sentences in both speaking and writing. Typically, it’s common to start with a short sentence to gain attention and then add detail with a more complex sentence. A lot of short sentences sounds unnatural, and a lot of long complex sentences makes you harder to follower.
TEST TIP – Impressive Grammar
As someone who teaches and assesses English for a living there are a couple of grammatical structures that I am always impressed by when I hear a student using them correctly.
IMPRESSIVE GRAMMAR 1 – Perfect Continuous Tenses
All perfect continuous tenses describe an activity that started BEFORE the main time and continues to it. The continuous aspect often gives the idea of the action being repeated or ongoing e.g. ‘We’ve been waiting forever’, ‘I’d been looking forward to seeing them for ages’, ‘I’ll have been working here for 6 years in January’.
It’s easy to use find a way to use a Perfect Continuous tense in the Speaking exam. For example, if you are asked about a hobby tell the examiner how long you have been doing it for ‘I’ve been learning to surf since I was 8,’ or when talking about your home town say how long you have been living there, or for your job how long you have been doing it.
In writing, Present Perfect Continuous tends to work very naturally in the introduction to Writing Task 2 ‘Scientists have been searching for a cure to cancer for years,’ ‘Town planners have been trying to solve traffic problems since the advent of the motor car’ etc.
IMPRESSIVE GRAMMAR 2 – Third Conditional
The third conditional is what native speakers use to talk about regrets or sliding door moments. For example, ‘If I hadn’t eaten so much on holiday, I wouldn’t have gained 4kgs’ or If I’d taken the other job, I’d have had to relocate to Switzerland’. Like the perfect continuous tense, it’s rare that I hear it used correctly by non-native speakers so I’m always impressed when I do.
Once you know how to use the third conditional, it’s easy to slip it into both the Speaking and the Writing test. In Part one of the Speaking test, use it to talk about a personal regret, in Part three of the Speaking test, you will most likely be asked a hypothetical questions e.g. ‘How would the world be different if smart phones hadn’t been invented?’ Or questions about the past e.g. ‘How do you think your grandparents experience of growing up was different to yours?,’ which you can answer with a third conditional sentence.
MMMenglish has a great video explaining the third conditional that you can watch here
Accuracy of Grammar
ACCURACY of GRAMMAR means 1) selecting the correct GRAMMAR for the meaning you want to convey e.g., Past Simple to talk about a finished event in the past, and 2) the absence of mistakes. In the Writing tests, accuracy also extends to punctuation.
If we look at the difference between a GRAMMAR score at band 5 and a band 6, we can see a clear difference. A student scoring a band 5 would make mistakes that sometimes made it difficult for the examiner to understand. A student scoring a 6, meanwhile, would also make mistakes but these would rarely impede communication. For band 7 and above, it is expected that any mistakes won’t affect comprehension at all, while for candidates scoring a 4 and below, the examiner may need to work quite hard to interpret what the candidate is trying to say.
TEST TIP – Eliminate your Careless Grammar Mistakes
Are there GRAMMAR mistakes you know you always make but they’ve become habit? For example, do you always say ‘I am agree,’ or ‘it depends of’? These habitual mistakes are the easiest ones to address.
Once you know that you regularly make the same mistake, you must become a policeman of it. Every single time you make the mistake, immediately self-correct. At first, it will seem really annoying to you (no one else will care, honestly) but within a week, you’ll stop making the mistake and start using the correct form. Then you can identify another GRAMMAR mistake and do the same thing to eliminate that one.
You can also ask friends or teachers to correct your GRAMMAR sometimes. Perhaps organise a Conversation Exchange with someone. This is typically when you agree to speak for an hour in your mother tongue and then an hour in your partner’s mother tongue so that both of you can practise. However, you could also exchange an hour of English conversation with another skill e.g. of gardening or sewing. Any native speaker will be able to notice and correct your errors (even if they can’t explain why they are wrong).
How Grammar is tested in the Reading and Listening exams
Question Types that Test GRAMMAR
For some question types GRAMMAR is key for ensuring the correct answer. For example, any question where you have to complete a sentence or summary using NO MORE THAN X WORDS requires you to consider how the GRAMMAR of the sentence impacts your choice of answers.
Look at the example below:
First of all, we can identify that every answer from 15-21 must be a noun or noun phrase. We know this because the preceding word is ‘a’ or ‘the’ or in the case of question 16, the structure ‘as much ______ as’ requires a noun.
Now look at question 18. We all know that letters are sent in envelopes. However, our GRAMMAR knowledge tells us that envelope can’t be the answer because, the preceding word is ‘a’, not ‘an’. So probably we need a word to describe the envelope e.g., white, brown, quality.
Look also at question 16. ‘Much’ tells us that we are looking for an uncountable noun e.g. impact, not a countable noun e.g. suggestions. If the answer were an uncountable noun, the phrase would be as ‘many _______ as’.
Finally, look at question 17. The preposition of comes after the gap. Therefore, the answer must be a noun that collates with of, e.g. appearance, colour.
Another aspect of GRAMMAR to look out for is verb forms. Look at the following example:
Students need _______ to reception on the first day. Students arriving late must ________ directly to their course student to avoid _______ penalised.
- ‘Need’ is following by the infinitive so the answer could be ‘to come’ but not ‘come’ or ‘coming’
- ‘Must’ is a modal verb so is followed by the bare infinitive so the answer could be ‘go’ but not ‘to go’ or ‘going’
- ‘Avoid’ is following by -ing so the answer could be ‘being’ but not ‘be’ or ‘to be’.
Good GRAMMAR knowledge will also help you avoid many of the pitfalls and red herrings that the IELTS questions contain. For example, be alert to the difference between may and will, should and must, some, many and all, sometimes and frequently etc. These along with negatives e.g.’ can/can’t (especially in the listening) can completely change an answer, especially for T/F/NG and multiple choice questions. Look at the following example, taken from the book IELTS Preparation & Practice Second Edition – Reading and Writing, General Training from OUP:
BARE-HEADED BIKER DIES IN HELMET PROTEST RIDE
New York. A motorcyclist taking part in a protest about helmet laws has died after he went over his handlebars and hit his head on the pavement. Philip Contos, 55, probably would’ve survived the accident on Saturday in Onondaga if he was wearing a helmet, police said.
Mr Conto was riding a Harley-Davidson where he braked and lost control. New York is one of 20 states that require motorcyclists to wear helmets. Lobbying by motorcyclist groups has led some states to repeal helmet laws.SOURCE: REUTERS.COM
Look at question 6. The text says: (he) ‘probably would’ve survived the accident on Saturday in Onondaga if he was wearing a helmet’. If you just read the last 5 words ‘he was wearing a helmet’ you might think that the answer is True. However, the second conditional – the ‘if’ – means that actually, the answer is False. This might seem obvious in a Reading, but the same trick in a Listening is much harder to spot.
Also, look at question 10. ‘At times’ is the key here as this means sometimes, but not always. This matches with ‘led to some states’ in the text so the answer is True.
Answers: 5:T, 6:F, 7:NG, 8:T, 9:F, 10:T
Transferring answers to the answer sheet
Finally, so many points are lost by the careless transfer of answers to the answer sheet. It is so important to double check your GRAMMAR as you do this. In particular, check carefully for things such as third person singular and plural ‘s’ or whether you need to include an article or a preposition. Remember, it’s fine to cross out and change your answers. Just make sure they are legible.
If you found this blog useful, check out our other blogs in the series such as Why Pronunciation is important in the IELTS Test (and what you can do about it)
Or enquire here about studying IELTS at Lexis English.
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