Working with struggling readers: what ACT tutors need to know

Working with struggling readers: what ACT tutors need to know

Image by GOLFX, Shutterstock


When Breaking the Code, the reading-instruction group I helped found last summer, held its most recent workshop last week, I stuck an announcement in my newsletter almost as an afterthought. A test-prep tutor had participated in our previous workshop and seemed to have gotten a lot of out of it, and it occurred to me that others might be interested. Nevertheless, I was a bit taken aback at the number of inquiries I received from ACT tutors—more emails, incidentally, than I got from elementary-school teachers.

In retrospect, this should not have been at all surprising, but I guess that given all the current backlash over standardized testing, I neglected to realize how many students are still getting tutored for college-admissions exams, and how many tutors are encountering the exact same kinds of reading problems I repeatedly saw. The issues I discuss here do also apply to the SAT (and any other standardized test), but I’m focusing on the ACT here because it brings a set of specific issues into particularly sharp focus.  (more…)

Informal words and phrases to avoid in IELTS Task 2 essays

Informal words and phrases to avoid in IELTS Task 2 essays

After reading a certain number of Band 6 #IELTS Task 2 essays, one (or rather I) can’t help but notice certain patterns. In particular, the persistent use of certain informal words, phrases, and abbreviations is quite striking.

I’m not the first person to point this out, or to post about it on the internet, but given sheer frequency with which they’re used, it’s clear that the message isn’t getting through.

So I decided to compile the greatest hits into one very short list. 



Bottom line: if you stop using the informal terms, you’re taking a real step towards Band 7; if you keep on including them, expect your score to stay where it is. These are very high-frequency words and constructions, and they are relevant to pretty much any question you might be asked.

In fact, I would actually wager that it’s possible to accurately gauge, in only a few seconds, whether an essay has any chance of earning a 7 simply by scanning it for the terms in the left-hand column, plus standard punctuation, capitalization, and spacing. 

Let’s look at a comparison:

Band 6-6.5 

Small businesses play an important function in keeping economy of local communities safe. In fact,local communities are vital because companies rely on them to sell their products, services etc. Thus without these small business, lots of factories will close which will cause workers to lose their jobs and be unable to pay for stuff e.g. rent and food. 

Band 7

Small businesses play an important function in keeping economy of local communities safe. In fact, local communities are vital because companies rely on them to sell their products and services. Thus without these small business, many factories will close which will cause workers to lose their jobs and be unable to pay for necessary items such as rent and food.

I strongly recommend keeping this list next to you when you write practice essays for as long as you need to. Underline the “formal” words as you write them to reiterate their importance and remind yourself to keep on using them.

There aren’t many quick fixes when it comes to IELTS Writing, but this comes pretty close. 

Parallel structure with verbs: keeping track of forms

Parallel structure with verbs: keeping track of forms

Image by Charlotte May from Pexels


In theory, parallel structure is a relatively easy concept to master: it simply refers to the fact that items in a list, as well as constructions on either side of a conjunction such as and or but, should be kept in the same format (all nouns or all verbs).

In very simple sentences, e.g., I went to bed late but woke up early, this rule is generally quite simple to apply.

When sentences are long and contain a lot of information, however, things get a bit trickier. Keeping forms parallel requires the writer to keep track of and understand how words and phrases in different parts of a sentence relate to one another.

One very common issue involves the use of main verbs after modal verbs such as canshould, or might. As anyone who speaks English at a reasonably high level knows, main verbs are never conjugated in this construction, e.g., one would say it might work, not it might works. But when the two verbs are separated, there’s a common tendency forget about the first one and to stick an -s on the second.

This is an issue that appears in the writing of both native and non-native English speakers, but it’s particularly rampant in IELTS essays. It may also be tested in GMAT Sentence Corrections. (more…)

Articles with “few”, “majority”, and “number”

Articles with “few”, “majority”, and “number”

When I was putting together my IELTS grammar guide, I read dozens of practice essays, primarily by students who had scored in Band 6 on previous exams. It quickly became apparent that many test-takers were struggling with similar grammatical concepts, and one of the most common ones involved the use of articles with a specific group of “quantity” words.

On one hand, this is entirely understandable: a(n) and the are notoriously tricky for people whose native languages do not use articles the way English does, and it is often not fully clear to them why these words even need to be used at all. As a result, they may not realize how omitting them can change the meaning of certain statements and/or make their English seem unnatural.

In everyday life, this is unlikely to seriously impede communication; however, in terms of the IELTS—and particularly IELTS Writing—it can create real problems. Phrases involving words like majority and number are relevant to most IELTS Task essay questions (Task 2 as well as Task 1 Academic Training) and may need to be used multiple times within a given response. Furthermore, these terms are frequently used in introductions, and errors there can subtly influence a reader’s impression of an entire essay—a poor first impression can be hard to counteract.

So that said, here is what you need to know.


Few vs. A Few


Both few and a few are always used with a plural noun, e.g., few people or a few people.

However, each term has a specific and a separate meaning; few is not simply a shortened version of a few. If you do not use the correct form, you may unintentionally write things that do not make sense, or that imply something other than what you intended to imply.

Few = hardly any; has a negative connotation: indicates unpopularity

A few = a small number, several; has a neutral or positive connotation: indicates slight to moderate popularity


The vast majority of errors involve omitting the indefinite article and writing few when a few is needed.


Correct: Most scientists believe that the dinosaurs went extinct because of an asteroid, but a few researchers (= a small number of researchers) have suggested that a comet was responsible.


The sentence serves to introduce conflicting perspectives according to a standard formula: most people believe x, but others people believe y. The point is that although the minority viewpoint is held by only a small number of people, it does have some popularity.


Incorrect: Most scientists believe that the dinosaurs went extinct because of an asteroid, but few researchers (= almost no researchers) have suggested that a comet was responsible.


This version does not really make sense: the sentence is intended to imply that the “comet” theory has some support, but the use of few eliminates this implication.


If you want to suggest that a group is really quite small, you can also say just a few or only a few.

You cannot, however, say just few or only few. These constructions do not exist.


Correct: By midnight, most of the guests had left the party; just/only a few people remained.

Incorrect: By midnight, most of the guests had left the party; just/only few people remained.


On the other hand, few without the article is used to emphasize that hardly anyone or anything belongs to a particular group.


Correct: Although it is reasonable for politicians to listen to the opinions of business leaders when writing environmental regulations, few people (= almost no one) would suggest that manufacturers alone should be responsible for determining policies that affect natural resources.


The use of few is logical here since presumably manufacturers would be more interested in using up natural resources than in preserving plant and animal habitats.

If the writer had written a few instead of few, the contrast between the two parts of the sentence would be lost, and the statement would not make much sense.



The Majority, A Majority


Majority = most (>50%)

This word is always used with an article: the is standard, although a is generally acceptable as well. It has a slightly less strong implication, but for practical purposes, the two versions are the same.


Correct: The majority of people now do at least some of their shopping online.

Acceptable: A majority of people now do at least some of their shopping online.

Incorrect: Majority of people now do at least some of their shopping online.


When majority is modified, however, a is used. Again, the article is required; it is not replaced by the adjective.


Correct: A large majority voted in favor of the new policy.

Incorrect: Large majority voted in favor of the new policy.



A Number, The Number


Number must be used with an article, either a or the. Both are typically followed by of + noun.


A number = many; can be used alone or with a modifier such as large, small, etc. 

The number = the quantity   


Correct: A number (= many) people said they would come to the party but then changed their minds at the last minute.

Correct: A substantial number of people said they would come to the party but then changed their minds at the last minute.

Correct: The number of people who said they would come to the party but then changed their minds was quite substantial.

Incorrect: Number of people said they would come to the party but then changed their minds at the last minute.







“Can” vs. “could”:  simple present vs. conditional

“Can” vs. “could”: simple present vs. conditional

Over the past several months, I’ve read an enormous number of essays written by non-native English speakers, and in addition to the expected difficulties, I’ve noticed a handful of recurring issues that rarely get addressed — I suspect because most native English speakers don’t realize that the particular concepts in question can get confused in those particular ways.

One of the most common of these issues is the confusion between the simple present and the conditional, and more specifically between can and could.

Errors involving these forms are often fairly subtle; they’re not absolutely wrong in the same black-and-white way as errors involving, say, confusion between the present perfect and the simple past (e.g., I have graduated from university last year rather than I graduated from university last year), and I think that’s also why they tend to get missed. Using could correctly is often more about implication and context than adhering to a clear-cut rule, which is why even very advanced speakers may still struggle with it.

To be sure, there is a more formulaic usage: “if” clause is in the past, then the conditional must be used in the main clause (e.g., If I left home 15 minutes earlier, I could get to class on time). But when there isn’t an “if” clause to serve as a clear indicator that the conditional is required, things sometimes get a bit muddled.

I recently came across a perfect example of a not-quite-correctly-used could on an Internet forum, and I’m going to use it to illustrate my point. In a discussion about a restaurant, a person who generally has excellent English wrote a sentence similar to the following

Three-star restaurants don’t normally serve just pasta with sauce. La Pergola is a three-stars (sic) Michelin restaurant in Rome, and there you could eat dishes like battered squash blossoms over shellfish and saffron with caviar. 

The use of the conditional here isn’t a gross error, but it is “off”. The rest of the sentence is written with simple-present verbs (don’tserveis), and the shift to the conditional disrupts that consistency (parallel structure) unnecessarily.

Presumably, the writer assumed that the conditional was needed because she was describing something the reader was not actually doing, and the sentence contained an element of suggestion. The issue, however, is that a real situation is being described: the dish in question is actually on the restaurant’s menu, and it is possible for a diner to order it. As a result, the simple present is more appropriate, particularly in context of the surrounding verbs.

The conditional, on the other hand, is used only when there is a “but”, either stated or implied: it is used to an signal that an action/situation might not happen, or (very often) that it probably won’t happen. Either way, the emphasis is on the theoretical aspect.

I could buy a new iPhone phone now, but I’d really rather wait until the next version is released in a few months. (= I probably won’t buy the phone now) 

There are several major steps that local governments could take to reduce car usage among commuters. For example, they could encourage the establishment of new bus routes in poorly served areas; they could also fund the construction of additional subway lines.  (= This is theoretical discussion; the writer is clearly making suggestions) 

So, to sum up:

Can = real situation; something that currently exists or is doable 

Could = suggestion, theoretical situation (one that might not/probably won’t occur)

10 reasons you might be in stuck in Band 6 in IELTS Writing

10 reasons you might be in stuck in Band 6 in IELTS Writing

If you’re studying for the IELTS, you’re probably aware that obtaining a high score in Writing tends to be more difficult than obtaining a high score in Listening, Reading, or Speaking. In fact, it is common for Writing scores to be lower than the others by a full band, sometimes more. The statistics kept by the British Council indicate that this pattern holds true across countries and native languages, including English.

In many cases, candidates score in the 8-9 range without too much trouble in Listening and Reading, and often above 7 in Speaking, but then find themselves stuck—sometimes repeatedly—at 6 or 6.5 in Writing.

This is not entirely surprising. Expressing oneself in a foreign language generally is more challenging than understanding one, and unlike in speaking, tone of voice and facial expressions cannot be used to convey or support written meaning—if a person doesn’t say precisely what they mean, the reader will become confused. Moreover, while everyday language is acceptable for the speaking test, the Writing Test requires the application of more formal grammar, vocabulary, and syntax to discussions of relatively sophisticated concepts. This is not an easy task, even for native English speakers.

Despite this, the persistent gap between Writing scores and Listening/Reading/Speaking scores leads to frequent claims that the IELTS is a scam designed to extract money from candidates by forcing them to continually re-take the exam. With very few exceptions, however, the reality is that essays that receive Band 6 scores are written at a Band 6 level.

Although there is only a half-band difference between a 6.5 and a 7, it is also the difference between B2 level (essentially advanced intermediate) and C1 (lower advanced). By definition, an “advanced” user of English is one who has mastered beginning- and intermediate-level material, and so to earn a 7, you must demonstrate a solid grasp of the fundamentals, plus show that you are capable of going beyond them. It does not matter how many high-level words or advanced constructions you attempt to include; if enough of the basics aren’t right, you’ll stay stuck in Band 6.

That all said, common issues in Band 6 essays tend to fall into a clear set of categories. Here are 10 of the top ones:


1) You’re translating from your native language*


To make a very broad generalization, Band 6 writing often sounds as if it were translated from the writer’s first language, whereas Band 7 writing sounds as though it were composed in English (which does not mean that it must be perfect).

This can be an enormous leap to make because it requires you to stop thinking about English as something that exists in relation to Chinese, or Portuguese, or Hindi, or Korean, etc. (or that has the same structure as your first language and merely uses different words), but rather as a separate entity that exists on its own terms. If you really want to achieve fluency, this is a mental barrier you must eventually break through. Watch television or films in English, and repeat what the characters say. Read out loud, even if you’re alone. Practice getting the sound and the rhythm of the language in your head so that you can start to make it your own. Learning grammar isn’t just about memorizing specific constructions; it’s also about developing a sense of how words are put together to convey thoughts.

*Note that Anglophones typically say native language or first language, not mother tongue.


2) You don’t follow basic conventions in spacing, punctuation, and capitalization  


Repeat after me: Writing an essay isn’t like texting, writing an essay isn’t like texting, writing an essay isn’t like texting…

Interestingly, few of the lessons and tips you’ll find online emphasize the sheer importance of having your writing look correct. But do not underestimate the power of appearance.

So, for the record, the standard formula for using punctuation in English is as follows:

word + punctuation + 1 space + word

Do not add omit or add spaces.

In the example below, notice how this rule is applied each time a punctuation mark is used: 

In the past, people shopped in physical stores. Today, they make many of their purchases online.

You absolutely cannot write like this:

In the past,people shopped in physical stores  .Today , they make many of their purchases online.



  • Proper names (people, places, names of months, companies, brands)
  • The first word after a period/full stop
  • The word I

Do. Not. Capitalize. Anything. Else.


3) You under-, over-, or misuse linking devices


You may know that the use of linking devices (i.e., transitional words and phrases such as therefore, however, indeed) is a big part of your Coherence and Cohesion mark. If you don’t use them, or under-use them, you certainly won’t score well. Conversely, you shouldn’t try to stick one of these words at the beginning of every sentence, whether it’s needed or not.

But there’s another piece that often goes overlooked: to achieve a high band score in this area, your use of transitions must be fluid and natural—that is, the words/phrases should serve only to connect your ideas and should not draw any attention to themselves. A common mistake among Band 6 scorers is to alter standard phrases in order to make them seem more sophisticated, often in ways that are very un-idiomatic (e.g., writing on the dark side instead of on the other hand) and that cause the reader to focus on them instead of on the ideas they connect.

Linking devices are formulas; the language isn’t intended to be original, and you won’t earn points for trying to make them into something they’re not.


4) Your sentences are too long/out of control


Yes, to obtain a high Writing score, you must include some “complex sentences”; however, a “complex” sentence is essentially a sentence that contains different types of clauses. Such sentences can actually be fairly short and straightforward. For example, Because so many people now shop online, numerous local businesses have closed is a complex sentence.

Many IELTS candidates, however, mistakenly believe that “complex” means “very long and complicated” and add clause after clause. The result in run-ons that feel sloppy and out of control, and that can be difficult for a reader to follow—indeed, this is one of the hallmarks of Band-6 writing. Try to limit your sentences to three clauses (phrases that contain a subject and verb).

You have to master being simple and clear before you can get sophisticated. Otherwise, you’re likely to end up with a mess.

Another very common problem involves comma splices: two sentences connected by a comma rather than a period/full stop or semicolon. Most people (native English speakers included) have trouble here not because they don’t know the rule but because they don’t really know when a statement is and is not a grammatically complete sentence. In particular, two specific constructions tend are generally involved in this error. Because they are so often written incorrectly, many writers do not realize they are wrong at all. I strongly urge you to read this post because you may be making this mistake without even realizing it.


5) You (mis-)use too many big words  


When the IELTS marking guidelines refer to “less-common” vocabulary, they mean high-content, topic-specific words such as carbon-neutral emissions in an essay about the environment, or balcony, usher, and box officein a letter about going to a concert.

They do not mean that you should write things like in a highly expeditious manner (or worse, in highly expeditious manner) instead of rapidly. You don’t get extra points for using fancy words where common, to-the-point ones are more appropriate. The point of the IELTS Writing Test is to show that you can use English as a vehicle to convey your ideas in a clear and coherent manner, not to demonstrate that you’ve memorized a dictionary.

Besides, using obscure vocabulary won’t compensate for grammar/syntax errors; on the contrary, it will make those mistakes even more obvious.

It also won’t help you if those fancy words aren’t used quite correctly. As a general rule, the less common the word, the more specific the meaning, and the fewer the situations in which it can acceptably be used. So stop trying to memorize a zillion random collocations/idioms, and focus on learning high-content words associated with common IELTS essays topics, e.g., city life, transportation, family, education, and the arts. Good use of these words + solid basic grammar and syntax = Band 7.


6) You have trouble with articles


If your native language does not use definite articles (a/an) and/or a definite article (the), you may be underestimating the importance of these words in English and their outsized potential to affect your IELTS Writing score.

This is a serious problem because articles are used constantly, and English does not sound like English without them. An issue in this area can easily translate into mistakes in the majority of your sentences, leaving you almost no room for additional errors and bringing the grammar part of your score so low that you cannot compensate for it in other areas. 

Unless you have already been told by a native English speaker from the UK, US, Australia, etc. that your article usage is solid, find someone from one of those places, and ask them to check just your articles. Even if you don’t have much money, you can find a cheap tutor online. A native speaker will be able to tell instantaneously whether something is amiss in a way that non-native teachers often cannot.

If you’re not sure how well you know your articles, you can test yourself here.


7) You have trouble with common tenses


Contrary to popular belief, there is no requirement that you use particular “advanced” tenses or forms such as the passive voice in your IELTS essays. And at any rate, errors in Band 6 essays tend to stem not (only) from the incorrect use of complex structures but from mistakes in high-frequency intermediate structures. Again, an advanced user is by definition someone who has mastered lower-level material, and so you must demonstrate a solid understanding of the most common tenses in order to obtain a Band-7 score.

It is not enough to know how common tenses are formed, or to be able to recite rules for how they are used—you must be able to apply your knowledge, under pressure, in a novel situation.

Common areas of difficulty include:

  • The present perfect (has done) vs. the simple past (did), particularly with since and for.
  • The overuse of the conditional (they could/would do), often where the simple present (they do) is more appropriate.
  • The use of the future instead of the conditional in requests and polite constructions (I will like instead of I would like).


8) Your language is too casual, too formal, or both


Much of the confusion in this area stems from the use of the term “formal” essay. In reality, the type of writing required for the Task 2 essay (and Task 1 General Training) is better described as semi-formal—truly formal language is reserved for official documents such as legal contracts. Misunderstandings about what constitutes “formal” language are often responsible for the overuse of obscure excessively fancy language. To get a sense of what “moderately formal” language looks/sounds like, check a serious newspaper/news site or magazine such as the BBC or The Economist. That’s the approximate level of formality, or register, you’re aiming for.

The flip side of this problem, of course, is the use of overly informal language. As a rule, you should not use contractions in Task 2 essays (e.g., write do not rather than don’t), and you should also avoid using too many phrasal verbs—especially ones with get—since these tend to create a more casual tone. The same goes for a lot (borderline, but many or numerous is safer) and vague/informal words like things and stuff.

In IELTS General Training, overly correct language in an informal letter is also a fairly common—though under-discussed—problem. Anglophones do not normally use formal conjunctions such as therefore, and certainly not hence, when communicating with friends (they say so instead), but this is the type of thing that tends to turn up in Task 1 letters. If you typically use English only at work or in the classroom, you need to get comfortable with a more casual level of language—watch some English-language television shows or read some popular novels and pay attention to the dialogue.

Finally, you must be careful not to mix formal and informal language, e.g., In some impoverished nations (formal), a bunch of kids have to quit school (informal) and work in factories rather than In some impoverished nations, many children are forced to withdraw from school and work in factories. This is another very common issue in Band 6 essays.  


9) You go off-topic or don’t answer questions fully


Remember that you must pay close attention to the how the question is worded and answer exactly and completely what is asked.

If you are asked to give examples, plural, you must provide more than one example. If you are asked to include a personal example, include a personal example. If you are instructed to give your opinion, you must make clear which side of the argument you agree with or, in the case of “to what extent questions”, how strongly you agree/disagree with a particular viewpoint. Two-hundred-and-fifty words is not a lot of space—aim for clarity, not subtlety or complexity.

In addition, the relationship between your examples and the point you are making must be clear—the reader should not have to make an effort to follow the logic of your ideas.

To avoid these problems, you should plan to spend about five minutes brainstorming and outlining before you begin to write. Knowing how your essay will be organized before you begin to write will help you keep your argument focused and thorough, and help you avoid the classic Band-6 disorganized “feel”.  It will give you a chance to think of examples that might not be immediately obvious, and to select your strongest ones—it will also give you a chance to get past the panicked “I can’t think of any ideas” stage.


10) You don’t develop your examples


A very common mistake among Band 6 scorers is to simply list every idea they can think of to support their argument, without stopping to develop any particular point. As a result, their paragraphs read more like lists of points, jumping from idea to idea, often without transitional words or phrases between them.

A good guideline is to spend 3-5 sentences (depending on length) developing each major point—essentially a paragraph. That gives you enough space to present two solid examples, and to elaborate on them in sufficient detail . Any less than that and you won’t be able to discuss your point in sufficient depth; any more, and you risk adding irrelevant details/repeating yourself and taking up space that could be better used to advance your argument.