Photo by Andy Barbour from Pexels

 

In all the discussions of why IELTS Writing scores are routinely lower than scores for Listening, Reading and Speaking, there is one very important factor that is virtually never mentioned: the placement of the Writing Test within the structure of the overall exam.

I suspect that this relationship is not entirely a coincidence and that, on the contrary, it may play a hidden role in some candidates’ difficulty to achieve their goal in that portion of the exam. Just how large of a role is impossible to say. But it seems plausible to assume that it may sometimes act as a “tip” factor that, when combined with the myriad other factors that make IELTS Writing so challenging (for starters, the need to juggle grammar, vocabulary, syntax, tone, and content), results in just enough errors to push candidates’ scores to the next half-band down—often, I would imagine, from 7.0 to 6.5.

If you haven’t yet taken the exam (note the use of the verb take, not give) the Writing Test is always given third, after the Listening Test (30-40 mins.) and the Reading Test (60 minutes), both of which require intense concentration and attention to detail. Although the Speaking Test is administered last, it is given after a break, and typically after candidates have had a chance to eat lunch.

For the Writing Test, therefore, candidates’ mental reserves tend to be lower than at any other point during the exam: their focus is most likely compromised, and the adrenaline that has carried them thus far is beginning to diminish. As a result, they may have difficulty accessing vocabulary words, grammatical and structures that they could more easily retrieve under better circumstances. Assuming that most test-takers answer the questions in order, these difficulties are likely to be exacerbated in the Task 2 essay, which counts twice as much as Task 1. Presumably, this scenario contributes to the fact that average Writing scores are lower—often by a full band and sometimes even more—than scores in the other three sections, across every country and native language (including English).

To be clear, though: if someone’s English is truly excellent and they are interested in/knowledgeable about the Task 2 essay topic, they will probably write a strong essay regardless. It’s only if they are teetering on the edge of a score band, and/or get hit with a topic about which they have little to say, that the fatigue factor may tip them onto the lower one.

It’s a bit ironic, when you think about it: test-takers are asked to perform the most cognitively demanding task on the exam exactly when they are in the least favorable position to perform it.

Presumably, there is some logic behind the British Council’s decision to structure the exam this way, but it would certainly be interesting to know what that is.

So what to do about this? First, just becoming aware of this issue can help you be more prepared mentally and take steps to pace yourself more evenly so you’re not already exhausted by the time the Writing Test rolls around. That doesn’t mean that you can slack off during the previous two sections, just that if you’re consistently scoring very well on them, you can probably afford to relax a little.

The reality is, though, that you probably need to over-prepare for the Writing Test—and no, that does not just mean writing practice essay after practice essay, without guidance or feedback from a *native* English speaker. Fatigue makes people revert to their old habits, so if you spent years omitting the -s from third-person singular verbs, that’s probably what you’re going to end up writing. Do that more than a few times and combine it with a handful of other errors, and wham! You’re right back at that 6.5.

I first wrote about this in another context many years ago, and it bears repeating here: tests like the IELTS are designed to test the limits of your knowledge—what you have learned to point of being able to do automatically when circumstances are difficult, not what you crammed for a couple of days and then plan to forget when the test is over. It doesn’t matter if you could write a better essay with more time, or if you were less tired, because the pressure is part of the test. That’s not nice, and you can argue about whether it’s fair, but the reality is that if you study or live in an Anglophone country, you will have to communicate with strangers in semi-formal writing on a regular basis, and the faster you can churn out a coherent, basically correct email—even if you’re really tired—the more likely you are to make a good impression and ultimately to get what you want. So view your IELTS Writing prep as a learning opportunity, a chance to get solid on some of the basics you might have missed along the way. Someday, you might be very grateful for that.