Principled Washback – TOEFL, IELTS, and Academic Writing

I have already written about teaching students formulaic language to help with their writing, especially in terms of organization, unity, and coherence. However, I may have made a fundamental mistake in assuming that preparing students for test-based and academic writing at the same time was a good idea. In other words, I fell victim to the assumption that test-based writing had anything in common with academic writing, and hence there was room for transferability of skills (in either direction).

As I pointed out in my last post on IELTS and academic writing, it turns out I was wrong. but perhaps not entirely wrong. It really depends on which test students will be attempting. The research I summarized in my last post provides a good model by which to judge how academic a task is. According to the research, an academic task should have the following elements:

  • Genre: it should be an essay, case study, review, literature review, research report or some other academic genre
  • Information source: It must be written based on information outside the student. It must require understanding primary or secondary outside sources and not rely on prior knowledge (opinions, values, feelings).
    • Correctness: Related to the information source, content must have right or wrong answers. (note: this is based on my own interpretation of the research above)
  • Rhetorical function: The essay should employ evaluation, description, summarization, comparison or explanation. It should avoid hortation (should questions).

For the IELTS, as will be explained below, Writing Task 2 (which carries the most assessment weight) bears little resemblance to academic writing expected in university coursework. TOEFL iBT writing, on the other hand, may be more aligned with university work, as my anecdotal evidence shows. Both of these findings have clear implications for EAP and principled washback. Nevertheless, I still believe that, by covering essential academic skills such as argumentation, logic, and formulaic language, students will become better prepared for test-based writing en route to academic writing (and this is the point of principled washback). This belief is supported by evidence that EAP programs without a test focus are just as effective as IELTS prep courses.

Below, I briefly outline which tests I think are and are not related, compatible, comparable, or conducive to academic writing. Finally, I list a few essential skills that are common to both and should be taught in any EAP writing course.

IELTS Task 1 – Yes

For IELTS Task 1, students look at visual data and must summarize it, focusing on major trends and explaining differences. This clearly employs academic skills and represents an academic task common to many disciplines. One important aspect that makes this task align more with academic tasks is the fact that students must be able to interpret, evaluate, and compare information external to their own knowledge. Most academic tasks require working with knowledge external to the student while most test-based tasks only work with student knowledge. Indeed, this is one of the major criticisms of test writing discussed in my previous article. Unfortunately, while IELTS Task 1 represents an academic task, the value and importance to the overall IELTS score is overshadowed by Task 2.

IELTS Task 2 – No

Task 2 has been discussed at length here.

TOEFL iBT Reading-Listening-Writing Integrated Task – Yes

For the first TOEFL iBT writing task, students are given a passage to read. Then listen to a brief lecture. The reading and lecture are on the same topic, but offer differing or contradictory perspectives . The reading passage reappears alongside the writing task. The writing task is almost always: “Summarize the points made in the lecture you just heard, explaining how they cast doubt on points made in the reading.” Sometimes it will ask you to explain how they “challenge”, “support”, “answer”, or “strengthen” some proposition. Students are given 20 minutes to write a 150-225 word essay.

For this task, I think ETS were trying to do their best simulating academic writing while controlling for content-specific knowledge. In other words, they seem to have tried to focus on certain academic writing skills such as summarization, evaluation, explanation, and argumentation while limiting the need to understand subject-specific content (which would negatively affect the validity of the test). In addition, this task relies on understanding both textual and aural outside sources and is therefore a good simulation of academic work.

TOEFL iBT Independent Writing Task – No
TOEFL PBT Test of Written English – No

Both of these writing tasks are similar in nature to IELTS Task 2 above and therefore do not represent academic writing.

Essential Skills

So, how can these sorts of tests be addressed in the EAP classroom? As I have argued before, although EAP is just as effective in preparing students for these tests as IELTS prep courses, and therefore we could choose to avoid test prep all together, we still must contend with the fact that students demand of us preparation for both academia and tests. We need to deal with these demands in a principled way, teaching essential skills that prepare students for both, or teaching academic skills disguised as test skills. So, what kind of skills should we be teaching?

  • Organization – Getting students to understand logical organization, that is how to organize elements to present ideas in a clear manner no matter the genre or rhetorical function, is a major part of ESL and EAP writing. Whether students are writing a compare/contrast essay, an argumentative essay, or a research paper, organization still follows a basic logic – topics need to be introduced, background needs to be given, a thesis (central idea) needs to be formed and then supported, ideas need to connect back to this thesis, and the paper needs to be summarized and concluded. So, if students understand the basic requirements of English writing, they can be applied and expanded upon further whether it is for a test or for a multi-page research project.
  • Formulaic language – To help with organization, cohesion, unity, and flow, students should learn to use academic phrases and syntax that can aid them in making their writing clear and logical. These are applicable in almost any domain. It is worth taking the time to teach students how to utilize the Academic Phrasebank, which can help them greatly in their academic writing careers.
  • Visual Literacy – Students need to learn to understand and interpret data from charts, graphs, and other visual sources of information. This is key not only for IELTS Task 1, but across the disciplines. Some ideas include working with infographics or having students make their own.
  • Argumentation – Students need to learn how to make a sound argument in their writing. Argumentative writing is a primary writing skill on most test tasks and is also very common in academic writing. Having students work on making logical arguments supported by their own ideas is a great practice task. Having them further support their ideas through research moves the task into the academic realm. Being able to make a clear and concise argument based on outside information is a key that students must have. If students are being prepared for making logical arguments using evidence, then students should have no trouble at all “dumbing down” their skills on tests and writing solely from prior experience. The point here is not so much the information source, but making logical arguments and learning to fully support a thesis.
  • Writing from sources – Clearly, writing from sources is the sine qua non of academic writing. Students should be able to comprehend sources, especially secondary sources, and then learn how to summarize them, evaluate them, compare them with other sources, and synthesize them in order to use them in their writing. These essential skills are imperative for academic success, and along the way students will become prepared for writing on the TOEFL iBT as well.

The idea here is to teach EAP mostly as usual, but be willing to explicitly explain how EAP skills will be useful or can be modified for tests. Some activities, such as listening or reading comprehension, can be modified to incorporate elements of testing, especially if those elements are conducive to learning academic skills (e.g. reading comprehension questions or understanding implied meaning through paraphrase). Students will feel they are getting more bang for their buck and you can rest assured you are not falling victim to true washback and are therefore cheating your students’ education.