Research Bites: IELTS and Academic Writing Compared

EAP teachers have to contend with two goals that are often at odds with each other: preparing students for academic writing and preparing students for high-stakes academic tests such as the IELTS and TOEFL. While not mutually exclusive, it is important to consider the nature of these tests and what should and should not be incorporated into EAP pedagogy. I have been arguing elsewhere that both elements can be combined in the classroom in a way that fosters academic skills primarily and test-taking skills secondarily. Again, it depends on what is being tested.

The IELTS test has grown in popularity in recent years and, as its popularity has become more global, it has become a greater concern for more students, and therefore, more EAP teachers. An important question to consider is: should we spend valuable class time preparing students for IELTS writing tasks? For Task 1, I would argue yes, as it clearly represents an academic writing skill: interpreting and summarizing visual data. For Task 2, which holds more weight in terms of test scores, maybe not. The research below explains why.

Moore, T., & Morton, J. (2005). Dimensions of difference: a comparison of university writing and IELTS writing. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 4(1), 43-66.

The researchers in this article compared a corpus of IELTS tasks to a corpus of first-year undergraduate writing tasks in order to understand the relationship between IELTS and academic writing. The looked at all tasks using the following categories:

Category Description IELTS Tasks University Task
Genre Genre has many definitions, but in this study it was considered the name given by the task itself to the product being created. Examples include essays, literature reviews, experimental reports, case studies, research reports, research proposals, summaries, exercise, and short answer All IELTS tasks asked students to “present a written argument or case” based on some topic. This is similar to an essay, though they are not exactly the same. Tasks varied widely but the most common were essays (requiring students to make an argument, 58%), case studies (10%), and exercises (8%).
Information Source The information source was the “type of information that was to be used in the completion of the task,” which includes prior knowledge (your own ideas), as well as writing from primary (including student-collected data) and secondary (including research reports, monographs, etc.) (p. 51). All are based on “prior knowledge,” meaning all essays require students to write based on their own ideas, opinions, and anecdotal evidence. Most writing is based on secondary sources (55%), followed by primary sources (18%), depending on discipline, or a mix of the two (21%). Prior knowledge as a source was found to be infrequent (3%) and worth very little in terms of assignment weight.
Rhetorical Function This category is similar to the standard ESL writing “genres” taught: comparison, description, evaluation, explanation, prediction, hortation (should-like questions), instruction, and recommendation. Writing tasks were based on evaluation (100%), with hortation included in 70% of those tasks. Only a handful required other functions. Varied functions, with many assignments requiring multiple functions. Most common were evaluation (67%), description (49%), summarization (35%), comparison (35%), and explanation (28%). Recommendation (23%) and hortation (15%)were found among some tasks, but only a small amount.
Object of Enquiry  This is the subject that is being written about. Here, objects were seen as phenomenal (real world subjects such as “events, actions, processes, situation, practices”) and metaphenomenal (abstract subjects such as “ideas, theories, methods, laws, etc.”) (p. 61). All writing tasks involve phenomenal subjects, especially dealing with the “social responsibilities of various agents of authority”: the government, wealthy nations, scientists, parents, etc. (p.63) Most tasks are phenomenal (61%). However, a number were also metaphenomenal (39%).

What similarities do academic writing and IELTS share?

Both require the ability to organize an essay around an argument, evaluation of some proposition, and writing about real world entities. Of course, the IELTS solely had these elements while academic writing simply includes these elements among a whole host of others.

What differences do academic writing and IELTS have?

There are clearly two main differences between academic writing and IELTS. First, IELTS writing tasks are narrowly designed and represent only a handful of features while academic writing is varied and robust. Second, and perhaps most importantly, the source of information is markedly different. For the IELTS, all information is based on one’s prior knowledge – one’s thoughts, feelings, and opinions. To have a writing task on the IELTS require more would be unfair. Academic writing, on the other hand, requires an understanding of knowledge outside one’s self. This is an important difference because it means academic writing involves a number of other skills (reading, comprehension, evaluation, synthesis) and, in terms of the written content, there are right and wrong answers. For IELTS, there are no right or wrong answers. IELTS is a measure of basic language proficiency, not knowledge (p. 54).

Conclusions and Implications

  1. Academic writing is clearly very diverse. The IELTS represents only a narrow view of it. By focusing on IELTS writing tasks, one risks “presenting students with a confusing model of university writing” (p. 64).
    • The authors recommend, if one wants to make a single type of writing central in their course, focusing on writing essays based on readings.
    • The authors state that “Task 2 has a major influence on students’ emerging
      understandings of what academic writing in anglophone universities fundamentally
      entails” (p. 46). To equate Task 2 with academic writing does students a major disservice.
  2. Academic writing and IELTS writing contain important differences that make them mostly incompatible. IELTS writing is more akin to writing a “letter to the editor or newspaper editorial” than what a typical undergraduate might encounter (p. 64).
    • The authors recommend any IELTS prep be separate from EAP classes because of the nature of these differences. An integrated program may be “worthwhile” but may limit university-bound writers.
    • A test-prep only focus in no way prepares students for academic writing.

What now?

How does this effect the idea of principled washback? That is the subject of my next blog post.