Why Do IELTS Test Takers Fail To Achieve Their Desired Band Scores?

Why Do IELTS Test Takers Fail To Achieve Their Desired Band Scores?
The International English Language Testing System (IELTS) is an English proficiency test that is one of the prerequisites for educational institutions and immigration authorities in the English-speaking world. Test takers around the world tend to easily manage their required band scores in the Speaking, Listening, and Reading components of IELTS. However, they struggle with the Writing component of IELTS.

Therefore, researchers have been investigating this part of the test globally, especially the Cambridge English Language Assessment, British Council and the IDP IELTS Australia – all three of them global partners and owners of IELTS. Recently, I looked into writing anxiety to unearth some potential problems in this area with the aim of resolving them.

The term anxiety refers to “a worry or fear about something’’ and “the feeling of being very worried about something.” Many students from diverse backgrounds aim to study abroad or immigrate to English-speaking countries, but in the context of IELTS, many of them struggle with the essay writing, aiming for a band 7 score but ending up with 6 to 6.5, which is not sufficient for admission with substantial grants or immigration purposes.

The root cause of this writing anxiety is commonly attributed to ineffective teaching methods and poor learning practices. For this reason, preliminary research emphasizes the need for instructors to improve their teaching skills and adopt a better approach to teaching essay writing. Previous studies also highlight lack of awareness amongst test-takers about the criteria for IELTS essay writing which leads to lower scores.

My study, however, investigates Writing Anxiety in English as a second language (ESL) IELTS test takers in Karachi, Pakistan. Participants of this study come from diverse backgrounds and aim to study or immigrate to English-speaking countries – Canada and Australia - more commonly. This research studies various sources of writing anxiety that might hinder students’ desired band scores, leading to multiple test retakes. The findings are significant for instructors and learners, as they can adopt new teaching approaches to address these challenges in IELTS writing.

Existing research indicates that conservative teaching approaches, self-doubt, social threats (Ys Cheng: January 2004), and lack of writing habits (Selma Kara: January 2013) are some of the sources of anxiety. Additionally, faulty teaching practices and personal doubts about writing also lead to anxiety. Senior students tend to handle anxiety better than beginners (Emrah Ekmekci: 2018 –The Reading Matrix) due to more writing practice, according to the literature review.

As far as solutions go, creating a comfortable and threat-free environment, encouraging daily writing practice, and providing constructive feedback have been suggested serving to alleviate writing anxiety. Moreover, female writers tend to have lower anxiety levels than male writers, according to educational research. Despite previous research, writing anxiety persists globally, leading to the focus of this study on IELTS test-takers at specific institutions. This research aims to have positive implications for pedagogical practices and learners' attitudes, helping them achieve better results in their IELTS exams.
As far as solutions go, creating a comfortable and threat-free environment, encouraging daily writing practice, and providing constructive feedback have been suggested serving to alleviate writing anxiety.

The study collected data through a Google Forms survey with 35 questions, addressing student writers' skills and instructors' teaching practices for IELTS essay writing. The responses were converted into pie charts to analyze the agreement and disagreement levels. Overall, the study shows that most IELTS candidates and instructors are aware of the necessary skills and approaches for essay writing. However, a minority of respondents pointed out some areas that need improvement.

Some student writers lack confidence (12.1%) and fail to read and understand the given topic (3.0%) before writing. A small percentage do not brainstorm ideas (2.6%) or use pre-writing techniques (15.8%). Some students do not check the relevance of main ideas with the topic (5.3%) or seek external sources for ideas (5.3%). There are also issues with paragraph composition (8.1%), topic sentences (10.8%), proofreading (8.1%), and discussing work with others (27.0%).

Furthermore, a few students dislike learning from their mistakes (5.4%) and are discouraged by negative comments (24.3%). These negative attitudes must be affecting their performance and leading them to poor grades in the IELTS exam.

The study, furthermore, shows that most of the participants agree with the effectiveness of both students' and teachers' approaches to learning and teaching IELTS essays respectively. However, there are some areas for improvement highlighted by the research. For instance, a small percentage of students lack confidence when starting to write (12.1%), some do not read and understand the given topic beforehand (3.0%), and others fail to employ pre-writing techniques (15.8%). Some teachers focus excessively on grammar (45.9%), rather than composition in IELTS classes.

On the positive side, most students believe they receive relevant reading activities (89.2%) and links to reading and listening material (83.8%) from their teachers. However, some students feel overwhelmed by feedback on their mistakes (16.2%), and a few suggest providing ideas when they go blank (5.4%). Additionally, some students desire more individual assistance (8.1%) and healthy discussions with their teachers (5.4%).

Regarding feedback, most students receive it based on IELTS writing task-2 criteria (94.6%) and are provided with IELTS writing task-2 bands descriptors (97.3%). Overall, the research indicates that both students and teachers generally follow the right approaches, with only a small number of areas needing improvement in their practices and skills.

The study concludes that the problem of lower band scores in IELTS writing remains unresolved despite the findings. The teaching and learning practices within the studied population are not flawed. However, further research is needed with a larger sample size or a different population to explore other related areas of the issue.

Pedagogically, the study provides valuable insights for IELTS instructors, validating and confirming the effectiveness of their current teaching methods. Those already following these standards should continue, while others are encouraged to adopt the tested and reliable approach to teaching IELTS essay writing.

The author is an M.Phil English scholar and an IELTS Instructor.