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By Trang Thu Thi Nguyen, a doctoral candidate in her third year at the University of Auckland. Trang presented these thoughts as a conference paper at the Higher Education Research Development Society Conference (July 205, 2019, Auckland), highlighting one challenge for international doctoral students writing in English as an Additional Language. 

The international language test IELTS (International English Language Testing System) has become part of the educational scene in many countries, particularly when it is an internationally recognized test for admission to university education.

In Vietnam, IELTS was first introduced about 20 years ago and it fitted in quite smoothly with the country’s exam-oriented educational system. Since then, as the importance of English for a globalized world has been recognized, the popularity of IELTS has continued increasing. IELTS-oriented language training has become a big business. A large number of private language centres offer IELTS preparation courses as part of their English training programs to meet the demands of a growing number of Vietnamese students who want to undertake tertiary study in English-speaking countries.

In the university sector, some language education institutions have set an IELTS score of 6.5 as a graduation requirement for English-majored students. For example, this is the usual standard required in Australian universities now. The test’s washback impact on English Language Teaching in the Vietnamese context is quite visible. IELTS preparation has been integrated into extended academic writing programs for English-majored students. English instructors have referred to types of IELTS essays to devise academic writing syllabi. After the IELTS writing rubrics were publicized recently, its band descriptors have become a guideline that helps English teachers shape their instruction. It is thought that the rubrics represent examiners’ expectations and aligning instruction with the rubrics would help students achieve high scores in the IELTS academic module writing tests.

But I propose that the test is limited as an indicator of preparedness for doctoral study. In their research of into IELTS preparation in New Zealand, Read and Hayes (2003) discovered teachers’ reservations about IELTS. Teachers in this study were concerned that students who passed IELTS with band scores of 6.0 or 6.5 may still be poorly prepared for writing demands in Anglophone academic cultures. The band scores, whether global or analytical, were seen as problematic. Researchers argue that the complex features of writing cannot be reduced to narrow descriptions of a single rubric (Storch, 2009, p.106). The opinionated feature of IELTS writing seems to contradict guides for university academic writing (Moore & Morton, 2007, p.198). Doctoral writing requires critical analysis of literature and arguments which demonstrate theoretical savvy. The authenticity of IELTS writing tasks is, therefore, questionable.

I would like to extend the cautious perspectives towards IELTS with my personal observations. The chance to immerse myself in the academic culture of doctoral writing has prompted me to recognize that there are divergences between my previous IELTS-based writing training and what writing experts suggest for academic writing. I want to illustrate such divergences with concrete sentence-level examples.

When I studied IELTS writing tasks, I was advised to frequently use linking words. As instructed on an IELTS training website, “the examiner needs to see a range of linking words in your essay to award you a high score for the criterion of ‘Coherence and Cohesion’ which is 25% of your mark”. But, in fact, linking words are not employed as frequently in academic writing as I used to think. Ideas are internally linked to each other. The internal link is created by the logicality of flow. It does not need to be explicitly displayed by connectors. While connectors are useful, an over-supply may interrupt fluidity (Hinkel, 2003).

What was encouraged in my previous academic writing training was the extensive use of complex sentences. We were provided with what was called “a golden rule” for IELTS writing. The rule says that “if there are 12 sentences in an essay, 2 sentences are simple sentences, 3 are compound sentences and the rest are complex sentences”. These ideas are not totally applicable to doctoral writing. Long sentences sometime lack clarity and cause readers to get lost. Short sentences may be more powerful in some cases, particularly in delivering emphasis (Carter, personal communication, November 26th, 2018). In fact, when to use simple or complex sentences depends on rhetorical purposes.A combination of different sentence types would be desirable.

Using passive voice is not as highly recommended as I had thought. When I did writing courses in Vietnam, I was fed the idea that English was characterized by the high frequency of passive voice in written discourse. English instructors provided exercises and tests which required learners to change active sentences into passive sentences. The drill of transforming active sentences into passive sentences created a false impression that passive sentences are more appropriate in academic writing than active sentences. Why didn’t they ask learners to make changes in the reverse direction? As Sword (2007) comments, we want to make our academic writing have life instead of existing as the living dead—see her TED talk on “zombie nouns”. Active verbs and active voice energize our writing. Too many “to be” verbs would turn our writing into static prose.

The above divergences may have little to do with the IELTS writing test itself but more with the Vietnamese teachers’ interpretation of the test and its assessment criteria which in turn impacted their instruction. However, instruction which is test-oriented and aims at helping students to pass the IELTS test only may end up teaching students writing habits that are not useful. Though IELTS writing tasks are a good start for academic writing training, it is essential to raise awareness that the power of the test in preparing students to postgraduate academic writing should be interpreted with caution. Language teachers should not let IELTS dominate their instruction. As for students, “passing” an IELTS test does not necessarily lead to success in academic writing tasks at the tertiary level in general and doctoral level in particular. Old habits die hard but it is necessary sometimes to unlearn what has been learnt.


Moore, T. & Morton, J. (2007). Authenticity in the IELTS Academic Module Writing Test: A comparative study of Task 2 Items and University Assignments. In L.B.Taylor & P.Falvey (Eds.), IELTS collected papers: Research in speaking and writing assessment (pp.197-248). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Read, J. & Hayes, B. (2003). The impact of IELTS on preparation for academic study in New Zealand. In T. Robyn (Ed.), International English Language Testing System (IELTS) Research Reports 2003 (pp.153-191). Canberra: IDP.

Hinkel, E. (2003). Adverbial markers and tone of L1 and L2 students’ writing. Journal of Pragmatics, 35(7). 1049-1068.

Storch, N. (2009). The impact of studying in a second language (L2) medium university on the development of L2 writing. Journal of Second Language Writing, 18, 103-118.

Sword, H. (2007). The Writer’s Diet. New Zealand: Pearson.

Sword, H. (no date) Beware of nominalizations (AKA zombie nouns). Available at https://ed.ted.com/lessons/beware-of-nominalizations-aka-zombie-nouns-helen-sword