The IELTS general module is made up of two tasks – general letter writing and essay writing. The IELTS academic module doesn’t have a task about letter writing, tasks there are limited to essays based on arguments and description, summarization or explanation of visual data given in graphical or tabular forms.
As my title suggests, I will talk about the general letter writing format and try to throw a further insight into it, which could, in turn, help you score more. Read on and find out!
For a quick understanding – it has 20 minutes to be completed, three bands to be scored from and you have to use a minimum of 150 words.
To start with, there are three types of letters
- Formal letter
- Semi-formal letter
- Informal letter
The best part here is about the letter structure. It remains the same – however, the way the letter is written; the greetings, tone, vocabulary and a few other factors make all difference.
I will begin by explaining to you about the three types of letters, the ways to go about it– the opening, closure, mid – content, etc.
As the name suggests and as all of us know, these are letters written for work purposes or a professional purpose. Topics like requesting information, job applications, complaining about a product or a service, etc. fall under this category.
Opening – Dear Sir/Madam (it could be a person you’ve not met, one whose name you don’t know, say when you apply for a job)
Closing – Yours faithfully
It falls somewhere between the formal and the informal version.
It is mostly addressed to someone, who is not a friend or a relative, complains to your landlord, explaining things to your neighbors and society, making suggestions, recommendations, etc.
You would write a semi-formal letter when, say, you invite your boss to your child’s birthday party.
Opening – Dear Mr. Ronald /Mrs. Natasha /Ms. Jane (you know the name, and in most cases, where the name can be used)
Closing – Yours sincerely
Letters addressed to a friend or a relative, or if you wish to thank someone, apologies, ask for advice, etc. fall in this category.
Opening – Dear Joseph / Delara (you know the person well, and address the person by their first name)
Closing – Best regards, warm wishes, cheers, etc.
When you read a question, a situation – you should make out what type of letter it is. As mentioned earlier, the structure is more or less the same. However, there are a few other changes you need to make with the letter –r e.g. the tone of a formal letter has to be kept formal – there should be concise usage of words in here.
Now that you’ve understood the basics let me tell you about the basic structure of a letter. The layout. Repeat: More often than not, the basic structure remains the same.
- Introduction/Opening – Greeting
- Paragraph – 1 Purpose
- Paragraph – 2 Explanation
- Paragraph – 3 Request
- Closing – Ending
- Sign Off
Say you’ve received a letter from your bank, asking you to acknowledge the receipt of a new bank card. But, the card was missing from the envelope. Now, in a letter to the bank’s head office, mention
- Explain why you are writing the letter
- Express concern about the missing card
- Ask the bank what they intend to do
- You NEED NOT mention any addresses
Just for a second, think of the type the letter will be! Which type? A card is missing; it expresses concern.
Here is a sample letter!
The starting of the letter has to always mention the purpose. In the case given above, the bank manager could be a person who receives heaps of letters a day and so, if the meaning of the letter isn’t clear, safely assume that the person will not make an effort to read it.
Even if it is in an email format, the subject, the essence becomes essential. The issue always has to be explicitly mentioned, isn’t it?
Now, let’s try and understand the contents of the letter wrt. out basic structure
The greetings, the opening part is done in a proper, formal way.
In the very 1st line of the letter, we show the purpose of the letter – mention the card as missing/stolen and also mention consequences. The 2nd paragraph, in turn, expresses concern about the missing card. In the 3rd paragraph, we request the bank to take action.
In the closing part, we put a nice sign – off. We mention a ‘thank you in advance’ and end it with yours faithfully and name. Please DO NOT put autographs or signatures. Also, don’t say XYZ. Always mention your name, unless stated.
It is also essential to understand how a letter is marked. There are three bands allotted to the letter section, and we would want maximum marks in the writing module. The judgments are done across four parameters: task achievement, coherence & cohesion, lexical reasoning and grammatical range and accuracy.
In simple words, it is achieving the task you’ve been given. Here, it is about writing a letter. To get level – 8 band, we need to ensure all requirements of the task are sufficiently covered. It goes on to say that we’ve understood the purpose of the letter, considered all the points and have made the letter accordingly.
In this case, all the 3 points, relating to the structure have been mentioned clearly and adequately. But hey! How to make that little transition from the 6 – band to the 8 – band?
If you seem to be stuck at 6, you most probably don’t have an understanding of the basic rules. Your tone may not be appropriate or consistent or might have lacked the simple ‘task achievement’ part.
When you write the purpose part of the letter, you convey to the examiner that you’ve actually understood the question and that you know what to do with it. Now, the tone would be appropriate. Also, write more than 150 words, but ensure that it’s not too long!
COHERENCE & COHESION
Coherence implies a logically organized flow of ideas. Cohesion suggests that you have linkers (one idea expressed after the other clearly, no haphazard arrangement of thoughts) in place, cohesive devices in place, etc.
The coherence & cohesion part is perhaps the easiest to maintain. Say, in case of the letter above, you can’t tell the manager what to do until you’ve mentioned the problem or the situation to him.
A lower band could mean effective use of cohesive devices, but then the cohesion between them could be faulty. Work on learning the concept than cramming the idea – it is generally caught by the examiner.
It is basically, using the correct word in the right place. But is it about high – level vocabulary or words not used in day- to- day life?
I can tell you that this is not about using high – level words or using tough – to – pronounce vocabulary. One can show their ideas by using colloquial, synonyms, etc. In case of the letter – words like tattered state, writing in connection, prove dangerous, enclosed, acknowledge receipt, etc. are words we use in daily life, there’s nothing we don’t know the meaning of.
Here’s a tip to get a level up wrt. Using simple words in better ways, to improve your lexical resource. When you read a lot of letters, or good samples – try to use the jargons, colloquial, etc. in your daily life, practice with them. Similarity, when you write, check for the same.
GRAMMATICAL RANGE & ACCURACY
The range part involves using a wide range of structures – active voice, passive voice, simple, complex and compound sentences, etc. However, NO use of interrogatives! The accuracy part is simple – to avoid grammar errors.
Keep in mind that the tone of the letter has to remain the same.
Errors generally made here pertain to the subject-verb agreement, single – plural forms, etc. For example, please reply back ASAP – you never reply back. Say, before two years ago – you don’t put an ago there. Also, learn how to use your punctuations well.
To get an 8 – band, use a wide range of structures, keep your sentences error-free, and at the most, there should only be occasional errors.
To keep your letter error-proof, let me give you a nice hack! When you write, check your content after each paragraph. Reading and reviewing 3-4 sentences is more comfortable than going through an entire article.
Now, as you’ve seen some basics and a thing or two about marking basis, let’s understand a few do’s and don’t’s.
- Use the proper opening and closing sentences. For this, understand the type of letter – frame it accordingly.
- Ensure that you’re through with your word limit – at least 150 words. Sometimes, due to lack of words or ideas, we forget to fulfill the minimum word count. In turn, the marking could go negative wrt. Task achievement.
- Purpose Identification – The examiner should know that you’ve understood all questions as asked and that you show the purpose, explanation and request.
- Go out of focus – This is probably the thumb rule, for I believe that once you’ve understood this – you’re more than 80% through with your IELTS. Repeat, answer only what is asked for. Take one point at a time, and explain it.
- Use incorrect spellings – It is something which people avoid, but occurs now and then, mainly due to lack of writing practice.
- Use incorrect lexical resources – People tend to reuse big words, don’t understand when to place words etc. For an, e.g. the words ‘important’ and ‘crucial’ are often used interchangeably, but there are situations where you need to understand what to put. If we take an example, ‘He was in a crucial state’ – Here you will not replace crucial with important. The application of a correct word in a proper sense is more important (not crucial) than its meaning.
- Make it extremely long – Yes, you have to write more than 150 words in 20 minutes, but 1500 could be catastrophic for the examiner. Also, understand that you could be negatively marked if you use less than 150 words.
- Spend more than 20 minutes – I recommend carrying a stopwatch to help you relaxed and aware of the time. Divide the 20 minutes. In the first 5 minutes, read the question, understand what it is about, understand the purpose, jot down words which come to your mind. In the second stage, take 10 minutes to draft the letter entirely. In the last 5 minutes, proofread the essay and see to it that the word count is maintained.
- Use any abbreviations or symbols – Don’t use don’t! Instead, use does not. Avoid abbreviations. Also, avoid usages of symbols or commonly used abbreviations, e.g., i.e., vis – a- vis, etc., et al and so on.
- Bullet points! Write in the form of paragraphs.
So, what are the things to keep in mind?
You should have a clear understanding of the layout, take care of minor errors which could cost you, understand the purpose before writing, read model answers from authentic sources.
As it is a paper-based test, make sure that the writing is clearly legible and that the examiner should be able to read and understand each word correctly. How to improve here? Write! Write! Time travel and write letters! Ditch technology!
Visit popular websites like IELTS tutorials.online to avail free practice tests with a quick sign up. It also lets you view sample answers, understand the assessment pattern, etc. Also, analyze letters of varying bands to know what mistakes can be avoided.
To see the difference between types of English used in formal & informal letters, Click here
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