One the of the challenges which Asian students face is developing their understanding of sentence-level English grammar. Frequently, Asian students arrive in the UK with English language training that has prioritised paragraph-level grammar, particularly adverbs like ‘however’ and ‘although’ used to link or modify subjects between sentences. These linking adverbs are useful, but students still need competence with basic sentence-level grammar to write successful academic essays. This blog post focuses on some of the grammar areas which international Asian students tend to struggle with, particularly students with an IELTS academic writing score of 4.5-6.
IELTS 4.5-6.0 academic writing students: connecting ideas differently within and between sentences
In my teaching, I often find that students use the same grammar to connect ideas within sentences as they use to connect ideas between sentences that are within the same paragraph. This is a fundamental error and the source of much-confused writing. Essentially, students overuse the pronoun ‘it’ as a sentence-level connector. There are several correct functions of ‘it’, but the relevant one here is to reference an idea in a previous sentence in the paragraph. So, for example – ‘The clear relationship between worker social satisfaction and productivity was proven by the Hawthorne experiments. It is a conclusion which has had long-lasting effects on motivation strategy.’ Here, ‘It’ refers to the main subject of the previous sentence and is correctly used.
The mistake which students make is to use ‘it’ as the principal way of connecting ideas within a sentence. So, an example student sentence is – ‘Maslow’s theory provides a basic idea of worker motivation, it is an important concept in modern business’. A correct version of the same sentence is – ‘Maslow’s theory provides a basic idea of worker motivation which is an important concept in modern business’. In this version the relative pronoun ‘which’ is used to link the subject (Maslow’s theory) with the additional information (an important concept in modern business). This pattern, where ideas in sentences are joined by relative pronouns (which, that, who, whose) is a basic principle in English language grammar.
IELTS 4.5-6.0 academic writing students: using basic sentence structure
One of the effects of making basic errors in sentence level grammar is that one basic error creates a need for more complex grammar as a remedy in the following clauses of the sentence. A good rule to remember is to use simple grammar to convey complex ideas. A complex idea does not create a need for complex sentence composition and grammar in English.
This relates to another frequent problem at sentence level in student essays. A basic English sentence follows the structure – subject phrase + verb + object phrase. Using this structure creates discrete units of language which grammar can link together relatively easily. However, when students make errors with ordering these basic language units they then struggle with the advanced grammar which is the only way to remedy the situation. For example, an example correct sentence could be: Equity theory is one theory deployed by managers to create improved performance and motivation. A student version of this with errors could be: Motivation is creating performance for managers when using equity theory. To pick one of the errors in this version, the subject and object are reversed, creating the need for skilful use of the passive voice, but the verb ‘to create’ doesn’t translate naturally into the passive voice, and needs to be changed. The point here is that following basic grammatical structure in sentences makes it less likely that you will commit grammar errors.
IELTS 4.5-6.0 academic writing students: using the present perfect tense
The present perfect tense in English has a wide variety of uses, but one of the most common is to describe an unfinished action. For example: I have been running regularly for a year. In this example, the use of the present perfect tense implies that the action (running) will continue (into the future). In general, Asian students are quite proficient at forming this tense with the auxiliary verb ‘have’, but often underuse the tense in their essay writing, principally because the present perfect tense doesn’t have an equivalent in Chinese and some other Asian languages. In Chinese, verbs do not change their forms to indicate time, instead, time-related adverbs (yesterday, before) are inserted to indicate the relevant time period.
One area in which errors with the present perfect tense lead to problems is when students use examples mixing the historic and recent behaviour of organisations as supporting information in their essays. For example: During its early stages, Starbucks was successful partly because it used franchise-led growth to create a uniform and high-quality product. However, more recently the firm has struggled with higher costs due to recycling legislation and increases in the minimum wage. All too often, international students make errors with the underlined verb (has struggled), wrongly using the present simple form (struggle), or the past simple (…the firm struggled with…). The adverbial phrase used in the sentence (…more recently…) makes both these incorrect.
In conclusion, international students with a writing score of 4.5-6.0 often need to improve their IELTS grade by a band or a half band in an academic year, or on an intensive summer-long pre-sessional course. One way of achieving this increase in this limited time is to focus on improving the two or three grammar points above.