“Cement and Poo” – Shirley

Shirley, a highly educated lady from Mauritius, had already done the test 7 times, had no problems with Speaking (8), Reading (9) and Listening (8), but was consistently getting 5.5 for Writing. She was frustrated, angry and bewildered by her low mark. Normally, Speaking and Writing band scores are similar, and with her band score 8 in Speaking, I could well understand her frustration.

And so I gave her the following T1 question, and asked her to write the letter in 20 minutes:

“One month ago, you travelled to Japan by plane. You arrived four hours late because of a mechanical problem, and your luggage was lost. Your luggage has not been returned to you. Write a letter to the airline. Explain what happened and tell them what you want them to do about this situation.”

Watching Shirley, I immediately noticed a couple of things: firstly, she didn’t underline any words in the question. This suggested that she wasn’t absorbing every single piece of information provided. Secondly, she only read the question once very quickly, before picking up her pen to begin writing. 3 or 4 sentences into her writing Shirley stopped writing and looked out the window, deep in thought – clearly thinking what else to write. This erratic style continued until the 20 minutes was up. Shirley seemed satisfied. This section from her letter remains to this day, my all-time favourite in imaginative thinking:

“What I think happened is this: when they were fixing the engine, they must have left the door to the luggage hold open and when the aircraft was in the sky, my suitcase must have been pushed by a dog that had escaped from its cage and fallen out of the plane. Nobody else’s luggage got lost, so I guess I was just unlucky. I hope it didn’t land on somebody’s head and hurt them. Please find my case and give it back to me.

Besides this rather entertaining yet unrealistic and unnecessary paragraph (she wasn’t asked to suggest how the luggage got lost), there were many other problems in the letter. I drew Shirley’s attention to a number of errors in her writing, namely the length (too short), copying chunks directly from the question, not giving enough information such as the date/ time/ destination and number of the flight, not describing the missing item (what did the case look like?).

Furthermore, there was no cohesion, with her sentences jumping from one idea to another. She didn’t develop her paragraphs. I also mentioned that the letter stated that a month had passed since the flight. Why had it taken her so long to write this letter? After listening to my feedback, Shirley covered her face, started laughing and said “I know exactly what my problem is –Cement and Poo!” She went on to explain what she meant: her letter contained too much poo (that is, unnecessary rubbish) and not enough cement (cohesion).

And Shirley took her own advice, omitted the “poo”, addedthe “cement”, and achieved a band score 8 in Writing. Sometimes teachers learn by teaching. I use Shirley’s descriptive analogy of Cement and Poo all the time now when teaching IELTS writing.

My advice to Shirley was:

– Read the question 2 or 3 times.
– Underline all the words giving vital information – they have been given for a reason –USE them in your letter! (What airline was it – flight number? What date? What departure time? What did the suitcase look like? Why has it taken one month to write this letter? How)
– The letters are real-life situations – be realistic in your content.
– How many issues must you address? –write a paragraph on each issue, giving a clear topic sentence and developing it with AS MUCH detail as you can. Leave a line between paragraphs, so they are clearly separated.
– Use cohesive devices eg. As a result / Unfortunately