Posted by Grant Richardson, 25th June, 2015
In my opinion, General Training Writing Task 1 (letter writing) can either be the easiest or the most difficult writing task for IELTS candidates, depending on the question given. Each question presents a unique situational context, comprised of three aspects:
Each aspect affects not only the style of language, but also the structure and content of your message. The letter you write to a friend informing him/her of good news would differ in several ways from one informing him/her of bad news (same relationship, but different purpose, and therefore different style of language, structure and content). Likewise, writing an email request for a favour to your boss will differ greatly from one informing your boss of your daily work progress.
In contrast, Task 2 (essay) questions vary in only one contextual aspect (purpose), and not by a lot – i.e. agree or disagree (argue one view), discuss both views, or answer two questions. Put simply, in each case, the purpose is to show you can effectively paraphrase a given topic statement, argue your own opinions on it (based on your own knowledge and logical reasoning), and arrive at some sort of conclusion or summary. Therefore, the structure, content and language style of essays stay relatively constant regardless of the question, compared to a letter for a seemingly limitless number of situations (purposes and relationships).
I believe that this is why it is nearly impossible to find systematic (step-by-step) instructions on how to effectively answer General Training Writing Task 1. Textbooks normally only offer advice on language aspects including tonality and register, and provide several sample letters. Another reason would be that Task 1 is worth only 20 marks, whereas Task 2 is worth 40 marks, and letter writing is confined to the General Training module (not the Academic module, which is the one normally required to enter university), so there is less incentive to publish more comprehensive instructional materials on how to answer General Writing Task 1.
It might also be assumed that candidates have already gone through a process of socialisation (have seen how others within the culture write effectively), or that knowledge from the candidate’s own culture can be applied to another, or that they will “pick up” all the finer skills of writing letters through seeing a rather small variety of sample letters, and through enough writing practice and feedback from teachers. These might work for some candidates but not for others.
Neither should one assume that simply following the prompts in the question will produce the most effective response. It often depends on the task question (i.e. the letter’s purpose and recipient):