Linking words are my best friends… aren’t they?

Well, to be honest, not really. Over my many years as an IELTS teacher, I have marked many hundreds of essays which were full of linking words and phrases. Very often there were too many. Most IELTS students understand from the IELTS marking criteria that you do need to use linking words and phrases to join your ideas together. In fact, the criterion Coherence and Cohesion says that to get a 7, you need to use ‘a range of linking devices effectively’. But this does not mean that you should overuse them! If you do, your writing will end up sounding unnatural.

If you look at the IELTS band descriptors (click here to see a copy), you’ll see that you that if you over use these devices, you might only get a 5 (“makes inadequate, inaccurate or over use of linking devices.)

To show you what is meant by ‘over-using’ linking devices, we’ll look at an essay one of my IELTS students wrote recently. But first let’s check out the question:

In many countries today, the eating habits and lifestyle are different from those of previous generations. Some people say this has had a negative effect on their health. 
To what extent do you agree or disagree with this opinion?

My student wrote a pretty good answer, but one of the major problems he had was with linking devices.

My student’s answer:

Do you see that in the main body of his essay, my student has used a linking phrase at the start of every sentence? This makes his writing sound mechanical, and means he would get a low score for Coherence and Cohesion in the exam.

In fact, some IELTS students even have a set of pre-learned linking words and phrases that they use in every essay, like a science formula. So, every time they write an essay, they use the exact same linking devices and write their essay around them.

But it doesn’t work! Why? Because English is not Science. It’s a language. There is no set formula that works every time, for every essay. Trust me. The examiner knows if you are using a formula as your writing sounds unnatural and ‘forced’. And she won’t reward you for doing it.

So how should we use linking words more naturally?

Great question! Well, I think the best way is, again, to show you. But this time, I’ll give you a model answer, written by a native speaker. (It wasn’t me who wrote it; it’s from an excellent book called IELTS Masterclass).

The model answer:

Do you notice that in the model essay above, there are fewer linking words and phrases? In fact, quite often, the writer waits two sentences before using another linking word or phrase.

For example, in the second body paragraph, the final sentence is simply an extension of the previous one, so no linking word or phrase is needed:

Finally, children are spending far more time at home, playing computer games, watching TV or surfing the Internet. They no longer play outside with friends or take part in challenging outdoor activities.

In fact, the two sentences are linked. But not with obvious linking words and phrases. The writer uses the word ‘they’, which refers back to ‘children’ in the previous sentence. Another way of doing this is by using the word ‘this’ to refer back to a previous idea. For example, if you look again at the conclusion, you’ll see that the writer uses ‘this’ to refer back to ‘devastating effect’ in the sentence before.

In conclusion…

So hopefully you can see how over-using linking devices can sound unnatural, and that sometimes we don’t have to use a linking word or phrase to join one sentence to another. We can use more subtle (or less direct) ways of linking sentences (using words like ‘they’ or ‘this’).

What can I do now?

Well, my suggestion would be to read any kind of writing that has been written by a native speaker. For example, you could read new articles from websites like the BBC, or CNN.  Or read model answers to IELTS test questions. (But make sure you find a good source, as many of the ‘model answers’ out there are definitely not written by native speakers!).

And when you read, notice how the writer uses linking devices. You will probably be surprised by how few they use!

And if you want to improve your writing, you should probably find someone to give you feedback, so you can fix your mistakes. To get details of my Writing correction service, click on the link below:

Want to read my other blog posts about linking words and phrases? Here they are:

1. Linking words to show contrast

2. Linking words of addition

3. Linking words to give examples

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