Treating the untreatable: the Philippines nurses IELTS Writing Project

by | 22 May 2017

The requirement for a 7.0 in IELTS Writing is stopping nurses in the Philippines from travelling to the UK, and is proving a headache to the National Health Service. Dr Victoria Clark (VC) talks to Andrew Stokes (AS) on how her team is analysing the problem and coming up with solutions.

Treating the untreatable: the Philippines nurses IELTS Writing Project

Victoria Clark

Dr Victoria Clark is Assessment Development Manager at the British Council, Hong Kong

Philippines Nurses Project

There are around 20,000 nursing vacancies in England. Last year, 40% of new Registered Nurses came from overseas, with. many coming from the Philippines. However, Filipino nurses are struggling to achieve IELTS 7.0, which qualifies them to work in the UK. How can this problem be solved?


AS: What was the starting point of the Philippines Nurses Project?
VC: There are really two sides to it. The first side is that only 13% of nurses in the Philippines have been able to achieve the overall IELTS 7.0, with 7.0 in each of the four papers. This has caused a problem for the UK, which hires Filipino nurses — and, of course, for the nurses themselves. The other side is that it’s an issue for the training centres in the Philippines, as they don’t seem to be able to deliver. So we decided to look into assisting nurses and medical professionals to reach their goal of  IELTS 7.0.

AS: Can you describe your approach?
VC: The Writing paper is the biggest problem for nurses, so we decided to research the differences in the Writing texts that the nurses produce. We wanted to look at those with 7.0, and those who had not achieved 7.0, and to see what differences we could find. Based on that information we would then design courses to assist the training schools in professionalising their IELTS preparation programs for nurses.

AS: How are you conducting the research?
VC: We asked 88 nurses to write practice tests — about half took Task 1 and the other half took Task 2. We then gave the completed Writing tasks to an IELTS examiner who grouped them into the correct band scores — those who received 5.0, 5.5, all the way up to 7.0 and 8.0. We also broke down these scores according to the IELTS Writing criteria. So, for grammar and vocabulary, for coherence, for task achievement and so on.

Once we had that information, we did a very thorough text and content analysis, looking at all the differences between the bands and identifying what is present in a 7.0 band that is missing from 6.5, a 6.0 and a 5.5. This is the information that will allow us to articulate to both learners and teachers exactly what they need to do to achieve the 7.0 band score.

AS: What have you discovered so far?
VC: Interestingly, it’s not generally the vocab and grammar which is an issue. Often they receive quite high scores in these areas. The main points we’ve discovered relate to the clarity with which they frame the answer. Not just the coherence and cohesion within the paragraphs and within the sentences, but making the information very clear to the reader at the text level. In Task 1 this means transferring the knowledge from the graph into a written paragraph. In Task 2 they have to articulate their ideas in a way which the reader can follow, and also in a way that reader believes has been expressed clearly and completely.  The issue is understanding who the audience is, and how to write for that audience — and not write for yourself. The clarity and organisational structure of the answer is what’s lacking, and we’ve concluded this is the principal reason why the nurses do not get a 7.0.

AS: Based on that finding, how do you visualise helping the nurses achieve 7.0 in IELTS Writing?
VC: One obvious solution is a class with clear, explicit teacher feedback and help with revisions and redrafting. This is how we usually assist students of writing to achieve clarity and coherence, but this option is often not available to nurses who may be working full-time or who may live in remote areas.

If face-to-face teaching is not available, these candidates need texts which bring out the IELTS grading criteria — and which do this in a way that is clear and comprehensible. So, good examples at each level are a really good starting point, preferably with texts written by people from that country. This is exactly why we are doing the nurses project: providing a portfolio of scripts that we can use in our online courses. Lots of good and bad examples, and why they’re good and bad. But, as I say, this is just a starting point. We’re now at the stage where we can devise a more detailed solution.

AS: What wider application does this project have?
VC: Well, it’s a method we can use to start addressing problems that we face with students and teachers in a range of countries. We research and identify the problem and devise a solution that clearly addresses that problem. We now have a good idea of the key issues in the Philippines, and problems elsewhere will be different — but can be addressed in the same way.

The global issue is that often at 7.0, some of these errors are not what we describe in error analysis as ‘treatable’ errors. A grammar problem is treatable; an idea generation problem sometimes cannot be treatable. It could be based on your cognitive processing, your strategies, or cultural or social factors. So the wider application is that we identify the real problem, and we find an evidence-based solution to treat that problem — even if it is initially deemed ‘untreatable’.

AS: How might this apply in countries other than the Philippines?
VC: OK, let’s take two examples. It’s generally true that it is the productive skills of speaking and writing that are problematic. So in China, it’s speaking, partly because the the teachers themselves are not very proficient. In the Middle East, where English is a medium of instruction for wealthier students, the issue is different: often the students’ writing skills are fossilised at a certain level, and they find it very difficult to get to a more advanced level in a short period of time. In both cases the solution is researching and analysing students’ current level, and comparing this to where they need to be. Then it’s reporting back, holding events, talking to teachers, talking to students, and devising support materials. This is all very logical, and the next stage of our current project is to make sure that it really works in practice.

ClarityEnglish and the British Council are devising online training resources to support the Philippines Nurses Project, including pathways through the Dynamic Placement Test, Road to IELTS and Practical Writing.

Andrew Stokes, Publisher, ClarityEnglish

Andrew Stokes, Publisher, ClarityEnglish