Can you interpret this topic?

31 Jan 2018

Interpreting IELTS writing topics


Correctly interpreting the topic is really important and can have a huge impact on your score.  The topic sets the boundaries or scope of your answer.  The higher your required score the closer you need to remain within those boundaries.  However, this can be quite hard as there are often nuances, subtle difference in or shade of meaning,  that extend beyond the language used.  Consider the following task:

TOPIC: Many people think that having a fixed punishment for all crimes is more efficient.

QUESTION: What are the advantages and disadvantages of having a fixed punishment?

There is no doubt that this task requires two responses [advantages and disadvantages] but it is the topic which is highly problematic.  On the one hand, it could be contended that the topic is about sentencing every criminal to the same punishment regardless of the crime they committed.  This would mean that a rapist would automatically receive the same sentence as a shoplifter who stole a loaf of bread because he was hungry. If you rely just on the language used then this is a perfectly accurate interpretation.

Mandatory sentencing is a legal term used to describe the situation where a person who is convicted of a certain crime is automatically sentenced to a fixed level of punishment.  A speeding fine is a good example of this. Anyone who goes a certain speed over the speed limit in Australia such as 30 km/h over the 60 km/h limit gets the exact same fine as anyone else who does the same.  It does not matter that one person was rushing to the hospital with a sick child or that the other was just skylarking.

I would argue that to fully understand this topic needs a person to not only have an understanding of the language but also an understanding of the complexities of the legal system that prevails in many western countries, such as mandatory sentencing.  Therefore, the topic is about mandatory sentencing and means that if a person commits a crime that particular crime should have a fixed sentence that applies to all.  Naturally, a different crime would have a different fixed sentence.

I am absolutely certain this is the case simply because to give a murderer the same sentence as shoplifter is not credible so logic would dictate that the meaning is mandatory sentencing.  The problem is that this thinking or logic I have applied is culturally based.  There are some countries where sentences are so harsh that this may not seem unrealistic.  The end result of a topic like this is that a lot of people would fail to achieve their required band score.  To fully understand the topic, I believe goes beyond understanding just the language.  Some might debate the equity of this but the point is that it is the kind of issue a candidate may have to confront in the exam.

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