Tips for IELTS Writing
IELTS Academic Writing Task 1 asks students to describe information presented visually either in the form of a table, line graph, pie or bar chart, pictorial process diagram, map or a combination of them. When students encounter Task 1 the variety of tasks can be overwhelming. It’s difficult for students to know where to start and stop describing the information given and what language to use. The purpose of this article is to help students tackle this challenge and produce effective answers.
Get to know the tasks
In Task 1 you only have to describe the presented data or information, you shouldn’t give analysis or offer reasons and opinion.
The first thing you should do is familiarise yourself with the different tasks. IELTS preparation books and past papers should provide you with a range of tasks; make sure you have at least one of each of the types of task. Look at the questions; think about how you could paraphrase (rewrite) the question in your own words, this is your introduction.
You should then look at the pictorial data and ask yourself what is being presented, what is the purpose? Can you see an illustration describing changes or is data simply being compared? Also when was the information on the chart collected, in the past, from the past until now, or from the past and projected into the future? In other words, what is the timeframe? This can be easily identified by seeing what dates are written. If changes over time are being focused on you will see more than one date, if it’s one time you will see one date or maybe no date at all.
The answers to these questions will determine what language you use. If the graph shows changes over time you will need to use appropriate language such as increase, fall or remain stable. If data is being compared use language such as more than, less than, double the amount of etc.
Maps and process diagrams also demand different types of language be used. When describing a process diagram the passive voice must be employed. Let’s consider if you were asked to describe how chocolate is produced, it would be very unnatural to keep mentioning who is carrying out the process e.g. people crush cocoa beans and then people put the powder into a machine. In this task, chocolate is the focus so the passive should be used as follows chocolate is crushed and then the powder is put into a machine. Maps also demand the use of the passive voice. Let’s imagine there are two maps showing how a city centre changed between 1980-2000, in the second map there is a building that wasn’t there before. Do we know who constructed it? No, Is the building the focus? Yes, therefore we should use the passive and say a building was constructed during the period.
The best way to see how particular language is connected to tasks is to look at sample answers available in past paper and text books, examine these answers and underline any recurring grammatical patterns. Ask yourself why these patterns are being used and how they are connected to the purpose and timeframe of the data presented. Another way of seeing language in action at the same time as getting a welcome break from you IELTS books is to see how the language is used in the real world. Try looking at a newspaper to see how statistics are reported or do an internet search for descriptions of processes.
Where to start
After you have paraphrased the question it is a good idea to give the reader a general picture of the information provided before giving details. If you can summarise the general changes or trends shown without numbers the reader can imagine what the visual data looks like.
When describing data; don’t just describe the information like a list, start with the most important data and group related trends together. For example, if you are given a pie chart describing how a government’s money is spent. Describe the major areas of expenditure first and group together medium and lower levels of expenditure. If you are describing changes over time you could discuss upward trends first and then discuss downward or stable trends. Remember to always emphasise the biggest changes in data and always include numbers and figures to support your observations.
Use paragraphs to help organise your data, if there are two sets of presented data discuss them in different paragraphs. Discuss different trends or areas of major and lesser importance separately.
Range and Accuracy
Remember to let the reader know the amount of language you know. Don’t use the same language to describe each upward or downward trend, substitute increase for rise or fall for decrease. Use adverbs to describe the extent of changes; is the fall gradual or sharp? Is the increase steady or rapid? Use different grammatical patterns e.g. there was a steady increase vs. numbers increased steadily. Think about different ways you can contrast amounts, such as expenditure on cars was almost double that on trains or expenditure on buses was by far the largest of the spending areas.
Be as accurate as possible, use a large range of language but don’t experiment with language too much in the test.
Clarity, linking and cohesion
It is very important to link your ideas and sentences together, show their relationships to each other and the order in which they take pace. For example, if you are describing more than one upward trend you could use words such as in addition, similarly or furthermore to link descriptions of data. If you describe different trends you could use sentence patterns including whereas, in contrast or although. If describing a process, does one stage follow another? Are the stages happening at the same time? Does one stage depend on another being completed? Use sequential linkers to make these relationships clear.
Practise makes perfect
Finally, don’t expect perfection the first time you try the task. Writing is a process, every time you produce an answer think of an area that can be improved. Of course it is helpful to have guidance but you should become a reflective writer able to compare your answers to samples and improve your writing step by step. IELTS Task 1 may seem overwhelming but once you are familiar with the tasks, what is expected of you and how you can meet these expectations, with a little work you will be on your way to success.
By Kevin Thomas