In this lesson I look at the need to address and answer the topic in IELTS essay questions. There are 4 parts to the lesson:
understanding IELTS essays questions
the problem of not answering the question
what to do as you plan
what to do as you write
Understanding the topic in IELTS essay questions
All IELTS essays questions come in the same format. There are 3 different parts to them as shown below.
More and more adults spend time playing computer games.
Why do you think so many adults are doing this? Is this a positive or negative development?
What I call the topic is the part in red – it is telling you the background information for the question part or task in blue. You should note
the topic is precise – it is a complete idea that you need to discuss and think about
it isn’t something very general such as “computers” or “computer games”
to answer the task properly you need to address the topic completely and not just a few words in it
See a common mistake
Very often the best way to explain something is to see what can go wrong. Look at this example and try to see what the mistake is. The highlighted words should help you:
More and more adults spend time playing computer games. Why do you think so many adults are doing this? Is this a positive or negative development? Give reasons for your answer and include any relevant examples from your own knowledge or experience
Computer games became a passion among people, particularly the adults of the new generation. Although there are so many reasons behind this trend, I strongly believe that it will adversely influence them in numerous ways
Individuals are indulged in computer games, because of various reasons. Leading among these is addition of high definition animation to these games. These programs motivate pupils to involve in this more time by giving them new targets and scores. The competitive spirit in the younger generation like to break each level and gain more points faster than their peer group. Therefore, parents should keep an eye on them. Lack of sufficient outdoor space is another reason. Those who are living in cities, especially in flats are facing this problem. Ignorance of rules to follow a game and absence of enough friends to participate in a game, further keep them on computer games. In the virtual world of computer games, they can satisfy their suppressed emotions such as beating or killing and burst out their anger safely. Lastly, parental restrictions to go outside home due to the absence of supervision and security reasons block children from engaging outdoor games.
I hope you see the problem.
The introduction works well. The question is identified and the writer’s point of view is clearly defined. But the first content paragraph doesn’t discuss the topic – it’s about children and not adults. This is very bad for task response.
Make sure all the parts of your essay relate to the topic in the question
How to avoid the problem
There are a number of different ways to avoid this problem – some are at the writing stage but most are are the planning stage
Read and understand the question – underline key words?
This is where many people go wrong I suspect. They identify just one or two words in the question and write about just those words and not the whole question.One piece of advice is to underline key words in the question. But be careful here and make sure you don’t miss a key word. See this example
An increasing trend nowadays is for young adults to play computer games. Some people say this is a negative development. Discuss and give your opinion.
The best way to answer this question is to write about young adults and not just adults. In the example underlining only the word adults may be a mistake.
Underline words in the question but also read the whole question
Focus on the topic as you plan – brainstorm?
Another way people can go wrong is if they don’t focus on the topic throughout the planning stage. This can be a particular problem if you brainstorm ideas. Brainstorming can be great for getting more ideas and I do think it’s a good technique to try but the danger is you include all the ideas you think of – some of which may not relate to the topic.
For instance, during your brainstorm you may come up the idea that the internet is now more important to many people than reading books or playing outdoors by thinking like this. You go from computers to the internet to other forms of leisure:
computers → internet >outdoor games and books
This can be a problem because the question is not about the internet. You can still use the idea but only if you refer back to the question as you are planning:
computer games are often played online and thanks to the power of the internet they stop people playing outside or reading books
Brainstorming can help you get more ideas but you need to get relevant ideas – refer back to the question
Select ideas that fit the question
This should be an important part of how you plan. You choose which ideas most clearly relate to the question. This means deleting ideas that do not fit the question.
For instance you may think about how some games contain violence and that children should not be exposed to shoot ’em up games where the idea is to kill people. This may be a “good” idea but may not be relevant to an essay asking about how adults use games. You can of course still use the idea but you need to state that shoot ’em up games are a bad influence on adults – here you alter the original idea
Remember to choose only ideas that fit the topic – this means deleting/altering ideas that are irrelevant
Refer to the question as you write
Plans are just plans. It’s also a good idea to refer back to the question and topic as you are writing the essay to make certain that you are writing about the correct topic. It’s quite easy to start well and then get sidetracked. This is most often the case with reasons and examples. Look at this instance where the paragraph starts well by looking at the topic but then goes off onto another question:
One major reason why adults should play computer games less is how these can affect emotional responses in day-to-day life. This is because people who become addicted to their games console are often unable to interact with friends or colleagues and are unwilling to spend time talking about life and problems with them. Men are much less likely to discuss their everyday feelings with friends and tend not to share their problems and so can become isolated and depressed.
The sentence in red does relate to the previous sentence but it doesn’t refer to the question.
Always look back at the question as you write – certainly at the beginning of each paragraph and perhaps at the start of each sentence
How to practise the skills
A sensible way to practise the skills in this lesson is to look at 2/3 similar questions on the same general topic and decide how you would answer them differently. This is an example I posted to my FB page.
All 3 questions are on similar topics and ask for your opinion but require different approaches. How you answer will depend on your opinion and what you know but here is a start for you. It may look simple but it’s getting the simple things wrong that are most dangerous
An increasing trend nowadays is for young adults to play computer games. Some people say this is a negative development. Discuss and give your opinion.
young adults – your ideas must refer to them
computer games – not computers/internet
More and people are using their mobile phones for entertainment purposes and not to communicate. Is this a positive or negative development? Discuss and give your opinion.
people in general
entertainment not communication
Some parents decide not to allow their children to play computer games and others restrict the hours to do so. What are the potential risks of children playing computer games?
parents and children
risk of playing computer games
More connected lessons
Read a sample essay
This sample essay uses the ideas in this lesson to answer a question about computer games
IELTS computer games essay
Answering the topic in the question is part of task response – one of the 4 key criteria in writing. If you don’t know what task response is I suggest you check out this quick guide:
Task response explained
To make sure you use the right ideas you need to plan carefully. I talk through some of the basics of planning in this lesson. 10 minutes is not too long to plan
How to plan an IELTS essay – the 10 minute solution
Avoiding mistakes with reasons and examples
The most common mistake is probably to use reasons and examples that are not right for the topic. I have a lesson to help you with just this problem:
How to use reasons and examples in IELTS essays
Finding ideas for essays
One reason you might go wrong is that you can’t think of enough good ideas and so you include ones that are irrelevant. This lesson suggests a way of finding ideas by thinking of vocabulary and using the words in the question
How to get and organise ideas for IELTS essays
Give reasons for your answer and include any relevant examples from your own knowledge or experience
The key words in the title are practical and exam. Last week I ran a “competition” to write an essay on aid and poverty. The essays I received were spectacularly good and I do suggest you check them out in the comments section. My one worry though was were they really practical essays in an exam. My essay, which you will find below, is I think much simpler than almost all the essays I received – and perhaps a more practical model for exams.
I should add that these are mostly band score 8.0 writing tips and are written especially for candidates who are aiming high. The moral is:
the road to band score 8.0 often means doing the simple things well
1. Read – write – read – write – read – write – read – write – read – write – read
What does this mean? It means that you should go back and read the paragraph you have just written before you start the next one. You may think that this is a waste of time. If so, you’d be wrong.
- It’s important to link your paragraphs together – what more practical way to do that than just read what you have written?
- It helps you with words for the next paragraph – it is good to repeat some words as this improves your coherence. Look at my sample essay to see how I repeat/reflect language. In one paragraph I talk about the short term, this makes it easy to move onto the long term in the next paragraph.
- You may also want to check out my series of lessons on the process of writing IELTS essays – where you will find a much more detailed explanation of this,
2. Don’t be smart, be clear – select your best idea
One of my very first posts/articles on this site was headed “IELTS is not a test of intelligence”. While the post itself now looks a little old, the advice is still good. You are being tested on the quality of your English, not on the quality of your ideas.
This advice is particularly important for candidates who come from an academic background where they are used to being graded on quality and quantity of ideas. IELTS is different: it is quite possible to write a band 9.0 essay and not include some key “academic” ideas, let alone all the ideas.
The practical advice here is to select your best idea and write about that. That means not writing everything you know – leave some ideas out. Don’t worry if it is not your best explanation, worry about whether it is your clearest explanation.
3. Write about what you know – relax about ideas
This is a similar idea. IELTS is an international exam (that’s the “I” in IELTS) and the questions are written to be answered by anyone around the world. Some people stress about finding ideas. They shouldn’t. The ideas you need are generally simple (eg”I disagree”, “This is not a good idea”).
The practical solution is to think about what YOU know and what YOUR experience is. If you look at the question, this is what it tells you to do. If you come from Bonn, write about Bonn; if you come from Ulan Bator, write about Ulan Bator!
4. Examples are easier to write than explanations
In an exam you are under pressure. You want to make things as easy for yourself as possible. One practical idea to achieve this is to focus as much on examples as explanations when you write. Why?
It’s simply harder if you only think “because”. Some of the ideas may be very complex and, under pressure, it can be difficult to explain these with reasons. What may happen is that your sentences become too long and the ideas confused.
The practical bit is to concentrate as much on examples. This is a good idea as examples tend to be easier to write as you are simply describing situations. You should also note that the instructions tell you to use examples! All you need to do is make sure that your examples are relevant to the main idea.
5. Don’t write too much – the examiner is paid by the minute
There is no upper word limit I know of, but it really isn’t a good idea to write 350 words or more. Here’s why:
- Examiners will only spend so much time looking at any essay. Write too much and they will read what you wrote “less carefully”. It is easier to read/grade a 300 word essay than a 400 word essay!
- The more you write, the more likely you are to make language mistakes.
- The more you write, the more likely you are to go off topic. The examiner won’t read/grade anything that doesn’t directly relate to the question.
- If you write less, you give yourself more time to choose the best words – and that’s what you are being graded on.
- If you write less, you give yourself more time to go back and check what you have written.
6. Writer – know yourself
One of the most famous philosophical thoughts is “know yourself”. How does this apply to exam writing? Did Plato really have IELTS in mind when he wrote his dialogues? Well, no, but…
The idea is that you should check for your mistakes when you write. The practical part here is that you shouldn’t check for mistakes generally – that’s too hard and probably a waste of time in the exam. What isn’t a waste of time though is to look for mistakes you know you can correct – the ones you normally make!
The really practical thing is to have your own checklist in your head before you start writing.
7. See the whole essay in your head before you start writing
It’s very important that your essay is a whole – that all the bits fit together. If you don’t do that, you may lose significant marks for both coherence and task response.
This means planning of course. Planning bothers some people and bores others. There are different ways to do this, but at the very least have a map of your essay in your head.
8. Focus on the backbone of your essay
This is a related point. All the essay matters of course, but perhaps some bits matter more than others. I’d suggest the practical thing to do is concentrate on the backbone of your essay, the bits that help you write better and the examiner to understand better. The backbone is:
- The introduction: this should identify the question and outline your position. Don’t rush it as it is the first thing the examiner will read. First impressions count.
- The first/topic sentences of each paragraph: these should be clear and to the point. They should identify exactly what that paragraph is about and show how it relates to the rest of the essay. The practical tip is to keep the detail/clever ideas for the body of the paragraph. Start off general and then build towards the specific.
- The conclusion: this is the easiest part of the essay normally. Most often, all you need to do is go back to the introduction and rephrase it
Get these bits right and the rest of the essay tends to take care of itself.
9. Don’t just practice whole essays
The best way to learn to write essays is to write essays? True or false? My answer is a bit of both.
Yes, you do need to practise writing complete essays, but it may be a mistake to do only that. The different part of essays require slightly different skills. To write an introduction, you need to be able to paraphrase the question. To write a body paragraph, you need to be able to explain ideas. To write a conclusion, you need to be able summarise.
The practical suggestion is to practise writing introductions, body paragraphs and conclusions separately. Focus on skills.
10. Focus on the question and refocus on the question
I have left this one to last as it is for me the most important idea. Essays go wrong for different reasons. Some of these you may not be able to avoid: the quality of your English may not be good enough yet. The one mistake you can always avoid is that you didn’t answer the question. Too many essays go wrong because candidates didn’t read and think about the question properly.
The practical suggestion: before you write each paragraph, refer back to the question to remind yourself about what you are meant to write about.
It is very easy to get carried away in exams. You may start off on topic, then you have a “good idea” as you write. So you write about that. Sadly, that “good idea” may not fully relate to the question. Big problem.
My sample essay on poverty and aid
This essay which you can download below is intended to be an example of the ideas in this post.
- It is fairly simple in structure.
- It focuses clearly on the question
- I left many of my best ideas out. I concentrated on what I could explain clearly.
- It comes in at only just over 300 words.
Download the essayPoverty and aid essay (28781)
More writing advice
This is where I catalogue all my writing materials. If you are looking for more specific advice, this is the place to start.
My other essay writing tips
The ideas here are similar and you will find more general guidance on dos and don’ts in IELTS essays.