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Writing Task 2: Understanding the Question and Deciding on an Answer



Before you start writing your Writing Task 2 essay, you need to take some time to read and understand the question, before deciding on your anwer (and then, of course, writing a plan!)


In this article, we will:


  1. 🤔 Look at common mistakes IELTS candidates make when reading questions and thinking of answers

  2. 🔍 Describe what top IELTS candidates do when reading questions and thinking of answers

  3. 📝 Go over a 4-step essay planning strategy

  4. ⚖️ Compare how 4 different IELTS candidates read and think of anwers to Writing Task 2 questions

  5. 💡 Discuss some Pre-Writing Pro-Tips



1. 🤔 Common Mistakes Candidates Make when Reading Questions and Thinking of Answers


Many students don't take the time to read the questions properly, so end up:


  • Misunderstanding what the essay should be about

  • Misunderstanding what the question is asking you to do

  • Ignoring important key words

  • Using the question as inspiration to write about something unrelated

According to the official marking criteria for Writing Task 2:


  • If your answer is 'tangential' (ie. off-topic), is 'unclear', and/or contains ideas which are 'irrelevant or not well supported', then you'll get a band 4 for Task Reponse (TR).

  • If you answer the question 'only partially', and include 'unclear development' and/or 'irrelevant detail', then you'll get a band 5 for TR.

  • If you don't 'fully' answer 'all parts' of the question, your points are 'unclear' or 'inadaqueately developed' then the maximum you'll get for Task Response (TR) is a band 6.


2. 🔍 What Top IELTS Candidates do when Reading Questions and Thinking of Answers


Top IELTS candidates take the time to read the questions properly, and therefore:


  • Understand what the essay should be about

  • Understand what the question is asking you to do

  • Notice to important key words

  • Think of simple, relevant, and focused ideas for their answer

According to the official marking criteria for Writing Task 2:


  • If you 'address all parts of the task' and 'present a clear position throughout the response', you will get a band 7 for TR.

  • If you do the above, but your answer is even more well-focused on every part of the question, your ideas are even clearer, more relevant and well developed, then you will get a band 8 for TR.

  • If you do the above, but with with even more clarity, relevance, and development, then you will get a band 9 for TR.



3. 📝 The 4-Step Essay Planning Strategy


In order to make sure you are reading the question properly and deciding on a clear, focused, relevant position, you should use the following 4-step planning process.

1. Carefully read and understand the question.

You need to read and understand every word of the question.

  • What do I need to write about? (What exactly is the question asking?)

  • What kind of question is it? (Opinion, 2-Part, Advantages/Disadvantages, Discuss both views, Problems/Causes and Solutions, etc)


2. Decide what your position is.


You need to decide on a simple direct answer to the question you’re being asked.

You need to decide on the 2 main points you’re going to make.

  • Do I totally/partially (dis)agree? What 2 points can I make?

  • What’s your answer to Question 1? What’s your answer to Question 2?

  • What are the advantages and disadvantages?

  • What do you think about View 1? What do you think about View 2?

  • What are the problems/causes? What are the solutions?


3. Generate ideas to support/clarify your argument.


You need to generate some explanations and examples to support your 2 main points.

  • “This is because …” (explanation)

  • “As a result …” (explanation)

  • “This means that …” (explanation)

  • “Bill Gates is a clear example of this, as he …” (example)

  • “A great example of this would be Malala Yousafzai, as she …” (example)

  • “For instance, if students did this, then they would …” (example)

  • “This happens every day in cities around the world ...” (example)


4. Read through your plan from intro to conclusion.


You need to make sure that your ideas are focused on answering the question and flow in a logical way.

  • Does my plan answer the question?

  • Are my ideas organised and easy to understand?


In the follownig exercise, we will focus on Step 1 and Step 2 of this process, and in a future post, we'll look at idea generation and essay planning in more detail.



4. ⚖️ Comparing how 4 IELTS Candidates Read and Answer 5 Questions.


  • Look at the following essay question. How would you answer this question?

Many students decide to further their study abroad.


What are the benefits and drawbacks of studying abroad?


Do the benefits outweigh the drawbacks?


Here we can see 4 different IELTS candidates and what they thought when reading the question and thinking of their answer.


  • Read their ‘thoughts’ and then answer the questions which follow.


Candidate 1:


I agree that living abroad is a great idea because you can learn a lot about other cultures.


Candidate 2:


I think it’s a great idea to study abroad, but there are some disadvantages, such as the financial cost.


The solution to this problem would be for governments to offer more scholarship programs.


Candidate 3:


The main advantages of studying abroad are the fact you can learn a new language and about new cultures.


The main disadvantage is that it’s very expensive.


Overall, there are more advantages, because if more students learn new languages and about foreign cultures then they would be able to collaborate to fix global problems such as climate change, terrorism and corruption.


Candidate 4:


1) The main disadvantage is that it’s very expensive.


2) The main advantages of studying abroad are the fact you can learn a new language and about new cultures.


Overall, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages because despite the cost, the learning experiences would make it worth it.



😣 Which candidate has misunderstood the prompt and the question type?


😕 Which candidate seems to have understood part of the prompt, but hasn't understood what type of essay it is?


😵‍💫 Which candidate seems to have understood the prompt and the question, but wants to give an answer which is much too complicated and is not very clear?


😊 Which candidate has understood the prompt and the question, and has thought of a relatively simple and direct answer?




1) Studying abroad can be very expensive.


2) However, it is worth it because the things you learn, such as a new language or about new cultures, would be so valuable.


Therefore, the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.


 

  • Look at the following essay question. How would you answer this question?

Living in a country where you have to speak a foreign language can cause serious social problems, as well as practical problems.


To what extent do you agree or disagree with this statement?


Here we can see 4 different IELTS candidates and what they thought when reading the question and thinking of their answer.


  • Read their ‘thoughts’ and then answer the questions which follow.


Candidate 1:


Sometimes it is hard to communicate when you visit a foreign country because you don’t have enough vocabulary.


One of the solutions to this problem could be for tourist offices to give out free phrasebooks.


Candidate 2:


I agree.


Living in a country where you have to speak a foreign language can be challenging both socially and practically, but overall, I think there are more advantages than disadvantages, and you should definitely try to have this experience.


Candidate 3:


I partially agree.


Living in a country where you have to speak a foreign language can lead to an existential crisis whereby you experience a loss of your sense of self as you are trapped between two cultural identities.


Also, in order for a labour market to function effectively, it needs workers who have at least a B2 level, unless of course these immigrant workers also share a common language. Also it depends if you live in a cosmopolitan city or in the countryside.


Candidate 4:


I partially agree.


At first, living in a foreign country where you have to speak a foreign language creates some minor problems:


1) Socially, it’s hard to make friends at first, but easier when you feel more confident using the language.


2) Practically, at first sometimes it’s hard to do transactional things, but this gets easier with repetition.


However, these problems are not really that serious, and go away as your language level improves.



😣 Which candidate has misunderstood the prompt and the question type?


😕 Which candidate seems to have understood part of the prompt, but hasn't understood what type of essay it is?


😵‍💫 Which candidate seems to have understood the prompt and the question, but wants to give an answer which is much too complicated and is not very clear?


😊 Which candidate has understood the prompt and the question, and has thought of a relatively simple and direct answer?



I partially agree.


At first, living in a foreign country where you have to speak a foreign language creates some minor problems:


1) Socially, it’s hard to make friends at first, but easier when you feel more confident using the language.


2) Practically, at first sometimes it’s hard to do transactional things, but this gets easier with repetition.


However, these problems are not really that serious, and go away as your language level improves.


 


  • Look at the following essay question. How would you answer this question?

Some people say that the best way to improve public health is by increasing the number of sports facilities. Others, however, say that this would have little effect on public health and that other measures are required.


Discuss both of these views and give your own opinion.


Here we can see 4 different IELTS candidates and what they thought when reading the question and thinking of their answer.


  • Read their ‘thoughts’ and then answer the questions which follow.


Candidate 1:


I completely agree.


The best way to improve public health would be for us to have better quality sports centres. If more people had access to gyms, they would do more exercise and be healthier.


Candidate 2:


The main advantage of having more sports facilities would be that people would be fitter and healthier, but the biggest disadvantage would be that it would cost a lot of taxpayer’s money.


Candidate 3:


I disagree with the first view, and agree with the second.


I believe that having more sports facilities would be ineffective and that if we construct more buildings, this would be damaging for the environment, which in turn would be bad for people’s health as there would be more pollution in the atmosphere.


The best alternative would be for society to change our standards of what constitutes being healthy, so that by definition, if you don’t do exercise, you still count as healthy.


Candidate 4:


I agree with both opinions to some extent.


(1) isn’t the best way, but it would be quite effective, not of ‘little effect’ as (2) says.


Having more sports facilities would have a positive effect on people’s health, but I think the most effective measure would be to promote healthy eating.




😣 Which candidate has ignored part of the question and misunderstood the other part?


😕 Which candidate hasn’t understood what type of essay it is?


😵‍💫 Which candidate seems to have understood the prompt and the question, but wants to give an answer which is much too complicated and is not very clear?


😊 Which candidate has understood the prompt and the question, and has thought of a relatively simple and direct answer?



I agree with both opinions to some extent.


1) It isn’t the best way, but it would be quite effective. Having more sports facilities would have a positive effect on people’s health.


(2) Point 1 would be quite effective, but I do think that the most effective measure would be to promote healthy eating.



Note:

For 'discussion' essays, I would generally recommend aiming to fully agree with one view and fully disagree with the other, as this is often the easiest way to write a clear answer. However, sometimes, like in this question, you might choose to agree with both or even disagree with both.

 


  • Look at the following essay question. How would you answer this question?

As most people spend a major part of their adult life at work, job satisfaction is an important element of individual wellbeing.


What factors contribute to job satisfaction?


How realistic is the expectation of job satisfaction for all workers?


Here we can see 4 different IELTS candidates and what they thought when reading the question and thinking of their answer.


  • Read their ‘thoughts’ and then answer the questions which follow.


Candidate 1:


In order to make good money, you need to get a well paying job. However, it’s not realistic that everybody can expect to obtain a really high paying job.


Candidate 2:


I personally disagree that job satisfaction is an important part of individual wellbeing. Work isn’t the most important thing in life. The most important thing for individual wellbeing is to have a good relationship with your family.


Candidate 3:


The factors which contribute towards job satisfaction are having a good salary, getting on with your boss, getting on with your clients, finding it challenging so that you’re learning something new every day and that there are opportunities for you to travel.


I think it depends on which country you live in, how old you are, how hard you worked at school, what kinds of jobs your parents had and if you like working long hours or not.


Candidate 4:


1) The factors which contribute towards job satisfaction and lead to individual wellbeing are:


i. Good pay

ii. Doing something you find interesting


2) Unfortunately, I don’t think this is very realistic for all workers. I think it’s only realistic for some.


😣 Which candidate has ignored part of the question and misunderstood the other part?


😕 Which candidate has misunderstood the question and hasn’t understood what type of essay it is?


😵‍💫 Which candidate seems to have understood the prompt and the question, but wants to give an answer which is much too complicated and is not very clear?


😊 Which candidate has understood the prompt and the question, and has thought of a relatively simple and direct answer?



1) The factors which contribute towards job satisfaction and lead to individual wellbeing are:


i. Good pay

ii. Doing something you find interesting


2) Unfortunately, I don’t think this is very realistic for all workers. I think it’s only realistic for some.


 


  • Look at the following essay question. How would you answer this question?

In spite of the advances made in agriculture, many people around the world still go hungry.


Why is this the case?


What can be done about this problem?


Here we can see 4 different IELTS candidates and what they thought when reading the question and thinking of their answer.


  • Read their ‘thoughts’ and then answer the questions which follow.


Candidate 1:


The reason agricultural practices are not advancing fast enough is because of government corruption.


Candidate 2:


Some people say that most people in the world are still going hungry, while others think that they are not because of advances in agriculture.


I agree more with the 2nd view, as these days most people have access to food.


Candidate 3:


I believe that this is the case because of government corruption, global warming, governments mismanaging their economies, and changes in food hygiene standards which leads to supply chain problems.


The best ways to fix this would be if people rebelled against their governments while also demanding reforms in agricultural practises which harm the environment. Also they should educate more women which in turn might reduce the sizes of families and thus reduce overpopulation.


Candidate 4:


1) Cause: Because of the richest people being greedy, earning huge salaries, and not paying any tax.


2) Solution: The richest should be taxed more, not allowed to exploit tax loopholes, and their tax money should go toward aid.



😣 Which candidate has ignored part of the question and misunderstood the other part?


😕 Which candidate seems to have misunderstood the prompt, and hasn't understood what type of essay it is?


😵‍💫 Which candidate seems to have understood the prompt and the question, but wants to give an answer which is much too complicated and is not very clear?


😊 Which candidate has understood the prompt and the question, and has thought of a relatively simple and direct answer?



1) There’s potentially enough food for everybody, but the richest people are greedy and avoid paying tax, so poor people stay hungry.


1) The richest should be made to pay tax and the money should be put towards food aid for the poorest people.




5. 💡 Pro-Tips


Reading and Understanding the Question


⭐ Read every word of the question to make sure you know exactly what you have to write about.


⭐ Make sure you understand what type of essay you have to write.


⭐ Use the question to help you think of how you can divide your answer into 2 main points, ie. 2 main body paragraphs.



Generating Ideas and Planning your Essay


⭐ Think of simple ideas, not complicated ones. Simple ideas will be easier to write about and easier to understand.

⭐ ‘Obvious’ ideas are fine. There are no extra marks for originality, creativity, or being ‘interesting’.

⭐ To generate explanations, ask yourself ‘Why?’ and ‘How?’. For examples, ask ‘Who?’, ‘Where?’, and ‘When?

⭐ Specific examples are good (‘This happened in China ..’) but if you don’t know any, then well-explained hypothetical examples can be good too (‘If a country did this, then …’)


⭐ Famous, well-known, international examples are good "For example, Amsterdam is renowned for its large number of cyclists"; "Steve Jobs and Bill Gates both left university before graduating and went on to be successful entrepreneurs."


⭐ Local examples that you know about are fine too, "For example, every Sunday in Mexico City, some of the main roads are closed for cyclists"; "Even though Carlos Slim studied engineering, after graduating he went on to work in finance."


⭐ If you can only think of very personal examples, try to generalise them to make them sound less anecdotal. Instead of writing "For example, my cousin cycles to work every day and he says it is very dangerous", you can write "For example, in major cities such as Mexico City and Guadalajara, cyclists are often involved in traffic accidents".

⭐ Make sure your ideas and examples are relevant. Keep going back to the question to make sure you’re not going off-topic.

⭐You can practice planning without actually writing the essay. Practising planning will help you get a) better at generating ideas and b) faster at planning, which will save you time on exam day.

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