How to analyse an IELTS essay question…?

I want to write about a question of my students was asking about last week. We were talking over how to write an essay for the IELTS and as I was saying to him, one of the reasons for getting a low mark is often a failure to analyse the question correctly. Many students either don’t analyse properly because they think they don’t have the time, or they do analyse it but miss the point and end up writing about the topic but not answering the question.

This is not a good idea as you will fail your Task Achievement part of the assessment criteria and your overall score will be reduced, regardless of whether the rest of the essay is grammatically correct and your lexis is wide ranging, and it is cohesive, etc. So, to demonstrate what I mean, I will take a look at some sample questions and write my comments and ideas down on what I take the question to mean, and how I might answer it, just to give you some ideas. This is purely to give an insight into a “native” mindset, as it were and should not be taken as definitive in any way. There are many ways to answer an essay question, and several structures which you may use, and I will write something about those at a later date. The thing to remember is, as I have said about speaking, is that there is no “right” or “wrong” answers either in writing or speaking. Of course, if what you write or say is blatantly absurd, then you may lose some marks, but in general, this is an “English” test, not a general knowledge test. You are not expected to come up with a definitive answer to the essay question you have before you. The IELTS writing is different to a university exam for example, where you have to show critical thinking skills and construct a valid, well positioned argument which should be based around a body of academic literature. In the IELTS, the exam is purely an English test, which looks at Task Achievement, Cohesion and Coherence, Lexical Resource, and Grammatical Range and Accuracy. You can see the descriptors here, for your further information.

So, lets have a look at a question. And I will confine myself to the “Agree or disagree” questions for today, no particular reason for this, there are other question types of course, “Discuss both views”, “Advantages and disadvantages”, etc, and these will be covered in due time.

With all the problems in the world today, spending money on space exploration is a complete waste. The money could be better spent on other causes. To what extent do you agree or disagree?

Give reasons for your answers and include any relevant examples from your own knowledge or experience.

As with most of the questions, the first sentence is setting the scene, providing some context for the actual question. Some people might not notice this and begin writing everything they can think of about space exploration…..which would not do at all. What it is really asking is do you agree the money could be better spent, and to provide some reasons why you think so. It seems a bit obvious, yet you may be surprised at the number of students who make this mistake and write in a far too general manner about what they think is the topic, but not actually address the question. If I were answering this question, I would maybe say that I agree that it is a waste of money. Not because this is my honest opinion, but because I can think of something to write about for 250 words if I agree. As I mentioned, this is not a truth test. And the relevant examples part only means something that that you might have heard, read about, or seen on TV, whatever, not necessarily what you have actually experienced. So, for this essay I might say something about how it should be spent on global poverty, the fight against AIDS, and cancer, etc, which is pretty much common knowledge.

I will write something about how to structure your essay at a later date as I said, but lets have another essay question example.

Most high level positions in companies are filled by men even the workforce in many developed countries is more than 50 per cent female. Companies should be required to allocate a certain percentage of these positions to women. To what extent do you agree? 

Give reasons for your answers and include any relevant examples from your own knowledge or experience.

What some people might do here is to write about workplaces in general, how unfair this is for women, about sexism, chauvinism or whatever, if we analyse the question correctly, we can see the first sentence is merely giving us a context for the actual question. That companies should be required to allocate a certain percentage of these positions to women, do you agree, yes or no? The reason I highlighted required and allocate, is that these are, to my mind, the key words of the essay.

So, to my way of thinking, required means that companies should be made or compelled to give these jobs to women. This raises some interesting ideas for your essay, this would imply some element of force, who can apply this force? Only the state, so this is essentially talking about state or legal interference in the running of a private company. The next key word is allocated, which means to give out, so jobs are to be handed out with presumably no regard for experience, education, or qualifications, you are to be given a job based on gender alone? This again raises some interesting ideas about positive discrimination, which you might want to develop and explore in your essay. These are just my thoughts here, but they will give you, I hope, some ideas about how to analyse the essay question.

To summarise then, I will say that properly understanding the question is very important and that spending some time at the beginning to analyse and identify the key words, and to consider some ideas which you might use for your answer, is time well spent……

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