How to correctly interpret an IELTS essay question!….

 

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Hello, in this new post I want to talk about one of the major reasons why students get a low band score for their essays, namely, they misunderstand the question…read below and find out more…

How to correctly interpret an essay question + how to be coherent all the way through the response.

In this tutorial today I want to talk (again) about one of the most common problems I see everyday, and it is everyday. I have written about this before but I was reviewing a student essay last night and I saw the same problem there so I thought another timely reminder might be in order.

Actually, there were two problems although interconnected, to do with Task Achievement and Cohesion and Coherence. The first problem is that of students misinterpreting the question and writing “off-topic”, this is very very common, possibly as a result of nerves, time running out, not analysing and planning the response, etc. Whatever the reason/s a failure to interpret the question and a subsequent essay which is about the topic very generally, but fails to answer the specific question, will score very badly for Task Achievement. As the official criteria point out an answer that is “tangential”, that is to say goes off at a tangent, writing about the topic not the question in other words, will only score 4.0 for Task Achievement.

The second problem is connected to the first, going off topic and not having a clear sense of direction can also cause problems for Cohesion and Coherence. The examiners want you to show a “clear” progression” with a “logical organisation of information”, which basically refers to structure which I have written about before many times. In any essay you need to have several ingredients, a clear position, one main idea per paragraph, reasons and examples, etc. As my old university Professor taught me, in an essay you “say what you are going to say, say it, then say what you have said”. In other words, you lay out your position and main ideas in the introduction, then flesh them out and expand on them in the body paragraphs (evidence, reasons, examples), then summarise this in the conclusion. In terms of the IELTS 250 to 300 words this means that you will essentially say the same things (in different words of course) three times in the essay. This reiteration, referring back and forth, with pronouns, paraphrase, cohesive devices, etc, is how your essay achieves its cohesiveness.

So, I have a couple of examples to clarify what I mean exactly but first I want to write a little more about how to avoid making this mistake in the first place.

We analyse the question by looking at three things, key-words (which tell us what the topic is), micro-words (which identify exactly what the question is about), and instruction words (discuss both views, agree or disagree, etc).

Let’s look at a question, analyse it, and then we will look at the examples.

World history suggests that violence and conflict were more evident under male leadership than under female leadership. So, for peace to prevail, female leadership can be considered as a better option than male leadership.

To what extent do you agree or disagree?

With most essays the first sentence is the general background or topic, it sets the scene as it were. It is not the actual question. The key-words in this sentence are “world history” + “violence and conflict” + “male leadership” + “female leadership”. Therefore, if you wrote about those things in general you not get a very high mark. If we look at sentence two, the micro-words are “female leadership” + better option” + “male leadership”. And the instruction words are “agree or disagree”.

The actual question the examiner wants you to write about then is, do you agree or not that female leadership is better than male leadership to ensure peace?

Now lets look at the student essay and compare it with my example…. I am not going to comment on any grammar and vocab errors here, just how the essay interprets the question.

So for the introduction (two to three sentences) we need to

  1. paraphrase the topic

  2. express a clear opinion

  3. give an outline (two reasons why we agree or disagree)

This is the introduction:

Some people suppose that a woman as a head of government is a better choice than a man. And the main reason for it that men promotes more aggressive politics than women. This essay totally agrees that female leadership has more advantages than male leadership. This essay will first look at how human nature influences modern people and then discuss how harmful can be aggressive politic for countries.

Well, not too bad. It paraphrases the topic more or less, expresses an opinion (although it is not an advantage vs disadvantage essay) and gives an outline. However, we want to read how female leadership is better than male leadership and the outline mentions how human nature influences modern people, and how harmful aggressive politic can be for countries, which is not really part of the question. Anyway, we will see…

For body paragraphs we need to write

  1. topic sentence

  2. explain/expand

  3. example

  4. summary

So, paragraph two:

Firstly, ancient people had a large difference between roles of men and women in groups. For instance, men hunted and fighted against other people. At the same time women cared of family members. As a result of evolution process, men’s bodies had started produce more testosterone which increase an aggressive level. On the other hand women’s bodies had started produce estrogen which made them more careful and calm.

Hmm, so to summarize this paragraph, it seems to look at the historical reasons why men and women are different, however, there is no mention of leadership nor of why specifically female leadership is better in terms of peace.

Let’s try the next paragraph: (same structure as before)

Secondly, citizens of countries under aggressive leadership and politicians are risking to be involved in war. Because such leaders do not care about the lives of people. They only interesting in their ambitions. It is clear that wars are the worst things that could happen with people. For example, we all remember about world wars in the twenty century and in addition we can see terrible events in Syria these days.

Ok, so as we can see this second body paragraph is talking about aggressive leadership and war and how war is bad, etc. However, still no mention of female or male leadership and why one is better than the other.

And on to the conclusion now: (restate/summarize main points)

To sum up, men are more aggressive than women and their ambitions can provocate conflicts and violence. For these reasons I totally agree that female leadership can be considered as a better option for peaceful world.

Now we have some mention of the question, why female leadership is better than male leadership, however none of the points in the conclusion were to be found in the body paragraphs of the essay. As we can see then, the essay does go off at a tangent, in that it says something about the keywords of the topic, but doesn’t really address the question as to why female leadership is better than male leadership. Also, in terms of cohesion we can see that the sections don’t relate to one another. The introduction mentions as its two main ideas “human nature influences modern people” however, paragraph two talks about ancient people and the differences between them. And “harmful aggressive politics” is mentioned in paragraph three, so not too bad, but it doesn’t develop anything as it just says wars are bad. Then in the conclusion we have a restatement of the topic (more or less) but it says why male leadership is bad, not really why female leadership is good. Also, it doesn’t mention the ideas expressed in para two and three.

Now let’s look another example which should demonstrate what I am talking about, of the same question. Introduction first of course:

It has been argued that if a nations political leaders were female rather than male this would be a major step in ensuring a peaceful world. I disagree with this statement and will argue that there is no historical evidence to suggest this would be true, and secondly that women are just as capable of promoting violence as men.

So, a clear one sentence restatement of the topic, a clear opinion, and two main ideas to be developed in paragraphs two and three. So, in the next paragraph the essay needs to discuss the “no historical evidence” reason as to why the author disagrees with the statement.

Firstly, as for most of human history men have been leaders in nearly all cases it is difficult to say that men have caused more wars and conflict than women. That is, we have barely any alternative cases to consider to back up this claim. For example, in my own country (UK) we have had only one female prime minister in recent history, Margaret Thatcher, and she oversaw a war with Argentina. Therefore, with a lack of historical alternatives to male leaders, (apart from the exception above) it is difficult to make a comparison and prove the statement.

As you can see, the words in bold do exactly that, referring back to the previously mentioned main idea. The third paragraph needs to do the same, refer to how women are no different to, and are as “capable of promoting violence as men”.

Secondly, the statement is apparently based on the premise that women are somehow different to men, either emotionally, or psychologically, or both, and therefore more “peaceful”. Apart from being potentially insulting, it suggests that women would behave differently to men because of these “differences”. However, to take one example, in the business world, a recent survey by The Financial Times in 2015 showed that female CEOS often felt they had to be as aggressive as men or more aggressive, to be taken seriously in business. Obviously, the business world is hardly combat but the implication of the research is that women do possess the same ruthless and aggressive qualities as men.

As we see, the paragraph does indeed make a connection between these ideas several times. Now for the conclusion, we need to restate the topic, opinion, and main ideas previously shown in the introduction, and paragraph two and three.

In conclusion, although the claim that having female leaders would lead to a more peaceful world may seem intuitively correct a shortage of historical evidence to prove this, as well as the fact that women possess the same aggressive qualities as men, leave me to dispute this idea.

And there you have it, firstly, the essay directly tackles the question and in doing so shows a cohesion by referring back and forth to the topic, opinion, and main ideas throughout the essay.

To summarize then, to avoid misinterpreting the question, we need to bear in mind that usually the first sentence in the question is just the background or context to the real question. We need to think of what the keywords are, distinguish them from the micro-words which form the actual question, and make sure we understand exactly what the instruction words are telling us. Then when writing the essay, we need to make sure that everything links in and flows together, by telling the reader what they are going to read (introduction). Telling them it in paragraph two and three (developing, extending, giving reasons ans examples). Then telling them what they just read (summary of main points).

Full texts of the essays below.

Some people suppose that a woman as a head of government is a better choice than a man. And the main reason for it that men promotes more aggressive politics than women. This essay totally agrees that female leadership has more advantages than male leadership. This essay will first look at how human nature influences modern people and then discuss how harmful can be aggressive politic for countries.

Firstly, ancient people had a large difference between roles of men and women in groups. For instance, men hunted and fighted against other people. At the same time women cared of family members. As a result of evolution process, men’s bodies had started produce more testosterone which increase an aggressive level. On the other hand women’s bodies had started produce estrogen which made them more careful and calm.

Secondly, citizens of countries under aggressive leadership and politicians are risking to be involved in war. Because such leaders do not care about the lives of people. They only interesting in their ambitions. It is clear that wars are the worst things that could happen with people. For example, we all remember about world wars in the twenty century and in addition we can see terrible events in Syria these days.

To sum up, men are more aggressive than women and their ambitions can provocate conflicts and violence. For these reasons I totally agree that female leadership can be considered as a better option for peaceful world.

Essay 2

It has been argued that if a nations political leaders were female rather than male this would be a major step in ensuring a peaceful world. I disagree with this statement and will argue that there is no historical evidence to suggest this would be true, and secondly that women are just as capable of promoting violence as men.

Firstly, as for most of human history men have been leaders in nearly all cases it is difficult to say that men have caused more wars and conflict than women. That is, we have barely any alternative cases to consider to back up this claim. For example, in my own country (UK) we have had only one female prime minister in recent history, Margaret Thatcher, and she oversaw a war with Argentina. Therefore, with a lack of historical alternatives to male leaders, (apart from the exception above) it is difficult to make a comparison and prove the statement.

Secondly, the statement is apparently based on the premise that women are somehow different to men, either emotionally, or psychologically, or both, and therefore more “peaceful”. Apart from being potentially insulting, it suggests that women would behave differently to men because of these “differences”. However, to take one example, in the business world, a recent survey by The Financial Times in 2015 showed that female CEOS often felt they had to be as aggressive as men or more aggressive, to be taken seriously in business. Obviously, the business world is hardly combat but the implication of the research is that women do possess the same ruthless and aggressive qualities as men.

In conclusion, although the claim that having female leaders would lead to a more peaceful world may seem intuitively correct a shortage of historical evidence to prove this, as well as the fact that women possess the same aggressive qualities as men, leave me to dispute this idea.

There you go, I hope this is useful for you, as always, any questions feel free to write to me at kevin@prepareielts.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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