The first rule of IELTS essays is to answer the question. One problem in doing that is there are different types of IELTS essay questions each of which poses its own problems. In this post, I talk you through the three main types of essay questions and show you how to identify them and what problems they pose.
I strongly suggest that you practise writing essays on each type of question before you get to the exam. You will find a selection of essay questions organised by question type on my sample essay question page.
1. The discussion
Here you are given a social issue or problem and asked directly to discuss it and very often asked to suggest a solution for it.
In this type of question you are given the problem (here in red) and then told how to discuss it/your task (in blue).
In many countries schools have severe problems with student behaviour. What do you think are the causes of this? What solutions can you suggest?
Many universities charge higher fees for foreign students.Why do they do this? Do you believe that it is fair?
Typical task words
- “Why do they think that?”
- “What solutions can you suggest?”
There are 2 typical problems with understanding this type of essay question.
- You are being asked for your personal opinion: it is not enough to talk generally about the topic. You must give your personal view.
- Very often you given two tasks: for example, to discuss the causes and the solution. If you discuss only one of these, you will be penalised on Task Achievement.
- The question does not give you much help with ideas: you may need to spend more time planning and thinking of ideas
2. The proposal
Here you are given an opinion about some social issue to discuss. Typically, you are asked whether or to what extent you agree with it.
In this type of question you are given an opinion (in red) and then told how to discuss it/your task (in blue). Sometimes the question is longer and you are given some background information (in green), then the opinion and then the task.
Fatherhood ought to be emphasized as much as motherhood. The idea that women are solely responsible for deciding whether or not to have babies leads on to the idea that they are also responsible for bringing the children up. To what extent do you agree or disagree?
Currently there is a trend towards the use of alternative forms of medicine. However, at best these methods are ineffective, and at worst they may be dangerous. To what extent do you agree or disagree?
Typical task words
- “What is you opinion?”
- “Do you agree that…”
- “To what extent do you agree?”
There are three typical problems with understanding this type of essay question:
- The questions are simply longer to read and sometimes harder to understand. Spend plenty of time reading the question and underlining the key words and making sure you understand what words like “this” and “these” refer to.
- It can be easy to confuse the background information from the opinion. You must discuss the opinion (the bit in red). If you only discuss the topic (the bit in green), you will be penalised on Task Achievement.
- You need to discuss the opinion in the question. You cannot only give your opinion.
3. The argument
Here you are given a problem or issue and two different solutions or opinions about it. Typically, you are then asked to decide which solution/opinion is the better.
The argument type essay question has two main types. In the first type, you get two different situations or opinions (red) and then your task (in blue) is to decide between them.
In some countries people pay different rates of tax depending on their salary, in other countries everyone pays the same rate. Which do you believe is the best system?
In the second type, you get a solution (in red) to a situation (in green) and you then your task (in blue) is to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of that solution.
Unemployment is one of the most serious problems facing developed nations today. What are the advantages and/or disadvantages of reducing the working week to thirty five hours?
Typical task words
“What are the advantages and disadvantages of this”
There are two typical problems here:
- The essay discusses the problem generally and doesn’t talk about advantages or disadvantages or make a choice between the two options. Again this will be penalised under Task Achievement.
- The essay only looks at the advantages or the disadvantages. It needs to look at both sides of the question.
Other question types
I would like to emphasise that you may well find questions that could fall into two different categories. That is not so important. What really matters is learning to look at each question and deciding what precisely it is asking you to do and what possible problems it poses.
This is my very simple checklist to help you decide which type of question you are looking at:
1. Does it ask me what my own opinion is about a topic? → Discussion question → Use my own opinions
2. Does it ask me to discuss a particular proposal? → Proposal question → Discuss that proposal
3. Does it ask me to decide between two different opinions or look at the advantages and disadvantages of a topic → Argument question→ Discuss both sides and come to a decision
Look at these reported recent IELTS questions and decide which type of essay you need to write:
- Many people have an unhealthy diet and do not take enough exercise. What do you think are the reasons for this and what can be done to encourage people to lead a more healthy lifestyle?
- Although countries with long average working hours are economically successful, this often has some negative social consequences. To what extent do you agree or disagree?
- Some people think that paying taxes is enough to contribute to society. Others argue that being a citizen involves more responsibilities. Discuss.
- Many people argue that children should stay in school until the age of eighteen. What are the advantages and disadvantages of making school compulsory until the age of 18?
- Many people nowadays leave their county to work abroad and take their family with them. What are the advantages and disadvantages in terms of family development?
Get more essay advice in your inbox
You might also be interested in:
How to like it, share it and share it
To write a good essay, you firstly need to have a clear understanding of what the essay question is asking you to do. Looking at the essay question in close detail will help you to identify the topic and ‘directive words’ (Dhann, 2001), which instruct you how to answer the question. Understanding the meaning of these directive words is a vital first step in producing your essay. This glossary provides definitions of some of the more typical words that you may come across in an essay question. Please note that these definitions are meant to provide general, rather than exact guidance, and are not a substitute for reading the question carefully. Get this wrong, and you risk the chance of writing an essay that lacks focus, or is irrelevant. You are advised to use this glossary in conjunction with the following Study Guides: Writing essays and Thought mapping written by Student Learning Development.
To write a good essay, you firstly need to have a clear understanding of what the essay question is asking you to do. Looking at the essay question in close detail will help you to identify the topic and ‘directive words’ (Dhann, 2001), which instruct you how to answer the question. Understanding the meaning of these directive words is a vital first step in producing your essay.
This glossary provides definitions of some of the more typical words that you may come across in an essay question. Please note that these definitions are meant to provide general, rather than exact guidance, and are not a substitute for reading the question carefully. Get this wrong, and you risk the chance of writing an essay that lacks focus, or is irrelevant.
You are advised to use this glossary in conjunction with the following Study Guides: Writing essays and Thought mapping written by Student Learning Development.
|Analyse||Break an issue into its constituent parts. Look in depth at each part using supporting arguments and evidence for and against as well as how these interrelate to one another.|
|Assess||Weigh up to what extent something is true. Persuade the reader of your argument by citing relevant research but also remember to point out any flaws and counter-arguments as well. Conclude by stating clearly how far you are in agreement with the original proposition.|
|Clarify||Literally make something clearer and, where appropriate, simplify it. This could involve, for example, explaining in simpler terms a complex process or theory, or the relationship between two variables.|
|Comment upon||Pick out the main points on a subject and give your opinion, reinforcing your point of view using logic and reference to relevant evidence, including any wider reading you have done.|
|Compare||Identify the similarities and differences between two or more phenomena. Say if any of the shared similarities or differences are more important than others. ‘Compare’ and ‘contrast’ will often feature together in an essay question.|
|Consider||Say what you think and have observed about something. Back up your comments using appropriate evidence from external sources, or your own experience. Include any views which are contrary to your own and how they relate to what you originally thought.|
|Contrast||Similar to compare but concentrate on the dissimilarities between two or more phenomena, or what sets them apart. Point out any differences which are particularly significant.|
|Critically evaluate||Give your verdict as to what extent a statement or findings within a piece of research are true, or to what extent you agree with them. Provide evidence taken from a wide range of sources which both agree with and contradict an argument. Come to a final conclusion, basing your decision on what you judge to be the most important factors and justify how you have made your choice.|
|Define||To give in precise terms the meaning of something. Bring to attention any problems posed with the definition and different interpretations that may exist.|
|Demonstrate||Show how, with examples to illustrate.|
|Describe||Provide a detailed explanation as to how and why something happens.|
|Discuss||Essentially this is a written debate where you are using your skill at reasoning, backed up by carefully selected evidence to make a case for and against an argument, or point out the advantages and disadvantages of a given context. Remember to arrive at a conclusion.|
|Elaborate||To give in more detail, provide more information on.|
|Evaluate||See the explanation for ‘critically evaluate’.|
|Examine||Look in close detail and establish the key facts and important issues surrounding a topic. This should be a critical evaluation and you should try and offer reasons as to why the facts and issues you have identified are the most important, as well as explain the different ways they could be construed.|
|Explain||Clarify a topic by giving a detailed account as to how and why it occurs, or what is meant by the use of this term in a particular context. Your writing should have clarity so that complex procedures or sequences of events can be understood, defining key terms where appropriate, and be substantiated with relevant research.|
|Explore||Adopt a questioning approach and consider a variety of different viewpoints. Where possible reconcile opposing views by presenting a final line of argument.|
|Give an account of||Means give a detailed description of something. Not to be confused with ‘account for’ which asks you not only what, but why something happened.|
|Identify||Determine what are the key points to be addressed and implications thereof.|
|Illustrate||A similar instruction to ‘explain’ whereby you are asked to show the workings of something, making use of definite examples and statistics if appropriate to add weight to your explanation.|
|Interpret||Demonstrate your understanding of an issue or topic. This can be the use of particular terminology by an author, or what the findings from a piece of research suggest to you. In the latter instance, comment on any significant patterns and causal relationships.|
|Justify||Make a case by providing a body of evidence to support your ideas and points of view. In order to present a balanced argument, consider opinions which may run contrary to your own before stating your conclusion.|
|Outline||Convey the main points placing emphasis on global structures and interrelationships rather than minute detail.|
|Review||Look thoroughly into a subject. This should be a critical assessment and not merely descriptive.|
|Show how||Present, in a logical order, and with reference to relevant evidence the stages and combination of factors that give rise to something.|
|State||To specify in clear terms the key aspects pertaining to a topic without being overly descriptive. Refer to evidence and examples where appropriate.|
|Summarise||Give a condensed version drawing out the main facts and omit superfluous information. Brief or general examples will normally suffice for this kind of answer.|
|To what extent||Evokes a similar response to questions containing 'How far...'. This type of question calls for a thorough assessment of the evidence in presenting your argument. Explore alternative explanations where they exist.|
Dhann, S., (2001) How to ... 'Answer assignment questions'. Accessed 12/09/11. http://www.education.ex.ac.uk/dll/studyskills/answering_questions.htm
The following resources have also been consulted in writing this guide:
Johnson, R., (1996) Essay instruction terms. Accessed 12/09/11. http://www.mantex.co.uk/samples/inst.htm
Student Study Support Unit Canterbury Christchurch College (no date) Common terms in essay questions. Accessed 22/02/08. http://www.wmin.ac.uk/page-2714
Taylor, A.M. and Turner, J., (2004) Key words used in examination questions and essay titles. Accessed 12/09/11 http://www.reading.ac.uk/internal/studyadvice/StudyResources/Essays/sta-planningessay.aspx#answering