TASK 2 WRITING: Answering the Question

Here is an IELTS Task 2 Topic taken from the internet:

“In many countries traditional foods are being replaced by international fast foods. This is having a negative effect on both families and societies. To what extent do you agree or disagree?”

In deciding how to approach this question, forget about ‘advantages-disadvantages; agree-disagree’ type essays you may have learned how to write, or any other ‘essay type’ you have been told about.

The danger in trying to classify an IELTS exam question into one of the types you may have learned how to write in the past is that you will miss an important part of the question.

For example, in this question you are asked your opinion about the issue of fast foods replacing traditional schools in relation to the effects it has on both families and societies. This is critical. A response that ignored the issues of the effect of fast food supplanting (replacing) traditional foods that did not talk about the effect on BOTH families AND society would fail to answer the question.

To illustrate this, if you argued that fast food was not a nutritious food and contained excessive amounts of fats and sugar and was therefore not a healthy food, but DID NOT go on to talk about the effect that this has on families (child and adult obesity, diabetes, heart disease, increased days off work/school due to illness, family fracturing due to early death of family members as a result of disease etc. for example) and society (increased health care costs, lost work hours due to worker sickness, damage to economy, increased early death and family disruption due to deaths resulting from poor eating habits etc. for example) then you would not have addressed the question that was asked.

In other words, the question does not simply ask about whether or not you think fast food is good or bad, it asks about whether you think it is bad in relation to the damage it does to families and society as a whole.

One way to structure the essay would be to have one paragraph on the effects on families and the second paragraph describing the effects on society when international fast foods (hamburgers, pizza etc.) replace traditional foods.

It is very easy for candidates to miss the full question in Task 2 and only partially answer what was asked. In fact, this is so easy to do, one well known IELTS website made the same mistake when they posted a sample answer to a recent Task 2 question. When the so called ‘experts’ can make this mistake, it serves as a warning to everyone to be very careful when deciding what you have been asked to do in the task question.

TASK 2 WRITING – The Introduction

Here is a Task 2 question:

“Some people argue that early marriage is part of traditional lifestyle in some countries and should be respected, others say it is damaging to young girls and their future.
Describe the arguments supporting both these positions and give your own opinion.”

Here is a quite common second sentence from an introduction:

“This essay looks at ideas in favor of and against early marriage.”

or

“This essay will discuss the advantages and disadvantages of early marriage and give my opinion.”

These are very poor introductions if the candidate is trying to achieve Band 7. One of the reasons for this can be found in the Public Band Descriptors at Band 7 which say, under Task Response:

• presents a clear position throughout the response

These introduction fail to give a clear opinion in the introduction and the next two paragraphs, if they just list the advantages and disadvantages, may also fail to make it clear where the writer stands.

So what could the writer have done to solve this problem?

One approach might be something like this (second sentence of the introduction):

“While some people may suggest that early marriage is simply a reflection of culture and tradition, this argument fails to take into account the damage and devastation it can cause in the lives of many young girls.”

The very strong language “damage and devastation”, make it very clear where the writer stands even though they have not written “I think” anywhere.

This also sounds like it is going to be a much more interesting essay to read.

Try it out. Take a position and make it clear. It is not too hard once you get the idea.

TASK 2 WRITING STRUCTURE

The problem with trying to teach IELTS candidates 4 or 5 essay types to deal with in the IELTS exam is that there are far more than 4 or 5 ways to ask a Task 2 question. Teachers who use this approach are locking their students into a box and may well condemn them to not answering the question correctly.

There is only one approach in Task 2 that will be successful, and it is not rocket science:

  1. READ THE QUESTION
  2. ANSWER THE QUESTION

Let’s see how this works. Here is the question from last week:

 

“Some people argue that academically weak students should study in the same class as academically strong students. Others argue that they should study in separate groups. What are the benefits of both these approaches and what is your opinion?”

 

To begin, answer these questions:

  1. How many questions is the candidate required to answer?
  2. What are they?
  3. What could be a topic sentence for each part?
ANSWERS:
  1. There are 3 questions to answer (did you see all three?)
  2. a. What are the benefits of putting weak and strong students together?
    b. What are the benefits of keeping them in different groups?
    c. Which method does the writer think is best?

Notice that this question DOES NOT directly ask for disadvantages. It asks for the BENEFITS of each approach. There is, however, room to talk about the disadvantages of one of the approaches when the writer gives their opinion, but this is NOT a necessary part of the answer.

Once you have answered these questions your next task is to decide which side you are on. DO NOT sit on the fence – TAKE A SIDE!

I know there are teachers who tell their students to always ‘sit on the fence’ and partly agree or partly disagree, but I have been teaching for a long time and from the thousands of essays I have read in my career, this approach, unless the writer is very good, always leads to the most confused and often contradictory essays. TAKE A SIDE – the essay is easier to write.

Once you have taken a side, you write about the side you DO NOT agree with FIRST and then follow it in the next paragraph with the side you agree with. Let’s make an outline for the essay above.

Here is a possible second sentence for the introduction:

“While there are some benefits when weak and strong students are educated in separate groups, the overwhelming advantages gained in both the academic and social development of students by having them study in the same group makes this approach the most desirable teaching methodology.”

TOPIC SENTENCE – 1st BODY PARAGRAPH

To begin with, there are some benefits in ease of preparation for the teacher when academically able and weak students are steamed into their own ability levels.

TOPIC SENTENCE – 2nd BODY PARAGRAPH

Although streaming students may provide some benefits for the teacher, there are overwhelming advantages for student development when they are able to study in the same group.

Which side am I on?

I have NOT said “I believe that …”, “I think that ….”, “in this essay I will discuss both views and give my opinion”, “while I hold this view I understand that many others will disagree with me …” or any of the other phrases that candidates are frequently taught to use – none of which add value to their writing.

Nevertheless, my position is clear right from the introduction. In addition, because of the structure I have used, I can give advantages of the side I DISAGREE with and run no risk that my opinion will be confused because I reinforce my opinion in the very first sentence of the second body paragraph, and I will reinforce it again in the first sentence of the conclusion.

How did I know how to do all this?

I know that at Band 7 the Public Band Descriptors say:

  1. addresses all parts of the task
  2. presents a clear position throughout the response

 

This tells me to answer all parts of the question and make my opinion clear at all times.

I did not have to memorize any imaginary “essay types” that someone thinks exist. All I had to do was know what the Public Band Descriptors say and read the question.

If you use this approach, it doesn’t matter how they ask you the question, it could be something you have never seen before in your life, you will still know how to structure an answer for it.

If you are interested, we will try another one in a day or two.

THE PROBLEM WITH TASK 2 (Part 2)

The solution structure for this essay:

“Some people believe that culture and traditions will be destroyed by the money-making attractions aimed at tourists.  Others think it is the only way to save these cultures and traditions. Discuss both views and give your own opinion.”

should look like this:

There are 3 questions that must be addressed:

  1. How do the money making attractions aimed at tourists damage culture and traditions?
  2. How do they help in protecting culture and traditions?
  3. What is your own opinion on the issue?

The first step, after deciding how many questions you must answer, is to decide what your position on the issue is. Your actual position doesn’t matter, except that you must have one. Having a position tells you how to structure your essay logically and it will lead to a clearer essay that does not suffer the confusion, and often the contradictions that occur, in essays that try to give a totally balanced view.

Topic Sentence for the First Body Paragraph. (this is the side you DO NOT agree with)

“To begin with, some people argue that culture and traditions are damaged/(protected and preserved)  by the attractions which are designed to pull tourists in to an area.”

This wording implies that this is what “some people argue” – it is not the writer’s opinion. However, this allows the writer to raise some of the arguments on the other side without confusing the reader about whether it is their own opinion or not.

Topic Sentence for the Second Body Paragraph. (this is the side YOU AGREE with)

“Nevertheless, the protection and preservation of/ (damage to) culture and traditions resulting from developments intended to support tourism is immeasurable.”

This is a very clear statement of where the writer stands. The writer used the word “immeasurable” – this is a very strong word and the implication is that the writer believes there are so many arguments on this side that they are actually beyond measure. It signals a very strong opinion.

In addition, the second sentence of a two sentence introduction will clearly show the writer’s opinion and the first sentence of a two sentence conclusion will repeat (in different words) this same sentence and again reinforce what the writer believes.

As an example, suppose I am on the side that agrees that tourism can protect culture if managed carefully. The second sentence of my introduction might read:

“Although tourism and the attractions that surround it may be a threat to culture and traditions in some situations, there is overwhelming evidence that, managed carefully, tourism not only protects and preserves indigenous culture and traditions, but can also be the source of enormous feelings of pride in local people.”

If this looks too difficult, here is a much simpler version:

“Although money spinning tourist attractions may damage culture and traditions in some situations, there is absolutely no doubt that the protection they offer is far more significant.”

Don’t try to write the more difficult sentences unless your grammar knowledge will let you do it without making errors. This simpler sentence is still a subordinate clause structure and can score all the way to Band 9 depending what other sentences I use and how accurately I get the grammar.

THE PROBLEM WITH TASK 2 (Part 1)

One of the biggest tragedies in task 2 writing is when the candidate fails to completely answer the question. Look at the impact it will have on the candidate’s score.

The Public Band Descriptors say this about “Task Response”:

BAND 6:
  • addresses all parts of the task although some parts may be more fully covered than others
  • presents relevant main ideas but some may be inadequately developed/unclear
BAND 5:
  • addresses the task only partially
  • presents some main ideas but these are limited and not sufficiently developed
  • there may be irrelevant detail
BAND 4:
  • responds to the task only in a minimal way or the answer is tangential
  • presents some main ideas but these are difficult to identify and may be repetitive, irrelevant or not well supported
BAND 3:
  • does not adequately address any part of the task
BAND 1:
  • answer is completely unrelated to the task
What all this means is that:
  • if the candidate misses the topic completely, they will get Band 1 for Task response;
  • if they talk about the topic but do not answer the question that was asked they will get no higher than Band 4;
  • if they answer part of the question that was asked but not all they will get Band 5;
  • if they answer all parts of the question, even if some parts are not as completely answered as others they will get Band 6.
  • (Band 7 and 8 involve not only answering all parts of the question but giving a good detailed structured paragraph on each part of the question.)

The most common mistake is for the candidate to answer only one question when they were asked two or to answer only two questions when they were asked three. This is tragic. The questions are there on the paper – often, but not always, with question marks on them, and yet the candidate fails to fully answer the question under the pressure of the exam because of the stress of the situation and because they have not read the question carefully enough.

Surprisingly, I have even seen IELTS websites that make this same mistake. It is easy to do.

Here is an example, this question was taken from www.51ielts.com :

Some people believe that culture and traditions will be destroyed by the money-making attractions aimed at tourists.  Others think it is the only way to save these cultures and traditions. Discuss both views and give your own opinion.

How many tasks is the candidate required to write on?
What are they?
What could be a topic sentence for each part?

These three questions are the same three questions every candidate should ask themselves when they start to write a task 2 answer.

“… A number of …” and ” … THE number of …”

These terms are used in Task 1 and Task 2 writing so understanding the correct grammar can be quite useful.

“a number of” is plural.AS in, for example:

“A number of people are coming to the party tonight.” (plural)

more than one will come, ‘a number’ will come. So “a number of” goes with a plural verb.

However, “THE number of …” is singular:

“The number of people dying from smoking related diseases is still far too high.”

we are talking here about “THE number”, estimated to be 500,000 in the USA, it is a LOT of people BUT it is only ONE number.

Also this:

THE number of people who came to my party last night WAS surprising.” (singular).

Knowing whether it is singular or plural can be a headache, but it is critically important for writing in the IELTS exam and many people get this wrong.

(Thanks to Artima for this question.)

The Problem with Grammar

The IELTS exam does not test candidate grammar separately in a multiple choice type test. However, it tests grammar in every module of the test. In reading and listening it gets tested in gap fill or sentence completion type questions where the answer must fit grammatically into the gap.

It gets tested more directly in speaking and writing where the examiner is looking specifically at the kinds of sentence structure the candidate is using and scores the candidate on their ability to use grammar well.

One of the most frequent errors produced by even band 7 candidates is the incorrect use of verbs in a sentence. As you all know a simple sentence in English MUST contain a subject and a verb (well … ok … imperative sentences (instructions: e.g. Close the door!) don’t require a subject because it is understood who the subject is in these sentences, but you won’t get the opportunity to use this type of sentence in the IELTS exam).

To repeat, each simple sentence requires 1 subject and 1 verb. The place where many candidates go wrong is to have more than 1 verb in the sentence. This might sound like a silly mistake but it isn’t because sentences can get quite complicated very easily. It is sometimes quite difficult to know when a word is a verb or acting as a noun (or adjective or even adverb).

So here is an example sentence and 3 questions to answer:
“Over the same period, the percentage of commuters traveled by bus was approximately 18% at the beginning and then it rose considerably reached its peak at 26 % in 1980 before falling back to the former level in 2000.”

Look carefully at this sentence and see if you can answer these three questions:

  1. How many verbs are there in this sentence?
  2. How many verbs are required?
  3. What can you do about the extra verbs to make the sentence correct?

Scroll down lower for the answer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The verbs are:

  • traveled
  • was
  • rose
  • reached

Note that “falling” could have been an error as it is the present participle form of the verb “to fall” but the grammar is entirely correct in this part of the sentence and we therefore do not consider it to be a verb in its use here. However, the 4 verbs listed above are all verb forms in areas of the sentence which are grammatically incorrect so we need to look carefully to see what is wrong.

This sentence is a COMPOUND sentence – there is an “AND” in the middle of it. Compound sentences link simple sentences and so we expect there are two simple sentences joined int his long sentence. Each simple sentence needs its own verb so we expect to find 2 MAIN VERBS in the whole sentence.

So what do we do with the 2 extra verbs?

1. not all commuters traveled by bus so this is an indicator that we can describe this better; for example, we could write ” … commuters who traveled by bus ….”, using a defining relative clause, in this case we keep traveled as a verb but put it inside the relative clause and since relative clauses MUST HAVE their own verbs it is now a necessary part of the sentence. I could have also changed “traveled” to the participle “traveling” and this would have also removed this extra verb from the original sentence.

2. ” … and then it rose considerably … ” is fine the problem is with ‘reached’; we have to remove it as a verb and we have a few choices. We could use the ‘to infinitive’ “to reach” and this would solve the problem or we could use the -ing form which will also kill the verb – ” … reaching its peak …”.

We could even leave it as a verb and use another “and” to allow for another simple sentence to be added to the two we already have. In this case the sentence would read:

“… at the beginning and then it rose considerably and reached its peak at 26 % in 1980 before falling back to its former level in 2000.”

So there are three ways we could have removed the problem, in two we changed the verb into a noun form and in this last case we left it as the main verb in a new simple sentence attached to the original compound sentence with “and”.

The critical part for the writer is to realize when they have too many verbs in the sentence because this will make the entire sentence wrong and lead to a lower mark for grammar accuracy.

This is a complex issue and if anyone is confused please post a question.

 

Do The Advantages Outweigh the Disadvantages?

I was asked this question elsewhere on the blog today:

THE TASK

“More and more students are choosing to study at colleges and universities in foreign countries. Do the benefits of studying abroad outweigh the drawbacks?”

THE PROBLEM
The candidate asked the following question:

“From what I understand, this is a discussion essay that we need to write two body paragraphs which talk about advantages and disadvantages of studying abroad. I’m not sure how to conclude it. I mean, is it good to tell which side is outweighed or do I need to balance ideas as the question didn’t ask for an opinion.”

ANSWERING THE ESSAY QUESTION
Three things about the wording of this essay question:

  1. You do not necessarily have to write on both sides of the issue because it didn’t specifically tell you to – it just asks do the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.
  2. It is asking for an opinion. It is asking if the advantages outweigh the disadvantages – that is asking what the candidate thinks about the issue.
  3. Don’t try to classify questions according what teachers have told you. Read the question and answer the question you have been asked. (A recent survey of IELTS Task 2 questions available on the internet revealed that questions can be asked in over 25 different ways with each one requiring a distinct approach. Nobody can teach you all of these and few of us would remember how to do them all anyway.)

As already stated, this question actually doesn’t make it mandatory for you to discuss both sides of the issue (although this would be expected in a university essay). I could therefore answer this question without giving the opposing view.

For example, I could begin my essay:

“Many students are attracted to the possibility of studying overseas these days. Although it has been suggested that studying abroad has a number of drawbacks, the advantages it provides in relation to educational and personal development are clear and overwhelming.”

I would then go on to write a body paragraph on the educational benefits and another on the personal development benefits.

Sometimes the IELTS Task 2 question will say:

“Discuss both views and give your opinion”

In this case, if you do not give both views you will lose marks for not completely answering the question.

For candidates who are trying to obtain band 7 it is essential that you make your position clear throughout your essay. Therefore the idea of writing a balanced essay is really quite dangerous if it is not asked for. It can be done, but the danger is that the reader will be confused about which side you are on. (There is terrible advice current in Bangkok at the present time on this issue which basically tells candidates to say something to the effect:  ” …  ’name of topic’ is a controversial issue which has both pros and cons and the individual should make up their own mind on this issue.”)

When asked to give an opinion, as in this essay, take a side and present your argument.

If you do put the opposing view to the one you will take, put that paragraph first and give the side you agree with the second body paragraph (or second and third if you write three body paragraphs). Do not attempt to give the side you do not agree with a strong case. Make your opinion clear in the introduction and again in the conclusion.

Here is an introduction and conclusion that make the writer’s position clear for the essay topic given above. (The body paragraphs gave a negative paragraph about the cultural problems faced and problems with visas and the positive paragraph talked about the things summarized in the conclusion below.)

INTRODUCTION:
Nowadays, studying abroad has become a very popular trend with students. Although study in a foreign country has some disadvantages, the advantages are overwhelming and make it essential for a very high level education which will maximize the future possibilities for our people and nation.

CONCLUSION:
In conclusion, although there are some disadvantages, studying in a foreign country provides significant and unquestionable advantages in giving access to knowledge that is unavailable in the students’ home country, cultivating the qualities of independence and responsibility and improved understanding of and tolerance for people who are different. If we are to maximize the opportunities education provides, studying in a foreign country should be encouraged for all who are interested in it.

IELTS Task 2 Question and Sample Answer

“Many people think it is very important to protect the environment but they make no effort to do it themselves. Why do you think this is the case? What actions should individuals take to protect the environment?”

This answer deliberately uses some quite high level vocabulary. If you don’t know some of these words, use a dictionary to find out the meaning and then try to use some of the expressions in your own writing. This essay is long (385 words) and it should be cut a little in each paragraph. I have not done this but stress that you should NOT try to write this length essay. (I will try to post an edited version late next week).

While the world makes amazing technological advances almost daily, it is also facing more serious environmental concerns than it has had to face at any time in all of human history. Although many people are sympathetic to the problem and say they care, various reasons prevent them from taking personal action, even when very simple steps are available that would, if adopted, allow everyone to participate in reducing the impact of environmental problems.

To begin with, many factors inhibit people from taking action on environmental issues. One of the most important is the feeling of powerlessness which is felt by many people in the face of these huge problems. Environmental issues such as global warming, atmospheric pollution in big cities and even holes found in the ozone layer feature on major news services on a regular basis.  Although many people profess to be concerned about environmental issues, in the face of such huge problems, most people believe there is little they can do to change the situation.

Fortunately there are many things that individuals can do that would have an impact on the problem over time, if enough people become involved. One of the first but most significant actions individuals could take is to use public transport. While it is less convenient for most people, the use of public transportation would significantly reduce the effect of atmospheric pollution from cars, which is devastating to the air quality in all big cities. Moving to public transport would not only reduce the amount of pollution from car exhausts, which would result in cleaner air, but it would also have the added benefit of reducing the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which are responsible for global warming, which many scientists say we are already suffering from, and would circumvent (prevent) the predicted catastrophic changes to weather patterns that global warming will bring in the future.

In the final analysis, using public transport is just one of many things that people can do to assist the environment and improve the chances that the world will survive the environmental dangers which are currently on the horizon. Nevertheless, if this is to be achieved, it will require a concerted effort by everyone to overcome the feelings of powerlessness many people experience in the face of this seemingly insurmountable problem.

IELTS TASK 2 WRITING

This advice may well sound too simple to be serious. It is indeed simple advice, but it is critical to IELTS Writing success.

When you write an essay, how many times do you look back at the question to check that what you are writing is answering the question you think you have been asked?

Am I serious? You bet!

Many candidates get a very low IELTS score in Task 2 writing because they have not answered the question they were asked. Look at what the Public Band Descriptors say about this:

Band 5: addresses the task only partially;

Band 4: responds to the task only in a minimal way or the answer is tangential (not directly related to what was asked)

Band 1: answer is completely unrelated to the task

If you think Band 1 would not be given to a good writer, think again.

How do you make sure you are writing on the topic you have been asked?

STEP 1:
Re-read the question every time you start a new paragraph and identify which part of the question the paragraph you are writing answers.

STEP 2:
Every time you write a sentence identify how that sentence answers the question you have been asked. Don’t do this from memory – take your pencil and POINT to it on the question paper.

Even though you are under severe time pressure, do not just write the essay without constantly referring back to the question you have been asked.

The penalty for missing the topic and writing an irrelevant answer is huge – do not become a victim to this frequent mistake by IELTS candidates.