Achieving Band 7 for Vocabulary

Achieving Band 7 in the IELTS Speaking Test: Vocabulary

I was asked a great question yesterday after the free Speaking Clinic about using idioms to help get Band 7.

Under “Lexical Resource”  for Speaking the Public Band Descriptors say this:

  • uses some less common and idiomatic vocabulary and shows some awareness of style and collocation, with some inappropriate choices

“with some inappropriate choices” means the candidate still makes mistakes in putting word combinations (collocations) together.

“awareness of style and collocation” refers to the candidates ability to use words the way they are used in normal English. Native English speakers often use words in pairs or small groups. For example we say “knife and fork” – we never say “fork and knife”, there is nothing wrong with “fork and knife”, it is perfectly understandable, it is just that it is not the way we say it.

Some examples of collocations are:

  • global warming

  • sustainable development

  • financial management

  • job satisfaction

“less common vocabulary” this is referring to the candidate’s ability to show they know a greater variety of vocabulary than just basic words. For example, the candidate might be asked to “describe a car or motorbike that you would like to buy” and if they answered something like:

“Well … you know … the kind of vehicle I’ve always wanted to buy is ….”

the word ‘vehicle’ is less common vocabulary. It is simply not possible to give a list of all the words that satisfy this criteria of being “less common” – expand your vocabulary is the best advice to everyone.

“idiomatic vocabulary” this is referring to both idiomatic words (“hmmm … a sporting activity I like ….. well, actually … I am really keen on diving….” – “keen on” = to like something) and idiomatic expressions e.g. “once in a blue moon” = very rarely.

This bring us to “idioms”. In the past I helped a candidate achieve Band 7 by teaching her to use idioms BUT most teachers will tell you this is a waste of time and they have a point. To learn to use even a few idioms well enough to help get Band 7 takes hours and hours of practice. So you have to decide if you are prepared to put the time in to achieve the result.

1.            “in a nutshell” (‘to put it in a nut shell’) = in brief, in short,

in summary

This can be used to sum up what you say after you have given some details or it can be used before you give the details to summarize what you are about to day. If you used it differently each time, you could actually use this one twice in the exam.

Here is an example of the second use, summarizing what I am about to say BEFORE I say it:

The examiner asks:

“Can you describe the qualities of a good teacher?”

The candidate says:

“Well … to put it in a nutshell, if someone wants to be a teacher they MUST have a teacher’s heart. By this I mean …..”

“in a nutshell” is usually easy to fit into the test somewhere.

BUT …. you will have to practice it a lot.


2.            “it’s on the tip of my tongue” meaning you can almost remember something but not quite – it only applies to a word or a name usually.

The reason it can be useful is for those times when you can’t think of the right word like the example I gave in the Speaking Clinic with the word ‘wardrobe’

The examiner asks:

“Describe something you own which is important to you”

the candidate describes a camera he has been given and says:

“… it is very important to me so i don’t leave it out where everyone can see it … I keep it in ….hmm … I keep it in … oh look … it is on the tip of my tongue ….. you know …. that thing where people keep their clothes …. I keep it in there so it is safe and out of sight …..”

‘tip of my tongue’ can also be used another way … to describe something you were about to say but chose not to:

Examiner asks:

“What do you enjoy about your job?”

Candidate answers:

“Actually I love my job not because of the work but because of my colleagues … well … except for my boss … when he was extremely rude yesterday it was on the tip of my tongue to tell him he had no right to talk to people that way, but I decided it was better to stay quiet.”


3.            “put my feet up” = to relax

There are some restrictions on the use of this as we talked about but it is usually easy to decide when it is OK and when it isn’t. If you really could put your feet up in the place you are talking about then it is OK to use the idiom. It is usually not too difficult to work this into a question but like the example I gave about going to the restaurant you might have to manipulate the question.


The examiner asks you:

“Do you know your neighbours very well?”

And the candidate answers:

“Do you know? … I am the kind of person who likes to go home put my feet up for a few hours and just read the newspaper or watch TV. BUT … as soon as my neighbour hears me come home she comes over for a chat, EVERY day! …”

Because I already have in my mind that I want to use the idiom it is not so hard to work it into the conversation.

Here is another example:

Examiner asks:

“What do you enjoy about your job?”

Candidate answers:

Most people are surprised when I tell them that I love the work and pressure in my job. I am the kind of person who feels guilty if I put my feet up and do nothing … I have always been like that  … I actually enjoy the hard work and in MY job there’s lots of it! …..”


The problem is, if the candidate cannot do this almost without thinking, it will cause them to hesitate while their brain figures out how they can work it into the answer. This is why it takes hours and hours of practice to do this well. To get the credit for band 7, it HAS to be done well.

(Although it shouldn’t matter, a candidate who uses lots of word stress and intonation, i.e. puts lots of feeling into their voice, and who speaks very fluently will have a better chance of convincing the examiner they deserve Band 7 for vocab with just a few idioms or good words.)

4.            “to have a ball”  = to have a good time

No real restrictions on its use that I can think of.

“…. if my friends call up we always go to a little Thai restaurant near my house because the staff are so friendly and we always have a ball when we go to eat there.”


5.            “to hang out with” = to spend time with

This is quite common but it often is the only idiom a candidate will use.

Examiner asks:

“What do you usually do on weekends?”

Candidate says:

“Actually, I usually just stay at home, put my feet up and watch TV, but if I am hanging out with my friends we will often go shopping in Siam Square at the weekend or maybe ….”

(Notice that this idiom is really a verb structure and it is used in the continuous form here). Of course, I don’t have to be this complicated, the candidate could have just said:

” At weekends I usually like to hang out with my friends in Siam Square where we go window shopping, usually, for clothes at ….”


6.            “hit home” = something you have come to understand very well but (perhaps) didn’t realize at first

Examiner asks:

“What kind of weather do you have in your country?”

Candidate says:

“Do you know …. Thailand has very hot weather … all year .. it is quite hot. It didn’t really hit home just how much I enjoy this type of weather until I started to think about going to the UK study. I am worried that it will be too cold there…. but … to answer your question … it is hot in Thailand … it is a tropical climate … …”

Task 1 Full Sample Answer

Here is a full sample answer for the double line graph posted earlier this week.

The graph shows the quantity of various drinks, which was measured in millions of litres per week, (which were) consumed in Canada over the two decades from 1990 to 2010.

In brief, the graph shows that the volume of Pepsi consumed increased dramatically over the period shown, while the intake of milk fell significantly. The data also reveals that the consumption of tea and coffee, which Canadians drank the least, did not change appreciably (much) over the two decades.

In detail, the quantity of Pepsi consumed after 1990, when it was 26 million litres per week, rose dramatically until the end of the period in 2010, when it reached its peak value of 37 million litres per week, which represented almost a 50% increase in consumption.

In contrast, the quantity of milk consumed fell by around 33% from 35 million litres per week in 1990, when milk consumption was greatest, to 26 million litres per week in 2010, when the quantity of milk consumed was coincidentally the same as Pepsi consumption in 1990.

(170 words)

TASK 1 OVERVIEW: A Double Line Graph

At Band 6 you must make an attempt to provide some sort of overall statement about the main features of the data:

For example:

“In brief, the graph shows that the consumption of Pepsi increased dramatically over the period shown.”

or, another possibility for Band 6 would be:

“In brief, the graph shows that the consumption of milk fell dramatically over the period shown.”

But, neither of these sentences alone would get Band 7; to get Band 7 you must identify all the main trends so you would need something like:

“In brief, the graph shows that the consumption of Pepsi increased dramatically over the period shown, while the intake of milk fell significantly.”

Look for what is increasing, what is decreasing, what stays (approximately) the same OR what is high, what is low, what has some middle value. One of these two approaches will usually allow you to identify the main features.


We received a great question from a candidate who wanted to know if the spelling must always be correct in the listening and reading tests. Many people ask this.

The short answer is yes. If they spell the word in the listening test or it appears in writing in the listening test or reading test then the spelling MUST be perfect.

Sometimes the answer sheet will show alternative spellings but those cases usually refer to British or American spelling of words (both are allowed). Most words required as answers are usually simple words that candidates are expected to be able to spell without too much trouble.

The answer sheet is the final judge. If the spelling of the word(s) does not exactly match what is on the answer sheet, it will be marked wrong. This might sound unfair, but it is actually done to make sure the test is administered fairly all over the world.

IELTS Writing: Task 2

Understanding the Question

Here is a question type that causes many problems in the IELTS exam:

Over the past 15 years there has been an enormous advance in electronic communications. This has lead to an explosion in people using the “short messaging service”, sms messages, to communicate with each other. Why is this and is this a positive development?

Many candidates when faced with this type of question start of saying something like:

“There are many advantages and disadvantages to text messages and this essay we will look at both sides of the argument….”

The problem is, this is wrong. Let us see why.

The first sentence is giving you background, what we call in English “setting a context”; it is telling you about the GENERAL topic BUT IT IS NOT THE QUESTION.

The second sentence is also NOT THE QUESTION, but it tells you about the specific topic you have to write about in this essay.

The LAST SENTENCE is the question.

So, what is the specific topic we have to discuss?

It is:

“the ‘explosion’ in sms messaging” (‘texting’ on mobile phones)

What is the specific question?

Why is “this”?

“this” is a reference word, (one of those words that will get you a higher Band Score in your own writing), and it is referring to the “explosion in sms messages” talked about in the previous sentence.

So, the first question is:

 “Why has there been a huge increase in text messaging.”

BUT, there is one more question in that last sentence, it is:

“Is this a positive development?”

that is, “is text messaging a positive development?”

The candidate will need 4 paragraphs:


Maybe something like:

“The number of text messages being sent has increased rapidly over recent years. The reasons for this are related to speed and convenience of sms messages, which means texting is an extremely positive development.”

(35 words)

This introduction uses NO MEMORIZED sentences (that most examiners know anyway and many even know the names of the teachers in Bangkok teaching them); uses a RELATIVE CLAUSE structure (which can get you Band 6 and higher); and is a VERY clear statement of what the writer is going to say and what the reader will find WITHOUT having to say: “this essay will discuss blah blah blah ….” This is on the way to Band 7!

First Body Paragraph:
Explain some reasons why people use text messages. Why they find it FAST and CONVENIENT.

Second Body paragraph:
Explain WHY it is a positive development.

Sum up the idea presented in the essay. DO NOT introduce anything new.

Something like:

“In the final analysis, it is the rapid transmission of clear, short messages that can be sent from any location, at any time that has made texting such a popular and positive development. If electronics continue to develop in the future, sms messaging may not be the last positive development in communications technology.”

(53 words)


This essay WAS NOT an “advantages/ disadvantages” type essay BECAUSE:

1. it asked WHY sms messages are so popular


2. it simply asked “is this a positive development?” so you DO NOT have to argue both positive AND negative – just one side is enough.

If you find this article useful comment below and we will do more like this if you are interested.



TASK 1 Heartbreak: Fast Food Consumption – Sample Answer

Did you work out what was wrong with the “details” paragraph” for the graph in the last post?

“In detail, the graph clearly shows that the consumption of Fish & Chips and Hamburger both grew very dramatically in the last half of the period shown. Although the rise in the early period was not as significant, it was also substantial. On the other hand, the amount of Pizza consumed in the UK fell by a very large amount at first, although the decline failed to continue and consumption settled down to a constant level. The overall increase in fast food intake clearly shows the government needs to do more to educate the public about the dangers which fast foods pose to health.”

This is one of the most tragic errors a candidate can make in Task 1 writing. Despite the fact that this is shows the writer is able to produce very good English, it would only get 5 for Task Achievement.

Look at the Public Band Descriptors at Band 5 for Task Achievement, they say (in part):

  • there may be no data to support the description

Even though the paragraph is written in very good English there is not one single number from the graph so, clearly, it cannot score higher than Band 5 for Task Achievement.

In addition, the last sentence, while it is an intelligent analysis of the information and its implications, is TOTALLY IRRELEVANT in an IELTS Task 1 where the only thing required is to DESCRIBE the data by pointing out the main features.

This graph, together with various sample answers, is all over the internet. Be very careful when looking at IELTS advice on the internet, in some cases I have seen the sample answer has no overview, in others it is even significantly under the word length. Mistakes like these throw marks a way unnecessarily. Be careful!

Here is a complete sample answer for this essay:

[i]The graph shows the amount of fast food eaten, (which is) measured in grams per person per week[ii], over the two decades between 1970 and 1990.

[iii] Overall, although[iv] the quantity of pizza eaten declined by around [v]30%, the massive [vi]5-fold and [vii]6-fold increase in the consumption of hamburger and fish and chips, respectively, meant the total amount of fast food consumed more than [viii]doubled over the two decades.

[ix]In detail, sales of hamburger, [x]which in 1970 amounted to 50 g/week, and fish and chips, [xi](which was) measured at about 90 g/week, at that time, [xii]exploded over the period to 1990, [xiii]when hamburger intake was [xiv]almost 300 g/week and fish and chip consumption reached 500 g/week. [xv]This represents an [xvi]exponential rise of 6-times for hamburger and 5-times for fish and chips.

[xvii]In contrast, pizza consumption dropped most significantly from 1970, [xviii]when it was 300 g/week, to 1980, [xix]when it amounted to just over 200 g/week. Intake of pizza then stayed relatively steady at this figure until 1990.

(166 words)

Explanatory notes:

[i] Before I begin, I look at the graph and see two lines are going up and one down but that overall there is an increase in total consumption. This is all I need to know to do this essay

[ii] Relative clause or reduced relative clause gives a complex sentence structure (required for Band 6)

[iii] You say “Overall …” or “In brief …” to signal to the examiner you are giving the overview – HE/SHE IS LOOKING FOR IT, don’t make it hard to find

[iv] I am deliberately using “although” because it is going to give me a complex sentence and that is minimum Band 6

[v] It fell from 300 to about 200, so it fell by 100 out if the 300 it started at or 100/300 = 1/3 = about 30%; you can do this straight off the graph just by looking at the 100 g/week fall against the 300 g/week it started at without doing any mathematics. You could also just stop at “declined” – you DO NOT need data in the overview.

[vi] 5-fold because it started at 90 and rose to 500 and 5 x 90 = 450 so it is a little more than a 5-fold increase but this is English NOT mathematics and it is about right

[vii] 6-fold because it started at 50 and ended at 300 and 6 x 50 = 300

[viii] The graph is fairly clear and the numbers are easy to add in your head: total consumption in 1970=450 g/week; total consumption in 1990 = 1000 g/week

[ix] You say “In detail…” to tell the examiner this is the detailed description of the important features of the data

[x] It is easy to use a relative clause to insert data into your answers and Band 6 or higher into your Band score

[xi] Another relative clause to insert data, but now it is getting a bit repetitive and the examiner will definitely NOT be happy if we keep using the same type of sentence structure, so we can mix it up and reduce the relative clause to a participle phrase, that will also get us Band 6 minimum, but now we are showing variety and that is Band 7!

[xii] You can’t use language like “exploded” unless it did, but in fact the rise here is exponential, so exploded is appropriate

[xiii] Another relative clause to insert data but this time we made it come after the year so we can use “when” and that adds some variety

[xiv] We can’t say “intake WAS 300 g/week” because it wasn’t, it “was ALMOST 300 g/week”

[xv] “This” is a reference word; we are referring back to the rises we were just describing in the previous sentence. Good use of referencing is HIGHER than Band 6, I will explain how we know this from the Public Band Descriptors later

[xvi] You have to be quite careful with terms like “exponential rise”; if something doubles every period you are looking at then it is an exponential rise. In this graph the consumption of fish and chips and hamburger are not quite exponential at 1980 (hamburger should have been at 100 g/week and fish and chips should have been at 200 g/week, but by the end of the period an exponential rise would have meant hamburger was at 200 g/week and fish and chips at 400 g/week and both of them were higher than this so the use of exponential is actually not entirely correct but not too far wrong. If this worries the mathematicians and physicists among you use: “huge”, “massive”, “enormous” instead

[xvii] “In contrast … “ tells the reader I am about to say something the opposite of what I have just said, it immediately gives the reader an idea of what I will say before I say it and helps them understand my writing; this is good COHESION. Cohesion makes writing fit together smoothly and gets a higher Band score; “Overall” and “In detail” also do this.

[xviii] You know what this is now, right?

[xix] Another relative clause used to insert data into the sentence. Are there now too many relative clauses? Maybe. We have used enough to make the quality of our writing clear and we don’t really need this one, if it worries you it could be replaced with: “to 200 g/week in 1980” – simple and straightforward.

The internet is fantastic. Computers are great. However! If you are like me and just need to sit down with pen, paper and a book sometimes to really get to understand something I have uploaded a PDF file of this post here 

Task 1 Writing Heartbreak

Some students have very good English and are very disappointed if they score lower than they expect in the IELTS Test.

Have a look at the Task 1 graph about the consumption of fast food:


Here is the “Details” paragraph from one essay:

“In detail, the graph clearly shows that the consumption of Fish & Chips and Hamburger both grew very dramatically in the last half of the period shown. Although the rise in the early period was not as significant, it was also substantial. On the other hand, the amount of Pizza consumed in the UK fell by a very large amount at first, although the decline failed to continue and consumption settled down to a constant level. The overall increase in fast food intake clearly shows the government needs to do more to educate the public about the dangers which fast foods pose to health.”

This candidate is clearly very good at English but they may get a shock when they get their IELTS result.

This is just the details paragraph – the writer had and introduction and an overview BUT can you see a problem(s) with this?

Comment below. I will post an answer tomorrow.

Task 1 Writing Competition

The writing task is below. Click on the image to make it bigger or download it and print it at A4 size.

Write your answer on the official writing paper available here scan it, or photograph it and send the scan or photograph to IELTS English

If you have never done an IELTS Task 1 before click here to read the blogs on writing a Task 1. This is free IELTS advice to help you.

Spend just 20 minutes writing your answer, if you don’t finish, don’t worry, send it in anyway. Learning to write these tasks in the right amount of time is part of learning how to prepare for the exam, so don’t get too worried if you can’t finish at first.

Give it a go! Best wishes.


IELTS Writing: Task 1 – Line Graphs

Part 3: The Details

In Task 1 the candidate must describe the main features of the data.

We will look at the theory first and then see how it applies to the graph we are doing. If you understand the principle of how these questions must be done, you will be able to do anything you are given.

Look at the Public Band Descriptors at Band 7:

  • clearly presents and highlights key features
  • logically organises information and ideas

Look at the Public Band Descriptors at Band 6:

  • presents and adequately highlights key features

and finally at Band 5:

  • recounts detail mechanically
  • there may be no data to support the description
  • presents, but inadequately covers, key features
  • there may be a tendency to focus on details
  • presents information with some organisation but there may be a lack of overall progression

What does all this mean?

Band 7 and 5 tell us the most:

Candidates MUST:

  1. organize the data into some logical grouping so it can show a clear progression
  2. use the data to illustrate what they say about the key points
  3. report the MAIN features and NOT every little detail

This means that the first thing to do is look for the trends and see if the data can be grouped some way. There is no single right way to group data. There are two possible approaches that will work most of the time:


Look for

  1. what is increasing
  2. what is decreasing
  3. what stays (approximately) the same or has some eratic behaviour like increaing and then decreasing or decreasing and then increasing


Look for:

  1. what has a high value
  2. what has a low value
  3. what has some medium value or erratic value

This will allow you to group data together in some logical manner. If you do that, you are already way above Band 5 and possibly Band 6 if you get this right.

Let us apply this to the graphs.

Actually, we have already done most of the work because we realized there were 3 important features when we looked at the overview.

We will use the METHOD 1: increasing, decreasing, stays the same.

  1. What is increasing? unemployment in Japan
    Please note: Japan is NOT increasing, it is not expanding, it is not getting bigger, Japan does not change; it is the UNEMPLOYMENT RATE  in Japan that is increasing. (Writing “Japan is increasing …” is like waving a red flag at the examiner saying give me Band 5).
  2. What is decreasing? unemployment in the US
  3. What stays the same? well, nothing all the time, BUT at the end of the period they BOTH stay the same

Now put these three parts together into three body paragraphs.

In detail, the percentage of the people who were unemployed in the US began at 7% in March 1993, when it was actually at its peak, and then it fell fairly steadily until around March 1997, when it reached about 5.4%. After this, the rate fluctuated around 5%.

The situation in Japan was almost the reverse of this. In March 1993, the unemployment rate shot up sharply from 2.5% to 3%, which amounts to a rise of 20% over a very short period of time. Although unemployment did not continue to increase at this pace, the number of people who were out of work continued to increase steadily until it hit its peak value during 1998, when it was 5% of the total workforce.

In the final 12 months from from 1998 to March 1999, even though the US and Japan had started the study period with very different unemployment rates, both countries experienced an unemployment rate which was almost the same at approximately 5%.”

There is a lot more to say about the way we have structured these paragraphs but this is already long so we will leave until next time.

Notice that I have left out all the minor detail EXCEPT the sharp rise in the unemployment rate in Japan at the very start. I did this because this change actually represented a 20% rise in a very short period of time, which makes it an interesting, though perhaps, minor feature of the data.

So, I have written about 200 words (a little long) and I have FIVE paragraphs!

Does this matter?

In my opinion, coming from writing for newpapers and magazines, it does not. Each paragraph has a different point to make and that is the reason they were invented. They help to make your writing clear.

If you don’t like short paragraphs you can combine the introduction and overview into a single paragraph and then combine all the detail into another paragraph, so you would finish with a 2 paragraph essay. That would be fine.

Some teachers will tell you to put the overview at the end so it serves as a conclusion. That is also fine. This is a short esssay and examiners are not looking for a conclusion so you don’t have to write one, but the overview sentence could be used to round off the essay.

There is no rule about where the overview goes, but if you leave it out, you will be scored maximum Band 5 for Task Achievement – the Public Band Descriptors are very clear about this.


IELTS Writing: Task 1 – Line Graphs

Part 2: The Overview

The overview is extremely important. Candidates who do not write an overview CANNOT get higher than Band 5 for Task Achievement according to the Public Band Descriptors.

What is an overview?

The overview briefly describes the main feature(s) of the data. It is NOT the same as the introduction  which just says what the data is about. The overview is a summary of the most important trends or features of the data. If you read the overview you should know (all) the most important things about the data.

Look at what the Public Band Descriptors say at band 7:

  • presents a clear overview of main trends, differences or stages

At Band 8 and 9 the overview is not mentioned at all so the assumption is that the essay has a detailed and complete overview at band 7 that describes ALL the important trends in the data. (Notice that it says “trends” with an “s” – if there is more than one, you must give them all.)

At Band 6 the Public Band Descriptors say:

  • presents an overview with information appropriately selected

this means that the candidate has attempted to describe at least some of the important trends in the data, although they may not have identified all of them.

Band 5 says:

  • no clear overview

This is clear enough, if there is no overview, the writing gets Band 5 maximum for Task Achievement. Yet many, many candidates fail to write an overview in their Task 1 essay.

Some teachers tell students to just select what is the highest and lowest figure and use this as the overview.

Is this good advice?

Well, it depends. If that is the only identifiable important feature of the data, it will probably be alright, BUT … it is unlikely, in most cases, that this will be the major feature of the data.

Look at the graph in the previous post; it is not the high or low values that are important in this data, it is the fact that:

  1. one increased
  2. WHILE the other decreased
  3. they ended at the same value

so there are actually THREE important features here.

We could write the overview this way:

“Overall, the graph indicates that the unemployment rate fell in the US (by around 30%) while it doubled in Japan, with both rates finally reaching 5%.”

So, what have we achieved?

We have written an over that identifies THREE major features of the data:

  1. the falling trend in US unemployment
  2. the rising trend in Japanese unemployment
  3. the fact that BOTH countries ended up with the SAME level of unemployment


We achieved this by using a subordinate clause structure because we have used “…WHILE…” and this adds to the complex structures in the introduction and sets us well on the way to a high band score.

If you are not good at mathematics you could leave out the “by around 30%” but I will show you later how to do this, it is not too hard and it allows you to talk very precisely about the data.

Every time you write an overview you should attempt to do it with a subordinate clause structure using words like: “while”, “although”, “even though” or “whereas”.

Overviews are not too hard to write with practice so this is another area where we need some practice exercises to help improve your skills.

IELTS Writing: Task 1 – Line Graphs

Part 1: The Introduction

Here is a real IELTS Task 1 Academic IELTS Test question taken from Cambridge IELTS 3 Test 4.

Writing Task 1

You should spend about 20 minutes on this task.

The graph below shows the unemployment rates in the US and Japan between March 1993and March 1999.

Write a short report for a university lecturer describing the information shown below.

You should write at least 150 words.

Spend some time having a look at it and decide how you would do it.

One important point that you should follow when doing writing practice is to use the proper paper to write on and allow yourself only the time you would get in the exam to write the essay.

In this case you must write 150 words and you have 20 minutes to do it. The official paper to write your answer on is here:

Solution paper – task 1 writing

Remember, the structure of a Task 1 is:

  1. introduction
  2. overview
  3. details

The Introduction

A description of what the graph is about BUT you cannot use the language in the question because the examiner won’t count the words if you do.

What is the graph about?

It is about the percentage of people who were unemployed in the USA and Japan over a period of 6 years from 1993 to 1999.

In fact, it compares the unemployment figures in the two countries, so we could write as an introduction:

The chart compares the percentages of people who were unemployed in the USA and Japan over a period of 6 years from 1993 to 1999.

We can shorten this a little (I always write too much – your target is 170 words ) to:

The chart compares the percentages of people who were unemployed in the USA and Japan from 1993 to 1999.

There is a free bonus here, look what we managed to do without really trying, the clause:

“who were unemployed”

is a a relative clause structure with “who”, it is a complex sentence and that will get Band 6 minimum and Band 7 or higher depending how often the grammar is correct.

So what have we achieved?

We have written an introduction in our own words so the examiner will count ALL the words in the essay word count, AND we have created a complex sentence with a relative clause that, in the VERY FIRST sentence, will have the examiner thinking ‘minimum band 6’.

We really should do a few exercises on this before moving on to the next part.


Task 1 Writing: Academic IELTS Test

Many people misunderstand what is required in Task 1 IELTS essay writing and score poorly as a result. Unfortunately, much of the advice on the internet about what must be done in this task also fails to completely understand the requirements.

I was just looking at an IELTS advice site that was looking at a “process” type question about bottling wine. The problem is that the advice and sample answer guarantees candidates band 5 for Task Achievement, and much of what was written was additional information NOT available in the diagram (and which candidates could NOT be expected to know) and therefore irrelevant to what the task question asks candidates to do.

Task 1 Writing in the Academic IELTS test is an “information transfer” essay. You are NOT required to analyze or explain the data. You simply have to point out the main features of the information using the data to illustrate what you are saying.

All Task 1 questions, whether it is a graph, table, pie chart, process or map have EXACTLY THE SAME STRUCTURE (although grammatically, process and map questions normally require passive voice – don’t get scared, its not too hard and we will get to it).

IELTS English will present a series of posts on Task 1 Academic writing with a wide range of task types so you can see exactly what is meant by “exactly the same structure”

What is the structure of a Task 1 (Academic Test)?

The Public Band Descriptors can give us a very good idea what to do.

At Band 5 for “Task Achievement” they say (in part):

  • the format may be inappropriate in places
  • no clear overview
  • there may be no data to support the description

At Band 6 they say (in part):

  • presents an overview with information appropriately selected
  • presents and adequately highlights key features (but details may be irrelevant, inappropriate or inaccurate)

So what does this mean?

For the structure it means, every Task 1 MUST have three parts:

  1. An introduction (essays have introductions: “appropriate format”)
  2. An overview (the ‘big picture’ of all the details)
  3. Main details (“key features” are described WITH data from the task – “adequately highlights” key features)

This was easy to figure out, all we had to do was look at the information that is publicly available but many people don’t know this and it leads to candidates getting a lower score than necessary.

Next time we will look at how this works in a real example.

IELTS Listening Test: Form Filling & The Answer Sheet

Form filling is usually one of the easier tasks and is often found in SECTION 1 of the Listening Test but there are a few things to be careful about.

When the speaker spells a word, like a name or an address, you must get it perfectly correct, just one letter wrong and the answer will be marked wrong.
Units on distances, times and especially money can also be a problem.

An example of the “unit problem” is question 8 in the test today. You had to write down how much the articles were worth BUT … did you notice that the question booklet (well, just a question page, in this case) already had the “£” sign written on it?

So if you wrote 1700 as the answer, you would be correct. But if you wrote “£1700” on the answer sheet you would be wrong.

In contrast, if you left the unit of measurement OFF the answers to questions 4 and 5, and just wrote “75” instead of “75 cm” as the answer to question 4 you would have been marked wrong.

You must look very carefully to see how the question is written to know how to write the answer.

This really only becomes a problem when you must write your answers onto the answer sheet that is provided in the exam. During the listening test you should write ALL your answers on the question paper. At the end of the test you will have 10 minutes to transfer your answers to the answer sheet and this is where the problems happen.

I make all my students transfer their answers to an answer sheet, even when we are only doing a short practice like the 8 questions in today’s listening task. You should do the same so you get a lot of experience with this BEFORE you ever go into the exam.

Another problem is that candidates miss a line and transfer their answers into the wrong positions. When this happens ALL answers written in the wrong position, even if they are correct, are marked wrong. You MUST be careful when transferring your answers to the answer sheet.

Official answer sheets are available on many websites including the website but I have put one here for you so you don’t have to search:

IELTS Listening Answer Sheet


IELTS Listening Test: Form Filling

Start the recording and look at the diagram which you have to fill in. DO NOT look at the diagram first – there is a gap just after the introduction in the recording to allow time to look at the form. You should not pause the recording and you should play it only once to get an idea of how good your listening skill really is.

This “form filling” type question is typically a section 1 task in the listening test.

Email IELTS English for the script and solutions.

IELTS Listening Task: Form Filling

The source for this test is Cambridge ESOL at

Cambridge ESOL has a lot of authentic IELTS material on the website although it can be difficult to find at times. This is a great resource as it is very important to practice with material that is the same as you will experience in the test.

Improving Listening Skill

One of the things that makes listening difficult in English is the weak “schwa” sound. It is the sound at the end of words like doct/or/; lawy/er/; teach/er/ . It is the most common sound in English and appears in almost every word.

The Schwa Sound

The “schwa” sound allows English to be spoken very fast and helps put the word stress in the right place:

Badly Spoken English

Well Spoken

This quick ‘schwa’ sound is the reason that “you” in this sentence:

“How are you today?”

Actually sounds the same as the “your” in this one:

“How is your mother?”

when these sentences are spoken by a native English speaker.

How Are You Today?

Learning to hear this sound and understand the word it is in means training your ear to hear and understand real spoken English.

This will also get you a higher mark in the speaking test when you start using the sound in your own speaking you will get a much higher score for pronunciation because you will now be using word stress much more like an native English speaker.

How do you ‘train’ your ear. Practice! You need to listen to a passage of spoken English and WRITE DOWN what the speaker is saying. When you have 4 or 5 lines down check the script and see how well you did.

Where can you get audio AND script?

There are many places on the internet and even IELTS Listening tests can be used for this task if you have any practice material. One great source that is easily accessible is the British Council website:

Audio and Script Files for Listening Practice (Source: The British Council)

When you are doing this practice concentrate on hearing the ends of the words: the “ed” sounds and the “s” sounds. ten to fifteen percent of marks are lost in the listening test in Thailand because candidates do not hear the end of the words. (That is around 1 to 1.5 bands or more).

The IELTS Reading Test: Speed and Vocabulary

Reading is the hardest skill to improve quickly because it depends on reading speed and vocabulary and neither can be improved quickly.

Here are three things to do in relation to the reading test.

  1. On the test day, spend only 20 minutes on each reading task. If you don’t finish all the questions in one section, which is very likely, guess the ones you didn’t get time to do and move on to the next section. Easy strategy: 20 minutes MAXIMUM on each section.
  2. Practice improving your ability to skim quickly through a reading passage but still get from it the main points. Do this by taking a passage that is about 200 words long (about 13cm in the Bangkok Post or Nation, I think) and giving yourself 1 minute to skim through it and try to pick out the main points.
    You will need to skim in the IELTS exam at a speed of about 200 words per minute. This will give you 4 minutes to skim a passage before starting in on the questions.
    Very often, you can read the first and last sentence of a paragraph and have a pretty good idea about what the paragraph is about, without having to read all of it. While this works most of the time, you must be careful that the middle section actually does support what the first and last sentence lead you to believe.
    This needs daily practice. It is time consuming but it isn’t hard. After you have skimmed the passage, you must go back and read it very carefully to check that what you thought it was about was, in fact, correct.
  3. Expanding vocabulary. Some people might find this boring, but it is unbelievably important.
    ‘Google’ the “General Service List” – the 2000 most common words in English. You will know many of these, you should know them all.
    ‘Google’ the “Academic Word List” – this is a list of about 550 words divided into 10 groups of most common to least common. These are words you will likely read in IELTS reading and they are words you should be able to use in your own writing. Some Thai universities are using this list to determine the vocabulary skill of their students in Academic English classes.
    Research shows that readers need to understand almost 95% of the words in a passage to have a good chance of understand clearly what the passage is about. This is way higher than English teachers had believed in the past and has very clear implications for what English learners must do about learning vocabulary.

Improving Your IELTS Score

During the 10 years I worked at IDP English Language Centre in Bangkok, we conducted a study to look at how much time it took students to improve their Band scores.

We learned that, with the very best teachers, students could increase their score by 1 band for every 300 hours of study. This may seem a lot, but it is only half of the 600 hrs Cambridge ESOL suggests.

Three hundred hours for 1 Band improvement is an average figure, some people take longer, some people do it faster.

The key to achieving this figure is very accurate and highly targeted advice and a student who is prepared to work VERY hard. The 300 hours DOES NOT have to be in a classroom, it indicates how much time must be spent working on improving language skills and, while it needn’t be in a classroom, it does assume the student has VERY ACCURATE, expert advice about what to do to improve.

Anybody wanting to improve their IELTS score, who has already done an IELTS exam, now has a way to measure how much work they will have to do to get the score they want.

The next step is to get highly targeted advice about what to do to improve. That’s why IELTS English is here!

Achieving 6.5 In Speaking

The Speaking Test is assessed in 4 areas:
  1. Fluency and Coherence (speaking smoothly in logical sentences)
  2. Lexical Resource (vocabulary)
  3. Grammar Range and Accuracy (the types of sentences and grammar accuracy)
  4. Pronunciation
The easiest way to get Band 6.5 is to get two 6’s and two 7’s. (Examiners only award whole numbers in each assessment area).

Let’s look very briefly at each assessment criteria.

  1. Fluency and Coherence (Need Band 7 – not easy but with practice, possible)
    The candidate will have to speak without noticeable effort (not stopping much). Speaking at length and connecting sentences together smoothly. Part 1: 20-30 second answers; Part 2: two minute answer (let the examiner stop you speaking); part 3: 1-1.5 minute answers
  2. Lexical Resource (vocabulary) (Band 6 will be enough)
    Being able to talk about all the questions the examiner asks at length with words that allow you to talk accurately about the topic will be enough. Less common words and idiomatic language can get Band 7 but this needs a post if its own to talk about.
  3. Grammar Range and Accuracy (Need Band 7 – not easy)
    The candidate will have to use many words from the following list: although, even though, while, whereas, when, who, that, which, if, even if, may, might, must, can, could, will, would.
    This list is not the only possible list of words to use but using words on this list will mean you are producing complex grammatical structures: Subordinate clauses, relative clauses, if-clauses, modal verbs. All of these are required to get to band 6 for grammar and they have to be FREQUENTLY CORRECT to get Band 7.
  4. Pronunciation (Band 6 will be enough)
    The candidate will need to talk very clearly so the examiner can understand EVERY WORD the candidate says. (This is getting up to Band 8 level).
    They will need to speak smoothly, grouping words into meaningful chunks. A good Fluency mark will help here.
    They will also need to put lots of feeling, enthusiasm and excitement into their voice.
    You want the examiner to be thinking if he should give you Band 6 or 7; we don’t want him wondering if he should be giving Band 5 or 6.
This is already a long answer and it really needs more information but I hope this gives you some direction as to where to concentrate your efforts. Please post a comment or email me at if you need more information.

IELTS Speaking Test: Pronunciation

At Band 6 for speaking, the Public Band Descriptors say:

  • uses a range of pronunciation features with mixed control
  • shows some effective use of features but this is not sustained
  • can generally be understood throughout, though mispronunciation of individual words or sounds reduces clarity at times

and at Band 7 they say:

  • shows all the positive features of Band 6 and some, but not all, of the positive features of Band 8

and at Band 8 they say:

  • uses a wide range of pronunciation features
  • sustains flexible use of features, with only occasional lapses
  • is easy to understand throughout; L1 accent has minimal effect on intelligibility

What do we learn from this?

  1. to achieve Band 6 the candidate MUST be able to pronounce the words so that the examiner can understand MOST of the time: “mispronunciation of individual words or sounds reduces clarity at times”
  2. at Band 6 all “pronunciation features” are shown but the candidate is unable to show them all the time
  3. To get Band 7 a candidate must show everything from Band 6 and at least TWO things from Band 8! this is because the Public Band Descriptors say “some …” which implies more than 1.

So what are “pronunciation features”?

I ‘googled’ the words “good pronunciation” and “pronunciation features” and came up with:

  1. pronounce the words and sounds of English correctly: enunciation
  2. use the correct stress in English words and sentences
  3. use the correct intonation
  4. links words together correctly when speaking: what the University of Technology Sydney calls “pausing and chunking”

So what does this mean in the IELTS exam for achieving Band 6?

  1. Speak CLEARLY so the examiner can understand almost every word spoken
  2. Put FEELING into your voice so you are using word stress and intonation, at least some of the time
  3. Group words into meaningful chunks: a simple example is the statement “this is a problem”, when properly grouped together the “this-s-a” part almost sounds like 1 word: “this-s-a problem”; “this-s-a table”; “this-s-a chair” the words are not spoken individually and mechanically like: “this / is / a / problem”

This last point, what UTS describes as ‘chunking’, is really another aspect of speaking ‘smoothly’.

We will say more about this topic, particularly achieving Band 7, in later posts. If you have questions or comments please post them below or send them directly to me at

Fluency in the Speaking Test

Fluency, the ability to speak at a normal speed ‘smoothly’ without hesitation or repetition, is the single most important skill in the speaking test.

The Public Band Descriptors say this at Band 5:

  • usually maintains flow of speech but uses repetition, self-correction and/or slow speech to keep going

At Band 6 the Public Band Descriptors say:

  • is willing to speak at length, though may lose coherence at times due to occasional repetition, self-correction or hesitation

And at Band 7 they say:

  • speaks at length WITHOUT NOTICEABLE EFFORT
  • but may demonstrate language-related hesitation at times, or some repetition and/or self-correction

What does all this mean?

  1. To get to band 6, candidates MUST be able to complete some sentences, at least, without pausing in the middle, repeating part of the sentence, speaking slowly or repeatedly correcting themselves.
  2. Candidates MUST also be able to “speak at length” – 20 to 30 second answers in Part 1; 2 minute answer in Part 2; 1-1.5 minute answers in Part 3.

Of all these, the biggest problem is hesitation: pausing in the middle of a sentence to find the words or the grammar before continuing to speak. Even candidates who normally are able to speak fluently (speak smoothly without stopping) often can’t in an exam simply because they get very nervous.

Candidates who don’t attempt to expand answers also limit their scores to Band 5 because they fail to “talk at length”.

Anyone wanting more information about this, please leave a comment or email me directly at