Today we will look at an example where the teachers who tell students to look for the key features by looking only for what is big and small are actually correct. HOWEVER, it is very, very important to understand that this is not always the case, as we saw in the dramatic examples of the past 2 days.

This bar chart represents the water use given in percentage in a number of different regions in 1995.
Water use08a

The horizontal axis just has a list of regions, which does not allow us to identify a trend. However, there is more than one way to group this data, for example, we could look for a big gap between Agricultural water use and Industrial water use (Africa, Asia, Latin America) and those regions where there is a small gap (North America and Europe). We can also do it just by looking for the regions where Agricultural use is high and those where Industrial use is high. It makes no difference which way we do it.

Latin America

These regions also had a very low use of water for industrial and domestic purposes

North America

In these regions domestic water use accounted for the lowest level of consumption with Agricultural use a little lower than industrial use . In fact, it was about 15% lower in North America and 33% lower in Europe, in relative terms. We will look at how to calculate these figures later as we have mentioned “relative terms” many times over the last month.

One way to write the big picture view might be:

“Overall, Agriculture accounted for the highest amount of water use in Africa, Asia and Latin America while use of water for Domestic and industrial purposes in these regions was very low. In addition, the data shows that Industrial use of water was highest in North America and Europe with the proportion of water used for Agriculture a little lower and Domestic use very low in both countries.”


When you look at this bar chart, it almost looks like there are trends shown BUT when you look carefully, you realise that no trends can be identified here and you must find another way to group the data. (If this chart is drawn to show the regions in order of their use of water for Agriculture, it is very easy to get trapped and think there is a trend).

Water use08

After trends, we always look to see if we can describe differences in MAGNITUDE and in this example, that is exactly what we do.

Notice that we DO NOT USE NUMBERS in the big picture statement. We do not want to confuse the reader and make them think we are giving details for the graph, so we avoid using numbers BUT in these magnitude questions, this can lead to language that is not entirely precise e.g. “a little lower”. Nevertheless, we will solve this issue in the details section by giving very precise information about the magnitudes we are describing.

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(Data source: )


Here is another example where candidates can easily make errors although this one is presented in a way that the situation should be fairly clear.

This graph shows the distance covered in millions of passenger kilometres in one city in China.

It is quite difficult in this question to say too much about the magnitudes because most of them are changing all the time. It would be possible to average the values and make some general comment but this is perhaps more of a detail than a key feature EXCEPT for the position of walking as a means of transport. Very clearly, walking did not account for a high number of kilometres and it is the smallest by comparison to all other modes of transport and, finally, the distance covered by this method has not changed significantly over the period.

A large number of bars are given here, representing 6 different years. Hopefully, you can see that even though there is some irregularity present in all modes of transport, except for the train, the trends are still very clear.

Sometimes candidates concentrate too much on details and will talk about the increase in bus or bicycle travel between 1990 and 1995 BUT these points, while true, are an extremely minor detail in the use of each of these methods of travel.

The most important feature here is the very clear trends that are shown and not every little variation in the heights of the bars. The data shows very clear general trends in the distances traveled by each mode of transport.

One way to present the big picture view might be:

“Overall, the distance covered by train and car increased significantly over the period shown while that covered by bus and bicycle saw a large decline. In addition, the distance covered by walking remained fairly steady in comparison.”

When you look at the bar charts for bus, car and bicycle travel don’t get tricked into concentrating on the individual bars. Look for the BIG PICTURE. A lot of candidates would say that bicycle use fluctuated BUT this is NOT CORRECT. Although the distances covered by bicycle were a little erratic, there was a very clear downward trend and THAT IS THE BIG PICTURE.

Many candidates would use the word “popularity” in responding to this task HOWEVER a careful analysis shows that we don’t know how popular these modes of transport are with people in the city. Look at walking as an example. According to the graph, around 8 million kilometres are walked every year by people in this city. This could happen if very large numbers of people are walking short distances OR if a much smaller number of people are walking quite big distances. There is nothing in the data that tells us how many people walk, consequently, the POPULARITY of these modes of transport is unknown. In short, we really should avoid using this language if we want to be very precise in the response.

Anyone located in Bangkok, Thailand who requires help with IELTS preparation, call Jum on the hotline at 09 3962 2496, send her a message on Line using her Line ID: jummanie or contact her via email:


Let us take a break from comparison questions today because we have done quite a bit over the past week.

One issue that troubles many candidates who take classes is that often the teacher doesn’t cover all the different types of maths question: bar charts, line graphs, tables and pie charts. In our classes we do manage to cover all these types and additional issues with maths questions but the truth is, most of the times, candidates don’t have to worry. None of these different types create any special sort of problem: no matter how the data is presented you are basically looking for two things – TRENDS and MAGNITUDE differences.  As we have seen, sometimes only the trends matter, sometimes only the magnitudes matter and OFTEN BOTH matter.

But the way the data is presented usually makes no difference. Let us look at an example of this.

Here is a bar chart which presents information comparing the percentage of household spending in a number of different areas:


But look at this data:

Item ……………………1955….1985….2015
housing ……………….33 ……..18 ……14
electricity & water ….18 ……..21 ……28
Food …………………..15 ……..18 ……10
education …………….20 ……..24 ……30
holidays ………………..8 ……..11 …….8
entertainment ………..6 ……….8 …….10

As we will see in a minute, the same information is contained here.

and finally look at this data:




These pie charts again contain exactly the same information as the table and the bar chart.

Although we could draw a line graph for this data, it would not really be very sensible because we only have annual figures for three years. If we had annual data for many years, then it would be more meaningful to use a line graph with a continuous line from year to year. Nevertheless, you will understand the point being made here that the type of data presented makes no basic difference to the way you must answer the question.

This same analysis can be made from any one of the data sources presented here. Although quite a lot of data is presented, in principle, it is not difficult.

Years are presented on the data so we can look for trends:

electricity & water


FAIRLY STABLE (in fact, it actually PEAKED)

Note this last category is not really just stable, there is more to the story than this. In this case, the percentage of spending rose to a peak and then fell back. Is this important? Well, in general, it depends on the data in the question. Here an increase of around 35%, in relative terms, is followed by a decrease of around 27%, in relative terms, so these changes are not huge but they are not insignificant. This is a judgement that needs to be made from question to question when you see peaks, and also dips, in Task 1 Writing questions.

The magnitudes can easily be mentioned in the question as part of the description of trends, perhaps with the exception of the proportion of spending on holidays and entertainment, which saw the lowest proportion of spending, and we can deal with that very simply in a single RELATIVE CLAUSE as done in this sentence.

One approach to writing the overview might be:

“Overall, the proportion of spending increased significantly on electricity & water, education and entertainment over the period while it saw a decrease for housing and food. In addition, the percentage of expenditure on holidays was relatively stable, in comparison to most other items.”

Note that it would be possible to replace this last sentence with:

“In addition, the percentage of expenditure on holidays rose to a peak and then fell back.”

this is entirely accurate and it really doesn’t take any longer to write IF you realise that this somewhat erratic behaviour has occurred.

The way the data is presented really makes no difference to the way candidates must approach the question. The big picture statement above is the same no matter how the data is presented and the ‘Details” section, which would come after this would also be the same.

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We have looked at a number of questions over the past few days where you have to group the data by size in order to give the big picture view of what is happening. Depending on the data that is given, this can be very simple or it can be a matter of judgement on how the grouping is done. As long as the grouping is done logically, it will not matter if people group the data in slightly different ways. We will look at an example like this a little later.

The problem that can occur with these questions is that you can be faced with a huge amount of data. If you are unlucky enough to face a question like this, keep in mind the nature of your job. You must give the BIG PICTURE VIEW. You must show clearly the key features of the data.

Here is an example that is not too difficult but that has the beginnings of one of these difficult questions with a large amount of data.

International Student Numbers Studying In Australian Universities

University……………………………………….. Total…….… Int………. Int %
Federation University Australia (VIC)……..…….12,941….…..6,332………..48.9
University of Adelaide (SA)………………..……26,383………6,935……..…26.3
RMIT University (VIC)……………………………57,433……..26,590……….46.3
University of New South Wales (NSW)…………52,326……..13,132..………25.1
University of New England (NSW)……………..20,912…….…1,079…………5.2
Australian National University (ACT)………..….20,934…..…..5,566……….26.6
University of Notre Dame Australia (WA)……….10,960……..….327……..…3.0

There are all sorts of things that could be discussed here. For example:

  • the universities with the highest total numbers
  • the universities with the highest numbers of foreign students
  • the percentage of foreign students at each of the universities

The problem is that you have only 20 minutes and 150 words to write your response. (Note that there is no penalty for writing more than 150 words but it is best to keep to no more than around 170 words maximum to give you time to write a good response and maybe a minute or two to read what you have written to check it for errors.) This means that you must choose only the most important aspects to write about.

There is another important point about choosing only the most important things to write about. If you read a response that talks about every possible feature of the data, not only will it be very long, it will also be very confusing and it will be hard to identify what are the most important features. This is the reason why the IELTS Public Band Descriptors say, at Band 4, for Task Achievement:

  • may confuse key features/bullet points with detail;

and at Band 5, also under Task Achievement:

  • there may be a tendency to focus on details

In this question, the data is looking at foreign students so it is the percentages studying in the different universities that is the most important aspect. The total numbers at the universities is a detail that is not important here, it is not wrong to mention it, but it is a detail. What matters most is the percentages of foreign students at these Australian universities.

Largest percentage of foreign students (around 48%)
Federation University Australia
RMIT University

Medium percentage of foreign students (around 25%)
Australian National University
University of Adelaide
University of New South Wales

Smallest percentage of foreign students (around 5%)
University of New England
University of Notre Dame Australia

Note that grouping data is critical if you want to achieve band 7. According to the IELTS WRITING PUBLIC BAND DESCRIPTORS at Band 7 under Coherence and Cohesion :

– logically organises information and ideas;

What about the number of foreign students? If time permits, I will write about this as it does contain an interesting piece of information which is not revealed by the percentages of foreign students alone.

For example, Federation University Australia and RMIT University both have around 48% of foreign students in their student bodies but RMIT has 4 times more foreign students and I would want to mention this fact in the response as it adds a lot to fully understanding  the data.

In complex questions, candidates must make a judgement about what are the most important features and sometimes you must be ruthless in discarding some of the details that may look quite important – we will look at some real IELTS Writing Tasks where this occurs. In the question shown here, it is not so complex that we could not talk about the details of the foreign student numbers although the information about the biggest and smallest universities overall would most likely be left out as it is only a detail and does not add to information related to the foreign students.

Sometimes these judgements are not so simple and, in my opinion, are one of the more challenging aspects of writing Task 1 essays. Lots of practice with a huge range of questions can help candidates improve their skills here.

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(Data source: )


Here is another example of a magnitude task. These should be getting easy now.

The pie chart shows U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions from1990 to 2012.

Even though we know the years that this data apples to, there is no time scale in this data, so we cannot identify a trend. The procedure is therefore to group the data by magnitude:

High (22%)
Space cooling

Medium: (around 10-12%)
Space heating/water heating/Refrigeration

Low: (around 5%)
wet cleaning

So the BIG PICTURE would be:

Overall, the greatest single contribution to green house gases was caused by Space cooling while a much smaller amount of gases was created by Other, Lighting, Electronics, Space heating, Water heating and Refrigeration. The data also reveals that by far the smallest volume of gases was produced by wet cleaning, Cooking and Computers.

This is all quite simple now, BUT, there is some REALLY BAD NEWS!

It is not likely that you will get a single pie chart like this in the IELTS writing test. What is much more likely is that the pie chart in todays question will come with the pie chart in yesterday’s question and you will need to write about both these pie charts in a single question.

This is not so difficult. It is really just two quite simple questions combined into one.

In your introduction you just say what is shown in the first pie chart and then what is shown in the second.

For the overview, you identify the most important features of the first pie chart AND the most important features to the second, exactly the same as we have done yesterday and today. This combination is the overall statement of the BIG PICTURE.

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(Data source;


Here is another example of a question with no trend. This graph shows the energy use of a number of household appliances/activities:


We see that the data here was put together in 2010 i.e. it covers a single year but there is no time scale at all. This means there are NO TRENDS in the data and we must group by size.

The simple rule to follow is to see what groups does the data fall into and we will usually look for high, medium and low but this is not guaranteed – it depends totally on the data. Here it is most logical to use 3 groups:

High: (3 times higher more than any other single item at 42%)
Space heating and cooling

Medium: (around 12%)
water heating

Low: (each around 5% or less)
Wet cleaning

Remember that the best way to reduce the length of the response is to give average figures where the data allows us to do this instead of giving every figure separately.

A possible over statement might be:

“Overall, space heating and cooling is responsible for the highest amount of energy use while other appliances, water heating and lighting consume far lower levels of energy. In addition, the data also shows that all other areas of energy use shown each use a very low amount of energy.”

A very important note with this question is that this is real data, it has not been simplified for an examination which is why there are so many items in the pie charts. If you look at the Cambridge IELTS books at past exams, you will know that it is not normal to see so many items in a real test question. Nevertheless, even though the chart has many entries, it is not very difficult o describe it.

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(Data source: