Reading and understanding IELTS essay questions

The emphasis of this lesson is only this: that it pays to spend time reading and understanding the question. The general message is that while this is normally a simple step in the essay writing process, it is vitally important because:

  • there is always a question to be answered – it won’t just be about a general topic
  • your essay needs to focus on that question as it is asked – this is Task Response 25% of your mark
  • more generally, many IELTS essays go wrong before they have even started as the question isn’t identified or understood

To help with this. I briefly talk you through 5 possible ideas to help you understand questions. Most of ideas are very simple – and in exams simple tends to be good. There are also a couple of exercises for you to test your skills.

Thinking about questions – 5 ideas to consider

Here are 5 different ways to think about questions. You don’t need to use them all. All I suggest is that consider them all and choose the one(s) that work for you. The rule, as ever, is to do what works – although you may find that what doesn’t work now may work later, and that if you keep on doing only the same thing, your writing may not improve but stay the same.

1. analyse the question – find the task

The idea here is to break the question down into parts and look at what is the task and what is background information only. Typically, IELTS essay questions come in two parts: the first part introduces the topic/background information and the second part tells you what you have to write. That second bit is the task and the task is the bit your essay must answer.

2. underline key words

If you are a more visual thinker, then it can help to underline/highlight key words to make you focus on the question. There is a danger here though that you focus too much on those words and ignore the meaning of the question as a whole.

3. rephrase the question in your words

This may seem to be a waste of time in the exam, but it can in fact be very practical. The benefit of doing this is that you are much more likely to understand the question if you put it into your own words. Also, it need not be a waste of time because you are very likely going to rephrase the question in your introduction too and you can use what you write in the intro.

4. categorise the question/essay

Some people like to put essays into categories such as “opinion essay” “discussion essay” “argument essay” etc and decide to answer the question based on a certain model. To do this, you look at the question and decide what type of essay it wants. This can help because it makes the planning of your essay less stressful – it’s already half done. I’d add though:

  • you want to be flexible in how you use your models and remember to focus on the question in front of you. This is especially true if you want a high band score, then you need to learn to vary your models or  have a much greater range of models.
  • you get a mark for answering the question , not writing a “discussion essay” or following a particular model. The examiners do not have a special set of criteria for different models of essay and it can be misleading to think that any one question must be written according to one model.

5. count the questions

Questions vary. Some questions require more than one answer. These can be dangerous questions because if you only answer one part of it, you will lose considerably on Task Response. Simple answer. Count how many questions there are.

A quick quiz – can you match the question to the introduction?

In the quiz below you will find 4 different IELTS essay questions and one model introduction. All of the questions relate to the same topic – town and country (an old favourite).  Your job is simply to decide which essay the introduction is for. The idea is to show you some of the ways an essay can go wrong if you don’t take time to fully understand the question.

To do the exercise you need to understand that your introduction should refer back to the question and show that you have understood it – you can’t write an introduction if you don’t understand the question and if you get the intro wrong, the whole essay will likely go wrong.

An increasing number of people choose to work in cities in order to receive the higher salaries on offer there, but live in the countryside for the peace and quiet. While there is much to be said for this, particularly for families with young children, there are also a number of drawbacks to this lifestyle.


Understanding the task words

Nearly all IELTS questions are relatively simple to interpret. They tell you pretty much exactly how to write your essay.  Mostly, you just need to think about what the question asks you to do. Try this quiz which takes some of the more common question types.Start

Further practice and reading

One simple suggestion is to go back over essays you have written in the past and look at the introduction to your essay. Can you write out the question by only reading your essay introduction and/or conclusion? If so, that’s a very good sign that you properly read and understood the question.

Ryan of IELTS IELTS has an excellent article on interpreting variations in essay questions. If you are unsure about how to interpret a question, I suggest you go read. He goes into a little more detail than I do here and he has a distinction between argument and discussion essays you might want to think about, but the message is largely the same.