Do you need to master English to a certain standard? Perhaps you’re going to be entering an English-speaking university, or maybe you’re hoping to emigrate to an English-speaking country.
If so, there’s a good chance you’ll be taking the IELTS exam.
If you’re preparing to take the IELTS exam, you may already know the basics of what to expect – but in case not, let’s quickly recap.
What is the IELTS Exam and Who Uses It?
The IELTS exam is an international standardised test. IELTS stands for “International English Language Testing System”.
You receive a score between 0 and 9, where 0 is the lowest and 9 is the highest.
The grades are used by more than 10,000 colleges (plus agencies and other institutions) in over 140 countries. You may need to achieve a certain score for a work visa or for immigration purposes, or for entry to an academic course.
How Does the IELTS Exam Work?
The IELTS exam consists of several different sub-tests or sections, in reading, writing, listening, and speaking. It takes 2 hrs 45 minutes in total.
You can opt to take the “Academic Module” or “General Training Module”, depending on what you’re going to be using English for.
The listening and speaking sections of the exam are the same for everyone, but there are different reading and writing tasks depending on whether you opt for the Academic or General modules.
In this article, we’re going to be looking at Writing Task 1 for both the General and Academic versions of the exam. (There are two writing tasks for each of these.)
What Does Writing Task 1 Involve?
If you’ve chosen the Academic route, Writing Task 1 asks you to write at least 150 words summarising a graph, table, chart, or process.
You will normally be told to “summarise the information below by selecting and reporting the main features, and make comparisons where relevant”.
If you’ve chosen the General route, Writing Task 1 asks you to write at least 150 words in the form of a letter, responding to a given situation or problem. You’ll normally be given three bullet points of things that you should include.
How is Writing Task 1 Graded?
You’ll be assessed in four areas for Writing Task 1. Each one is worth 25% of your marks for that section:
- Task Achievement
- Coherence and Cohesion
- Lexical Resource
- Grammatical Range and Accuracy
Finding Sample Questions and Answers
One of the best things you can do to prepare for the IELTS Writing Task 1 is to review some sample questions, have a go at writing your own answer for each, and then look at model answers.
You might want to purchase a book with sample questions and answers: alternatively, there are lots of websites with free help available, and you can find plenty of sample questions and answers here:
IELTS Sample Letters (from IELTS-exam.net)
IELTS Writing Task 1 (from IELTS Advantage)
IELTS Sample Charts (from IELTS-exam.net)
IELTS Writing Task 1 (from IELTS Advantage)
Two Sample Questions and Four Answers
Here are some sample questions, with two model answers for each, so you can get an idea of what’s required of you in Writing Task 1:
The chart below shows the total number of minutes (in billions) of telephone calls in the UK, divided into three categories, from 1995-2002.
Summarise the information by selecting and reporting the main features, and make comparisons where relevant.
Source: Cambridge English IELTS Past Papers
This is an example of a Band 9 answer, from the IELTS Advantage website:
“The bar graph shows the combined time spent in billions of minutes, on three different kinds of phone call in the United Kingdom, from 1995-2002.
Overall, local calls were the most popular over the whole period, with national and international calls and calls on mobiles second and third respectively. However, the number of minutes spent on international and national calls and mobiles both increased over the period; with mobile minutes increasing dramatically, thus narrowing the gap between the three categories by 2002.
Minutes spent on local calls fluctuated over the time period, with just over 70 billion minutes in 1995, peaking at approximately 90 billion in 1999 and then steadily decreasing to just over 70 billion minutes in 2002.
National and international calls increased steadily year on year, from just under 40 billion minutes in 1995 to a peak of just over 60 billion in 2002. Mobile minutes increased at a very rapid pace from approximately 3 billion in 1995 to around 45 billion in 2002. Mobile phone usage nearly doubled from approximately 22 billion minutes in 2000 to 40 billion in 2001.”
Here’s another answer to the same question (also a Band 9 answer) by Harry (Phuc Coi):
“The bar chart compares the amount of time spent by people in the UK on three different types of phone call between 1995 and 2002.
It is clear that calls made via local, fixed lines were the most popular type, in terms of overall usage, throughout the period shown. The lowest figures on the chart are for mobile calls, but this category also saw the most dramatic increase in user minutes.
In 1995, people in the UK used fixed lines for a total of just over 70 billion minutes for local calls, and about half of that amount of time for national or international calls. By contrast, mobile phones were only used for around 4 billion minutes. Over the following four years, the figures for all three types of phone call increased steadily.
By 1999, the amount of time spent on local calls using landlines had reached a peak at 90 billion minutes. Subsequently, the figure for this category fell, but the rise in the other two types of phone call continued. In 2002, the number of minutes of national / international landline calls passed 60 billion, while the figure for mobiles rose to around 45 billion minutes.”
This question is taken from the IELTS Advantage website:
On a recent holiday you lost a valuable item. Fortunately, you have travel insurance to cover the cost of anything lost.
Write a letter to the manager of your insurance company. In your letter
- describe the item you lost
- explain how you lost it
- tell the insurance company what you would like them to do
This is an example of a Band 9 answer from the IELTS Advantage website:
I am writing to inform you that I recently lost my digital camera while on holiday in Vietnam.
The camera is a black Canon 70d and cost $1550 when I bought it new last month. It has a resolution of 20 megapixels, a Canon 67 millimeter lens and was in a brown leather case with my name on it.
I lost it when I was having coffee with my husband in the backpacker area of Ho Chi Minh City. I believe the coffee shop was called Highlands Coffee and it was on Pham Ngu Lao Street. We had been at the coffee shop for around 45 minutes when I noticed it was missing.
I am entitled to make a claim for the value of the above mentioned item and request that you send me details on what I need to do in order to proceed.
I look forward to hearing from you at your earliest convenience.
Here is another model answer for the same question, taken from the I talk English website:
“Dear Sir or Madam,
I am writing to make an insurance claim for an item that I lost while on holiday last week.
The item is a wristwatch that I inherited from my grandfather. Both the watch strap and the face are made of gold, and the watch is worth a considerable amount of money. It also has great sentimental value.
I believe that I must have left the watch on the beach in front of the hotel where I was staying. I did return to search for it, but I can only assume that it was either covered in sand or that it had been washed out to sea.
I took out comprehensive travel insurance with your company, and my contract states that all lost items are covered. I would therefore ask that you review the attached information regarding the estimated value of the watch, and that you process my claim as quickly as possible.
Please let me know if you require any further information.
Do I Need to Get Band 9?
These sample answers would likely receive a Band 9 mark: that means they’re pretty much perfect!
Don’t worry if you’re not quite at this standard.
For many academic courses, a Band 7 will be adequate; for immigration purposes, Band 8 is normally enough. (Of course, check with your specific institution or agency to be sure of the standard you need to reach.)
Tips for Doing Well at the IELTS Writing Task 1
#1: Plan your answer before you start writing.
Timings are tight, but you’ll be more likely to cover everything well if you plan ahead. You have 20 minutes for Writing Task 1, so use it well. You might aim for 3 minutes planning, 15 minutes writing, and 2 minutes checking over what you’ve written for mistakes.
This is particularly important if you’re taking the Academic route, as you won’t be told what key information to look for. With the General route, you’ll be given bullet points to cover, and these should form the main paragraphs of your letter.
#2: Practice, practice, practice.
Try out lots of sample questions so that you can get comfortable with the exam format. Even if your English is good, you still need to be able to meet specific exam requirements. For instance, you’ll need to know what 150+ words looks like on the page (or on the screen) so you can be confident you’ve written enough.
If you don’t have time to write out answers to lots of practice questions, write out full answers for a few questions, and write a plan of how you’d answer several others.
#3: Remember, 150 words is the minimum word limit. If you’ve written less than this, you’ll receive a penalty (a lower score). There’s no maximum, but since you only have 20 minutes, you won’t be able to write pages and pages!
Aim for around 160 – 190 words, so that you can fully cover everything you need to write. If you write too much, you’ll likely end up adding irrelevant information … which could penalise you.
#4: Try to vary your vocabulary where appropriate: for instance, if you’re describing several different upward trends on a graph, you could use the words “increased”, “rose”, “went up”, or “got higher” rather than using the same word or phrase each time.
Be careful, though: don’t be tempted to use fancy vocabulary in your exam unless you’re 100% sure that you’re using it correctly.
#5: Give an overview in your first paragraph. With the Academic route, this overview can be a paraphrase of the information given about the chart/graph. For a letter in the General route, your overview should clearly state why you’re writing the letter.
Don’t simply copy the information given in the question for your overview though. Instead, paraphrase it by turning it into your own words (there’s some good advice on this here). If you copy it, those words won’t be counted toward your 150 word total.
Do your best to prepare well for the IELTS exam – but remember, you can take it as many times as you want, so if you don’t quite get the result you want the first time, you can always take it again.