(Article) Interpreting modest variations in IELTS essay questions

Recently, IELTS Blog reported that the following essay question was seen on the Academic exam in Taipei:

Employers now tend to prefer employees with good social skills in addition to good qualifications. Social skills are getting more and more important compared to qualifications. Do you agree or disagree?

Wouldn’t it be nice if all IELTS essay questions were so straightforward!  Whenever I see ‘do you agree or disagree’ my mind relaxes.  I know immediately what my writing process is going to look like and how I am going to structure it.

However, the reality is that IELTS essay questions come in an infinite number of styles and there is a very good chance you will NOT receive a ‘do you agree or disagree’ type question on your exam.  In this article, I would like to discuss exactly how to interpret the modest variations in IELTS essay question wording and how they dictate the manner in which you need to respond.  (I am assuming that you have already watched my video series on how to structure argument and discussion essays.)

Firstly, as I’ve outlined in my videos, IELTS essay questions can be broken down into several parts.  For today’s lesson, we are concerned with the instruction words part of your question.  This is the part of the question that TELLS you to do something and is almost always the last sentence in your Task 2 description.  Common instruction words include:

To what extent do you agree?

Take a stance and support your opinion with examples.

Write an essay illustrating your position.

How do you feel about this?

Discuss all sides of this issue.

What should be done about this problem?

Do you think this is a viable solution?

What are the advantages and disadvantages of this?

The problem students typically have with deciphering these types of instruction words is really understanding what is being asked of them.  Resolving this issue is not nearly as complicated as you might think.  The key is to look at your Task description and pose yourself a simple question:

Am I being asked to state a position or am I being asked to analyze something?

Your response to this question will dictate with accuracy the type of essay you need to compose.  If you are being asked to state a position, you will need to respond using argument essay structure.  If you are being asked to analyze something, you will need to respond using discussion essay structure.  It’s really that simple.

All too often, students allow subtle differences in wording confuse them.  For example, what is the difference between:

Do you agree or disagree?

and

To what extent do you agree?

The answer is: nothing!  Both sets of instruction words are asking you for a position.  One just states this request using a more complicated wording.  (If I had a dollar for every time a student asked me what the difference was between the above 2 questions, I would be a very wealthy person!)

So when we see a phrase like:

To what extent do you agree?

…we should realize that we are being asked to state an opinion.  Thus, structuring our essay to discuss different points of view would be awkward.  We would need to choose a structure that allows us to state clearly what our position is and why that position should be supported.  Therefore, an argument style of essay would be employed.

So what should we do if we see something like this:

How do you feel about this?

What should be done about this problem?

Do you think this is a viable solution?

First ask yourself, ‘am I being asked to state a position?’  If your answer is ‘yes’ (as it would be for all three of the above examples) then you know that you are going to need to write an argument essay, stating your opinion in your thesis.

How about these:

Discuss all sides of this issue.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of this?

What are the merits and drawbacks of this problem?

As you can see, all 3 questions are requesting that we analyze issues.  Thus, we are best to respond using a discussion style of essay.  This style of essay allows us to state our position only after analyzing a series of data.

OK, so let’s assume we now understand how to respond to these sorts of questions.  But what do we do when faced with double questions, like these:

Do you agree or disagree?  Write an essay either supporting or refuting this statement.

What is your position?  What are the advantages and disadvantages of this situation?

Do you think this is more positive or negative?  Analyze all sides of this debate.

Although these sorts of questions may look tricky, they are not.  We simply follow our same pattern as before.  For each question, ask yourself:

Am I being asked to state a position or am I being asked to analyze something?

If your answer for both indicates you are being asked to state a position (as in example 1), respond using argument essay structure.

If your answer is that 1 asks you to state a position and the other asks you to analyze something (as in example 2), respond using discussion essay structure (don’t forget that discussion essay structure allows you to share your opinion at the end of the essay, and this is where you’ll state your position).

If your answer for both indicates you are to analyze, write a discussion essay.

Interpreting essay questions is not nearly as hard as it at first seems!  If you have an essay question in mind that is still stumping you after reading this article, please post it to the comments section and we can discuss it together.

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About Ryan

I have been developing online IELTS training resources for over 10 years. For more information about me and how I can help your preparation for the IELTS, please email me: ryan@ieltsielts.com
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