Friday, March 6, 2015

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How do you approach an IELTS Writing Task 2 question? (guest post by Stephanie Furness-Barr)

‘Approach? What Approach?’ vs ‘Approach? Definitely!’

Here’s what my students say they do when they’re writing an IELTS Writing Task 2 essay. Which way do you think is best? Why?
  1. "Approach? What approach? I only have 40 minutes to write a task 2 so I don’t waste any time. I read the question and just start writing what’s in my head. I have a general plan, like I do when I'm giving the answer to a question. I stop writing when the 40 minutes is done."
  2. "Approach? Definitely! I only have 40 minutes to write so I don’t waste any time. I read and analyse the question, jot down some of my ideas, write a plan then check if the plan is going to help me answer the question. I check the question a lot because it’s so easy to answer it the wrong way. Then I write the answer, paying attention to grammar and vocabulary. If there’s time, I check the writing for spelling and punctuation mistakes."
Have you guessed which way is best?

Let’s look at the first approach. If you think about what you’re going to write and try to write with good grammar and vocabulary at the same time, you’re asking your brain to do too many things at once. This is often unsuccessful, even for native speakers. Why?

Your essay...

...might be ‘stream of consciousness’, in other words, unorganised and incoherent, and possibly repetitive.
...may not answer the question.
...may be too short
...may have a lot of unnecessary grammar, vocabulary, spelling and punctuation mistakes
...might look really messy. This shouldn’t matter to an examiner – unless your handwriting is so bad he or she can’t read it - but you want to ‘put your best foot forward’* don’t you?

*do and look your best

If you said the second approach is better, you’re right! Here’s why:

1. Read and analyse the question
In these two stages you focus on


you’re going to write
2. Brainstorm – write down any ideas (in notes – sentences take too long to write) you have about the topic and question.
3. Plan your essay – write a structure.
WHAT (ideas)
HOW (organisation)
4. Write your answer.
In these stages you focus on


you’re going to write it.
(e.g. grammar and vocabulary,
spelling and punctuation)
5. Proofread your answer.

If you think about WHAT to write first then your brain will be able to concentrate on HOW to say it afterwards. This is more likely to result in an essay that...

...answers the question. 250 words. finished. well organised. written with the best grammar and vocabulary you can manage in the time limit

This is formally called the Process Approach to writing.


A question for the IELTS exam might look like this:

‘In some school systems, it is normal for students to have a sports lesson during the week. Some people say that this is a waste of time, while others say it is an important part of education. Discuss both these views and give your opinion.’

Below is a possible response to the question from a writer that didn’t follow the process approach to writing. What do you think of it?
  • Does it answer the question?
  • Is it 250 words?
  • Is it organised?
  • How much variety of grammar and vocabulary do you see?

Sports are really important. They are important because they keep us healthy and happy. Everyone should do sport in school, even though there’s not enough time to do them. If we don’t have sport we’ll get bored, and then we can’t get concentrated in classes because we want to go out and play all the time. Everyone knows that sports are good for you. The experts say this is important especially for boys. Girls don’t need to sport so much because they are better at their studies. Teachers should organize teams to play football. My school teacher was terrible at football but everyone loved him anyway.

Of course, school subjects are important too and we need to spend time with maths, language and science, sure but it is really good to be exercised and get fresh air. This is my opinion.

Now you try writing an answer to the question using the Process Approach!


  1. Great Blog! I am preparing for IELTS preparation & looking forward to get admitted to USA top university. I really enjoyed your blog and definitely share with friend. Thanks

    ielts exam questions and answers

  2. I really Enjoyed your article.I think Process approach is the only way to get IELTS writing band-score 7 or higher.
    Thanks again.
    Alireza Farshadfar


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