IELTS Task 2 opening with balls

The topic of change in people’s lives has been widely discussed recently.

The opening sentence of any essay is an opportunity to:

  1. introduce the topic
  2. arouse the reader’s interest in the topic

In the opening example the first aim was just about met – the topic is some aspect of change.

The second aim is not met. Let us not forget that the reader is an IELTS examiner. He or she is a well-educated person who reads a lot and keeps up to date with current events.

Is there anything at all in this opening sentence that is likely to arouse such a reader’s interest and make him or her want to continue reading?

  • Yes. Adding the word ‘recently‘ puts the topic in a time frame that is automatically attractive for most people.
  • No. The reader will be less interested in the fact that the topic has been ‘discussed‘. And since you’re not specific about the context of this ‘change‘, or what kind of ‘change‘, then the reader cannot yet predict the content or direction of your writing.
  • At the very best, the reader is hopeful that you will go on to say something interesting about ‘change‘ and that you will explain the significance of ‘recent discussion‘. If you don’t do these things then your writing will be dull and will lack coherence.

Next time do something more ballsy:

  • Recent economic and technological developments have caused unprecedented social change.

Your reader will find this interesting because..

  1. this reader is interested in anything ‘recent
  2. this reader is familiar with recent economic developments in general
  3. this reader is familiar with recent technological developments in general
  4. this reader is familiar with social change associated with recent economic developments
  5. this reader is familiar with social change associated with recent technological developments
  6. this reader is interested to know more about all of the above
  7. this reader is interested to know what you have to say about all of the above

If you can continue from this opening and satisfy your reader’s curiosity, then you will achieve a high score in IELTS Task 2 writing, at least for task achievement! (See public band descriptors)

Don’t forget the whole!

The graph illustrates information about the results of a poll of theatregoers regarding disturbances during theatre performances. In general the 4 most disturbing problems are coughing, rustling sweet papers, whispering and arriving late. Their percentages stand at above 50%.

Thanks to the context setting at the start of the essay, I can see that 50% means 50% of the  theatregoers who took part in the poll. But it’s not immediately obvious and I had to read the opening a second time to make sure I understood what you meant. If a text is difficult to understand then it will receive a low score in IELTS for coherence and cohesion (CC). In the example above it can also affect your score for task achievement (TA), because you don’t really say anything meaningful about ‘50%‘. (See IELTS Task 1 Writing public band descriptors)


A good strategy to introduce and develop percentages in IELTS Task 1 can be seen in this extract from an article in The Economist (analysis below):

Data collected by USC Annenberg (University of Southern California) demonstrate that the “hyper-sexualisation” of men in films has increased substantially in less than a decade. Of the 100 top-grossing films at the US box-office in 2007, 4.6% of male characters [1] were seen dressed in “sexualised attire” and 6.6% [2] were shown “with some nudity”. In 2014 those figures stood at 8.0% and 9.1% [3]. 2013 marked the highest point of this trend (the year that “Man of Steel”, featuring Mr Cavill, was released), with 9.7% of male characters [4] shot in sexually alluring clothing, and 11.7% [5] taking some—or all—of their kit off on film.

That said, Mr Cavill and Mr Harington would do well to remember that these figures are paltry when compared to those of actresses. In 2014, 27.9% of female characters [6] wore ‘sexy’ clothing and 26.4% [7] exposed their chests, legs, or other body parts on camera: they are roughly three times more likely to be objectified on screen than men.

(source)

What is ‘good’ about this reporting of percentages?

[1] The first percentage is expressed using the following pattern:

x% + of + noun (‘male characters’) + verb (‘were seen dressed..’)

Notice that the reader knows exactly what is meant by ‘male characters thanks to the clear context setting of the opening sentence. Setting a context like this makes your writing coherent. When you use this structure you explicitly state the ‘whole’ – in this case ‘male characters’.

[2] The second percentage obviously also applies to ‘male characters’, and so there is no need to repeat ‘..of male characters’.

[3] ‘Those figures’ signals back to the previous two percentages, which we understand refer to ‘male characters’. Notice the structure:

past time expression (‘In 2014’) + subject (‘those figures’) + ‘stood at‘ + x%

[4] ..follows the structure:

x% + ofnoun (‘male characters’)

[5] is in the same sentence as [4], and so we can assume the figure also refers to ‘male characters’.

[6] ..follows the structure:

x% of + noun (‘female characters’).

We’re not surprised to read ‘female characters’ because this new context was set in the opening sentence of the paragraph. Again, this context setting makes your writing both cohesive and coherent since you explicitly state the whole (now ‘female characters’).

[7] is in the same sentence as [6], and so we can assume the figure also refers to ‘female characters’, which is the new context of this second paragraph.

Whatever you do..

Make sure your first mention of a percentage includes an explicit reference to the whole:

x% of + noun (the whole)


Would anybody like to try and re-write the text about theatregoers to make the ‘50%’ figure mean what it’s supposed to mean? Answers in comments below! 🙂


PS. Another example of what I’m talking about just came to my attention:

Researchers identified 990 fatal shootings in 2015 – more than twice as many as had ever been recorded in a single year by the federal government – and Washington Post data journalists and graphic designers built an interactive, searchable database detailing those incidents.

A team of Washington Post reporters dug into the data and revealed that most of those who died were white men armed with guns who were killed by police in threatening circumstances. But The Post also uncovered some troubling patterns: A quarter of those killed were suicidal or had a history of mental illness. More than 50 of the officers involved had killed before. And while only 9 percent of people killed by police were not armed, unarmed black men were seven times more likely than whites to die by police gunfire.

source: Washington Post

Pronoun substitution and an alternative

When people go to real shops, the goods are visible. They can try clothes on and know what materials were used.

Almost! But..

A personal pronoun at the beginning of a sentence refers back to the subject of the previous sentence, and in this case the subject of the previous sentence is ‘the goods’. ‘When people go to real shops’ is an adverb phrase. So obviously that doesn’t make sense: The goods can try clothes on!?

If you want to use ‘They’ as a substitute for ‘the goods’, that’s tricky but not impossible:

  • When people go to real shops, the goods are visible. They can be touched, and the material from which they were made can be seen and felt.

But that’s probably not what you wanted. You wanted ‘People’ as the subject of the second sentence, right? In that case you simply need to state the subject in the second sentence:

  • When people go to real shops, the goods are visible. People can try clothes on and know what materials were used.

Now you have nice cohesion between the two sentences, with ‘people’ in both sentences. However, to make your writing more coherent you could be more specific about ‘people’:

  • When people go to real shops, the goods are visible. People in real shops can try clothes on and know what materials were used.

And finally to avoid repetition you can do this:

  • When people go to real shops, the goods are visible. Customers in real shops can try clothes on and know what materials were used.

So in fact you didn’t need to use pronoun substitution. Instead the two sentences are glued together (cohesive) thanks to the use of ‘people (who) go to real shops‘ in sentence 1 and ‘customers in real shops‘ in sentence 2.

You could probably also use a synonym for ‘real’ in sentence 2, but I can’t think of one. Can you? Comments below! 🙂

Experiencing failure with countability

Moreover, a failure can be caused by a lack of practical experiences.

It’s annoying, I know, but while some nouns are countable and others are uncountable, yet others can be either countable or uncountable, and here are two examples in the same sentence: failure and experience.

Generally speaking, if a noun can be either countable or uncountable, and if you’re speaking generally, use the uncountable form. On the other hand if you’re talking about specific things then use the countable form – for example you may be talking about the time you failed an exam and saying what a terrible experience that was.

In the original example, I think we’re talking generally, right?

  • Moreover, failure can be caused by a lack of practical experience.

Meanwhile, using the countable versions of these words:

  • His brothers were all successful, but he was a failure. Receiving his exam results was an experience he would like to forget!

Can’t get no results satisfaction

If I am given more time in the reading test, I will answer all of the questions with satisfied results.

This is like the bored/boring distinction, right? Let’s say Bill is talking to Mary about space travel, but Mary is not interested in space travel. In this case Mary feels bored (the effect), but Bill is boring (the cause). (Indonesian flag In Indonesian there is an easy translation, where the suffix ‘kan’ behaves a bit like ‘ing’: boring > membosankan).

If we return to the original problem..

  • If I am given more time in the reading test, I will answer all of the questions with satisfying results.

‘Satisfying’ is the cause. The effect – satisfied – is something that you might feel when your results are satisfying.

You can also use a related word with a slightly different meaning:

  • If I am given more time in the reading test, I will answer all of the questions with satisfactory results.

Were you able to bargain for IELTS?

Budi tried to teach himself IELTS but made no progress. Then he discovered @guruEAP and last Saturday he could achieve band 7.0.

Ok,ok.. I made this one up. It may look like shameless self-promotion, but it’s a problem I often see in student writing.

Consider this scenario:

When @guruEAP first arrived in Indonesia he could speak only English and French. Now, after 20 years in Indonesia, he can speak Indonesian fluently. Last weekend he bought some bananas from the local market and he was able to negotiate a reasonable price.

Here there are two kinds of ability:

  1. A permanent ability that existed/exists continuously over time (“..he could speak../..he can speak..“). Note that this can be past or present.
  2. A temporary ability in the past that existed momentarily, relating to a particular event (“..he was able to negotiate..“). Note that this is always past.

So if we return to the original problem:

  • Budi tried to teach himself IELTS but made no progress. Then he discovered @GuruEAP and last Saturday he was able to achieve band 7.0.

Note that the temporary ability was required in a situation that was difficult and required effort / struggle.

Consumptive consumers?!

Advertising tends to make people more consumptive.

Once upon a time consumption meant ‘wasting away’, but in the context of tuberculosis, not shopping. Of course these days consumption is still a kind of wasting, but not as life-threatening!

Coughing, consumptive customers

The modern habit of wasting money on wants rather than needs is consumerism:

  • Advertising tends to make people more consumeristic.

Compare: consumptive and consumeristic.

The allocation of _____?

Preserving endangered languages may trigger negative sentiments about the allocation of fundings.

It’s probably best to think of this as a collocation / vocabulary problem.

First of all ‘funding’ is uncountable and so we can’t put an ‘s’ on it. Secondly, when you’re talking about money, allocation collocates with fundsfunding, and money:

  • Preserving endangered languages may trigger negative sentiments about the allocation of funds.

Making a noun phrase – allocation of funds – rather than a verb phrase, was a good strategy. You just need to be more careful with collocation inside nominal groups. Online tools can be enormously helpful in situations like this!

Earning money vs. earning dollars

Just like their male counterparts, many Australian women earn money 2,000 dollars per month.

If a ‘unit’ can correspond to more than one different noun, then you need to specify your noun:

Good morning. Can I help you?
I’d like 2kg of rice, please.

In this example, kg could apply to many other nouns: potatoes, chocolate, etc, and so it is necessary to be specific about ‘rice’.

On the other hand if the unit can only correspond to a single noun – unambiguously –  then there’s no need to mention that noun:

Good morning. Can I help you?
I’d like to withdraw 1,000 dollars, please.

In this example, ‘dollars’ clearly corresponds to ‘money’, and so it is redundant to say “1,000 dollars of money”.

If we apply this to the original problem then we get:

  • Just like their male counterparts, many Australian women earn 2,000 dollars per month.