Think before you write: Planning well in Writing Task 2

One thing I always tell my IELTS students is that, during the test, they must set aside at least 5 minutes of planning time in Writing Task 2. If you don’t plan, you’re likely to end up with a very disorganised essay which is littered with repetitions and doesn’t clearly respond to the task.

But what exactly should you do with that planning time, you might ask.

Here is what I suggest:

Step 1: Highlight the keywords in the question.

See what I’ve done with this question:

One of the consequences of

is that people are living

longer and life expectancy

is increasing.

Do you think the advantages outweigh the disadvantages?

Not only have I underlined all the keywords to help me understand the specific topic and the question that is being asked, I’ve also highlighted the general topic which is ‘improved medical care’. This will help me to decide on the next part of my plan which is…..

Step 2: Decide on the number and content of the paragraphs

In the majority of cases, your Writing Task 2 answer should comprise four or five paragraphs – each paragraph containing one main idea.

For this question, I’m being asked to compare the advantages and the disadvantages of improved medical care, so I’m going to structure my essay as follows:

Notice how I’ve actually written the exact main idea of the two main paragraphs? I haven’t just written ‘Advantages’. I’ve gone one step further and added ‘Advantages of better medical treatment’. I’ve done this intentionally – to keep me on the right topic while I plan. Notice also how I’ve started to paraphrase the keywords of the question in my paragraph plan. This will help me later when I’m trying to maximise my lexical resource score by using synonyms of words from the question paper.

Step 3: Think of ideas for the main body paragraphs

Now it’s time to think of the advantages and disadvantages of improved medical treatment. One or two main ideas per paragraph should be enough but make sure these ideas are well developed. Support them with clear and simple examples, where possible, and keep asking yourself the questions: Why is this an advantage? or What is the possible result of this? to develop your ideas even further.

Now you should be ready to write!

But what if I struggle to think of any ideas?

This is a common complaint from my students and the advice I give them is this:

Firstly, prepare ideas and useful vocabulary for the most common topics before you go into the test. in my experience, the top ten most popular topics are:

  • education

  • health

  • the environment

  • technology

  • childhood

  • transport

  • crime

  • government spending

  • arts and culture, and

  • globalisation.

Use IELTS books and reputable IELTS websites to find questions on these topics and, in a notebook, spend some time planning ideas for them.

Secondly, read news articles in newspapers or online news sites such as the BBC

[ ], The Guardian [] and ABC News [] on a regular basis. Pick up and read free newspapers or magazines written in English. The quality of the news is often good in these papers. Read regularly and on a broad range of topics so you start to become more aware of the world around you. Remember, the questions you get in the exam are likely to be based on topics commonly discussed in the media.

We hope you find these tips useful! If you have any other planning tips for Writing Task 2, why not share them below?

Laura Plotnek Jones is an experienced English language teacher, specialising in IELTS. She runs Home English - a private language school in Birmingham, The UK – where she helps to prepare 100s of students for the IELTS exam every year. As part of her work, she produces her own teaching materials to address her students’ areas of difficulty, particularly in writing. Laura holds the Diploma in English Language Teaching for Adults (DELTA) and is the National Coordinator for NATECLA (the National Association of Teaching English and Community Languages to Adults).

If you have any comments on or questions about this blog post, she’d love to hear from you!

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