In this lesson I talk you through the process of planning an IELTS essay – or one possibility! The key idea is that you should have a method of planning that works for you. It’s not really enough just to say “I’m going to spend the first 5/10 minutes planning” – you want to know HOW you are going to do it.
At the end of the lesson, there is a downloadable example for you to consider.
How to plan
There is no easy answer to this question. Planning tends to be very individual and what works for one candidate may not work for another. However, there are one or two guidelines to follow:
- be methodical: before you get to the exam, know exactly how you are going to plan your essay and stick to that plan in the exam.
- give yourself enough time: you only have 40 minutes to write in the exam, but don’t start writing too quickly. Time spent planning is rarely wasted and candidates who fail to finish are generally those who start to write too soon.
- remember it’s a language exam: IELTS is a test of language, so make sure your plan helps you produce good language – this is something lots of candidates forget
- keep it simple: your plan is there to help you write. If it is too complex, it may not work in a 40 minute exam scenario.
- read the question: make sure your plan relates directly to the question.
How long to plan
Again, there can be no exact answer here, but I would suggest 10 minutes is approximately correct. That may seem a long time, but the longer you stop and plan for the better and the more quickly you will write. People who fail to finish in time are very often those who start writing too soon. For more on this see my 10 minute solution post.
What to plan – vocabulary and examples
Most text books suggest planning ideas. This is hard to do in practice when you are under pressure in the exam.
My suggestion here is to focus first on vocabulary and examples. Vocabulary will give you ideas and examples will allow you to develop those ideas in coherent paragraphs.
The elements of the planning process illustrated
(if you’re curious about the URL and header below – this site started out as a class wiki many years ago – my advice is still much the same though)
An example of the planning process
Read the question – identify key words
Many city centres these days have traffic flow problems, causing congestion and pollution. One solution is to build fast ring roads on the outskirts of a city, taking traffic away from the centre. While this is helpful in some ways, it also causes new problems.
To what extent do you agree or disagree?
These are the “content” words which relate to the topic of the question. Normally they will be nouns, verbs and adjectives, but they can also include quantifiers like “many”
city centres traffic flow congestion pollution solution build
ring roads outskirts traffic helpful causes problems
Rephrasing the question
One function of the introduction is to identify the question you are writing about. It is important not to repeat the same wording so you need to rephrase the question. There are a variety of techniques available here:
• words in the same family • related words
Look for synonyms
The most obvious way to avoid repeating the wording of the question is to find synonyms. Note, however, that synonyms may mean the same thing and that they may be a phrase and not just one word
many: several, a number of
city centres: urban areas (not an exact synonym) congestion: traffic jams
outskirts: outlying areas, the suburbs (not an exact synonym) traffic: cars
causes: leads to, results in
problems: difficulties, issues
Words in the same family
Sometimes there are no very good synonyms. Here you can vary the language by changing the form of the word from verb to noun for example.
city centres: the central parts of the city traffic flow: the traffic flows (v)
Sometimes it helps to brainstorm words that are related to words in the question to help you rephrase its meaning
pollution→exhaust fumes→air pollution→noise pollution
It is important to note that there are frequently some words in the question that are so specialised that there may be no other natural way to express the idea. In this case it is generally best not to try and change those words.
A possible introduction to the essay
One very common issue in the modern world is the increasing amount of traffic in urban areas and city centres in particular. This has led to demands for ring roads to be constructed to reduce both traffic jams and air pollution. This essay examines whether this would solve the problem or create more difficulties.
Note the combination of:
• words from the same family • related words
• unchanged specialist words
Note also the structure of this introduction:
• general statement
• explanation of the issue expanding on the general statement • identification of the writerʼs purpose