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Identifying the main points in academic task 1 – a teaching resource

This activity is a very focussed one. Its aim is to help IELTS candidates with one very particular problem in academic task 1 – they very often fail to identify the main points in the chart/graph etc and treat the summary as a vocabulary exercise where they simply list the details of what is shown. For me, this is a problem because it ignores the rubric:

Summarise the information by selecting and reporting the main features, and make comparisons where relevant.

Outline of the resource – only look don’t read

If you take a quick look at the download below you’ll see that it contains 4 pie charts and 4 bar graphs with no detail. You just see pictures. The simple idea is that it helps train candidates to really look at the visual and see the big picture. Because there is no apparent detail,the candidates can’t focus on that and this helps them in identifying the main points in academic task 1.

When to use the resource

This is something I tend to use quite  lot in the classroom.  I use it at the beginning of courses when I am introducing the task and the rubric to underline the nature of the summary task. I also quite frequently use it mid-course as a form of error correction when my students produce pieces of writing that miss out on the main points and simply focus on detail.

Different ways to use the resource

I like this resource because it is so adaptable and can lead to a lesson where communication happens. Below are a couple of ideas that can work.

1. Match the pie charts to the bar graphs

This is a short activity where the students are given in pairs/groups etc the four sets of pie charts and bar graphs. The instructions are simply to find 4 matching pairs. The follow-up question is simply, “How did you do that?”. The answers are instructive:

this one has  7 lines/segments

in this one there are two lines/segments that are equal

in this one the longest/biggest is much longer/bigger

These are the main points that must be included in any summary and oh so frequently get left out. It is an awareness raising activity that involves the getting the students to look.

2. Write 3/4 sentences

This is a more communicative activity. The class is divided into two. One set writes descriptions of the bar charts and one writes descriptions of the pie charts. At this stage you probably want to point out that bar graphs and pie charts typically require different language: long/big, line/segment etc. Depending on the level of your group, you may need to instruct them to focus on making comparisons and looking for the obvious (e.g. the biggest, the smallest).

I find it works best to divide it like this because the language needed for pies and bars differs slightly (longer/bigger etc). I generally keep the descriptions to 3/4 separate sentences and do not ask for complete paragraphs. My aim is to focus on the skill of identifying main points and not look for a complete description.

The next step is to swap the writing over and ask the other group to see if they can identify which bar graph/pie chart the sentences are about. So group 1 is now looking at 4 descriptions of pie charts and need to see if they match the bar graphs they have  just written about. While group 2 is doing the same, trying to match the sentences about bar graphs to their pie charts.

The feedback section can be fascinating. It is a real test of written communicative ability. Can the students write clearly enough to identify the different charts? Debate can ensue.

Adapting the task/resource to different levels

This is a resource that can be used at different levels. If you are working with lower levels the target language is likely to focus on basic comparative/superlative forms. With higher levels, the difference is that you may focus more on qualifying language such as “significantly” etc.

A more challenging variation

It is of course possible to add another layer to the exercise by adding a table variant into the mix. This will create 3 variants for the students to think/write about. I simply haven’t included it here because the focus is really on looking and tables are much the least visual of all the task 1 possibilities.

Follow up

There are different ways to follow this activity up. It is unlikely to take a whole session. Mostly what I do is then show the students a complete task 1 featuring a bar graph and/or pie chart and ask them to use the same analytical skills and write me a paragraph about that.

This resource has a strong “DIY factor”. It took me approximately 2 minutes to create the charts and graphs. Another possibility is to create your own blank charts and graphs as here and then show them the real one with detail added and ask them to write about that. This is something I have worked in the class, but I generally prefer to move on to a different chart as there is a danger of flogging a dead horse by spending too much time on one visual.

A possible problem

I do like this resource and task but there is one possible problem. It is a very reductive task that only allows students to use simple language – it can seem a little “dumb” if they can just use “big” etc. My way around this is to keep the task short and sweet and use it to lead into another task that does allow them to use a greater range of language.

The downloadable resource

Identifying the main points in academic task 1 (1202)

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