Top Tips for IELTS

Topic sentences activities for IELTS teaching

The starting point for these activities is that at some some point it helps to provide model topic sentences for your students. The model I work from in the IELTS genre is that topic sentences need to:

be short

be clear

relate to the question

avoid too much detail

be more general in nature than in some other genres

come as first sentence in the paragraph

 As IELTS essays are written under pressure, I prefer a model that is relatively straightforward and easy to replicate. There isn’t the time to craft and re-draft – it needs to be got right first time. Hence many of my topic sentences may look simple. This is by design.

1. Can I tell what the question is?

One metaphor I use with my students is that the topic sentences (along with the intro and conclusion) form the backbone of an essay. You should be able to tell just from reading the topic sentence what the essay is about. This matters because the examiner will only spend a very limited amount of time reading the essay and it is important the examiner can immediately see what the paragraph is about and how it relates to the question. This is a large part of the role of the topic sentence.

The exercise is simplicity itself. You distribute sets of topic sentences and ask the SS to decide what the question was. So

There is one major argument in favour of replacing art, music and sport on the curriculum with subjects like IT.

There are also, however, strong arguments for retaining the more traditional subjects as part of the curriculum.

This works at two levels. The SS should be able to identify the topics within the question – curriculum/IT etc – but they should also understand the structure of the essay too – that it looks at both sides of the argument and that the question asks this of them.

Subjects such as Art, Sport and Music are being dropped from the school curriculum for subjects such as Information Technology. Many people children suffer as a result of these changes. To what extent would you support or reject the idea of moving these subjects from school curriculum?

This can lead into a full lesson on how to structure an essay to answer a question. [My personal view being that there is almost always a number of different structures possible and that it can be dangerous to impose a set model for a type of question.]


A sample exercise where the SS need to re-create the question from topic sentences

Topic sentences 2 (2641)

The essays on which these exercises are based can be found here:

recycling essay

healthcare and children essay

2. Which sentence was the topic sentence? And tell me why.

This is a very familiar activity. You simply distribute paragraphs with the sentences cut up and ask the SS to decide which is the topic sentence. For me, the exercise becomes more interesting and more generative when you ask them how they knew.

These essential aspects of life are absent from the clinical world of science and technology.

One area in which we can learn from the arts is that concepts such as beauty matter in and of themselves, whereas in the world of science and technology the only true measure is whether something works or not.

For example, if we listen to Mozart we can learn about harmony and joy through the medium of music or if even we read an author like PG Wodehouse we learn about the value of humour.

This is a limited view of the world and the arts differ in that they offer us an alternative and more spiritual outlook.

It should be fairly clear which was the topic sentence. You should also be able to get to these ideas quite quickly too:

main points only

no examples

no detailed reasons

The absence of examples and detailed reasons is in my experience a key point to get across as very often SS try to fit too much into the topic sentences.This too can lead into a full lesson on how you extend ideas with reasons and examples.


A sample exercise where the SS need to select the correct topic sentence

Topic sentences activity 1 (1419)

The essay on which this exercise is based can be found here:

salaries and job satisfaction

3. A writing activity – speak then write then transform

This is a very reductive approach! It can work a treat though. It is aimed at SS who tend to overcomplicate the writing process and/or get stuck for ideas. It starts from the basis SS can often talk about a question  and that they can use that “talk” as a starting point to writing the topic sentence and ultimately a whole paragraph:

I think this

This is why I think it

This is an example

The “I think this” above can often be the basis of the topic sentence. The “this is why” and “this is an example” can also form the basis of how that idea is developed into a full paragraph.


The way I work it in class is simply to ask SS what they think about a question – to tell me and/or a classmate and then write it down. The idea is that they very often are able to say what they think but get blocked when they get to the writing process. So:

Do you think the salary is the most important thing in job? ⇒ I don’t think that the salary is the most important thing in a job


I then get the SS to write down what they have said. Typically, you get short simple statements that are ideal for transformation into topic sentences. It can also help to set a word limit here. It adds to the challenge and produces clear ideas normally.


The task then is just to transform

I don’t think that the salary is the most important thing in a job ⇒ The first point is that a high salary is not necessarily the most important factor in choosing  career.

I think that job satisfaction is more important than the salary ⇒ There is an argument for saying that job satisfaction is a more important factor than the salary in choosing a job.

How close you get to this will simply depend on the language competencies of the SS.

Classroom practice

There are different ways to practise this in class but one of the most effective is just to show SS different essay questions and ask them to make questions from them – the questions they need to write topic sentences. This gives extensive practice in writing topic sentences and also exposes them to different question types.

More IELTS teaching ideas


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