Top Tips for IELTS

Using examples to improve your paragraph coherence

A common problem with IELTS writing is that either examples are not used, or they are used poorly. In this lesson you will find

  • a quick test to see how well you understand coherence and the use of examples
  • 4 suggestions on how to use examples well
  • a list of vocabulary to help you do this

A reminder about coherence and examples

The essential idea of coherence is that  the ideas in your writing combine together to form one whole. The goal is to write in such a way that the reader/examiner immediately sees the connections in your writing and understands what you are trying to say. Arguably, a well-written and coherent piece of writing only needs to be read once to be understood. This is where examples come in. Examples can make your writing

  • easier to read by illustrating your main points
  • easier to write, as often it is easier to explain an example than argue a complex idea

Not all examples work – a little test

It is not just enough, however, to use examples. Your examples need to illustrate your main ideas if you want to be coherent. A badly used example can make your writing confused and confusing. Take a look at the two paragraphs below. One example works, the other doesn’t. Which is which?

Read the paragraphs

There are three principal reasons why people commit crimes. The first of these is that they may be career criminals who have made an active choice to make their living illegally. A second reason reason relates to the environment they grew up in: a possible illustration of this is if they have been subject to peer group pressure at an early age to join a gang that terrorised the neighbourhood. Finally, it is sometimes argued that genetic factors play a role and that some people cannot be blamed for their criminal actions because they are naturally predisposed to commit crimes.

It is possible to argue that more effective education would lead to a decrease in the crime rate and that prison is an ineffective deterrent.  People who argue in favour of prison often claim that it is not only the most appropriate way to punish offenders, it also prevents crimes from being committed. For example, many young people join gangs at an early age due to peer group pressure and they are led into a life of crime in later life because of the choices they made when they were younger.

 

 

See the answer

This first paragraph works well. It is a listing paragraph with a clear main point in the first sentence saying there are 3 reasons. The next 3 sentences each state one reason (this is one form of coherence).

I have highlighted in red an example that clearly relates to and explains the idea in the second sentence about how environment can affect crime

There are three principal reasons why people commit crimes. The first of these is that they may be career criminals who have made an active choice to make their living illegally. A second reason reason relates to the environment they grew up in: a possible illustration of this is if they have been subject to peer group pressure at an early age to join a gang that terrorised the neighbourhood. Finally, it is sometimes argued that genetic factors play a role and that some people cannot be blamed for their criminal actions because they are naturally predisposed to commit crimes.

This paragraph does not really work. It has plenty of good language but the ideas and how they relate to each other are not especially clear. The first sentence has two main ideas (always dangerous), one about education, the other about prison being a deterrent.The idea of education is not explained in the paragraph – this is incoherent. The other main problem is that the example in red does not clearly relate to the main ideas of the paragraph. This also is incoherent

It is not enough to use examples, you need to show how they relate to your main idea.

It is possible to argue that more effective education would lead to a decrease in the crime rate and that prison is an ineffective deterrent.  People who argue in favour of prison often claim that it is not only the most appropriate way to punish offenders, it also prevents crimes from being committed. For example, many young people join gangs at an early age due to peer group pressure and they are led into a life of crime in later life because of the choices they made when they were younger.

 

Tip one – organise your paragraphs around one main idea

You can only really write coherent examples if your paragraphs area coherent. What this means in practice is that your paragraphs need to be centred on one main idea – almost always stated in the first sentence. The example you choose should relate to that idea.

(It is of course possible to include more than one idea in a paragraph. What you need to do here is follow my example above and say in the first sentence that there are different ideas here.)

Tip two – you don’t have to include all your ideas/examples – learn to select

One reason why paragraphs (and essays) go wrong is that the student tries to include everything s/he knows in an effort to impress the examiner. This does not work in IELTS. It is a language test, not an IQ test, and there is a limit to how many ideas you can fit into a 250-300 word essay. This means that you need to select only the examples that illustrate your main points. Put another way, you may need to leave out ideas that do not fit your main point. This is particularly good advice for high level candidates in the planning stage.

Tip three – “for example” is not the best way to introduce an example

Almost certainly, the most common way of introducing examples is to use “for example”. My suggestion is that you try some other ways of introducing examples. The key idea is to use a phrase that clearly links the example to the main idea. Look at these:

A example of how environmental factors can lead to crime is…..

This can be illustrated by ……

…… clearly illustrates how environmental factors may contribute to crime.

One instance that shows how environmental factors may lead to crime is ……..

The point to note is that in each case the example is introduced so that it links to the point it is supposed to be illustrating.

Tip four – just say how the example illustrates the main point  – P-E-E-P

This tip is similar to the previous one. Only the idea this time is that you add a sentence after the example to explain how it links to the main idea. This leads to a model paragraph that goes:

Point - Explanation - Example - Point

Look at how it can work here. The first sentence and the last sentence of para make essentially the same point and the final sentence links back into the example (This leads to the conclusion).

There are many people who believe that longer prison sentences are necessary for repeat offenders. The idea is that people are much less likely to re-offend if they know that they will receive a serious sentence of perhaps 20 years for any further crimes. This would reform the system where many criminals do re-offend simply because they know that the consequences will not be very severe if they are caught. For example, a petty thief who might take the risk of a gaol term of 6 months would not risk 20 years for the same crime. This leads to the conclusion that longer gaol terms for repeat offenders are an effective deterrent.

 Some useful vocabulary to download

Example - collocations (4623)

 

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3 Responses to Using examples to improve your paragraph coherence

  1. jesus ibarra rojas July 20, 2012 at 1:23 am #

    Hi, very respectfully I presume it is wrong to write in the section “Tip Three”: a example instead to say “an example”. Just to let you know.

    In the other hand your blog its great ! Thank you for your time.

  2. thebeautyofenglish May 16, 2014 at 1:07 pm #

    This lesson is simply unbeatable!! It’s been quite shocking to find out that I’ve been using examples wrongly all this time! I would have bet anything that the correct example paragraph was the second one!! (just looked like the structure I always use when writing essays. I tend to state two ideas in the 1st sentence and then provide an example introduced by the “for example” linking phrase). From now forth, I will try and expose one single idea and link it directly to the example.

    I think I speak for everyone when saying that this is an absolute great website. Keep it up please!! My exam is due in a few days and I’ve seen you haven’t posted anything for a long time now.
    Hope to see more interesting tips coming up soon!

    All the best,
    an IELTS taker fan of your website and your teaching method!

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