Top Tips for IELTS

IELTS teaching resources: demystifying bar charts

This is the first of what I hope will be a series of posts with ideas and resources for teaching IELTS. From feedback, I know a number of teachers do drop by and I thought it might be civilised to try and adapt some of the materials into a more classroom friendly format to save on copy/pasting etc.

Demystify the bar chart – create it yourself

Download the resource

Make your own bar chart from a report (886)


The idea here is that much of the problem of task 1 writing is not so much in the vocabulary, but is in understanding the charts themselves. This can be because it is a very unfamiliar task – everyone can write an essay, but  how many people actually analyse diagrams apart from IELTS candidates?

It is also perhaps the most academic part of IELTS and it challenges students not just linguistically, but analytically – particularly those who don’t like numbers. Ironically, graphics that are supposed to clarify the presentation of numbers can end up mystifying the whole process.

the idea

The idea is simple enough. Give the students a complete task 1 writing text and ask them to recreate the chart from it. Do everything backwards. It emphasises the idea that a well-written task 1 report is more than a vocabulary exercise, it is a summary of a chart. Write it well and the reader should be able to recreate the chart.

It works best on a computer, not least because there is something peculiarly satisfying in pressing a button and seeing a chart appear and it also makes sure your students are modestly competent in Excel.

task 1 skills focus

  • understanding how charts present numbers graphically (the relationship between charts and tables)
  • understanding the summarising skill
  • learning how to write about numbers

general skills

If nothing else, it works very nicely as a reading task that actually gets students reading closely.


  • the download (or create your own chart and report)
  • hi-tech option: computers with Excel or Numbers
  • low-tech option: paper for students to make bar chart


pieces of string vary, but I budget for around 60+ minutes depending on the warmer/numbers phase and any extension activity

Description of how to work it

Download the resource or read my description here and adapt your own

warmer/intro – dealing with numbers

I tend to divide this into 3 sections

  • pop quiz on mathematical language: (half/double/third/quarter/3 times etc). Eg, “What is 20 to 40?”
  • presentation/pop quiz of language of approximation because the numbers in IELTS are rarely neat round numbers and we are much more likely to say just over 70% than 71% (exactly/precisely/approximately/about/around/just over/just under/almost/nearly). Eg, “What is 21 to 40?)
  • percentages, majority/minority and proportion: Eg, 70% = a majority, 70% = one in ten,
A possible extension here is to survey the class on a few everyday activities. Eg, “Raise your hand if you had coffee”, put the raw numbers on the board and ask the students to describe them.

Step 1: general reading questions

  • how many career choices are there? (8 including “other”)
  • how many genders?
  • how many numbers should there be in the text? (Logically 16, if you multiply 8 by 2. However, in a summary you do not include every item of information. Also, in a summary, you may group information together by comparing similar numbers)
  • how many numbers can they find in text? (10 figures – including the 750 which refers to the whole sample). This is around half of the numbers possible and I tend to use this 50% as a reasonable rule of thumb for how many figures should get included)
  • are all the numbers in the text? why/not? (No, it is a summary task. However, it should still be possible to estimate what all/nearly all/most the other figures are.)

Step 2: create the chart

It is of course quite possible, though less engaging, to do this bit with pen and paper. This is one task, however, where the computer comes into its own. If you do go low tech, I’d suggest getting the students to build the table before trying the bar chart. For me, this is an important step in the process of understanding the task 1 graphic.

  • students input data into Excel spreadsheet, trying to find as many figures as they can by close reading (you may need to help with “respectively”)
  • click create chart
  • match their chart with the original
  • how well have they read? have they remembered that the “about” and “just over” numbers are only approximations – they should not be exact figures (this tends to catch everyone out)

Step 3: possible extension – write your chart

There are a number of possible extensions here. One way to reinforce the task is to ask the students to write their own chart. One very simple way to do this is to collect data from the class and to collate this in a table on the board, ask the students to draw the chart and then describe it.

The complexity of the numbers will depend somewhat on the level of your students. I tend to aim low here with data for a shortish paragraph. With smaller classes it works best if you give them a question where they are allowed to select more than one answer. For a more complex graph, the tip is to separate out male and female responses.


Online variation

If you prefer an online variation of this exercise, you are welcome to visit my class blog where you will find another chart I worked through with my class.

Get more IELTS teaching resources and ideas

How to like it, share it and save it


Get more help with IELTS preparation on the main pages of my site

Home page

Speaking Guide

Writing Guide

Essay writing guide

Academic task 1 guide

Letter writing guide

Reading guide

Listening guide

IELTS vocabulary

IELTS grammar

Keep up with me on Facebook - all the updates and even more advice there


Or just get all my free lessons by email

Subscribe to DC IELTS by Email

2 Responses to IELTS teaching resources: demystifying bar charts

  1. setareh December 17, 2011 at 8:46 pm #

    I wasn`t interested in it but i think it could have been helpful.

  2. Anonymous June 20, 2016 at 10:00 pm #

    I think this is a great idea- critical thinking to boot!

Leave a Reply