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IELTS pie charts exercise – range of vocabulary

This lesson gives you a model IELTS pie chart answer. But what is really about the language you need for task one academic writing. My answer may surprise you. It’s SIMPLE language used well – that means CLEARLY. Another key word (one that I repeat a lot below) is VARIETY. The idea is that if you can use simple language in a varied way, then you can write an excellent task one answer – without having to learn lists of words.

Test yourself before you start

Look at the pie charts below and think of the type of language you need to write the answer. To help you, I will tell you that my answer includes 4 major language areas: one of which is the language of transport. What are the others?


IELTS pie charts - transport

IELTS pie charts – transport


Test yourself a little more

Before you read my model answer, try and think of different words and ways of describing

  1. 1990,2000 and 2010
  2. 4%, 6% and 10%

Now try and think of as many different forms of the word “commute” as you can. Can you think of any collocations?

What words do you know for “stay the same”,”go up” and “go down”? Are there any adverbs or adjectives you regularly use with these words?

Pie charts show you proportions. Can you think of any other related number words you might want to use?

Now read my answer

What you should immediately see is that very nearly all this is in colour. Read on and you will discover why.

We can see from these charts how commuters travelled to work in London in 1990, 2000 and 2010.

In all three years, a majority of commuters used rail transport to get to work. However, there was a steady decline in the proportion of commuters using the underground system, this fell from a high of 38 per cent in 1990 to 34 per cent in 2010. In contrast, use of the train network remained almost unchanged at around 23 per cent in this period.

The means of transport that increased most in popularity was the bicycle. In 1990, only 4 per cent of commuters chose to cycle to work. By 2010, this figure had more than doubled, with one in ten people commuting to work by bicycle. By way of contrast, the percentage of car drivers fell from 22 per cent in 1990 to 19 per cent twenty years later. The figures for motorcyclists and pedestrians remained fairly constant at around 5 per cent and 9 per cent respectively.

In general, it is possible to say that there were only minor changes in commuting patterns during this period and that was a move away from commuters using the underground system in London towards cycling.

Language notes

The language you need to use in task one is normally quite predictable. What this means in practice is that you should be prepared to use a variety of different words. The words you use need not be complex, just varied. Below, I show you how I have varied my language in three key areas. You may think my language is simple. You’d be correct. But if you think it is too simple, I’d suggest you think again. This is a very good answer because I vary my words.

1. The language of change

The change words are highlighted in red. Note that I don’t use complex words, but I use the core words of “fall” and “change” in different ways and accurately.

a steady decline in – note the preposition in here and the adjective (steady) to qualify decline

fell from a high of – “high” is very good here, a nice alternative of “peak” – a word that is sometimes overused and works better in line charts generally

remained almost unchanged at – again see the preposition “at” and the qualifier “almost: both of these show accuracy and variation

that increased most – a simple word again, but the word order may trick you

fell from …. to – I am not afraid to use the simple “fall”; I can do this because I used decline earlier – variation is enough.

remained fairly constant at – I have repeated the word “remained” – that’s not a real problem because I have changed the way I have qualified it

only minor changes in – change is a simple word. I could have used “variations”instead, but what I want you to see is that “minor changes” is effective enough because of the qualifying “minor”

a move away from – this is another very effective use of a simple word (“move”), it works well because it is used in combination with other words in a set phrase “a move away from”. The message here is not to learn words by themselves but focus on how they are used with other words.

2. The language of time

You need to refer to time in your answer. The trick here is to make sure that you change the language you use. Nothing complicated required.

in 1990, 2000 and 2010/in these three years/in this period/during this period – all four of these phrases mean much the same

20 years later – another good variation (what is the difference between 1990 and 2010; answer 20 years)

in 1990/ by 2010 – these may look the same, but mean different things; you should note how things “had” changed “by” 1990 – prepositions may be small words but they can mean a lot

3. The language of numbers

Pie charts show percentages and proportions and these are the two words you will and should use most. Don’t look for variation for variation’s sake – accuracy matters too. I do, however, change between these quite frequently, something you want to learn to do.

a majority of – more than 50%

the proportion of – the standard word

38 per cent/around 23 per cent/only 4 per cent – note how I use around and only to show an approximate figure and that it is a low figure. You might also want to notice “per cent” is written properly as two words.

this figure had more than doubled – figure is a super useful word that can be used for numbers

one in ten – another way to talk about percentages

the percentage of – another standard word that I can use because I have so many variations

around 5% and 10 per cent respectively – “respectively” is a useful for talking about two sets of figures at the same time. Here motorcyclists and pedestrians show a similar pattern so I want to write about them together, “respectively” allows me to do this

4. Transport language

This language is a bit different – this is topic language that you cannot predict, it all depends what the chart is about. Just as before though, the idea is to change the words you do have. My particular suggestion is that you think about word forms. “Commute” is the right word: there isn’t really any other way of saying except “travel to work”. That isn’t a problem though because “commuter”, “commuting” and “commute” are in a way all different words. If you can use them all, you are showing the examiner variation.

commuters travelled to work/commuters used rail transport/commuters using the underground system/people commuting to work by bicycle – all of these are “commute” words, but note how I change the way I use the word each time

use of the train network/the underground system – the words to note here are “network” and “system”

the means of transport – I could also use “mode of transport”, but that is in the question

the bicycle – not at all simple though it may look it – articles are really hard. “The bicycle” here means the category of bicycle.

car drivers/motorcyclists/pedestrians – I don’t want to repeat “car”, motorcycle” and walking”, so i think of the people instead and find connected words. The only one that may be new to you is “pedestrian”, which means someone who walks.

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16 Responses to IELTS pie charts exercise – range of vocabulary

  1. Dominic Cole February 26, 2013 at 8:38 am #

    It is probably “bad form” to comment first on your post, but here goes. I originally wrote this example as a way of organising a task 1 report. Then I noticed the language I had used – how it almost all fell into 4 categories. Then, as I analysed the language, I saw something else – how “simple” it was. The point being that this is my “real” language – the language I use for myself.

    I think there is a real lesson to learn here – that’s why I changed my original lesson. I regard this as a super important post just because it is something many, many learners get wrong. Too often, they focus on the wrong words – what teachers call “low incidence” words , meaning words that we use only rarely in English.

    I’ll also add that I was recently reading an IELTS text book that I thought was in danger of sending out the wrong message. It had exercises showing that “fall” was a band 5 word and “decline” a band 7 word. This is simply wrong as far as I am concerned. That’s an important part of this lesson.

    • Nga February 27, 2013 at 4:38 pm #

      Hi Dominic,

      Thank you for such an amazing lesson. I think I totally get what you mean. Recently I also read an IELTS book that tries to classify essay vocabulary into different bands, for example:

      “The graph shows the difference between…” is Band 5, while “A glance at the graph reveals the different between…” is Band 7+.

      It made me really confused because I can figure from many lessons on your blog and IELTS Simon that using complex words and structures to “show off” one’s vocabulary is not the best strategy for IELTS Writing. What do you think?

      I’m taking my IELTS exam in one week so I’d hope to receive your advice.

      • Dominic Cole February 27, 2013 at 5:26 pm #

        I suspect we have been looking at the same book ;-). If so, it is a good book with plenty of good vocabulary and very well-written examples – I’m doubtful though that the level 5 examples would be 5 in an exam (if only because they are error free in terms of grammar), but you would need to talk to a real examiner about that.

        I’m not sure if this comes across in my lesson and comment, but what I am aiming at here is students who are tempted to treat task one (and time-based graphs/charts in particular) as vocabulary exercises. You do need to vary your language, but I’d suggest that clarity and accuracy are also paramount (most important) in a summary writing exercise – which is all this.

        My own (personal) belief is that this task is the one properly academic part of IELTS. What I mean by that is that if you can train yourself to think clearly and analyse well, you will be able to write well – provided you have a reasonable range of English. I try and train my own students to spend as much time as they dare thinking about the summary before they write and to think in particular about organisation of ideas.

        I can’t say “trust me”, but I can say “trust Simon”!!! He is a very good source of advice. It may be a small thing, but one area I do disagree with him is when he sometimes refers to task 1 as an essay. Much better I think to think of it as a summary or report. The task asks to “Summarise the information”. For me this matters because there are slightly different skills needed for writing summaries and essays. I should be writing more about this soon.

        • Nga February 28, 2013 at 12:28 pm #

          Thank you for the advice ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Anonymous March 29, 2013 at 5:46 am #

      Dear Cole

      I really liked your explanations in all parts of the Ilets modules,particularly,in writing I am glad that I can get access to your lessons for free.

  2. Maher February 27, 2013 at 1:32 am #

    Wow it was really a helpful super post as you mentioned
    i need an example for task 2 please if you can send me the link please

  3. Olker March 29, 2013 at 5:57 am #

    Hi Dominic

    I am really glad with joining your blog.your explanation in all parts of the Ilets is wonderful,especially in used one in ten people used …… Because in the pie chart was 10percent if it was forexample 30 percent what souls we it possible to say one in thrity.

  4. Robert April 9, 2013 at 9:55 am #

    Hi Dominic,

    I noticed that you made a point of mentioning the correct spelling of per cent in your explanation of your model answer. In American English the spelling “percent” is also correct. I know that the IELTS comes out of the UK, so my question is whether the IELTS exam strictly requires the use of British English, or is American English equally acceptable? Thanks!


    • Dominic Cole April 9, 2013 at 4:56 pm #

      Both are equally accceptable. It’s time I did another post on spelling.

  5. Cheery Nhan July 19, 2013 at 12:45 pm #

    Hi Dominic !

    Many thanks for all your useful experience. Here i have a wonder about the opening sentence in writing task 1. I often see the other guides show that we should start the test by the phrase ‘ The line/bar/pie ect. chart shows/ indicates us…..” , but here i see you open by ” We can see….” , so, is it the acceptable sentence ?


    And btw, could you tell me where are you from ? ^^

    Hi. Thanks a lot ! =)


  6. Masood Ahmad November 9, 2013 at 12:52 am #

    Useful vocabulary practice.

  7. Mary Antony June 20, 2014 at 9:11 pm #

    Dear Dominic,

    I found your explanation extremely helpful and informative. The vocabulary section is fantastic and helps the reader to focus on what is needed.

    Thank you

  8. Jaspreet August 12, 2014 at 11:41 am #

    Nice answer helps a lot in my preparing for exam

  9. Mohammed October 27, 2015 at 8:57 am #

    Woooooow you are the best teacher i ever see.

  10. Randal August 10, 2016 at 9:07 pm #

    Hi. May a ask a question?
    I was wondering if in this content I could say ”The underground railway POSSESSES/DETAINS the highest proportion of commuters?” Is it correct of both verbs are not applicable in this case? I have looked up the exactly meaning of these verbs but I am not sure.

    Another question, instead of using the verb DROP, FALL or REDUCE, Can I say that the percentage of passengers ”DIMINISHED”?

    Just one more question if you do not mind, Describing a line graph, Is it correct to say the something ATTAINED/ACHIEVED the peak rather than using the verb REACH/TOUCH/HIT ??

    Thank you, it will be really helpful.

    • Dominic Cole August 25, 2016 at 8:29 am #


      Neither possesses or detains works here. I’d also avoid the use of the word “diminish”, again both attain and achieve are best avoided.

      The reason for this is partly that there are certain set word combinations that we use most. The problem with the words that you suggest is that they generally aren’t found in these combinations.

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