In the lesson about order and sequence we looked at why it is so important to organise an essay carefully and show the examiner the order clearly. In this lesson we will look at another way to order ideas: importance.

Task Two IELTS essays (academic) usually ask test-takers to argue for or against an issue, or to explain the causes and/or effects of a situation. In these essays, test-takers often try to provide as many ideas as they can. I think of this as the following logical thought process:

more ideas = stronger argument = higher IELTS score

Unfortunately this is not correct. IELTS examiners do not care about the number of ideas. In fact, it is the development of ideas that affects the score. In order to have time to develop ideas, test-takers should use one main idea per paragraph. For some essays, this one idea should have two supporting points (explained below) but it is still one main idea per paragraph.

As a result, a better logical thought process would be:

limited number of ideas + strong development = higher IELTS score

Of course, I there is a time limit for this test, which means most test-takers can realistically only write two or three main paragraphs. As a result, it is important to communicate the idea that the points you choose are the most important points. This is why test-takers should use phrases that express the level of importance of the points chosen.

Below are two topic sentences for an essay about the advantages of public libraries.

  1. There are several advantages to public libraries.
  2. The main advantage of public libraries is that lower income families can access resources for free.

I see this first topic sentence very often when marking essays. It is usually followed by a paragraph such as this:

There are several advantages to public libraries. First, they are free for lower income families. Also, they have a lot of books so people can read more. Some public libraries also have somewhere for children to read so it is good for children. Last, some libraries have computers so people can use the Internet for free.

The problem with this paragraph is that the ideas presented are not developed. The result is a maximum score of 6 for Task Achievement in the scoring criteria.

Now, consider the paragraph that follows the second topic sentence:

The main advantage of public libraries is that lower income families can access resources for free. Public libraries are funded by local governments and usually have facilities that are free to the public. For example, in the UK most libraries offer adult and children reading sections as well as free Internet and computer rooms. As a result, families that cannot afford their own computers or books are able to have access to both. This situation matters because without these facilities, lower income families would be heavily disadvantaged in both education and everyday tasks, such as finding a job or access or medical advice online.

This paragraph that takes one main idea and develops it fully would receive a much higher score for Task Achievement.

Whenever possible, use levels of importance to organise your paragraphs. If you are going to provide two arguments (main points) use two paragraphs and organise them by level of importance. For the most important, use collocations such as:

  • The most important reason
  • The biggest advantage
  • The most obvious drawback
  • The main reason
  • The primary drawback
  • The most clear evidence
  • The strongest indication
  • The strongest argument
  • The major disadvantage

For the second most important, use phrases such as:

  • Another important factor
  • The second most important reason

The paragraphs below from the model essays show this process.

Perhaps the most clear evidence that schools are failing to educate about health is the alarming increase in teenage obesity seen in many countries around the world. This issue has been highlighted in multiple research projects, including a recent study by Oxford University that found teenage obesity in the UK has risen by more than 50% in less than ten years, while health education classes in schools have decreased considerably. It is widely understood that unhealthy habits start at a young age, and although parents must take some responsibility as well, the increase in obesity is a strong indication that schools are failing in their responsibility to educate students effectively. However, obesity is not the only warning sign.

The prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) among younger people is another clear indication that schools are failing in their duty to educate. In theory, school leavers should be well-informed about sexual health and so we would expect to see a relatively low STD rate at this age level. Unfortunately this appears not to be the case. According to the WHO, school leavers worldwide are more likely to contract an STD than any other age group. Although some other factors may play a part, this information suggests that many young adults are not fully aware of the dangers of unprotected sex after leaving school. 

More than one supporting point

Some essay questions ask test-takers to describe more than one advantage and disadvantage, or multiple reasons for a problem. In these essay questions it is just as important to develop each idea. There are two ways to do this. You can either choose two ideas that are very similar and claim they are the most important. These can then be discussed and developed in tandem (together) as is shown in this first paragraph below:

The main advantages of social media are the ability to communicate instantly with large numbers of people and receive instant news. Users can now send and receive news and messages all over the world much faster than in previous years. For example, before social media many people had a pen pal in a foreign country, and would have to wait weeks to receive a reply. In contrast, many people now communicate daily with friends abroad. Similarly, news events that happen around the world are reported instantly. This is important because it helps to connect people across cultures and keep friends and family connected.

However, if the ideas are distinct (different) they should have their own paragraphs. In paragraphs two and three below, the importance of the points is written in the transition sentences.

However, it is now clear that two major disadvantages to social media outweigh the benefits of fast communication. The first is that social media is addictive and can take over the lives of frequent users. Many users (especially the young) spend many hours every day posting pictures and messages and waiting for replies and likes. According to psychologists, these people are addicted to social media in the same way gamblers are addicted to placing bets. The reason for this is that these apps rewards users with instant replies and other techniques such as ‘likes’. This negatively affects the productivity and mental health of millions of young people around the world. But there is an even greater disadvantage that must be considered.

Social media now allows misinformation to spread via illegitimate news sources. At the moment, is it easy for anyone (including dangerous organisations) to post fake news and spread lies across media platforms. According to the EU, foreign governments often create fake news on Facebook and Twitter to influence voters in European elections. This has enabled foreign governments to directly influence election results in democratic countries. Without reliable news sources, it becomes impossible to trust information, which ultimately leads to unstable countries. It is clear therefore, that there are huge disadvantages to social media that cannot be ignored. 

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