Today, I would like to show you how to write a strong essay for IELTS writing task 2. In this case, the question will be “agree or disagree” and I am going to strongly disagree. If you want to know about providing a balanced answer, you can read this article.

In order to provide a convincing argument, I am going to do several things that are important:

  • Show my position clearly and consistently
  • Avoid clichés, memorised phrases, and falsehoods
  • Acknowledge and refute the opposing ideas
  • Present details explanation and examples

This is not easy to do and thus I would call this an “Advanced IELTS technique.” However, you don’t need to be at a very high level to begin employing these ideas in your work. You can start now and – as you improve your vocabulary and grammar skills – you will see your IELTS essays dramatically improve.

Analysing the Question

First of all, let’s pick a sample IELTS question to analyse today. This will be the question that we look at throughout the article and I will give my own band 9 sample answer at the bottom.

Some people say that all popular TV entertainment programmes should aim to educate viewers about important social issues.

To what extent do you agree or disagree with this statement?

In order to write a good IELTS essay, you must first understand the question. I cannot overstate the importance of this. Thankfully, this question is quite easy to understand. You should make sure that you don’t just understand the main ideas, but think about all parts of the question. Here, you should make note of the words “all” and “important.” It is not just some TV shows and not all social issues.

Picking Ideas to Write About

Once you have done that, you should look at crafting your answer. This begins with brainstorming ideas. I have written about how to generate ideas for IELTS essays and basically there are different approaches but you should focus on picking a few of the very best ideas. Don’t try to incorporate too much or one of the following will happen:

  • You may have too many ideas with not enough development.
  • You might write too much and run out of time.

Both of these are serious problems to be avoided. Thankfully, by writing many essays you can practise the brainstorming process and avoid these problems.

For the above question, you could either agree or disagree. I am going to disagree, and my initial ideas could be listed as such:

  1. Educational shows are boring.
  2. It is hard to say what should be included.
  3. This will result in propaganda.
  4. TV is meant to be exciting.
  5. Who could force directors to do this?

Are all of these ideas strong? Not really. Numbers 1 and 4 are a bit weak, but they contain some truth. I could perhaps roll these into one bigger idea, which is that people enjoy TV shows as an escape from dull reality. That is much more convincing, but it would still need to presented in an intelligent way to avoid it being a shallow and unconvincing argument.

Ideas 2, 3, and 5 are clearly related. It would be better to roll them into one single idea as well, which is that the concept of “important social issues” is amorphous and hard to implement for a range of reasons. I will make this my second idea, using examples and careful explanation to make it clear to the reader.

You can see that the five ideas listed above have now been adapted into two ideas, which is much easier to incorporate into an IELTS essay:

  1. People need TV as an entertaining escape from reality and forcing educational material into them might ruin this.
  2. It is hard to say what an important social value is and even harder to force directors into including these.

Structuring an Intelligent and Convincing Essay

Now that we have our two ideas, we can look at creating a structure. Although I strongly recommend avoiding formulae and memorisation for IELTS, one exception to this is the use of a basic essay template, which looks like this:

  1. Introduction
  2. Main body paragraph 1
  3. Main body paragraph 2
  4. Conclusion

Of course, this needs to be adapted to fit the type of essay and its content, but overall you can almost always rely upon this four-paragraph structure. (Five paragraphs are sometimes preferable, but not often.)

It is worth planning your essay in advance so that you can stay on-topic and present convincing ideas. My essay plan would look like this:

IntroductionIntroduce the main idea of the topic
State my opinion
Body para 1This is not a reasonable suggestion
TV shows may contain implicit messages, but they are consumed for enjoyment because
TV is an escape from reality
Forcing educational messages into them is wrong
Body para 2Question the meaning of “important social issue”
Example 1: authoritarian states’ propaganda
Example 2: disagreement in Western nations
Rhetorical questions: Who decides what is important and who could force directors?
Summarise: It is absurd to try
ConclusionReiterate main ideas, touching upon uncertainty of defining “important” and likelihood of ruining entertainment value

You may wonder why I have included two examples. I would not normally do this, but I feel that here there are two major issues that need to be addressed in regards so-called “important social issues”:

  1. In places like China, governments spread propaganda about social harmony that is merely an attempt to stymy criticism.
  2. In more liberal countries, major social divides exist that raise the question of who decided what is important.

Although this makes the essay more complex, it shows an ability to look at a serious issue in a nuanced way. In other words, it checks all the boxes required for a high score in Task Achievement.

In addition, I typically do not recommend rhetorical questions because they can be pointless or annoying, seeming only to add unnecessary words. However, when used carefully they can add great value. In this case, my aim is to show uncertainty regarding the supposed wisdom of the idea I am rejecting. As such, a rhetorical question can call this into question effectively. (You can see this in the sample answer at the bottom of the page.)

Avoiding Common Problems in IELTS Essays

I often write about common problems in IELTS and most of these come from bad teachers and bad websites. Whilst some problems are hard to avoid (e.g. grammatical errors), others are easier to avoid. Here are a few:

1. Don’t Paraphrase the Question

It is sometimes said that IELTS candidates should paraphrase the question. Indeed, I have taught this myself to a number of students, but really I suggest it for task 1 and for lower-level students. If you want to score band 7 in task 2, you really should not try to paraphrase the question.

Let’s look at it in this way. The above question contained the statement:

Some people say that all popular TV entertainment programmes should aim to educate viewers about important social issues.

One of my students recently responded with this opening line:

It is often argued that the subject related with prominent social issues should be included into famous broadcast entertainment shows for the educational purpose to viewers.

There are many problems here, but fundamentally they all stem from the fact that she had tried to paraphrase the question. It is very easy for an IELTS tutor or examiner to notice this. In this case, her determination to repeat the question but in different words has resulted in a number of mistakes with vocabulary and grammar. I have corrected them thusly:

example of poor paraphrasing

Instead of doing this, I strongly recommend that you read the question, analyse it, and then write your own version of the issue as a first sentence. For example, I will begin my essay like this:

  • A small number of people argue that TV shows should all be required to present their viewers with educational material or material that otherwise discusses social issues.

2. Not Everything is a Controversy…

Another reason not to paraphrase is the fact that it results in clichéd and inaccurate claims like “It is often argued that…” Notice that in my first line, I said “A small number of people argue…” This is an important distinction. Do people really argue about whether educational material should be inserted into all TV shows? I had never heard this outrageous suggestion until today! It is certainly not controversial.

Unfortunately, most IELTS candidates go to rubbish websites and teachers for advice, leading them to memorise phrases and regurgitate them in their essays. I recently read a collection of several thousand essays and a staggering number began in almost the same way:

  • It cannot be denied that…
  • There is a hot controversy…
  • ____ is a controversial issue…
  • As we all know…
  • It cannot be denied that…

If you hear a teacher telling you to use these phrases, you need to leave their class and find someone else. If you find these recommended on a website, you need to stop using it. This is terrible advice.

IELTS is a test of your English skills and your thinking skills. If you just blindly repeat inaccurate phrases like these, you will surely get a bad score. It tells the examiner two main things:

  1. You are not using your own language to convey ideas.
  2. You are not capable of logical thinking.

Instead, read the question carefully and respond to it directly. This is not easy, but even if you make some mistakes you will do better than the people who use act like parrots.

3. Be Consistent in your Ideas

It is ok to agree with this position or disagree but be consistent. You will notice that I often show the opposing view in my essays, usually with the purpose of refuting it. This is a great way of showing the ability to engage with both sides of the debate and not only present your own opinion but reject the opposing one.

However, do not fall into the trap of either changing your opinion halfway through or else seeming to change your opinion. The former is a major mistake that few people make but the latter is pretty common.

An example is that people often say “I totally agree…” but then try to show the other side of the argument in order to present balance. This is fine, but you must show that you do not really believe what you are saying; otherwise, it is appears that you have switched positions. You can do this by saying “Whilst [opposing idea] seems reasonable, in fact is not realistic.” Or: “Some people believe that [opposing idea]; however, it is wrong because…”

Doing this again shows the ability to think logical, consider multiple viewpoints, and use language carefully. If you can do this, you will improve your chances of a good score for Task Achievement and Coherence and Cohesion.

Sample Band 9 Answer

Below you will see my sample answer. You can read an annotated version here that explains the purpose of each sentence. This answer adheres to the structure listed above.

A small number of people argue that TV shows should all be required to present their viewers with educational material or material that otherwise discusses social issues. This essay will strongly disagree with that notion.

Although it may seem reasonable to suggest that TV shows be required to provide some redeeming social value through deliberately educational content, it is a naïve proposal. Humans have always enjoyed entertainment of different sorts, and whilst much of this imparts implicit messages, its primary function has been for the enjoyment of the viewer, listener, or reader. Life can be difficult or exhausting and people need entertainment as a form of release. To suggest that this is taken away from them through the deliberate insertion of educational material is misguided.

Additionally, one might well ask who or what is to decide the definition of “important social issue” and what sort of message should be taught. In authoritarian states like China, this would surely be values related to keeping the peace at all costs and obeying the government, which is of course problematic under brutal regimes like theirs. In Western nations, there is presently a “culture war” on-going that bitterly divides the population, with hysterical attitudes displayed on both the right and left of the political spectrum. Which side would have their views forcefully inserted into TV programmes, and who would force writers, producers, and directors to incorporate views that may be anathema to their personal perspectives into their artistic works? These are difficult questions and ones with no good answers, suggesting that it would be nearly impossible to achieve this in some countries.

In conclusion, it is a terrible idea to force educational material about social issues into TV shows for several reasons, including the difficulty of choosing what to include and the fact that people would more than likely cease enjoying the programmes they used to watch.

Feel free to post your ideas and essays in the comments below. I will give feedback if I see your comment.