In IELTS writing task 1, you will be asked to describe some sort of visual data. It could be a line graph, a bar chart, a table, a map, a pie chart, or a process diagram. (Here’s a full list.) In this article, we’re going to ignore some of these and look at how to describe a graph.

I will give you some important advice about how to analyse the data, use the right language, and structure your answer.

Note: This is a general guide to describing graphs. If you want specific instructions for each kind of graph or chart, then please see the following guides:

Analysing the Graph

When you are given a graph to describe, you need to take a moment to understand what you are looking at. Don’t rush this. In IELTS, it should be pretty obvious what you are given because the only three graph types you have are:

  1. Line graphs
  2. Bar charts
  3. Pie charts

However, you may have a graph that incorporates the first two or you could be given a line graph and a table, a bar chart and a pie chart, or any combination thereof.

Recognising the type of graph you are given is important because they serve different functions and usually require different language to describe. It’s pretty obvious what they are:

3 types of chart that could appear in ielts writing task 1

As for their functions, typically they do the following:

  1. Line graphs show changes in values over time.
  2. Bar charts compare different types of data.
  3. Pie charts show a proportion of a whole value.

Of these, bar charts probably have the most diverse array of functions and can therefore be the hardest to describe, but that’s not always the case. It totally depends on what is in the data, so analyse it carefully.

Keep in mind that bar charts may present data from different points in time (like a graph does) but that the data may all come from a single point in time. There can also be various types of data included, so don’t jump to conclusions.

Choosing the Right Language

If you want to know how to describe a graph, then you need to know the right type of language to use. Of course, that will largely depend on the data in the graph. You will need different vocabulary for prices, populations, interest rates, and so on.

You also need to use grammar carefully because picking the wrong verb tense could really confuse your reader. Thus, pay attention to any clues about time. Ask yourself:

  • Is this data from the past, present, or future?
  • Does it all come from the same point in time?
  • Is it a prediction?

All of that will impact your description. For example, look at these three bar charts:

a comparison of 3 types of bar chart

They all look the same, right? But each one shows a different period of time, so they would require totally different grammar.

  • Bar chart 1 shows information from the past.
  • Bar chart 2 shows information from the past and present
  • Bar chart 3 shows information that includes future predictions

Thus, we would use different verb tenses:

  • The price of corn rose from $5 in 2000 to $18 in 2015.
  • The price of corn has risen from $5 in 2000 to $18.
  • The price of corn rose from $5 in 2000 to $15 in 2020 and is expected to rise to $18.

You can see that for bar chart 1 I used the past simple tense. For bar chart 2, I used the present perfect. Then, for bar chart 3 I used the past simple and also a speculative future term: “is expected to.”

Further reading:

Structuring your Graph Description

For IELTS writing task 1, you need to group your data intelligently. However, there is no prescribed formula for this. In other words, there are different ways to structure your task 1 essays.

You do, however, need to include a few things:

  1. An introduction that tells the reader what you are describing.
  2. An overview of the data (for example, a main trend).
  3. A detailed description of the main features.

Here are some things that you don’t need to include:

  1. Too much information.
  2. A conclusion.

I generally structure my task 1 reports like this:

IntroductionIntroduce the graph
Give an overview of the graph
Body paragraph 1Describe the most notable data
Body paragraph 2Describe other data
task 1 structure - how to describe a graph

Of course, this is hard to generalise because every graph is different. Sometimes you might have just one body paragraph and sometimes you might have three. You shouldn’t write too much, though, and don’t fragment your description to the point where there are lots of paragraphs or else you will not succeed in terms of Coherence and Cohesion.

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