In task 1 of the IELTS writing exam, you could be asked to describe line graphs, bar charts, pie charts, process diagrams, maps, or tables. Sometimes you are even given a mix of data types to describe. All of these have their unique challenges, and some people struggle with one kind more than another. Perhaps the trickiest ones, though, are tables.
Today, I’m going to show you how to describe a table for IELTS writing. I will show you some ways to analyse the data, structure your essay, and use the right language to provide a great answer. At the end, I will show you my own sample answer.
What’s the Purpose of Describing Tables
Ok, so this might seem like a strange thing to discuss, but actually it’s pretty important, so let’s deal with it first.
When you do any part of the IELTS exam, there is a specific reason for the task. It measures your English ability for a particular skill. In the case of task 1, you are basically being challenged to describe something. This is very different from task 2, where you discuss or argue something.
Tables provide a different sort of data from line graphs or bar charts. They require slightly different language and the ability to analyse information in a different way from maps, process diagrams, or anything else.
Although tables are not necessarily harder than any other kind of data, they can pose one unique challenge: Most IELTS tables have more data points to think about. So what does this mean? Well, basically you have to figure out what to include and what not to include.
Sometimes they are simpler, but in every case you will be tasked with finding the most relevant data to describe. Remember: You don’t have to mention every single part of the table.
Analysing an IELTS Table
When you are given a table to describe for the IELTS exam, you must first attempt to understand it as fully as possible. Do not rush this or else you might start writing and then realise that you misunderstood something.
To understand the table, take a sensible approach:
- Read the description first for clues.
- Look at the heading and any labels.
- Think about the categorise provided.
- Then finally look at the data contained within it.
By doing this, you give yourself the best chance of understanding the table and its contents. I cannot overemphasise the importance of this.
Here’s an example:
The table below shows the results of a 20-year study into why adults in the UK attend arts events.
The question and the heading give us some vital information about the nature of the data provided. We can learn from these that the study took place over twenty years (we can also see that from the table itself) and that it is about British adults going to arts events. Specifically, we need to think about the reasons why they attended these sorts of events.
Looking at the categories, we can see four reasons given. Think about what these mean and how we could describe them in the essay. This will be discussed in the next part.
You also need to think about the time. Not all tables contain changes over time, but this one does. We have two columns about the past and one about the present, so that could pose some challenges. Again, we’ll look at that in the following section.
Language for Describing Tables
When it comes to describing tables, your language will depend upon the content of the table. There isn’t really any specific “table vocabulary” that you need to know. You don’t really need to know words like “row” and “column” because you’re less likely to describe the table itself than the data within the table.
It is more important to think about how you will paraphrase the question and heading, and how you will incorporate the categories or labels. You also need to think about grammar because if there are changes over time, this will need to be reflected in your language.
Let’s continue using the above table as an example. We would not want to repeat the question exactly, so we need to paraphrase it somewhat. [By the way, paraphrasing is useful for task 1 but not task 2.]
I would personally change the question from this:
The table below shows the results of a 20-year study into why adults in the UK attend arts events.
The table gives information about the reasons why people in the UK attended arts events over a period of twenty years.
You can see that my sentence contains basically the same information, but that it has changed the grammar and language sufficiently so that it is now my own words. The most important thing, though, is that it is grammatically and factually correct.
As for the categories or labels, we cannot simply copy them into our essay. This is actually a big problem, which I have discussed in a mini-lesson on Facebook. That covers the issue for line graphs, bar charts, and other forms of data.
Here, we would not want to say:
special occasion/celebration accounted for slightly more than a quarter of adults
You should try to turn it into proper grammar:
slightly more than a quarter of adults went [to arts events] for a celebration or special occasion
This is because tables and charts often have a lack of grammar or a special kind of grammar. They tend to use capitalised or abbreviated forms, and it is part of your duty to turn this into real language. Also, the above sentence didn’t really have any meaning outside the context of the table. You should imagine that your reader cannot see the table and then describe it clearly so that they could visualise it.
As for grammar, please pay close attention to changes in time. Some tables have no time differences, so you simply use comparative forms, like this:
All this data comes from one year – 2002 – and so you don’t need to show any time changes. Just keep in mind that it’s from the past, so you could not use future or present tenses.
You would say things like this:
- The Turkish spent the most on food, drinks, and tobacco, at almost a third of their consumer spending, followed closely by the Irish.
- Spain was next, at just under a fifth, with Italy and Sweden not far behind.
- Italians spent the most on clothing and footwear, at 9% of consumer spending, and all other countries spent a very similar amount, at roughly 6%.
- Less than 5% of consumer spending went on leisure and education in each of the five countries, though in Turkey it was the highest, and in Spain the lowest.
In the chart we previously examined, featuring data from 20 years ago until the present day, we need to be more careful. We can mix past and present forms as appropriate:
- Twenty years ago, almost six out of ten people said that they attended such events because they wanted to see a particular performer or artist. Ten years later, this had not changed very much, though there was a very slight decline in numbers, and today the figure is approximately the same, at 56% of people surveyed.
Notice how for 20 years ago and 10 years ago I used past simple, but for today I switched to present simple. You can also see that I used past perfect to show the change that occurred between 20 and 10 yeas ago:
Ten years later, this had not changed very much…
It is possible to use present perfect for the same effect:
Today, however, the proportion has increased to…
I have chosen not to use that tense because it did not really fit into what I wanted to say, but it is definitely possible to use it.
For IELTS writing task 1, your structure will be quite different from task 2. [You can read about that here.] Basically, you need an introduction and then one, two, or three body paragraphs that present the data effectively. Aim to write about 160-190 words, unless you can write quickly and accurately, in which case you may benefit from writing more.
I am going to structure my essay like this:
|Introduction||Paraphrase the question |
Give a general overview (desire to see specific performer was most common; others varied)
|Body paragraph #1||Describe the trend for seeing a specific performer |
Show that it remained basically the same with some small changes
Highlight the fact that it was always the highest
|Body paragraph #2||Cover all other data |
Describe the trends with a strong emphasis on the fact that accompanying a child and celebrating are nearly exact opposites
Finish with business reasons
One final note: Please always ensure that you draw attention to the most significant data points and that you highlight comparisons, such as something being the highest or lowest, or any opposite/inverse trends that occur. These are key features that will have been deliberately included.
IELTS task 1 essays always include this instruction:
Summarise the information by selecting and reporting the main features, and make comparisons where relevant.
The key words here are “selecting,” “reporting,” “main features,” and “comparisons.” You should aim to cover this in all your IELTS task 1 essays.
Sample Band 9 Answer
The table gives information about the reasons why people in the UK attended arts events over a period of twenty years. In each year, the most common reason was the desire to see a specific performer or artist, but the other reasons given changed quite significantly.
Twenty years ago, almost six out of ten people said that they attended such events because they wanted to see a particular performer or artist. Ten years later, this had not changed very much, though there was a very slight decline in numbers, and today the figure is approximately the same, at 56% of people surveyed. For each of those three years, this reason was by far the most common given among the respondents of the survey.
Interestingly, in the first year recorded less than a tenth of people said that they went in order to accompany a child but this grew by fifty percent ten years later, and now almost a quarter of people go for this reason. Conversely, going as a form of celebration dropped from about a quarter to less than a tenth, showing very much the opposite trend. The least common reason given in the first and second years was going for work or business, but this grew slightly and now it is marginally more common for people to do for this reason than for a celebration.
Finally, a Video…
Several years ago, I made a video about this topic. It aimed to explain the process of describing a table. You might find it useful to watch me writing an essay step by step and explaining all of my choices. Here it is: