Do You Need to Provide a Balanced Answer to Agree/Disagree Questions?

In the IELTS writing exam, as with other forms of academic English, people often feel as though they need to provide a balanced answer. The reason for this is simple: a balanced answer shows a greater degree of thinking. For example, if I asked you, “Do you think capital punishment is a good thing or bad thing?” you may want to talk about both sides of the argument, before stating your opinion. Likewise, if I asked whether school uniforms are good, you might also talk about the pros and cons of school uniforms before giving your preference. This shows that, even though you believe one side to be correct, you are capable of understanding and articulating the other side.

In the IELTS writing task 2, you are sometimes given a question that ends like this:

Discuss both views and give your own opinion.

It is clear that you must discuss both views. You cannot simply discuss one view or just state your opinion.

However, there is another question type that is a little trickier, and which divides opinion:

To what extent do you agree or disagree?

In this case, should you provide a balanced answer or just argue one side of the issue? Keep reading to find out. 🙂

Can I have strong opinion?

When the question asks, “to what extent do you agree or disagree?” you can absolutely have a strong opinion! You can say things like:

  • I completely agree…
  • I wholeheartedly agree…

    disagree 300x251 - Do You Need to Provide a Balanced Answer to Agree/Disagree Questions?

    It’s ok to disagree.

  • I disagree entirely…

It is also perfectly acceptable to not have a strong opinion and to look at both sides of the argument:

  • I agree somewhat…
  • I partly disagree…
  • I can neither completely agree nor disagree with this statement because…

However, I would suggest that it is slightly easier to write a coherent essay that presents a strong opinion.

This is also important because having a strong opinion ensures that your opinion is clear throughout the essay. If you say you agree in the introduction, and then present two body paragraph of supporting reasons, and then restate your agreement in the conclusion, you will get a good grade for task achievement.

According to the IELTS writing task 2 band descriptors, in order to get a band 7.0, the candidate should:

present a clear position throughout the response

Ok, fine… but should I also try to provide balance?

If you decide to answer the question by giving a strong opinion (ie “I completely agree…”) then you may feel that you have failed to provide balance. As I mentioned earlier, discussing both points of view shows a greater level of thought – and it can also demonstrate higher level language skill, too.

But do you actually need to?

My students love these IELTS phrases:

  • Every coin has two sides.
  • It’s a double-edged sword.
  • On the one hand… On the other hand…

There is a tendency to think of the issues raised in the IELTS exam as two sides/views. Therefore, we sometimes feel we should answer the question by examining both views.

But this is not what you are being asked to do when the question says:

To what extent do you agree or disagree?

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Don’t forget to answer all parts of the question.

Look at the band descriptors. There is nothing there that requires you to discuss both sides of an argument, unless the question explicitly tells you to do so.

Let’s look at what is required for band 7.0:

  • addresses all parts of the task

  • presents a clear position throughout the response

  • presents, extends and supports main ideas, but there may be a tendency to overgeneralise and/or supporting ideas may lack focus

In order to “address all parts of the task” you simply answer the question in full. In order to “present a clear position” you must be it obvious to the examiner how you feel about the issue, and keep that consistent from beginning to end. The final part is all about developing your answer, which means building upon the arguments that support your opinion.

So let’s look at the question more closely so that we can better understand.

“To what extent do you agree or disagree?”

Let’s look at an example question:

People’s shopping habits depends more on the age group they belong to than any other factor. To what extent do you agree or disagree?

First off, take a moment to think about the question and what it means. Then, look carefully at the words that give you your task:

To what extent do you agree or disagree?

Here, we have been given a statement (that age affects shopping habits more than anything else) and we are asked “to what extent” (meaning “how much”) we agree or disagree.

There is a spectrum on which you could map your agreement:

  • Completely agree
  • Somewhat agree
  • Neither agree nor disagree
  • Somewhat disagree
  • Completely disagree

In order to answer the question satisfactorily (and get a high score for task achievement) you should pick one of these perspectives and then structure your essay accordingly.

The easiest way to answer this question is to completely agree or completely disagree.

Why?

Because this case you would simply list points to support your position. In other words, the body paragraphs would state why you strongly agree or disagree by giving good reasons.

If you somewhat agree/disagree then you should provide reasons for your uncertainty. In this case, you must provide a little balance. It is this sort of answer that people are thinking of when they assume they must provide balance in an agree/disagree IELTS essay.

The other option – to neither agree nor disagree – is rather more difficult to answer, and I would not suggest picking this. If you really are unsure, just choose a position that would be easiest to defend. You are not being judged as right or wrong in the IELTS writing exam; you are being judged on your English ability. Therefore, you should just pretend that you have a certain opinion and then justify it as best you can.

When should I provide balance in an agree/disagree essay?

As I stated above, you do not need to provide balance if you strongly agree or disagree with the statement. In fact, doing so would probably result in a not-so-good essay.

However, if you just somewhat agree or disagree, then it is a good idea to say why you feel this way. That would probably require you to mention the other point of view.

Just remember, though, that you are not required to discuss both views. The most important thing is answering the question exactly, and all it asks is “to what extent do you agree or disagree”. If you completely agree that age affects shopping habits, there is no reason to look at the opposite view.

How do I structure an agree/disagree essay?

It’s always important to structure your essay before you begin or else you may get confused while writing. It happens to native speakers and even professional writers, too, so don’t feel bad!

I usually recommend my students to write four paragraphs, beginning with an introduction and ending, of course, with a conclusion. The middle two paragraphs (the body paragraphs) will depend on your position.

Completely Agree

If I completely agree with a statement, my essay will look like this:

  • Intro (paraphrase question and state opinion)
  • BP1 – 1st reason why I agree
  • BP2 – 2nd reason why I agree
  • Conclusion – restate opinion and reasons

Completely Disagree

Similarly, if I completely disagree, my essay will look like this:

  • Intro (paraphrase question and state opinion)
  • BP1 – 1st reason why I disagree
  • BP2 – 2nd reason why I disagree
  • Conclusion – restate opinion and reasons

Somewhat Agree/Disagree

On the other hand, if you only somewhat agree/disagree, your essay will become a little more complicated.

  • Intro (paraphrase question and state opinion)
  • BP1 – state why you somewhat agree
  • BP2 – state why you somewhat disagree
  • Conclusion – restate opinion and reasons

Conclusion

So… do you need to discuss both views? No. Should you discuss both views? …Sometimes. It depends on your opinion. Is it ok to have strong opinion? Yes, absolutely!

When answering an agree/disagree question for IELTS writing task 2, you do not need to give a balanced argument because it is simply not required. However, if your own opinion is balanced, then you may have to give a balanced view in order to express yourself adequately.

Author: David S. Wills

David S. Wills is the author of Scientologist! William S. Burroughs and the 'Weird Cult' and the founder/editor of Beatdom literary journal. He lives and works in rural China, and loves to travel. He has worked as an IELTS tutor since 2010, has completed both TEFL and CELTA courses, and has a certificate from Cambridge for Teaching Writing. In 2018, he wrote the popular IELTS handbook, Grammar for IELTS Writing. His other IELTS website is called IELTS Teaching.

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