Today, I am going to show you how to describe maps for task 1 of the IELTS writing test. I have written about this before, but this will be the first in-depth lesson on map descriptions. In this lesson, you will find out everything you need to know in order to get a great score if you encounter a map in your next writing test.

ielts map descriptions - a guide

Maps and IELTS: An Overview

First of all, you need to understand the purpose of IELTS map description. In fact, it is important to recognise the purpose of task 1 of the IELTS test! This part of the exam is designed to see how well you can describe things. In that regard, it is quite different from task 2.

Maps are used in IELTS because they require you to describe the physical layout of a location in addition to showing changes over time. Normally, you will be given two maps of the same area and you will be asked to explain what changes have occurred.

It is really important to know this because otherwise you might not understand how to approach the essay. There are many misconceptions about IELTS but really it is quite simple – you are required to show that you can use the language for different purposes.

Types of Map

You will see different types of map in the IELTS writing test. There are maps of streets, towns, villages, islands, parks, and even interior layouts of buildings in some rare cases. However, they pretty much all serve the same function – there will be two maps that show changes over a period of time.

You should not think too much about the type of map as the function is basically the same – it will show a physical location. Your job is to describe that location and then highlight the changes that take place.

Vocabulary for Map Descriptions

I have a full article on vocabulary for describing IELTS maps so you should read that if you want to know the details. This lesson is quite important because it teaches you about the key things you need to know. I will summarise the important parts here.

In describing a map, you have to imagine that your reader cannot see the same image that you see. Your job is to put that image into their head. This requires you to be accurate and concise in the words that you use.

Start with cardinal directions: north, south, east, and west. These will help you immensely. It is not enough to say “on the right” because that is relative. One person’s right could be another person’s left.

You need to know prepositions as well. This is incredibly important. If you get your prepositions wrong, it could lead to a totally inaccurate description of the map. That would be a huge problem.

Example of Direction and Preposition Use

Look at these two maps of a place called Felixstone:

ielts map - felixstone

We can see many changes but before we begin to describe them, we need to explain where those things were.

Where is the farmland?

  • In 1967, there was an area of farmland in the eastern part of the map, just to the north of the road.

Where is the private beach?

  • In 2001, there was a private beach in the southeast of the map. It meets the road at its northernmost point and leads all the way to the sea at the south.

Where are the wind turbines?

  • By 2001, four wind turbines had been added between the dunes and the sea.

Please note that there could be other great ways to describe any of these things. These are just a few examples to show you the uses of accurate language.

Sample Answer

Here is my full description to the Felixstone map:

There are two maps of a place called Felixstone. One map is from 1967 and the other from 2001. Many changes took place in the intervening years, including the removal of a marina and pier.

In 1967, Felixstone was comprised of a road with a golf course, high street, and farmland to the north of it. To the south, there were trees and dunes, a hotel and a café, and a marina and fish market.

By 2001, the farmland to the north of the road had been replaced by a hotel with a swimming pool and tennis courts. Half of the shops on the main street had been converted into apartments. To the south of the road, the hotel had gained a large car park and some wind turbines were added between the dunes and the sea. However, the biggest change was the removal of the marina and pier, which were replaced by a public beach and a private beach. The fish market beside the pier was also removed.

Tenses and IELTS Task 1 Maps

One thing that people often overlook is the importance of accurate tense use in IELTS task 1. Of course, verb tenses are always important in English. They are complicated but essential for conveying meaning. However, in task 1 people often focus on just describing the physical layout. This is important, but so is capturing time.

Considering my example above, let’s look at the first sentence of paragraph three:

  • By 2001, the farmland to the north of the road had been replaced by a hotel with a swimming pool and tennis courts.

Why did I use the phrase “had been replaced”?

This is the passive form of the past perfect tense. I used the passive form because it was appropriate here. In describing map changes, we do not know who made the change, so passive voice is necessary. As for past perfect, this is how we look further into the past from the perspective of a point in the past.

Let me explain more: This map referred to two points of time – 1967 and 2001. Both of these points of time are in the past. Thus, when we look at changes that have occurred by 2001, we must use look back into the past from the past! It seems so complicated, but it really isn’t.

verb tenses for describing ielts maps
test of past perfect tense
ielts map description
ielts task 1 map

Choosing What to Describe

When it comes to IELTS maps, you might face two potential problems about choosing what to describe:

  1. There are too many things to describe.
  2. There aren’t enough things to describe.

This can be difficult, particularly in an exam scenario. I would offer the following advice:

  1. If it seems that there are too many things, then begin by picking the most important and then describe it as best you can. Then pick other things logically. If you find it is taking too long, you can finish and not worry about the others. After all, you don’t need to describe everything.
  2. If it seems that there aren’t enough things, you are going to need to get creative. You should devote a little extra effort to giving details about the key aspects of the map. Don’t just say “there is a bridge in the north.” Say “there is a bridge in the north of the map that goes over the Severn River. It connects the towns of Dorwith and Forlsom.” This will help you to use more words. However, it really shouldn’t be a problem as IELTS maps tend to contain enough data to easily write 150 words.

Anyway, the most important thing is that you select the most important data and sequence it logically.

How to Structure an IELTS Map Description

I wrote this article on IELTS writing task 1 essay structures. You should read this because maps really don’t require anything special. The structure will basically be the same as it would for charts, tables, and so on. It should look like this:

  1. Introduction – say what the map is and highlight a key change
  2. Body paragraph one – describe the first map
  3. Body paragraph two – describe the second map and highlight changes

There are other reasonable ways to approach this. You may, for example, devote a paragraph to the main changes and another paragraph to lesser changes. However, it is usually best to give a paragraph on each of the two maps.

One thing is the “general trend” sentence. As you probably know, IELTS writing task 1 essays require a sentence that gives the general trend of a chart or table. However, there is no such thing for maps. You can instead highlight a significant change or try to capture the gist of the differences.

Video about Difficult Maps for IELTS

Last year, I made this video about describing difficult IELTS maps. You might find it useful given the information in this lesson.

You can also find sample map descriptions here and here. On a related note, you can find IELTS listening map skills here.