It is often said that IELTS students should paraphrase the question when writing an essay, but is this really good advice? In this article, I will explain why paraphrasing can help you… but also why it might cause problems that hold you back.

Here is a summary of the lesson in visual form:

The Benefits of Paraphrasing

First of all, let’s look at the positives. Indeed, there is a good reason why so many teachers and textbooks encourage you to read the question and paraphrase it: Doing so shows that you have interpreted the question and then are capable of putting it into your own words. This is quite important.

Let’s say you are given this question:

The prevention of health problems and illness is more important than treatment and medicine. Government funding should reflect this.

To what extent do you agree?

You might decide to paraphrase the question like this:

Some people think that it is better to use government funding to prevent health problems than to spend money on treatments.

Is there anything wrong with this? Not really. It shows the examiner that you have understood the question and that you have the skill to re-state it in your own words. This is a positive thing.

The Drawbacks of Paraphrasing

Unfortunately, paraphrasing is not always the best approach to writing a first sentence to your essay. Indeed, there are several problems with it.

1. Paraphrasing Causes Grammatical Flaws

First of all, when you try to paraphrase a question, you will normally have to change the grammar of the sentence. Note that my example above turned “prevention of health problems” into “prevent health problems.” We often turn verbs into nouns and vice versa.

This is fine if you have a very high-level grasp of English grammar, but the effort of paraphrasing usually results in a variety of errors. Here is an example of one student’s effort to paraphrase the above question:

Treating and medicine investment from government is essential than prevent the health problem.

Unfortunately, the grammar here is not good and would indicate that this candidate is at a band 5 level or lower. This is one of the most common outcomes of attempting to paraphrase the question, and a good reason why you shouldn’t do it.

2. Paraphrasing Causes Unnatural Language

In addition to the grammatical errors that frequently occur when people attempt to paraphrase IELTS questions, there is an abundance of unnatural language. This means language that is not exactly wrong, but is also not quite right. That might mean archaic styles or very unusual vocabulary.

For example, to offer another paraphrasing of the above question, an IELTS candidate might write the following:

Some people think that impeding ailments is more important correcting them.

Whilst the grammar here is basically fine, the words used are quite unusual. This may be because the candidate is trying to use “uncommon vocabulary” (which I often tell people is a horrible approach to IELTS) but it could just be an attempt at finding synonyms. It will probably lower your score for Lexical Resource.

Remember that in English there is not always a perfect synonym for every word. In fact, perfect synonyms are relatively rare because words have different specific meanings and subtle connotations.

3. Paraphrasing Can Cause Logical Errors

One quite common problem is that people paraphrase the statement and then either agree or disagree with it. The problem is that anything you say is your own opinion, so you are agreeing or disagreeing with yourself!

Here’s an example:

Preventing health problems is more important than treating them and so governments should spend more of their budget on this. I disagree with this statement and this essay will explain why.

This person has paraphrased the question but in doing so they have presented the idea in the question as their own idea. When they disagree, they are disagreeing with their own idea!

Obviously, this is a massive problem that needs to be avoided. You can do so by using one of these expressions:

  • Some people think that…
  • It is often argued that…
  • Many people believe that…
  • It has been said that…

Here’s a video that goes into more depth on this issue:

The Trouble with Synonyms

Let’s say you want to paraphrase the above question. You might wrack your brain for synonyms for the word “treatment.” A thesaurus would give you the following:

Unfortunately, these are not exact synonyms. If you replaced “treatment” with “hospitalisation” (that’s the British spelling), then you would be talking about one very specific aspect of treatment. If you talked about “analysis,” it is related to treatment but not the same thing. The same is true of “prescription” and “operation.” These are kinds of treatment but not actually synonyms.

The word “people” is often used but is notoriously difficult to paraphrase. Most words with a similar meaning have some specific meaning that might be unsuitable for your particular purpose. You might benefit from an article about synonyms for people.

Thus, the process of paraphrasing is fraught with problems. You might have a wide vocabulary, but it is not easy – even for a native speaker – to re-write a sentence in a completely new way.

Should I Paraphrase for IELTS Essays?

I tell my students that paraphrasing is usually a good idea for IELTS writing task 1 but a bad idea for task 2. This is because the requirements of task 1 are simply to report on the data in front of you. You do not need to add anything else into the mix. However, for task 2, you will draw upon your own ideas and knowledge, meaning that you can address bigger issues.

Going back to the previous question, here is how I would start my essay:

In many countries, government spending on healthcare is a major economic burden. Problems like obesity and heart disease are crippling healthcare systems, and some people suggest that rather than raise taxes to pay for treatments, more money should be invested in preventing these illnesses in the first place. This essay will argue that prevention is better than treatment.

I like to follow this approach for my task 2 introductions:

  1. A general statement that introduces the wider topic.
  2. A more specific statement that focuses on the precise issues raised in the question.
  3. An essay overview or a statement of my position on the issue.

In other words, I am going from a very broad statement to a very narrow one.

Let’s see another example:

Successful sports professionals can earn a great deal more money than people in other important professions. Some people think this is fully justified while others think it is unfair.

Discuss both of these views and give your own opinion.

Following my previous advice, I would introduce this essay in the following way:

It is quite common nowadays for successful athletes to earn tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars per year through a combination of their salary, bonuses, and sponsorship deals. When this is compared against people who do other important jobs, it seems absurd that these people earn so much. This essay will look at both views, before deciding that it is reasonable for these people to earn so much.

Again, I have started with a big overview of the main idea, then focused in on a more specific aspect. This is a great way of introducing many topics that occur in IELTS writing task 2.

Get my IELTS books for further advice.

The Advantages of Not Paraphrasing

As you have seen, I have been able to write interesting and original introductions by avoiding the trap of paraphrasing the question. This allows me to produce good sentences that are error-free and show my own thinking. This has the following benefits:

  1. I can avoid overly complicated sentence structures.
  2. I can use my own preferred vocabulary.
  3. It will be original and engaging for the examiner.

When you try to paraphrase the question, you will usually be forced into making unnatural and difficult changes, so consider moving away from this approach and finding your own voice.

How to Avoid Paraphrasing

Finally, let’s take a moment to think about how we could avoid paraphrasing a question. Indeed, it can sometimes be difficult to get the question out of our head and use our own words.

First of all, I would suggest reading the question very carefully several times to get a good understanding of it. After that, turn the question paper over and write your introduction without looking back at the question.

You can go back and check later to see if you have gotten it right, but put your ideas on paper based upon your interpretation of the question. Looking away will really help because it will stop you drawing too much inspiration from the words in the question.