In task 1 of the IELTS writing test, you may be given one or several pie charts to describe. You will be required to write at least 150 words discussing those pie charts and (sometimes) how they relate to tables or other types of data. In this lesson, I will show you how to describe pie charts by giving you tips on vocabulary, grammar, and content.

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How to Describe Pie Charts for IELTS Writing Task 1

First of all, we need to understand what the purpose of IELTS writing task 1 is. Basically, for this part of the test, you are required to describe some sort of data. This could be any of the following:

The whole purpose is to test your ability at writing concise and accurate descriptions. This is very different from task 2, where you need to write an essay that discusses or argues something.

The three main aspects of task 1 are:

  1. Understanding the data
  2. Describing it accurately
  3. Grouping it effectively

This means that when you are given a pie chart (or several), then you will need to interpret it correctly and then write a short report in precise English that can be easily understood by the examiner.

That’s all there is to it. There are no tricks or tips or magical things you can do.

Now let’s look in a little more detail at how to do this properly.

Understanding Pie Charts for Task 1

A task 1 pie chart will more than likely be presented in two forms. Either you will be given one pie chart and some other form of data (line graph, table, etc) or you will be given several pie charts. The reason is that IELTS writing task 1 requires comparing and contrasting data. If you just had one single pie chart, there really would not be much to say about it.

Let’s look at some examples:

online retail sales in canada - ielts pie chart

Here, you can see that we have two pie charts to compare. The important thing here would be to compare the differences over time.

pie chart about education

Here again we have two pie charts, but this time we are not looking at differences over time. Instead, we are comparing two different countries. This requires different grammatical skills.

electricity in france and germany - ielts pie chart

Now there are four pie charts! This sort of task would take more thought in the beginning, but actually it is not much harder to answer.

ielts table and pie charts mixed

Finally, we have a mixture of a table and two pie charts. Actually, it is probably more common to say a table and one pie chart, but in this case there are two.

Language for Describing Pie Charts

There is really no special language that you need to know in order to describe pie charts. There are no unique features that require unusual vocabulary. Instead, you need a good knowledge of language that would also help you for line graphs, tables, and so on.

Perhaps the two most important words are “percentage” and “proportion.” This is because pie charts do not show a specific amount (dollars, kilograms, etc) but instead they should the proportion of something.

Thus, in description of pie charts, you will frequently see the phrases:

  • the percentage of…
  • the proportion of…

Because pie charts contain this sort of data, they will invariably have many numbers for you to talk about. You should avoid using too many numbers (see this article for more information about describing numbers) and instead you should vary your language:

75%three quarters
74%almost three quarters
50%half/ a half
10%a tenth
30%about a third

If you can do this effectively, you can avoid including too many numbers. This can make your essay look and sound better.

Some more advanced phrases:

90%+the vast majority of…
1-3%a negligible amount of…

Remember that you can also make your language more specific with adjectives, saying “a very small proportion” or “a tiny percentage of…”

Grammar for Pie Charts

Of course, it is not just vocabulary that is important when it comes to IELTS writing. In fact, grammar is far more important in many respects. When it comes to IELTS writing task 1, people really overlook the significance of accurate grammar.

First of all, you need to assess when the data took place or was gathered. Presumably it was in the past, but that is not always the case. Sometimes a pie chart will contain speculative data about the future. You need to choose the right verb form for an accurate description.

Many times, past simple will be the correct tense to use. You can say things like:

  • In 1994, a quarter of people said that…
  • In the first year, nearly half of shops made a profit…

However, we need to be aware that pie charts can show changes over time. This is true if there are two or three pie charts:

  • In 1998, that number had dropped by six percent…
  • Four years later, the proportion of bankrupt businesses had soared to…

In these cases, we have used past perfect because this accurately reflects changes between points of time in the past. We can pick one time and look further into the past from then.

Grouping Data for Pie Charts

Some people find that it is really difficult to group data effectively in IELTS. Sometimes it is hard because of a particular question but sometimes it can be much easier. You just need to think logically and make some choices.

To be honest, in most cases I would divide the data chronologically, which means “by time.” If you have a pie chart from 1991 and another from 2001, I would devote one paragraph to the first year and one to the second year. You can give a description of the first year and then in the next paragraph give some comparative details.

However, that is not the only way to approach it. You might also find it useful to break down the data by category if that is appropriate.

If there is a pie chart and a table, it might also be appropriate to deal with the pie chart in one paragraph and the table in another. It totally depends on the context.

You can read more about structuring task 1 essays here.

Sample Answers

Ok, now let’s explore further by looking at some sample band 9 answers.

Sample Answer #1 – online retail sales

There are two pie charts showing data about online shopping in Canada in two different years, 2005 and 2010. The data is divided between the various types of goods sold online, with four retail sectors represented, and there were some notable changes during the five-year period.

In 2005, electronics and appliances were the most commonly sold items, making up a third of Canadian online sales. Home furnishings came next with a quarter of the total, and this was followed by food and beverage and then video games, each with roughly a fifth of the total online sales.

By 2010, this had all changed. Food and beverages were now the highest selling items online, while electronics and appliances had slipped into second place, having dropped by five percent. Home furnishings had dropped from second to last place, and video games sales had increased so that they now made up 23% of all online shopping.

Notes

First of all, let’s point out that I have changed the formatting of the labels on this task. That’s really important! Many people just copy them into their essays, but actually one of the challenges of IELTS is changing labels or titles into proper grammar.

Next, notice that my introduction is in the present tenses and my body paragraphs use appropriate past tenses. This is because the first paragraph looks at the pie charts on the piece of paper in front of me whilst the next paragraphs examine the data that comes from the past.

How many numbers have I used here? Just one! I only say “23%” in the final line. Prior to that, I used phrases like “a third” and “second place.” This shows off my English rather than just repeating numbers, which tells the examiner nothing.

Sample Answer #2 – pie charts about education

These two pie charts give information about the highest levels of education attained by people in two different countries, with data drawn from people aged over twenty-one. In both nations, secondary school was the highest level of qualification achieved by the largest number of people.

In country A, 45% of people had secondary school as their highest level of education, compared to 35% in country B. Notably, both nations had exactly 30% of people giving vocational or technical school as their highest educational qualification. In this respect, the two countries were quite similar.

However, in country B, a quarter of the population had attended university, compared to just 5% in country A. Conversely, in country A it was much more likely that people had attended primary school as their highest level of education. In both nations, just 5% of the population had not gotten any form of education at all.

Notes

This essay uses more numbers but not too many. The grammar here is accurate but it is based upon an assumption that I have made – that the data is from the past. Of course, it could not be from the future and it is unlikely to reflect the present. However, you could theoretically describe this with the present simple tense.

Notice my structure: I have discussed both countries within each body paragraph. I did this in order to highlight differences more effectively. I thought that if I described one pie chart and then another, it would not be so obvious how they differed.

Sample Answer #3 – four pie charts about electricity

There are four pie charts that give information about the generation of electricity in France and Germany in the year 2009. One set of charts looks at the total generation of electricity, while the other looks at how renewable forms of energy were produced. The two countries had roughly similar amounts of renewable energy, but these came from totally different sources.

Almost six tenths of German electricity came from conventional thermal sources, with almost a quarter coming from nuclear power. In France, however, about three quarters came from nuclear power and just a tenth came from conventional thermal. Both countries had similar figures for renewable sources – 17.4% for Germany and 13.7% for France.

In terms of different renewable energy sources, Germany relied primarily upon biomass, with forty percent of its renewable energy from that source, compared to less than a tenth for France. More than eighty percent of French renewables came from hydropower, compared to less than a fifth in Germany. About a third of German renewable energy came from wind, while the figure was just a tenth in France, and both countries produced very little solar power.

Notes

Here we have four pie charts. It is important first of all to divide them into two different countries and then to understand that the pie charts on the right are subsets of the pie charts on the left. If you failed to realise this, your description would not be accurate.

Notice again that I have avoided an over reliance upon numbers by converting these into fractions like this: “Almost six tenths of German electricity…”

I have devoted one paragraph to the first set of pie charts (overall energy) and the next paragraph to the renewable section. This allows me to effectively compare and contrast the two countries.

Sample Answer #4 – tables and pie charts together

There is a table that gives the numbers of visitors to a museum before and after its renovation, as well as two pie charts that show details about visitor satisfaction. After refurbishment, the museum received many more visitors and they were much more satisfied with their visits.

In the year before the museum was renovated, there were 74,000 visitors, and in the year after that number soared to 92,000. Prior to this work being done, a half of all visitors were unhappy with the museum. According to the survey, forty percent of them were dissatisfied and a tenth were very dissatisfied. Only 45% seemed to have enjoyed their visit.

In the year following the museum’s refurbishment, visitors reported much more positive feelings towards their visits. The number of people who were unhappy with their museum visit dropped by a half, with those who were very dissatisfied falling to just 5% and only 15% of them now claiming to be dissatisfied. Three quarters of all visitors were at least satisfied.

In each survey, 5% of people gave no response.

Notes

This essay may look a little odd at first glance. The final paragraph is extremely short and normally I would advise against that, but in this instance it was fine because the data was relevant enough to include but not really connected to anything else, so it would have been strange within another paragraph. I also had to consider how to incorporate the data from the table, which certainly did not warrant a paragraph of its own. You can see that I slotted it into the second paragraph.

In order to describe this data effectively, I have combined some categories. The pie chart categorised people as “very satisfied” and “satisfied” but for the sake of simplicity I have put them together. This is ok as long as it is clear to your reader what you are doing. In this case, I achieved that by saying things like “Three quarters of all visitors were at least satisfied.”