When doing my IELTS writing correction service, I often have to tell my students that their language for task 1 is too vague. This is actually a very big problem that can have a serious impact on your score. In this article, I will explain what I mean by “vague language” and then show you how to write much better reports by being more specific.
What is Vague Language?
Essentially, vague language is language that is not specific. In task 2, that would mean using words like “stuff” and “things” rather than a more specific term. (Here are some more vague terms.) However, in task 1 it tends to be the use of memorised expressions that are not really appropriate.
Let’s look at some examples to understand better.
Look at this bar chart:
One of my students recently wrote this:
Starting with Adelaide, the highest proportion was in the second option with exactly 50%.
Imagine that you could not see the above bar chart. Would you be able to understand this sentence? No! It has no meaning. What is “the highest proportion”? What is “the second option”? And what does “50%” refer to?
Unfortunately, many IELTS students learn phrases like this that they think can be applied to any chart, table, graph, or other form of data. However, unless you tailor your description to the exact data given, it will likely not be good enough to convey meaning.
I would re-write the above sentence as:
In Adelaide, exactly 50% of people said that they had bought coffee in the last four weeks.
This tells the reader something specific. The meaning of “50%” is clear and unmistakable. In the student’s description, there was literally no meaning.
Here is another example:
In contrast, the lowest percentage was in the first option with just below 35%.
Again, there is no meaning. A reader would struggle to understand this even after looking at the bar chart.
Instead, I would have written:
In contrast, only about a third of people in Adelaide had bought fresh coffee during that period.
Notice how I have been specific in terms of meaning. I have given a fraction and then told the reader what that fraction means.
Here is one last example from that bar chart:
By contrast, purchasing fresh coffee in Brisbane ranked lowest with the percentage of around 35%.
The student was trying to explain that, of all the data points in this bar chart, the lowest one was for the people in Brisbane who had bought fresh coffee. However, that is really difficult to tell from his sentence. The problem is that “ranked lowest” has no meaning unless it is explained. We should instead say:
By contrast, purchasing fresh coffee in Brisbane was the least common survey answer with a percentage of around 35%.
Now it makes more sense. By adding “the least common survey answer,” we have actually explained what was significant about fresh coffee in Brisbane.
How to be more specific
In the previous section, you may have noticed that the student used some phrases that seem quite descriptive:
- the highest proportion
- exactly 50%
- the lowest percentage
- just below 35%
- ranked lowest
However, using memorised phrases does not help you if you cannot say what those phrases mean. You need to qualify each statement by pointing to a precise meaning. It is not enough to say “This city has the highest proportion.” We need to say “the highest proportion of (something).”
In other words, you need to be more specific. You need to make your reader aware of what you are describing.
Here is another task 1 data set. It is a table:
Almost everyone makes the same mistake in describing this table because they fail to tell the reader that the percentages given refer to consumer expenditure. They just write things like “Ireland spends almost 30% on food.” This has no meaning unless you say “30% of its consumer expenditure.”
One of my students wrote this:
In terms of food, drink, and tobacco, Turkey spent 32.14% on this, which stood first of all five nations and was roughly doubled than of Italy (16.36%).
This actually doesn’t tell the reader anything. There are specific numbers… but without explanation, those numbers mean nothing! I would rewrite this sentence as:
In terms of food, drink, and tobacco, Turkey spent 32.14% of its consumer expenditure on this, which was the most of all five nations and was roughly double that of Italy (16.36%).
Actually, it could be improved further by making it simpler:
Turkey spent about a third of its consumer expenditure on food, drink, and tobacco, which was more than any other country listed and about double that of Italy.
The point here is that my description is now precise and it would be easy for someone to understand. The most important addition was the explanation of the numbers, but by removing extraneous information I have improved it further.
Here is one more example from that table:
With the respect to leisure and education, the most is Turkey, and it constituted 4.35%, which was over the double of the least, Spain (1.98%). Moreover, the second is Sweden (3.22%), followed by Italy (3.20%).
Again, there is no meaning to this! You can see that the numbers are not explained. To say “the most is Turkey” tells the reader nothing, the same as “it constituted 4.35%.” Your reader would be left asking, “4.35% of what!?”
This could be improved with the following changes:
With the respect to leisure and education, Turkey was the highest, with 4.35% of its national consumer expenditure going on this area, which was more than double the least, Spain (1.98%). The second was Sweden (3.22%), followed by Italy (3.20%).
Of course, this is still not perfect. We could better explain it by saying:
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.
Remember that you don’t have to include every number. It often just confuses matters rather than making them clearer.
When you are writing your IELTS task 1 report, imagine that the reader cannot see the chart or table. Could they visualise it from your description? That is what you should aim for. I know it is difficult, but you need descriptive and straightforward language.
It is not enough to use memorised words and phrases. These are fine but only when they are contextualised by specific information. It is fine also to use numbers, but you need to say what those numbers mean.
Also, keep in mind that even seemingly specific language can be vague if it is not explained. As we saw above, specific terms like “the most” have little meaning unless the reader knows what they apply to. So try to explain everything that you say clearly.
Finally, you don’t need to take this to extremes and be very repetitive. With the above example, I would not keep telling the reader that every number was a proportion of consumer expenditure. Instead, I would mention it occasionally, so that the numbers in between those mentions had a clear meaning.
Here’s a video about avoiding repetition:
For reference, here are the full sample band 9 answers I would give to the above tasks. In each case, you can see how I have made it clear what every number and statement means.
The bar chart presents information about people in five Australian cities and when they purchased tea or coffee. More people reported having purchased instant coffee than fresh coffee in all five cities, and more than half of people in all but one city went to a café in the four weeks prior to the survey.
In all five cities, people were more likely to have purchased instant coffee than fresh coffee. The difference was more significant in Brisbane, Adelaide, and Hobart, but in Sydney and Melbourne it was smaller. In Sydney, for example, forty-five percent of people purchased instant coffee in the previous four weeks but about forty-three percent of people said that they had purchased fresh coffee.
In four of the five cities, more than half of people surveyed said that they had been to a café for tea or coffee in the previous four weeks, but in Adelaide this was just below fifty percent. Melbourne had the largest percentage of people say they did this, but it was only slightly ahead of Sydney and Hobart. Brisbane lagged behind at about fifty-six percent.
The table shows details about how money was spent by consumers in five countries in 2002. It considers the percentage of national consumer spending which went on three different areas: food, drinks, and tobacco; clothing and footwear; and leisure and education.
In all countries, the amount of money spent on each category followed more or less the same pattern. The highest amount was spent on food, drinks, and tobacco, followed by clothing and footwear, and finally the least amount of money was spent on leisure and education.
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.