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How To Understand and Analyse IELTS Writing Task 2 Questions

A key reason for low scores in IELTS Writing Task 2 is the failure to answer the question properly.

This can lose you several band scores.

Whilst your language skills may be good enough to earn you a Band 7 or 8, not fully answering the question could reduce your score to a Band 6 or even lower.


Students regularly make these 4 mistakes:

1) They don’t spend time carefully reading and analysing the question.

2) They fail to recognise the type of question being asked.

3) They don’t fully understand the question.

4) They write about the general topic rather than answering the specific question.


Points 2-4 are all a consequence of point 1 – not spending time carefully reading and analysing the question.

But why don’t students read IELTS Writing Task 2 questions properly?

The answer I nearly always get when I challenge students over this is that they don’t have time as they feel that they need to start writing straight away to get their essay done in the 40 minutes allowed.

To be blunt, you don’t have time not to carefully read and analyse the question. If you don’t, you probably won’t achieve the mark you need and will have to retake the exam.

The good news is, it’s quick and easy to analyse and understand task 2 questions once you know how.

You just need to identify 3 different types of words.

# 1 Topic words

# 2 Other keywords

# 3 Instruction words


Analysing IELTS Writing Task 2 Questions

So let’s look at a typical IELTS Writing Task 2 question.

Sample question

Students perform better in school when they are rewarded rather than punished.

To what extent do you agree or disagree?

Discuss both views and give your own opinion.

The format of IELTS Writing Task 2 questions is always the same:

  • You will be given a statement on a topic of general interest.

  • The statement will be a specific point of view, problem or argument related to the topic.

  • You will be asked to respond to that statement.


Now we’ll identify the 3 different types of words in our sample question.


1. Identify the topic words

The topics words are the ones that identify the general subject of the question.

Students perform better in school when they are rewarded rather than punished.

To what extent do you agree or disagree?

Discuss both views and give your own opinion.

So, this question is about ‘how students perform in school’.

Many people do this first step of the process and then write about the topic in general. This is a serious mistake and leads to low marks.

What we need to do now that we know the general topic, is to understand exactly what aspect of student performance we are being asked to write about.


2. Identify other keywords

The other keywords in the question tell you the specific topic you must write about. They define the opinion or opinions stated in the statement.

Students perform better in school when they are rewarded rather than punished.

To what extent do you agree or disagree?

Discuss both views and give your own opinion.

By highlighting these words, it’s easy to see that you are being asked your view on whether reward or punishment leads to better student performance. Your essay must only include ideas relevant to these keywords.

Now for the instructions on the type of essay you should write.


3. Identifying the instruction words

The instruction words tell you exactly what the examiner wants you to do. 25% of your marks are determined by how well you answer the question.

So, even if you have Band 8 language skills, you could drop down to a Band 6 overall score for failing to follow the instructions.

The instruction words are all the words that come after the question statement.

Students perform better in school when they are rewarded rather than punished.

To what extent do you agree or disagree?

Discuss both views and give your own opinion.

Our sample question is an ‘advantages and disadvantages’ question. It requires you to write about ideas related to both sides of the argument and to state your own opinion on the topic.

There are 5 different types of questions you could be asked for IELTS Writing Task 2. I go through these step-by-step on other pages, so won’t go into detail here. You'll find links to them at the bottom of this page under the title 'The 5 Task 2 Essay Types'.


That’s it. We have analysed the question and know what specific questions we need to answer in our essay.

Here are the 3 different types of words highlighted together.

Students perform better in school when they are rewarded rather than punished.

To what extent do you agree or disagree?

Discuss both views and give your own opinion.

This process should take you no more than 2 minutes in your exam. Make it the first thing you do. The more you practice it before your test, the quicker and easier it will become.

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