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IELTS Teacher e-newsletter – June 2019

Is it necessary to teach data analysis for academic writing task 1?

One concern for teachers and curriculum designers preparing instructional materials for IELTS academic writing task 1 is that interpreting and analyzing the numerical data presented in task 1 prompts extends beyond the construct of writing as it is typically conceived. If these are not features of the candidate’s English literacy that the task asks them to demonstrate, how much, if any, instruction on graph interpretation and data analysis should be provided when preparing future IELTS test takers?

Yu, He and Isaacs (2017) indicate that such instruction is unnecessary, as little correlation was found between a candidate’s assessed writing ability and the amount of cognitive effort spent interpreting and analyzing the task prompt.

Literacy, graphicacy, numeracy

The argumentation and evaluation called for in writing task 2 are contained within literacy, but making use of the graphs, charts, and tables of data found in task 1 prompts requires graphicacy, a separate cognitive ability which the authors define as “proficiency in understanding quantitative phenomena that are presented in a graphical way” (Yu, He & Isaacs, 2017, p.12).

Numeracy, the ability to understand and manipulate numerical data, is yet another distinct cognitive ability used in task 1, particularly in the higher levels of the task achievement band descriptors which require that the completed task “presents, highlights and illustrates key features.” Because prompts frequently present numerical data across multiple dimensions, and often use a second or even third chart, some amount of calculation and analysis is necessary to notice those key features.

IELTS was designed to isolate and assess a candidate’s literacy, so some method of measuring the effort spent on graphical and numerical cognition is necessary to see how successful that design is, this study used eye-tracking to monitor which portion of the task prompt the candidates looked at, operating under the basic principle that the longer candidates looked at something, the more cognitive effort they spent on it.


Though their performance varied widely from band 3 to band 6.5, the candidates who participated in the study (34 graduate and undergraduate students from Zhejiang University) exhibited similar patterns of eye-movement while completing the writing task, spending on average only 20% of their time looking at the graphs.

The fact that no correlation was found between eye-movement and writing ability, however, does not mean that the candidates considered all types of graphs equally difficult:

“The line graph, pie chart and bar graph were considered easier [...] than the statistical table because the key messages in the former three types were more readily identifiable and usable than the information in a statistical table” (Yu, He & Isaacs, 2017, p.78).

The candidates shared differing opinions on the amount of data provided in the task prompt. Many told researchers that they preferred prompts with lots of data as they felt they gave them more to write about, but others found larger amounts of data difficult because they had to decide which information was most important and they had to understand the relationships between graphs in multi-graph prompts.

In Practice

Most IELTS preparation materials do not include instruction on mathematics and data analysis. The results of this study provide adequate justification for the continued exclusion of such instruction.

Moreover, the results also support some the inclusion of other types of instruction:

●Terms used to refer to graph features (row, column, axis, point, etc.) and numerical relationships (percentage, proportion, average, etc.) should be introduced to IELTS writing prep courses. Lexical knowledge of these words remains part of a candidate’s literacy, even if the concepts they refer to fall within the domain of graphicacy or numeracy.
●Instruction can illustrate how lexical knowledge affects graphicacy. Some of the difficulty understanding how data in one chart relates to data in another can be resolved through lexical knowledge: e.g., if one chart contains data about France, Japan, and Egypt and another contains data about Europe, Asia, and Africa, lexical knowledge shows how the items in the first chart belong to the sets in the second. Such illustrations further emphasize the value of lexis.
●Instruction should introduce strategies for quickly locating key features; e.g., look for the largest and smallest numbers, look for rapid changes, look for outliers. The candidates’ preference for large amounts of data is usually misguided as it often results in lower task achievement bands. Note task achievement band 5’s references to “[recounting] detail mechanically” and “a tendency to focus on detail.”

The study confirms that you don’t need a degree in mathematics to prepare candidates for task 1. Task 1 is still fundamentally a writing task and writing is where the emphasis in your instruction should be placed.

Yu, G., He, L., & Isaacs, T. (2017). The Cognitive Processes of Taking IELTS Academic Writing Task 1: An eye-tracking study. IELTS Research Reports Online Series. (Available here)

By Eyad Dyas



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