Conquering Unfamiliar IELTS Writing Topics: A Teacher’s Guide 

 March 13, 2024

By  Jonathan

Are you worried about getting an unusual topic in your IELTS Writing exam? It’s a common fear! The IELTS exam can sometimes throw you a curveball. Don’t worry, though. With the right strategies, even the most unfamiliar topic can become a chance to show off your English skills. As an IELTS teacher with experience helping over 450 students achieve their goals, I’m going to share some tips and tricks I’ve learned along the way.

Understanding the Tasks

Before we dive into unfamiliar topics, let’s make sure you clearly understand the two IELTS Writing tasks:

    • Task 1: You’ll need to describe and analyze a diagram, graph, chart, or process.

    • Task 2: You’ll write an essay in response to a question or point of view.

It’s important to be comfortable with both task types to be fully prepared.

Breaking Down Unfamiliar Topics

Sometimes the topic itself might not be difficult, but the way it’s worded can be confusing. Here’s how to handle this:

    1. Identify Keywords: Underline the most important words in the topic that tell you what to focus on.

    1. Rephrase: Try to re-write the topic in your own, simpler words.

    1. Brainstorm: Spend a few minutes jotting down any ideas, related issues, or examples that the topic brings to mind.

Tackling the Unexpected

Here’s what to do when the topic truly leaves you stumped:

    • Don’t Panic: Anxiety will block your thinking. Take a deep breath and remind yourself you’re prepared.

    • Focus on Structure: Even if you don’t have much to say, demonstrating clear writing and good organization earns points.

    • Generalize: Try to connect the specific topic to a broader issue you do know something about.

Example: Let’s say your Task 2 topic is:

“The advantages of online learning outweigh the disadvantages.”

If you’re not familiar with online learning, you can still address broader themes of technology in education, accessibility, flexible learning, etc.

Practice Makes Perfect

The best way to overcome the fear of those oddball topics is practice! Here’s how:

    • Past Papers: Do practice tasks from past IELTS exams. You’ll quickly see patterns in the types of topics they use.

    • Time Yourself: Simulate exam pressure by giving yourself the official time limit to write.

    • Get Feedback: Ask a teacher or knowledgeable friend to review your writing and give you tips.

Anecdote Time

I once had a student who was incredibly nervous about her IELTS exam. She panicked when she saw her Writing Task 2 topic, which was about the role of zoos in modern society. However, we had practiced broadening topics, and she realized she could write about conservation, animal welfare, and education – issues she had strong opinions on. She ended up doing very well!

Extra Tip – Build Your Vocabulary

The more words you know, the easier it is to handle different topics. Here’s how to boost your vocabulary:

StrategyHow it works
Read WidelyArticles, novels, whatever interests you!
Keep a NotebookJot down new words and their meanings
Use a DictionaryLook up unfamiliar words while reading

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Statistic Did you know that around 40% of IELTS candidates report difficulty with unfamiliar topics? You’re not alone!

Remember – You Can Do This!

Unfamiliar topics might feel tricky, but with strategy and practice, you can tackle them confidently. Keep a clear head, focus on your writing skills, and you’ll show the examiner what you’re capable of!

Jonathan has been teaching students to prepare for the IELTS and PTE Exams for more than 10+ years. He's taught English to students in various countries in the world including Singapore, China, Australia, Canada and Colombia.