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IELTS Writing skills: the paragraph

Published on September 5, 2019

Everyone knows about paragraphs, but not everyone knows how to write one. Do you know what a controlling idea is? Have you heard about supporting evidence? Why does a high IELTS rating require paragraphs that are cohesive, logical, and skillfully managed? All of these things are key parts to a well-written paragraph. If you want to improve your IELTS writing score, you’re going to have to write paragraphs like an expert. If it’s for work emails, for school assignments, or for IELTS tasks, here are five tips to help you ace* your paragraphing.

Tip 1 – Have a clear topic sentence

The most important sentence in a paragraph is the topic sentence. I’ll mention three things about this. First off, the topic sentence should be the first sentence in your paragraph. Some stylistic writers will play with this rule, but I would just focus on the standard practice. Next, the topic sentence should have two parts- a topic and a controlling idea. The topic is the main idea of your paragraph, while the controlling idea is the opinion or position of the topic. Let’s look at the example topic sentence: ‘Costa Rica is an environmental leader in ecotourism’. The topic is Costa Rica ecotourism, while the controlling idea is that this country is a leader in this field. Thirdly, all sentences that follow the topic sentence must be connected to it directly. So, each sentence you write should always connect back to the main point of the topic sentence.

Tip 2 – Avoiding the tangent

A simple definition for tangent is something that changes direction, or something that goes off course. As we mentioned in Tip 1, all sentences in a paragraph should always refer to the topic sentence. So, if you start going off-topic, or not connecting your ideas to the topic sentence, you are “on a tangent”. A good paragraph, which IELTS writing examiners are looking for, will never have tangential ideas. Let’s look at an example. Imagine my topic sentence is Winter sports in Canada require warm clothing. Now imagine, in my paragraph, I start writing about how summer clothing is fashionable in Canada. Summer and fashion are tangential ideas. They are not under the topic of winter sports and warm clothing. We shouldn’t be writing about them in this paragraph. Some more appropriate supporting sentences might include ski jackets; playing sports infreezing temperatures; and popular Canadian winter sports.

Tip 3 – Cohesive organization

To maximize your IELTS score for the writing, it is important to have paragraphs which are easy to read. An important element to help the reader is to use something called cohesive devices. Cohesive means to link or to connect things together. Some people like to think of cohesive devices as the glue that binds your paragraph. These devices guide and direct the reader. They help him/her predict and logically connect the ideas from sentence to sentence. If you have reviewed some IELTS preparation materials, cohesive devices are sometimes called ‘linking words/phrases’. A few common examples are firstly; however; whereas; in conclusion; furthermore; and in spite of. Have you practiced using cohesive devices in your writing?

Tip 4 – Under the thesis umbrella

We don’t have time to discuss essays in this blog, and we’ll stay on topic with paragraphs. However, I will mention the most important sentence in the Task 2 essay – The Thesis Sentence. The thesis sentence to the essay is akin** to the topic sentence in your paragraph. It clearly states the key topic(s) and direction of the essay. If you have studied basic essay structure, you should know that each of the body paragraphs are directly connected to the thesis. Let’s look at an example. Your thesis sentence is Australian sports fanatics are most fond of cricket, Aussie rules football, and rugby. In a standard essay then, your first body paragraph’s topic sentence would include cricket. The second main body paragraph would be about Aussie rules football. The final body paragraph would have a topic sentence including rugby. If you haven’t already done so, review some example essays and highlight this format.

Tip 5 – The concluding sentence

Conclusion sentences are the writer’s choice on the IELTS writing tasks, but there are a few exceptions. A conclusion sentence in a paragraph is different from a conclusion paragraph in an essay. A typical conclusion sentence is used to re-state the main idea of the paragraph. It can be re-stated by paraphrasing or summarizing the topic and/or main points of the paragraph. The basic rule is this. You don’t need a conclusion sentence in Task 1 Academic. This task asks for a summary report of a visual image and should be short and concise. Task 1 General probably doesn’t require conclusion sentences either. It too should be short and clear. Your body paragraphs in Task 2 essays are your choice. If you wish to emphasize an important point, you can include one.

On your journey to improving your writing, paragraphing is just one thing you need to master. With practice, paragraphing and your other writing skills will help you get the score you need. So remember, keep on topic and best of luck on test day!

*ace: to do something very well; to win
**akin: similar to; parallel with