How to teach students to brainstorm ideas for essays? Tips and life hacks

Brainstorming ideas for IELTS essays: how to help your students

Brainstorming ideas for IELTS essays: how to help your students


  • Writing
  • Tips & Strategies

In IELTS Writing Task 2, test takers are required to write an essay. It is quite a challenging task as it checks a variety of skills such as presenting an opinion, building arguments, analysing problems and suggesting solutions, etc. One of the serious problems learners very often face is a lack of ideas on the given topic. At the same time, writing appropriate arguments which align with the topic is important. This aspect of the essay is assessed by a criterion, called task response. It checks how fully the candidate addresses the parts of the task. 

In this article, we are going to suggest some practical ideas of how to help your learners plan IELTS essays.

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The stages of writing an essay

First of all, we would like to remind you of a suggested cycle of writing an essay. Of course, there can be different approaches to writing, depending on the learners' level of English and the degree of the developed skills. Here is the basic cycle which can be suitable for learners with little experience of writing. It can be used at the beginning of a preparation course.

The cycle includes the following stages:

  • task analysis
  • brainstorming the ideas for the essay
  • planning the structure of the essay
  • writing the essay
  • checking the writing and proofreading

As you can see, the first three stages are dedicated to planning the essay. Despite a time limit in the exam, we highly recommend that your learners do not skip these stages as careful planning can help them write a well-structured essay and address the task fully.

Checking learners' understanding of the task

Let's have a look at the first step of a writing cycle — analysing the task. Make sure your learners have a clear idea of what they should write about in the essay. We recommend drawing your learners' attention to the following aspects of the task: 

  • the topic of the essay, e.g. science, studying at university, etc.; 
  • the view or views given in the task; 
  • what exactly learners should do — suggest solutions, analyse advantages and disadvantages, etc.; 
  • if learners should express their own opinion.

You can create a comprehension check task with the questions or True and False statements about the task format.

For instance, the task is the following:

In some cultures the parents arrange marriage for their children but in others people choose their own marriage partner. 

What are the advantages and disadvantages of each system?

The questions for the task analysis may be as follows:

  1. What is the topic of the essay? (family life; marriage; relationships in the family) 
  2. Is there an opinion or view expressed in the task? (no)
  3. What does the task require you to do? (to analyse the advantages and disadvantages and disadvantages of 2 systems of marriage)
  4. Does the task require you to express your opinion? (no, the opinion is optional)

Brainstorming the ideas

Learners often complain that they do not know what to write about. Here are some recommendations that can help your learners. 

First of all, encourage them to brainstorm the ideas associated with the essay topic. At this point, ask the learners not to worry if the ideas are not closely related to the topic, let them come up with as many ideas as they can. It will help them develop this micro-skill. 

IELTS Essay Types and Structure

The second step is prioritising the ideas and selecting the most relevant ones which can help to address the task fully. Apart from that, encourage your learners to select the ideas they will be able to develop by using supporting details and examples. In other words, we suggest selecting the ideas your learners can write about. Advise them to choose 2 ideas for each main body paragraph and plan the supporting details: reasons, explanations, result, examples

Let's take the following essay task:

Air pollution is one of the largest problems the world is facing today. What are the some causes of air pollution and what measures can be proposed to solve this problem?

The topic of the essay is air pollution, and learners should analyse its causes and suggest possible solutions.

If we brainstorm the ideas, we may come up with such causes as: exhaust fumes from land transport, mainly cars; smoke from factories and plants; deforestation and lack of green areas to produce more oxygen for clean air; irresponsible waste management policy of some companies or even countries; forest fires. Then, we should choose 2 causes to describe them fully in the main body, e.g. exhaust fumes from factories and lack of green areas. Based on the causes, we can suggest some possible solutions

1) the problem of exhaust fumes from factories: installing purifying filters, changes in the legislation, including fines or financial reward for some green policies;

2) the problem of deforestation and a lack of green areas: planting sustainable forests, imposing fines for illegal logging.

Blank page anxiety

After your learners have analysed the task, brainstormed the ideas and planned the essay structure, it is time for them to write the essay. However, at this moment, learners may feel blank page anxiety — a kind of mental block which prevents a person from creating the best piece of writing. To help them overcome this difficulty, we suggest starting with familiarisation with the stages of writing an essay. 

Typical mistakes students make while writing an IELTS essay

Find out

Your learners are likely to feel more confident if they know what to start with and when they have some ideas for writing. Another useful tip that you can recommend is starting the essay with the main body rather than the introduction. Once they brainstorm the ideas for the main arguments, they can proceed to the main body paragraphs. 

We hope that these activities, tips and suggestions will be useful during your exam preparation lessons and will enable your learners to develop their writing skills.

Article authors & editors
  • Olena Bochkarova

    Olena Bochkarova


    DELTA, CELTA certified teacher of General & Business English, IELTS Prep, International Speaking Examiner



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