Planning IELTS Writing: Task 2 (Discursive Essay)

Time: Between 30 and 50 minutes.

Materials Required: Two IELTS Writing Task 2 Questions (per student), One set of discussion questions (per group of 3 or 4), One set of cut up sentences (per group of 3 or 4).

Overview: A challenge for both General and Academic IELTS candidates, the Discursive Essay task can make a significant difference to a student’s pursuit of a high band. With its higher value and forty minute recommended duration, it requires focus, skill and, above all, a plan.

I always tell my students that being at a high level of English will only get you so far. A native-level user of English would have to enter this kind of timed writing with a strategy, and it need not be too complicated.

This lesson reinforces the importance of planning, being able to generate ideas and supporting statements, and structuring your work.

Suggested Procedure:

Here is how I approach the planning of an IELTS Writing Task 2 in the classroom:

(N.B. I am assuming a prior knowledge of the overall structure and basic facts surrounding IELTS from my students. I generally highlight the importance of working on Task 2 first and Task 1 second in the Writing paper during the early stages of a course, as well as repeatedly going over the details and facts that students need to know about the paper throughout an IELTS course).

Set the Scene:

Some pictures of various cities to be used as a visual prompt.

We begin with a quick warmer, forming a quick discussion in English on a particular topic that is common in IELTS. I have chosen ‘city life’ as a topic, and ask students to chat about what they like about different cities. Students can make a quick note to keep track of what they have discussed as a reference during whole-class feedback. I may also include a picture of the students’ home city, if there is one.

The shocker – off you go!!

I mention that we are today covering the second part of the Writing paper and we will continue with the theme of ‘city life’. After eliciting some basic facts about the paper (duration, type of writing, most valuable task, etc.) I ask students to get ready to write on a fresh sheet of their notebook.

Hand out the task, and state that you would like to see how the students do without any guidance. Let them write for exactly five minutes but do not tell the students that you are going to interrupt them after this time. Monitor, but do not assist or advise yet.

Our first Task 2 task.

Guided Discussion:

After five minutes, tell your students that they do not in fact have to write for another 35 minutes and that we are going to stop! (My students are usually quite relieved by this news!)

Put students in groups of three or four and announce that we are going to compare how they approached the first five minutes. To help, hand out some discussion questions as a prompt on a piece of paper:

  • Did you start writing the composition? How much did you write?
  • What did you plan? How much did you plan? How did you plan?
  • When the teacher stopped you, did you already know what you were going to write next? (paragraphs, ideas / arguments) Did you write this in a plan?

After a couple of minutes of discussion, you may find it useful for students to count the number of words they have written so far and note the number at the top of their pages.

Conduct whole-class feedback and perhaps note a couple of observations from the students on the board. I usually take a moment at this point to ask two questions and ask for a show of hands: 1) How many people wrote a plan in the first five minutes? and 2) Who thinks writing a plan is a good idea? My groups have raised just a few hands to the first question, but the second question gets nearly all hands up. Which begs the question: “So why do we not plan *every time*, guys?”

This is a good opportunity for students to voice their concerns, doubts or troubles regarding planning and starting an essay. Assure students that their issues will be covered today and you are going to suggest an approach that should be easy to use for everyone.

Some students state that they worry about time and managing their writing within the time limit. At this point I ask the students to share how many words they managed to write. In my experience, this can be anything from a low number (those who invested a number of minutes into a plan, although this is uncommon) to a figure as high as 80-100 words.

This may vary from country to country, but I have found an average of 50-60 words to be quite normal. Therefore, I raise the following issue: does it really take much time to put 250 words down on a piece of paper in forty minutes? Putting pen to paper and writing out an essay can turn out to be a surprisingly fast experience if one starts from the word go and produces something partially based on a stream of consciousness.

This is not, of course, an optimal approach. I mention to my students that although I am about to recommend a plan of how to approach the time limit of this task, students should use their timed practice and homework sessions to see what exactly works for them. If they have not timed themselves before, I recommend them trying out the following and adapting over repeated sessions.

Tell students: whatever you do, use your practice time to form a time plan that works for YOU.

I suggest splitting the forty minutes into eight five-minute segments. Allot the first five minutes to planning. Do all the thinking, idea generation, give your body paragraphs a topic, decide on your thesis statement etc etc. Get all of this done, edited and set out clearly in a plan within the first five minutes. Once task achievement, coherence and cohesion has been considered in depth, the student can now focus more clearly on grammatical and lexical variety and accuracy. This approach surely gives students a better chance of achieving a higher band as opposed to juggling all the requirements of an essay at the same time.

With any luck, the final five minutes can be set aside for editing and checking for mistakes, although student may prefer to do this on a paragraph-by-paragraph basis, checking for one minute at a time.

Again, I like to insist that my students make their own minds up, but base what they do on informed practice, finding out for themselves what works best and what doesn’t work in their own timed writing.

So what’s good? UP IS!!

Next, I like to introduce a short mnemonic. To begin with, we need students to remember one very important thing: we don’t like ‘down’! It’s bad. Very bad. But you know what’s good? ‘UP IS!’

Show the following information to the students on a board:

Students can take a second to guess what the blanked words are.

When students receive a brand new Task 2, I simply want my students to remember that UP IS good. Their plan should be shaped around these four simple letters, and we are now going to speculate what these letters mean. Give students a little time in pairs to guess what the blanked words could be, before revealing the following:


  1. First we must understand the task. We can ensure this by underlining the main points in the task, highlighting the important information that must not be left out.
  2. Next, what is our position? What will the thesis statement be? What will we say in our introduction to prepare our reader for what the body paragraphs are going to develop? Do I need to agree or disagree, or must I state to what extent I believe something?
  3. Now we need some ideas. What are the main ideas going to be? If I struggle to think of any, how will I attempt to generate some?
  4. Finally, how am I going to support my ideas with examples or reasons, as per the task? Which specific examples will I use? Which will be from my own experience?

This might be a good time to elicit what students would do, and perhaps make a couple of suggestions.

Brainstorms or lists? Take your pick!

You could now encourage students to generate ideas together in their groups. To spice it up a little, you could put students into two teams: the ‘for’ team and ‘against’ team and have them argue their points in a full-class debate, giving points for the best-supported ideas!

What next?

The lesson could go in a few different directions at this point. It would be logical to move into a productive stage of some kind here.

Give your students a new IELTS Writing Task 2. Students should then be instructed to plan for 5 minutes using the UPIS model previously suggested, and write two short ‘body’ paragraphs of about 50 words each for about 7 minutes. Each body paragraph should contain two main ideas. After, the students can then quickly compare what they have written and look at their partner’s paragraphs, possibly searching for and highlighting their main ideas and supporting statements. You could then set homework: students must write a full discursive essay at home on this task.

The lesson could also be rounded off with a small meta-cognitive task to check and confirm that the students are aware of the process needed to plan a discursive essay correctly. This can be done by cutting up a number of sentences and shuffling them. Students should then put these sentences into the order the process requires:

Ordering sentences – writing process

Understand the task – what is it asking you to do? What are the key ideas? What is the main topic? How many parts are there? Do I need to present arguments for and against?

Choose a position – what position are you going to take on the question?

Brainstorm ideas – what main ideas can you think of? What ideas will you use that go with your chosen position?

Supporting examples – what supporting examples / reasons will you use to support your main ideas?

Write the introduction to your essay, making your opinion on the topic clear to the reader.

Write the body paragraphs, including your main ideas and supporting statements.

Write a logical conclusion that summarises your arguments and your point of view.

Check your writing for mistakes. Ensure you have at least 250 words.

The first team to successfully put the sentences into the correct order could be the winner!

I hope this can be of help to some teachers who are looking for a way to give their students a clear approach to planning the essay. Let me know what you think and how it goes if you use it! I would always be happy to hear feedback.



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