When you open your exam paper and see the instruction Discuss both views and give your own opinion, it’s obvious that you HAVE TO give equal space to both opinions in your essay to fully address all parts of the task.
But, what happens when the instruction asks you To what extent do you agree or disagree? Is it still important to discuss both “sides” of an argument, or are you free to have a “strong” position? And, if you do consider the other position, how and where can you do this in your essay so that your position remains clear? I mean, how can you show “balance” when arguing your own opinion?
Well, these are the complex questions I am going to be answering in today’s blog! (And don’t stop reading until you get to the end, because the good stuff is near the bottom!)
Can I have a strong position in an IELTS agree/disagree essay?
I’m going to get straight to the point and say
🤩🤩🤩 YES! 🤩🤩🤩
A strong position is when you either 100% agree with the statement, or 100% disagree. And it is absolutely fine to do this. The question To what extent do you agree or disagree literally means how much do you agree or disagree. So you can definitely respond by saying that you totally agree or totally disagree.
In fact, for most IELTS test-takers, having a STRONG position is absolutely the BEST thing to do. Why? well, because it will guarantee that you have a CLEAR position. And what do clear positions mean?
👉 A 7.0 for Task Response! 👈
If you have ever spent time in a university EAP classroom, then To what extent questions should remind you of Argumentative Essays – the essays where you present your opinion in the introduction, and then spend the rest of the essay defending it. And, the most common (but not the only) way to answer these questions is with a structure that looks like this:
Introduction: Introduce topic of essay + state opinion
BP1: Reason / Argument 1 for opinion
BP1: Reason / Argument 2 for option
Conclusion: Summarise arguments and restate opinion
Now, I am totally against giving students templates for essays, or sentences that can be used in any piece of writing – these never lead to high scores. But that’s not what this is! The method of presenting a strong argument in the introduction of an essay and defending it in the body has been accepted in universities around the world for decades. To say that there are no “types” of essays is clearly wrong – any good Academic Writing book is based on essays types, which each have their own expected style.
Ironically, learning this style is the first and easiest step in essay writing. What is much harder is learning how to write good topic sentences, or how to build logical arguments using complex sentences, or how to make sure your essay has unity and coherence. Thats why all of the time and energy wasted by IELTS test-takers on organisation is so sad for me. This time would be much better spent on LEARNING LANGUAGE SKILLS!
Anyway, back to giving balance. Maybe some of you are thinking right now
Shelly if we follow the plan above, we won’t consider any arguments for the other side in our essay? You are recommending that we give only ONE view of the argument. Is that enough for a 7.0?
Well, my response to that question, would be
👉 Where in the band descriptors does it say that you need to consider arguments for the other view? Where in the band descriptors does it say that a strong position will be penalised? 👈
In IELTS, there should be only ONE motivation for including something in your writing, and that’s if the band descriptors require you to do so. So, have a look at the Official IELTS Band Descriptors for Task Response, and tell me what stops me getting a 7.0 if I use strong position approach? Where does it say that I can’t 100% agree or disagree? 👀
The answer is nowhere! There is NOTHING in the band descriptors that says the candidate has to consider alternate opinions or positions OR has to provide balance. All the band descriptors ask you to do is
- address all parts of the task – the task asks to what extent you agree or disagree, and I clearly state that I 100% agree or disagree and give reasons why
- present a clear position – I 100% agree or 100% disagree! THAT IS THE CLEAREST POSSIBLE POSITION!
- expand and support that position with relevant, well-extended arguments – I think that this is the part of the essay people should focus on more! Having clear well-extended arguments that include a nice range of complex sentences!
Does this mean there is never a need to add balance?
So, we now know that it is definitely possible to achieve a 7.0 for Task Response using a strong position approach. However, in My IELTS Classroom, I try not to limit my students scores in any way. And, this means that even though a 7.0 for Task Response is good, I would like all of my students to have the chance of achieving an 8.0 or even a 9.0. And, if we look carefully at the 7.0 band descriptor again, it contains this phrase:
there may be a tendency to over-generalise
This means that an over-general essay can achieve a 7.0, but no higher. Now, in my first blog I gave some great techniques for avoiding over-generalising in sentences, but now I think that our WHOLE ESSAY could be considered over-general if we don’t consider ANY arguments for the other side.
And so to avoid being over-general, I do always teach my students to add some balance to their IELTS agree/disagree essays. Not much, but enough for the examiner to see that they did consider the alternative view. And to stay consistent with our strong position, I suggest my students add balance using two simple methods: The Straw Man Technique or Adding Acknowledgement.
Let’s look at each of these in turn to see how they work and how you can easily add them to your IELTS agree/disagree essays.
The Straw Man Technique
OK, let’s imagine that we are answering this IELTS question:
University education should be free for all students.
To what extent do you agree or disagree?
And, you decide that you are going to take a strong approach by 100% agreeing, so you sit down and write an introduction and first body paragraph like this:
In many countries today, obtaining a degree is becoming increasingly expensive. However, I strongly believe that all students should have free access to tertiary as it would benefit both individuals and society as a whole.
Firstly, a free higher education system ensures that all individuals have equal access to opportunities. If students have to pay tuition fees, those who come from low-income families will either be forced to take out massive loans to attend university, or not attend at all. As a result, there will be no opportunity for young people from poor families to climb the social ladder as jobs that require a degree are much more highly paid than those that don’t.
So far, so good. Your opinion is clearly stated in the introduction (100% agree), and in your first body paragraph you have given and clearly explained your first reason for having this view. Great 👍 You are on track for a 7.0.
But, you don’t want a 7.0, you want an 8.0, so you want to add balance to your paragraph. How are you going to do this? Remember, we don’t want to destroy the clarity of our opinion, but we do want to show the examiner that you considered the other view.
Well, the easiest way is to simply show the examiner a WEAK argument for the other side, and then immediately destroy it with an argument for YOUR position. This is the what we call the Straw Man Technique. This technique is wonderful because it does two things at the same time:
- When you present the weak argument for the other view you show the examiner that you considered the other position and, hence, your essay has balance
- When you destroy the argument, you show the examiner that your position is the most reasonable and, hence, you conclusions are well-drawn
A Straw Man sentence is usually always a CONTRAST sentence. First we present the other view, and then we destroy it with our opposite view
- While some argue that social media has led to people becoming more isolated, I would say that in fact it has actually helped strengthen the bonds between people.
- Although it could be argued that people wear similar clothes because they like to copy each other, I think that the truth is actually much simpler: there is only a limited range of fashion choices available in mainstream shops.
- Some argue that school uniforms remove the opportunity for children to show their uniqueness through fashion. However, I would counter this by saying that when children are dressed in the same clothes, it actually allows them to show their individuality in other more meaningful ways.
Can you see what we are doing here? We are giving an argument for the other view, and then immediately saying why we think it is wrong. This technique is so simple and yet so powerful!
But, where should you put this weak argument for the other side? Well, to make your paragraphs as logical as possible, the best place to put it is directly after the topic sentence. Remember, To What Extent essays are about OUR position, so we don’t want to start a paragraph talking about somebody else’s view! Let me show you by adding a sentence using the Straw Man Technique to our first body paragraph:
Firstly, a free higher education system ensures that all individuals have equal access to opportunities. Although some argue that it is not the government’s responsibility to educate students over the age of 18, I believe that it should do everything in its power to eradicate social inequality. If students have to pay tuition fees, those who come from low-income families are either forced to take out massive loans to attend university, or not attend at all. As a result, there will be no opportunity for young people from poor families to climb the social ladder, as jobs that require a degree are much more highly paid than those that don’t.
💥💥💥💥 BOOM 💥💥💥💥
And, that’s it. Now my paragraph has balance. All I had to do was add a contrast clause that first presented the opposite view, and then showed why I disagreed with it. And, by adding this one simple contrast sentence, I have now shown the examiner that I considered the other position 💁♂️. And so, ta-da, my essay is no longer over-general and the door to an 8.0 for Task Response opens again! 🚪
Now, some of you might be thinking: Wow, that’s great! But, if it’s good to add one weak argument for the other view, wouldn’t it be even better to discuss ALL of the possible ideas for the other side ? I mean, if adding one short clause is a good way to offer balance, wouldn’t having a whole paragraph that discusses the opposite view be even better? Well, to those people my response would be
⚡ WHY? ⚡
WHY do you want to add more arguments for the other view?
How does adding a paragraph of arguments for the other side help YOU to show YOUR OPINION?!⚡
Remember, that is what the question asked us: To what extent YOU agree or disagree! It didn’t ask you to consider what other people think, only what YOU think. I mean, nobody asked you what “other people” think, so why are you going to waste time discussing it in your essay? In the Straw Man technique, we only present an argument for the “other side” to make OUR opinion stronger – the focus is still very much on what WE think. I mean, essentially there is NO OTHER SIDE in these essays! There is only YOU and YOUR OPINON!
Imagine how you would feel if you asked a friend if they liked the last Star Wars film and they answered you like this:
Well, some people said that it has one of the best plots of the series. It is also argued that the effects are better than the other films. Advocates of this film also believe that …..💥 👊 💥👊
You would think your fried had gone crazy! I mean, why are they talking about “some people” when you asked them for THEIR opinion!!! You don’t care what other people think!!! This is how I feel when I start reading a To What Extent and in the first paragraph there is nothing but arguments for the other view! I think why are they telling me this? I want to know THEIR opinion not other people’s!!! For me, a paragraph like this does NOTHING to help you show your position.
In fact, even if you added your own comments or arguments against the “other side” in a paragraph like this, the focus of the paragraph would still be “other people” and not YOU.
Plus, there is a great danger that you are going to make the same arguments again in the next paragraph, when you finally get to expressing your own opinion (which is what you should be doing in a To What Extent essay!). The whole thing can become a mess very quickly. And rather than having a nice essay that argues strongly for one position and shows progression, you now have a muddled one.
Even worse, I worry that many examiners will look at an agree/disagree essay that starts in this way and think “Mmm, here is a student who uses the same fixed plan for every essay – introduction, ideas for the other side, ideas for my side, conclusion.” And this will almost certainly result in a low score ….. 😰
So, for these reasons I would strongly recommend you don’t devote an entire paragraph to arguments for the alternative view:
- It takes the focus away from YOU and YOUR opinion
- It can lead you to making repetitious arguments
- Unless you can argue skilfully, it looks like you have mistaken the question for a Discuss Both Sides essay (and even worse, learned only one essay “plan”)
Acknowledging or Conceding to the Other Side
OK, so in the Straw Man Technique, we present an argument for the other side that we DISAGREE with. But, what happens if you think that there actually are some good arguments for the other view?
Well, then we can simply show the examiner that we recognise and accept that there is a good argument against our position. Yes! It is absolutely acceptable to do this and still have a strong position! Let me show you to do this by adding some acknowledgement to the 2nd body paragraph of my education essay:
There are also benefits to society as a whole when education is free. Although I concede that the cost of providing free access to higher education would be extremely high, the money that governments would receive back in future taxes would more than outweigh this initial expense. It is obvious that the more educated a society is, the more productive and advanced it will be. Gaining a degree gives people the knowledge and skills to perform higher-level employment roles, especially in technical fields like science and engineering.
Can you see how this is different to the Straw Man Technique? This time I’m not saying the alternative view is wrong –
👉I am ACKNOWLEDGING or ACCEPTING or CONCEDING that it is CORRECT, but that it doesn’t change my strong opinion 👈
Acknowledging arguments is a very powerful tool for avoiding over-generalising. In fact, acknowledging that the other view has good arguments can be the start of writing an essay that DOESN’T HAVE have a strong position. You see, if you felt that there was such a good argument for the other side that you want to discuss in more detail in the essay, you could devote a whole paragraph to it.
But, if you do this, you have to change your opinion slightly and transition between paragraphs smoothly, and employ many other high-level writing skills that most students aspiring for a 7.0 simply don’t have!! That’s why I only teach balanced opinion essays to my most skilled students. And even then, I tell them not to use it in the exam unless they have to! 🙅♀️
I am not going to even try to describe how to write an essay that partly agrees or disagrees here. I have a whole 40 minute lesson devoted to this in my video course, and for some students it does give them the chance to really achieve the Band 8 and 9 scores. But, as a teacher who has helped thousands of students get through the IELTS exam, my advice is and always will be
Don’t make your essay more complicated than it needs to be!
Ok, there was a lot in this lesson, so let’s just do a short review of the main points that you need to take away:
- If you need a 7.0, have a strong position and argue for it – it’s simple, easy and it works.
- If you want a 7.5 or higher, then add some balance to your strong position by using the strawman technique or acknowledging the other view. You can do this in one of your paragraphs, or both.
- Don’t have a whole paragraph devoted to the “other view” – the only opinion the matters is a To What Extent essay is YOURS
- You can write an essay in which you partially agree or disagree, but I would only attempt this is you have guidance from a good teacher and understand how to show this view correctly throughout your essay.
Well, I hope that I managed to make my points clear today – this is a very complicated topic! In fact, there are more than 2 hours of lessons in my online course that teach how to give clear opinions and add balance – it’s hard to condense that into one blog post! If you still have questions, then please use the comment box below. I am always happy to help 👇👇
And, if you liked this post, then please head over to My IELTS Classroom – real lessons with a real teacher in a real classroom that bring real results! 🚀