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In task 1 of the IELTS academic writing exam, you could be asked to describe a map. This is a tricky task that often surprises candidates who had mostly prepared to describe line graphs, bar charts, tables, or pie charts. However, in fact it is not much more difficult than the other types. It just requires some different skills and language.

In this article, I’m going to show you how to describe a map by explaining the purpose of this task and some features of language that could help you in your next IELTS academic test.

Describing Maps – The Reason for this Task

Before we look at the specifics of describing maps, we need to consider why you have to do this sort of thing for IELTS academic writing task 1. With any of the tasks you may be assigned (line graph, bar chart, process diagram, etc), you are simply being asked to describe some sort of visual representation of data in words. Each of them poses a unique challenge.

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Maps frighten a lot of IELTS candidates because they are so different from the other forms of data, but that’s not really important. In fact, every type of data requires different skills and language. People who try to describe bar charts with the same terms as line graphs invariably end up making big mistakes.

When it comes to maps, you are fundamentally required to do two things:

  • Describe the physical layout of a place.
  • Show how that layout changes over time.

These two skills require a range of linguistic features to be used accurately, but most importantly you need to be able to:

  • Use prepositions accurately.
  • Use verb tenses accurately.

Let’s look at these in more detail.

Describing Maps for IELTS Writing Task 1

In this part of the IELTS academic writing test, you need to be able to describe maps by showing the physical layout of a place in words. This means you need to have a good vocabulary and some basic grammar skills.

Describing a physical layout fundamentally means that you need to be able to show how one thing is related to another. In maps, we have to think about cardinal directions – that means north, south, east, and west. This is the first step in identifying location.

For example, we can say:

  • There is a field to the west of the small bridge.
  • To the north of the primary school, there are five houses and a church.
  • There are two shops just south of the bank.
  • On the west side of the hall, there is a table and three chairs.

Some people make the mistake of using left, right, up, and down, but these are not appropriate because they are relative terms that change depending on the vantage point.

Additionally, we must be able to use words that show the spatial relationship between places. These are mostly prepositions. It can be useful to learn common phrases showing such relationships because just a small number of these can help you to describe a vast array of scenarios. For example:

  • There is a restaurant across from the bakery.
  • Between the high school and the library, there is a large gym.
  • The farmhouse is opposite the bar and near the field.

All of these terms could be used for a great number of maps, so it’s worth learning this sort of practical language.

Language for Describing Change

Whilst you need to describe locations for IELTS academic writing task 1 maps, you also need to describe changes. That’s because, for most questions, there are actually two maps that you must describe. Sometimes it will be the past and the present and sometimes the present and the future.

You need to think carefully about this before you begin writing because the verb tenses that you pick will be different depending on the times shown on the maps. It is not good enough to just use present simple or past simple.

IELTS writing always requires a high degree of accuracy from candidates, and that means being able to reflect how things change over time. Let’s say we had a map from the past and another from the present. We would most likely need to use the present perfect tense:

  • The playground has been replaced by a new car park.
  • The supermarket has expanded to take up most of the neighbouring field.

Not that in the first sentence here I also used the passive voice. This is quite important because we don’t know who did the replacing. We use the passive tense when we do not have an agent of change.

Of course, these tenses would be quite different if there were two maps from the past:

  • The playground had been replaced by a new car park.
  • The supermarket had expanded to take up most of the neighbouring field.

Likewise, if there one of the maps is a plan for the future, then we need to use our language carefully to reflect this:

  • This playground will be replaced by a new car park.
  • The supermarket will expand to take up most of the neighbouring field.

Such careful use of verb tenses is utterly essential if you really want to score a band 7 or higher for IELTS academic writing.

Structure

Finally, let’s look at how we should structure IELTS academic writing task 1 essays. Whilst there is no single structure that you must adhere to, there are certainly some good ideas that you can follow. For example, you should definitely include a proper introduction. This should give an overview of the essay that you will write by briefly describing the maps. You should also highlight a key feature here.

For example:

  • There are two maps that show the changes expected to occur in a small town over the next fifty years. The biggest anticipated change is the addition of a cinema on the outskirts of town, where currently there is a disused farm building.

After this introduction, you should write your body paragraphs. Generally, it is a good idea to think for a while about how to divide the information into about two paragraphs. If you write more than that, your paragraphs will probably lack detail and if you write just one long body paragraph, it will probably be confusing.

For describing maps, it is usually best to give one paragraph over to the first map and another paragraph over to the second map. You can pour all the relevant details into the first paragraph, giving a vivid description of the location, and then for the next paragraph you can focus on describing the changes that have occurred.

Conclusion

If you follow all of this advice, you will have a good chance of getting a high score for your next IELTS academic writing test. Just remember that your purpose here is to give a good description of location and also to show how places can change over time. This requires mastery of language like prepositions and verb tense.

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