Generating ideas for unfamiliar topics

One of the most common problems my students face is generating ideas for unfamiliar topics. There are dozens of IELTS topics that testers need to be familiar with and brainstorming is oftentimes a challenge for non-native speakers. My first piece of advice is don’t panic, because this is a normal problem for most beginning IELTS students. Let’s explore some things to consider when you’re faced with a topic that you’re just not equipped to answer.

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I’d like to focus on Task 2 Writing and Part 3 Speaking first, as they are the most challenging question types that require the most complex, academic answers. These topics typically ask students to provide an opinion, make a comparison of some kind, or perhaps give a suggestion or recommendation. Many students encounter controversial social issues on these tasks, and if you’re not reading the news to stay up on current events and if you’re not actively building your topic-based vocabulary, this can become a big problem when it’s time to speak or write. So remember to always read the news!

If it’s time to begin writing (or speaking) and you simply cannot think of how to generate ideas, I always tell my students to start thinking about one of these four general categories to activate their thoughts: the Economy, the Environment, Education, and Technology. These four general categories are a great place to begin when you’re stuck, especially for any kind of problem/solution prompt. Almost every problem in the world is rooted in socio-economics, so the Economy is an excellent place to begin. If you are given questions about crime, criminals are typically either unemployed (economy) or uneducated (education). It’s a starting point to always consider.

Here’s an example Task 2 Writing topic:

Many people want their country to host an international sporting event. While some people believe that international sporting events create problems, others believe they can bring significant benefits.

Discuss both views and state your opinion.

Now you might not know anything about hosting international sporting events or sports in general, but that’s okay. You still probably understand that when any large event of any kind is held in a city, there will be thousands of local people and foreign visitors attending the event, right? Jobs are created for local people and local vendors and service providers benefit from tourism (Economy). Maybe there will be some cultural exchange that will take place as a result of the influx of foreign visitors (Education). Chances are the increase in traffic may lead to more pollution, or conversely, there are clean-up efforts if the host is a coastal city (Environment). Maybe there will even be improvements to infrastructure or new security innovations as a result of hosting (Technology).

The most important thing you can do is give yourself some time to generate ideas before you speak and write. The point is that even if you’re stuck or you cannot think of what to say you can always take a deep breath and think about some of the simple, general categories for brainstorming these higher-level questions: Economy, Education, Environment, and Technology.

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