IELTS Problem Solution Essay: tips, common mistakes, questions & essays

In this lesson we are going to look at how to answer an IELTS Problem Solution essay.

You will learn about this IELTS Writing Task 2 essay, using authentic IELTS essay questions, plus the most common mistakes. And I will finish with an IELTS model essay written by me in response to a sample IELTS essay question. So let’s get started!

Table of Contents

What Is Your Task?

In this IELTS question type, you are usually presented with a statement about a common problem that many people or societies face. Usually you will be asked to discuss 2 things:

  • the causes of the problem, or the problem itself
  • and some solutions to the problem

Sometimes you may be asked to discuss the effects of the problem.

So it’s really important to read the question carefully, so you know exactly what you should discuss!

Read this task:

Plastic bags, plastic bottles and plastic packaging are bad for the environment. 

What damage does plastic do to the environment? 

What can be done by governments and individuals to solve this problem? 

Cambridge IELTS 16 General Training Test 1

So in the task above, you are presented with a statement about a problem: “Plastic bags, plastic bottles and plastic packaging are bad for the environment. “

Next, you are asked a question related to the problem: What damage does plastic do to the environment?”. In this task the question is asking you about the effect of the problem.

Then, you are asked a question related to the solution: What can be done by governments and individuals to solve this problem?” In other words, you need to suggest some solutions.

These types of question can be worded in a variety of ways. Here are some common examples:

  • What problems are associated with this and what are some possible solutions?
  • What difficulties does this cause? What can we do to tackle this problem?
  • What do you think are the causes of these problems and what measures could be taken to solve them?
  • Why is this the case? What can be done about this problem?
As you can see, it’s really important to read the question carefully because the wording can vary a lot.

How To Plan An IELTS Problem Solution Essay

If you are aiming for a high band score (band 7 and above) it is absolutely vital that you plan your essay. A good plan will help you to see if you have answered the question, developed your ideas and organised them BEFORE you start writing.

We’re going to plan an essay using my 4 Step Planning Process.

4 Step Planning Process

Step 1: Understand The Task

First, you need to make sure you understand exactly what you need to write about. So you need to read the question carefully, not quickly!

Think about these three questions:

  • What is the topic about?
  • What is the topic NOT about?
  • How should you respond to the topic?
Let’s go back to this essay question, and answer those 3 questions:

Plastic bags, plastic bottles and plastic packaging are bad for the environment. 

What damage does plastic do to the environment? 

What can be done by governments and individuals to solve this problem? 

What is the topic about?

The topic is presented in the first sentence in the task, “plastic bags, plastic bottles and plastic packaging are bad for the environment.” So the topic is about the negative effects that plastic items (specifically bags, bottles and packaging) have on the natural world. 

Note that the first sentence is a factual statement, not an opinion. It states that plastic IS bad for the environment, not “some people think plastic is bad for the environment)

What is the topic NOT about?

  • The topic is not about pollution in general, only plastic pollution. So don’t discuss carbon emissions or petrol fumes. 
  • The topic also mentions only bags, bottles and packaging. So it’s probably best to avoid talking about objects made of plastic (e.g. toys…although I did this in one of my model essays! Hopefully I will get a kind examiner!)

How should you respond to the topic?

The two questions tell you how to respond to the topic. So make sure you answer these questions. Don’t discuss the advantages of plastic, or why you think plastic is NOT bad for the environment!

Step 2: Decide Your Position

Next, you need to decide your position. In other words, you need to decide what you think.

In a problems solutions IELTS essay, your position is simply your answers to the two questions

So in our example task, your position is your answers to these 2 questions:

  • What damage does plastic do to the environment?
  • What can be done by governments and individuals to solve this problem?

There aren’t questions with a factual answer, so they are really asking you for your opinion, ideally an opinion based on your own knowledge or experience.

Personally, I think that plastic damages the environment by harming wildlife, and because the plastic gets into the water supply system. What can governments and individuals do? I think governments need to tax plastic more heavily. And individuals can stop using plastic bags.

So what is YOUR position? What do YOU think? 

Step 3: Extend Your Ideas

When you decided your position, you may have started thinking about the reasons for your position, the reasons for your answer. In other words, WHY are you taking this view?

Giving reasons for your view is essential in an IELTS essay. In fact, all IELTS questions tell you to give reasons for your answer”. So in Step 3, you need to think about your reasons a little more.

However, just presenting your  reasons is not enough. You need to develop them.

The two best ways of developing your ideas is by:

  • giving explanations of what you mean
  • giving specific examples which illustrate what you mean

Together, these add more detail to your answer. 

You MUST do this to get Band 7. If you fail to develop your ideas in detail, your band score for Task Response may be limited to Band 6. 

Step 4: Structure Your Essay

The final step in the planning process is to structure your essay. This simply means deciding which main ideas to put in which paragraphs.

Here’s a simple structure for a problem / solution essay:

  • Paragraph 1: introduction
  • Paragraph 2: discuss 2 problems
  • Paragraph 3: discuss 2 solutions
  • Paragraph 4: summarise your ideas.

Here is an alternative structure:

  • Paragraph 1: introduction
  • Paragraph 2: discuss one problem and a solution to this problem
  • Paragraph 3: discuss one problem and a solution to this problem
  • Paragraph 4: summarise your ideas.

However, this structure is not always appropriate, so use it carefully! If your ideas are not closely related to the problem, it can cause problems with coherence. For example, one problem caused by global warming is melting icecaps; however, there is no direct solution to melting icecaps – the solution often lies a long way from the polar ice caps.

ielts-problem-solution-essay

How To Write Your IELTS Problem Solution Essay

Let’s go through how to write the different parts of the essay.

How To Write The Introduction To An IELTS Problem Solution Essay

In the introduction to an IELTS Problems Solutions essay, you need to do two things:

  1. briefly introduce the topic of the essay
  2. briefly say what you are going to write about

Introduce The Topic

You should begin with a background sentence which introduces your reader to the topic of the essay. The best way to do this is to paraphrase the topic statement.

How To Paraphrase

Think about the meaning of the topic statement, and briefly rewrite it using your own words. Try not to use the same grammatical structures as in the essay question, and try to move language around. In other words, be flexible. This is important if you are aiming for a Band 7 or higher. 

In the example essay question above, the topic statement said: 

“Plastic bags, plastic bottles and plastic packaging are bad for the environment.”

Here is one way of paraphrasing this:

“People are becoming increasingly concerned about the damaging effects of plastic on the environment.”

This sentence has the same general meaning as the original sentence, but uses different vocabulary and different grammatical structures. 

Say What You Are Going To Write About

In an IELTS Problems Solutions essay, it’s a good idea to briefly say what you are going to write about – in other words, say that you are going to answer the two questions.

In our example essay above, we need to answer two questions:

  • What damage does plastic do to the environment? 
  • What can be done by governments and individuals to solve this problem? 

So I could write:

This essay will examine the damage done to the environment by plastic, along with some possible solutions.

How To Write The Body Paragraphs

In an IELTS Problems Solutions essay, you need to present the problem (or the causes of the problem) and possible solutions in the body paragraphs.

There a couple of possible structures:

  • Body Paragraph 1: discuss the problems
  • Body Paragraph 2: discuss the solutions
or:
  • Body Paragraph 1: discuss one problem and its solution
  • Body Paragraph 2: discuss another problem and its solution
However, this second structure is not always appropriate. I would recommend only using the first structure.

Each body paragraph should contain:

  • A problem (or a solution) – your main idea
  • A more detailed explanation of the problem (or solution)
  • An example which illustrates this
  • You can also include a 2nd problem or (2nd solution) in the same paragraph.

This structure is what is meant by developing your ideas, and it is essential for a Band 7.

You can read more about developing your ideas here.

How To Write The Conclusion

In the conclusion to an IELTS Problem Solution essay, you need to do one thing:

  • summarise your main points
Do NOT write any new ideas in your conclusion. If you think of new ideas while writing your conclusion, forget them! It’s too late.

Common Mistakes in an IELTS Problem Solution Essay

These are the most common mistakes made by Test Takers when writing an IELTS Problem Solution essay:

  • presenting too many problems and solutions: you MUST develop ALL of your ideas to get a high band score, so it’s best to present 3 or 4 problems / solutions in total and explain them all
  • not answering the exact question. If the question asks you to discuss the CAUSES of the problem, make sure you discuss the causes, not the problem.  If the question asks you to discuss the EFFECTS of the problem, make sure you discuss the effects, not the problem. So read the question carefully! 
  • Writing an overly general statement about the topic in the introduction (e.g. “The Environment is a topic of hot debate.”)
  • Your main ideas are not explained and illustrated enough. You need to develop all of your ideas to get a band 7 and higher.
  • Writing an opinion in the conclusion: you usually only need to summarise your main points in the conclusion.
  • Using memorised phrases (e.g. “a hot topic”, “in a nutshell”, “quick fix”)
  • Using “research studies” as examples: examples should illustrate your ideas, not prove them. Read about how to use examples in IELTS essays.
  • Trying to use rare or “novel” language: examiners are looking for groups of words used naturally, not rare words.quick fix

Sample IELTS Problem Solution Essay Questions

Plastic bags, plastic bottles and plastic packaging are bad for the environment. What damage does plastic do to the environment? What can be done by governments and individuals to solve this problem? 

(Cambridge IELTS 16 General Training Test 1)

Nowadays many people complain that they have difficulties getting enough sleep. What problems can lack of sleep cause? What can be done about lack of sleep? 

(Cambridge IELTS 15 General Training Test 2)

In spite of the advances made in agriculture, many people around the world still 
go hungry. Why is this the case? What can be done about this problem? 
Many working people get little or no exercise either during the working day or in their free time, and have health problems as a result. Why do many working people not get enough exercise? What can be done about this problem? 

(Cambridge IELTS 13 General Training Test 2)

 

Model IELTS Problem Solution Essays

Here is an IELTS Problem Solution Essay that I wrote in response to this task:

In some countries the average weight of people is increasing and their levels of health and fitness are decreasing.

What do you think are the causes of these problems and what measures could be taken to solve them?

Cambridge IELTS 8 Test 4 (Academic)

Over the last few decades, rising obesity and a drop in people’s overall health and fitness have become a major concern in many countries, especially those in the developed world.

One of the main causes of increasing weight amongst the population is because so much food and drink contains large amounts of carbohydrates. Junk food, for example, tends to contain high quantities of cheap pasta and rice, while soft drinks often contain large amounts of sugar. If these carbohydrates are not burned up through exercise, they will simply be converted by the body into fat, leading to weight gain.

However, people are getting less exercise, which means that not only will they gain weight, they will also experience lower levels of health and fitness. One of the main reasons for this lack of exercise is our increasingly sedentary lifestyle. Whereas in the past, many people used to be engaged in manual labour such as factory work or farming, today they are more likely to be sat in an office hunched over a computer. Add to that the fact that people are more likely to commute to work by car, rather than walk or cycle, and we can see why people are getting fatter and less healthy.

There are some solutions to this problem that governments could provide, such as a sugar tax. In countries where this has been introduced, such as the U.K., this has led to drinks’ manufacturers reducing the amount of sugar in their products. I also feel that higher levels of tax on petrol might make car drivers think twice about whether they should really take the car out on the road. Ultimately, however, it is up to individuals to take more responsibility for their own health and fitness. They could make the effort to walk more and take the car less, and make better choices regarding their diet using information that is widely available on the Internet.

(321 words)

Read my full plan and comments for this essay.

Posted in IELTS Writing Task 2.

Charles Cornelius is a PGCE and CELTA-qualified teacher and former IELTS Examiner with 25 years' teaching experience all over the world. He has worked for some of the major English language schools including International House, IDP and The British Council. He holds a MA in Education from the University of Bath. His courses, for both English language learners and teachers, have been taken by over 70,000 students in over 160 countries around the world.

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