This post will clarify what I mean when I advise band 6.5 candidates to ‘discuss both sides’, and help you to understand when and where to write a counter-argument.
I often find my advice about ‘discussing both sides’ being misunderstood or misinterpreted. Some people mistakenly believe that when I say that ‘you must always discuss both sides of the question‘ that this means ‘ You must always give a counter-argument.’ This is not at all what I mean, especially as I know that the latter can be bad advice for people stuck at band 6.5 in writing.
In writing task 2, we can always talk about ‘two sides‘ of the question, but there are times when it is not a good idea to write a whole paragraph presenting a counter-argument. To understand this, let us begin by understanding the key terms we are using.
Understanding the terms
1 What is ‘a side’?
The word ‘side’ has several different meanings in English. The image below, from the Cambridge online dictionary, shows the two most relevant meanings here.
As you can see, the word ‘side’ does not always mean ‘opinion.’ It can be used to refer to ‘one opinion’ in an argument but it can also be used to mean ‘one part‘ of an issue. We can only understand the precise meaning of a word from the context it is being used in. So, only when I am talking about a question with two opinions, should you interpret ‘both sides’ to mean ‘both opinions.’
2 What is a ‘counter-argument’
To fully understand what a ‘counter-argument’ is we need to also understand the verb ‘to counter’:
So, a ‘counter-argument’ is an argument made ‘against’ an opinion. The main problems arise when this idea is mistakenly interpreted as:
‘I must always write a paragraph that argues against the opinion in the question.’
In my experience, this mistaken belief stops many people from reaching band 7 because they often alter the question or task in some way in order to force what they see as a ‘counter-argument’ into their answer, no matter what the question asks.
Consider this question from Cambridge test book 10:
‘Countries are becoming more and more similar because people are able to buy the same products everywhere in the world. Do you think this is a positive or a negative development?”
As you can see, there is no clear ‘opinion’ in the first statement, so candidates who mistakenly believe that they must always write a paragraph that gives a counter-argument will struggle here. Remember, you must be able to show ‘flexibility’ in your writing – this means reacting and responding to the very specific task you are given. The two ‘sides’ of this issue that need to be discussed are whether this is 1) a negative development or 2) a positive development.
Let us try to interpret this idea of ‘discussing both sides’ in the context of more essay questions.
What do you mean by ‘the different sides’ to a question?
Writing task 2 can take several different forms. There may be one view, or there may be two views on an issue. There may be extra information included in the question to give you a clear context for the issue you need to discuss (and to make sure you fully understand it). There may be a description of an issue or of a development. These prompts are followed by one or two questions such as ‘To What extent do you agree or disagree?’; ‘Discuss the advantages and disadvantages / problems and solutions etc.’; ‘Discuss both views and give your own opinion.’ ; Do you think this is a positive or a negative development?”
The Task response descriptor tells us that band 6 candidates ‘address all parts of the task although some parts may be more fully covered than others.’ This is not a problem at band 7. So, if you want to score band 7, you MUST cover all parts of the question equally. This is what I mean when I refer to ‘discussing both sides’ of the question. If you have read Chapter 7 of The Key to IELTS Success, you will know why so many people follow bad advice and ignore parts of the question altogether.
Your argument must represent a balanced discussion of the issue like this:
Not an unbalanced one like this:
This means that, if you are given two differing opinions and asked to ‘Discuss both views and give your own opinion,’ you must discuss both opinions equally. In this case, Side A = one argument and Side B = the counter-argument you are given.
Similarly, if you are asked to say whether an issue ‘has more benefits than problems’, then Side A = the benefits and Side B = the problems. If you are asked whether the topic ‘is a positive or a negative development’ then Side A = the positives and Side B = the negatives and so on.
The main problems seem to arise with questions where you are given one viewpoint and asked, ‘To what extent do you agree or disagree?’ The two ‘sides’ of a question like this will always depend on 1) the issue raised and 2) your own views on it. However, your language ability also plays a part in how you respond. Band 9 candidates (and the invisible band 10 writers I sometimes refer to) are capable of responding to these questions in a very subtle and skilful way, which creates problems for the candidates at band 6 and below who try to emulate it. For example, the higher level candidates are able to explain their complete agreement on an issue in a way that is not at all repetitive. At the end of their essay, they may also refer to a possible counter-argument, without discussing it in detail but also without making their position confusing or unclear. Examples like this can be found in Practice test book 10 on pages 162 and 166. Such examples are very difficult for candidates at band 6 and below to learn from.
So, how should I respond if I am band 6 and aiming for band 7?
This is my advice for candidates aiming for band 7: For questions where you are given one viewpoint and asked ‘To what extent do you agree or disagree?’ (or in GT, ‘Do you agree or disagree?’) I always give the advice to ‘discuss both sides.’ This helps band 6 candidates to avoid writing in a repetitive way. What these ‘2 sides’ are will depend on your views and the issue you are given. Often, there are two clear ‘sides’ within the question. Look at the following example:
“In many places, new homes are needed, but the only space available for building them is in the countryside. Some people believe it is more important to protect the countryside and not build new homes there. To what extent do you agree or disagree?”
There are 2 clear sides to this issue: Side A = building houses in the countryside Side B = protecting the countryside and not building there. In organising your answer this way you will ‘discuss both sides’ of the issue while also (hopefully) making your complete agreement or disagreement clear. You can also apply the same balanced discussion of the two ‘sides’ if you neither completely agree nor completely disagree.
The ‘two sides’ are less clear in a question like this:
‘Some people say that it is possible to tell a lot about a person’s culture and character from their choice of clothes. Do you agree or disagree?”
For a question like this, a band 8 or 9 candidate can easily argue that they completely agree (or completely disagree) and explain exactly why. For a band 6.5 candidate trying to reach band 7, this is not so easy; often they will simply repeat the same ideas in both body paragraphs and so remain stuck at band 6.5.
An easy way to see the ‘other side’ of an issue is to think of the opposite. In this case: Side A = You can tell a lot about a person from their clothes and Side B = You cannot tell a lot about a person from their clothes. This immediately gives you two clear main ideas for each body paragraph and helps to make your essay less repetitive.
In my experience, when band 6.5 candidates follow the advice to ‘always give a counter-argument,‘ they tend to interpret this in a very narrow way as Side A = I completely agree Side B = I completely disagree. This creates problems that keep them stuck at band 6.5. Instead, look for ‘the other side‘ of the issue or argument by considering the ‘opposite’ – this can help you to write in a way that is balanced but not repetitive and yet still make your position very clear throughout.
When should I write a counter-argument?
For me, a counter-argument is most appropriate in the following situations:
- When you are given a view that you completely disagree with. (Side A = the view in the question Side B = your counter-argument.)
- When you are given an argument and a counter-argument and asked to discuss them both (Side A = one argument, Side B = the counter-argument)
- When you are given one statement with one viewpoint that you completely agree with and…
- you feel confident that you can write only about your agreement without repeating your ideas, and
- you are a confident band 8 or 9 candidate and want to show that you have considered both sides, and
- you are confident that you have the language skills to mention a logical counter-argument without making your overall position unclear.
Learn more about different types of questions in The Official Cambridge Guide to IELTS
Learn about reaching band 7 in The Key to IELTS Success
Once you understand how to answer, you need to build the right language so that you can write confidently about any topic.
Learn the right vocabulary for bands 7 and above with my IELTS vocabulary books…