Principled Washback – Critical Thinking, Infographics, and IELTS Task 1

(This post is the first in a series of several posts on “principled washback” which I introduced here.)

IELTS Task 1 is all about data analysis: bar graphs, pie charts, tables, and other visual representations of information. Understanding these types of data is important – we are exposed to a lot of visual information, especially on the internet, and we need to make sense of it. Furthermore, being able to understand and analyze/interpret this data requires a special kind of literacy separate from traditional literacy. It can’t be assumed that our students could just pick up this visual literacy no more than it could be assumed they could pick up any other type of reading. However, I have not seen much visual information in student coursebooks* or course materials (EFL, ESL, or EAP) despite the fact that visual information is so very common.

Therefore, it makes sense for students to get more practice with visual information presented in English. This will help them both on the IELTS and, more importantly, in their academic careers. In addition, teaching visual literacy is a natural extension of teaching critical thinking, as interpreting visual data requires many critical thinking skills.

Teaching visual literacy is relatively simple. It is easy to find interesting graphs and charts that can be tied in to any unit or topic being covered. However, this type of information is a bit old fashioned. What is more common now, and more interesting, are infographics. Infographics typically contain traditional pie charts and bar graphs, but they are embedded in a far more exciting medium that contains both rich visual and textual information. Inforgraphics are also usually longer and more informative. While they will not be found in many academic textbooks or journal articles, they will be found more on the web. Understanding traditional charts or infographics require the same skill sets.

In this blog post, I will discuss the different types of skills students must have in order to become visually literate. Then, I will show examples of how one can integrate visual data into speaking and writing activities while preparing students for IELTS Task 1.

One of the infographics I used most recently to extend a unit on “strange phenomena” was this one:infographic_ufos_2012

(full infographic here)

Skill 1: Understanding the data

At the most basic level, students need to understand the raw facts of the visual data. They need to find and understand the topic of the chart, which is usually explicitly defined in the title. They need to understand the basic purpose of the chart type. For example, they should understand that bar graphs show amounts, line charts usually show changes over, and pie charts show relative percentages. If there is data on x and y axes, students need to understand how these axes interact in terms of the data presented.

Luckily, they will probably have had some experience reading these charts in their native language. If not, teaching them to understand the charts is relatively easy and usually only requires some new vocabulary or basic explanation.

Chart 1
Topic: How many Americans believe in UFOs (in 2012)
Chart: pie chart

Chart 2
Topic: Number of UFO sightings reported
Chart: bar graph
X-axis: years
Y-axis: number of reportings

Skill 2: Analyzing the data

This skill is a bit more demanding. It requires students to look for relationships among the data and not at the data in isolation. Analyzing data requires students to compare and contrast and spot overall trends and patterns. They need to see increases, decreases, unvariedness. repetition, divergence, etc. There might be numerous different comparisons to make, but it is important for students to be able to pick out the overall or most common trend.

Chart 2
Major trend: UFO sightings have rapidly increased since 2005.
Minor trends: The last few years have seen extremely high numbers of UFO reportings (compared to the year 2000). There was a small decline in reportings in 2010 and 2011. UFO reportings seem to increase each year for four or five years, followed by a short year or two of decreased reportings.

Skill 3: Evaluate and synthesize the data

This skill is the most difficult but also arguably the most interesting. While it is a skill that is required for any analysis of data, academic or otherwise, it is not a skill that is required on the IELTS. Evaluation and synthesis require students to try to find some explanation for the trends in the data. What makes this more difficult is that there are usually no set or clear answers. What students must do is look at the data and try to discern what other events (historical, social, political, economic, technological) could account for increases, decreases, and other patterns. This work may require synthesizing what they have learned in other courses and through their life experiences, or it may require building background knowledge through research and discussion.

Chart 2

  • Possible Explanation 1: UFO reportings began to rise steadily in the year 2005. The internet had become ubiquitous by then, and mobile technology was becoming more prevalent. Increased access to technology likely led to easier ability to either report more UFOs or easier ability to command an audience for UFO sightings.
  • Possible Explanation 2: With an economic downturn in the US economy and perpetual war in Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans needed a distraction, or perhaps gazed more serenely at the stars, hoping for answers finding instead UFOs.

Explanations can get more interesting than this if you want to push your learners to be more creative.

  • In 2010 and 2011, there was an marked decrease in UFO sightings. This is likely due to the cancellation of the show Heroes. With no more mystical powers emanating from eclipses, Americans had little reason to look up at the stars.
  • Americans made the largest amount of reportings in 2012, bouncing back from the Great 2010-2011 UFO Lull. This is likely due to 2012 marking the year the world was supposed to end. With apocalyptic anxiety taking over the nation, any star or weather balloon likely registered as a UFO and people were more than happy to make reportings if it may stave off The End for a while longer.

Skill 4: Language skills

There are two important language skills students need for any written or spoken understanding, analysis, evaluation, and synthesis of data: summarizing skills and academic vocabulary. Students need to be able to summarize (and paraphrase) the main idea of the charts, discuss the major trends, and summarize key data that supports those trends.

This will require certain academic vocabulary:

  • Adverbial connectors: overall, however, therefore, likewise, similarly, conversely, on the other hand
  • Subordinating conjunctions: while, though, although, even though
  • Word families: increase, decrease, rise, fall, decline, climb, trend, pattern
  • Adjectives: sharp, marked, rapid, significant, drastic, approximately

This is just a sampling of academic vocabulary needed to discuss visual data. As you can see, it is data that can and must be used in a number of different genres and is therefore useful to teach or reinforce through visual literacy.


I prefer infographics to more standard charts because they are more interesting, more visually satisfying, and are actually more complex – requiring greater cognitive effort to not only understand the individual data presentations but the infographic as a whole. Bearing in mind the three types of skills that must be taught and activated, infographics are quite easy to integrate into class and course work.

  • Writing – This is the most obvious integration, especially if you are going to give your students specific IELTS practice. IELTS Task 1 is pretty simple in terms of structure, especially at only 150 words. It basically uses the first two skills above plus summarizing skills. This means it also serves as a good tool for practicing summarizing, an important skill in EAP. The brevity of the task/summary also makes it ideal for an “easy” homework assignment that entails only brief feedback and 1 or two drafts. Going beyond Task 1, students can also work to include charts or chart analysis in their other writing assignments, summarizing these sources to make claims or support arguments.
  • Anchors – Infographics can be used to anchor units or topics, serving as starting points that can activate or build background knowledge and generate discussions that can lead into numerous areas of language work. Basically, they make good warm ups. They also serve as a great way to front load critical thinking when beginning a new topic. By starting the critical thinking process off early, it is more likely that momentum will be carried through.
  • Extensions – Conversely, they can be used to extend units and topics, rounding out  lessons with writing or discussion.
  • Projects – Students can utilize charts and chart analysis for presentations and other similar projects. Taking this idea one step further, students can actually do their own research (collecting their own data or finding data on the web) and make their own infographics with sites like Piktochart, Infogram, or just using PowerPoint


I tried to show how using infographics (and charts) is part of visual literacy, which is an important and universal skill we constantly employ. It requires the teaching or activation of important key skills, including critical thinking. It is easy to integrate into course work and serves as a useful tool for both general EAP as well as IELTS test preparation.

So, have you used infographics or data charts in your teaching? I’d love to hear the hows and whys and pick up some new ideas on their usage. Please let me know in the comments!

Here is another great IELTS Task 1 idea from TEFLGeek!


*I have seen data as part of warm-ups in Q: Speaking and Listening as well as part of every unit in Well Read 3.