Describing graphs – proportions and trends

Describing graphs – proportion (static) and trend (dynamic) graphs

Describing graphs* are important for English language students at a range of different levels.  These are IELTS students (writing IELTS part 1 exams), pre-sessional/bridging students, even university/college students – all these students and more need language for describing graphs. 

*Quick note about the English language – do you know how many countries around the world speak English as an official language?  No?
Well – let’s take a second and have a look.  The following countries below speak English as an official language.
what's the difference between a chart and a graph - describing either
Inevitably, with so many different countries/people speaking a single language, there’ll be some variance.  And one of these points is where we talk about the difference between “graphs” and “charts”.  There are differences but where we are talking about things like these

because most of us come from NZ, the UK, and Australia – we will tend to call these “graphs” instead of charts.   Every other part of the language that we discuss today works exactly the same whether you call the above “graphs” or “charts”.    Sorry for any confusion this causes – we genuinely hope this is okay. 

Anyway, in our awesome Academic Language and Academic Writing courses, we look at how you can master these key academic skills.  If you want to master these key writing and language skills, click hit ‘start learning’ and get started mastering these key skills TODAY.

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In the meantime, let’s take a moment and look at what types of graphs you might need to write – starting with the difference between proportion/static graphs (like pie or bar graphs) and more trend/dynamic ones (i.e., line graphs).

Describing proportion graphs – pie and bar graphs

When describing pie and bar graphs we tend to be describing more static information such as proportions.  For example:

describing graphs - hot drink preferences

This graph shows a definite preference for coffee over other hot drinks at the HeadStart offices.  In describing this, we will tend to use vocabulary like:

A majority of HeadStart workers prefer coffee; or

Less HeadStart employees prefer green tea than coffee; or

The smallest amount of HeadStart staff prefer hot chocolate over other hot drinks*.

*Not that there’s anything wrong with hot chocolate – it’s awesome – just coffee is our happy juice.

So these are phrases that can be used for describing proportions – which tend to be innately a bit more static.  Another major kind of describing of graphs that will need doing is with trend language/more dynamic graphs – so let’s turn there now

Describing trend graphs – line graphs

So how about this graph?  This shows the average consumption levels of coffee over the course of a standard HeadStart day.

Well, some of us are healthier – others, less.

So can you use words like ‘majority’, ‘less’, and ‘the smallest’ here?  Not so much – after all, you’re talking about the same people doing a different thing over time, right?  So here we need to use a range of different vocabulary items – phrases like ‘increase’, ‘decrease’, and so on.  We’ll return to these in a minute but let’s just take a quick minute to focus on a major problem that students will have when describing graphs. 

Describing graphs - the problem with most students’ writing

Have you ever heard the saying ‘can’t see the woods for the trees’?  Roughly, it means this:

More literally, it refers to someone that has got so focussed on detail (i.e., the trees) that they can’t see the bigger picture (i.e., the woods – or forest made up of all these trees).  This happens a lot when students are doing graph descriptions (e.g., for IELTS). 

For example, take a look at the previous graph and think – how would you describe it? 

No seriously – how would you describe it?  When you’re ready to see our thoughts, scroll down…

Now we can almost guarantee that a large number of you would be saying things like the below. 

Coffee consumption increased from 7am to 8am, then fluctuated until 9.30 when it began began to increase for an hour.  From 10.30 until 11.30 it levelled off before increasing dramatically to a peak of nine coffees at 12pm.  After that it decreased steadily, reaching a low-point of two coffees at 2pm, before a fairly rapid increase in the next hour saw a lower peak of five coffees at 3pm.  Thereafter, it decreased steadily throughout the rest of the afternoon.


Now, strictly speaking, that’s not wrong wrong – but you’re focussing on details > the bigger picture (i.e., the trees rather than the wood).  Why is this a problem?

Describing graphs, IELTS, and you

Well, while we don’t talk about it when talking about who we are and where we’ve worked, we’ve been heavily involved in IELTS and other tests over the years – so we know what we’re talking about here.  But don’t just take this on trust – look at these IELTS descriptors – especially the Task Fulfilment section. 

Note how, at an IELTS 5, Task Fulfilment (a.k.a. the ideas) describes writing which “recounts detail mechanically with no clear overview”.  Contrast that with “presents a clear overview of main trends, differences or stages” (IELTS 7).  This is literally what we’re talking about with this:

A student who  does what we did here when we said

Coffee consumption increased from 7am to 8am, then fluctuated until 9.30 when it began began to increase for an hour. From 10.30 until 11.30 it levelled off before increasing dramatically to a peak of nine coffees at 12pm ...

is mechanically recounting detail – i.e., they are focussing on unimportant detail rather than the big picture.  They are doing this:

So what can I do to better describe graphs?

Great question.  And we would hope you already have something of an answer for this.  Go for large features and highlight the interesting stuff along the way.  For example, the above might be described as follows…

Coffee consumption at the HeadStart office shows a steadily increasing upward trend across the morning, peaking at nine coffees at 12pm before a dramatic fall which ended at a low of two coffees at 2pm. There was a brief recovery to a lower peak of five coffees at 3pm, then coffee consumption steadily decreased throughout the rest of the afternoon.

Cool?  Hopefully that clears up a few things about describing graphs for you.

Is that really the time?

Damn!  We had hoped to get a lot more done with this lesson but it appears we


Ahwell – if you’re interested in lessons on describing graphs from an Academic Vocabulary point of view – hit ‘start learning below’ or further down Academic Writing lessons (i.e., courses that focus more from the point of view of writing – complete with models, worked examples, practice, etc.).

Otherwise, that’s us for our HeadStart Guide on note taking methods  – we hope it’s been useful! As always, we’d love to hear from you if you have any questions or comments – write us a post below or follow us on Facebook.   Or, if you want to get more of these blog posts straight to your inbox – join our mailing list.  Or if you have a question or a topic that you’d like us to write a blog post (or even better – a full lesson) about – email us!  We read every email.

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