An examination of cultural bias in IELTS Task 1 non-process writing prompts: a UAE perspective

Hilda Freimuth


This study analyzed 24 IELTS Task One (data explanation) prompts for task type, diagram type, subject matter, level of critical thought, and geographical references, in order to determine whether Emirati university students’ anecdotal claims of cultural bias on the IELTS academic writing exam (as experienced by the researcher in the past decade of teaching IELTS in the United Arab Emirates) are valid. The analysis found that the majority of the task types (88%) were non-process in nature (i.e. required the description of data in the form of a chart or graph, rather than the description of a process); 40% of the non-process prompts consisted of more than one diagram. The analysis revealed that 33% of the non-process prompts included bar graphs and 29% included line graphs. Pie charts appeared in 25% of the prompts and tables in only 17%. An Emirati student English preparatory program survey indicated the pie chart as the easiest to understand – a finding that may highlight a difference between the most commonly used IELTS prompt and the students’ prompt preference. A content analysis of topics found a high percentage (58%) of subject matter related to the social sciences, with 79% of the geographical references pertaining to Western contexts. An analysis of the amount of critical thought needed for graph interpretation revealed 52% of non-process prompts required some form of critical thought. The study therefore found that the cultural bias perceived by Emirati students has some validity, given the students’ socio-cultural and educational background.


IELTS, assessment, cultural bias, writing

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