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Task Analysis

How to understand an essay task.

In order to complete an essay task satisfactorily, you need to understand exactly what the task requires. This means understanding each part of the task description (sometimes referred to as a prompt See the glossary definition ).
Most task descriptions contain the following three types of words:

  • Task Verbs: Words or phrases which tell you what to do (describe See the glossary definition, discuss See the glossary definition, explain See the glossary definition, outline See the glossary definition, compare See the glossary definition, evaluate See the glossary definition, etc). Task verbs are also know as instruction words or command words. This site has an extensive list of task verbs Go to the Task Verbs page and you should consult this in order to understand what each one means.
  • Content Words: Words or phrases which indicate what you are required to write about. They give you the subject matter or topic See the glossary definition of your essay.
  • Limiting Words: Words or phrases which qualify the content words in some way. They restrict what you should write about.

Often a description will start with one or two sentences which describe a particular issue. This is then followed by a further sentence (or two) which gives the actual direction about what you should write. For example:

In the next example the description and the direction both contain content and limiting words. Drag the bubbles across to show which words or phrases belong in the instruction, content or limiter categories.


Other Task Requirements

Looking for task words See the glossary definition, content words See the glossary definition and limiting words See the glossary definition in a task instruction gives you a clear idea of what is required, but there is more you can do to make sure you produce a good response. By reading a task instruction carefully you can often get an idea of the type of text pattern or patterns you will need to write. Once you have identified any task verbs, look for wh-words See the glossary definition: these can indicate both what you are required to write and what type of text pattern you need to include in your response. For example a "Why" question needs needs an answer with one or more reasons and this may mean you will be writing a cause and effect pattern. "In what ways ...?" may mean that you need to use classification. Sometimes task verbs are not present in the question. "What distinguishes ...?" or "What distinctions can be made ...?" means you need to compare and contrast, even though the verbs "compare" or "contrast" do not appear in the task description. "How" questions often require you to analyse facts or information but the task verb "analyse" may not be present.

There may be other requirements you need to be aware of. For example, the description may require you to write for a particular audience See the audience definition or your essay or report may need to be formatted in a particular way. Make sure that you check what these requirements are and that you abide by them.

If your task is examination-based, make sure that you abide by any required word count but don't waste time by writing much more than you need to.

Task Assessment

At some point your essay or report will be assessed. It is useful to be aware of how your assignment will be assessed. Usually, the marker or markers will use a rubric See the glossary definition and very often this will be made available to you. If it is, use it as a checklist before you submit your work. You should be aware that the rubric an examiner uses to grade your work closely matches the task description. This is why you need to perform a careful task analysis before you start writing.

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