21 Tips for IELTS Reading

1.Don’t expect to understand every word

  • Many of my students have been taught to look up every word in a dictionary they don’t understand in a dictionary. The theory behind this is good, a wide vocabulary is key to getting a good score in the IELTS test, but worrying about all the words you don’t understand in the reading exam is one of the worst things you can do.
  • If you don’t understand a word in the reading test there are two things you can do. You can look at the words and sentences around it for clues as to its meaning or you can move on and forget about it. You don’t have to understand the meaning of every word. Even native speakers- and many IELTS teachers- would not be able to understand all the words in the reading test.
  • Candidates who worry about the meaning of every word, panic and spend too much time thinking about words that might not be related to the question. Focus on the words that are related to the question and don’t worry about the words you don’t understand.

2.Practice your reading skills NOT your IELTS skills

  • It is important to familiarise yourself with the IELTS reading test, IELTS reading tips and gain an understanding of the various questions. It is also important to learn from your mistakes (see below). However, students who just practice IELTS exams are missing out on a good opportunity to improve their general reading skills.
  • IELTS reading texts can be a little boring and you are more likely to read regularly if you read about something you are interested in. Reading for pleasure a little every day will not only improve your English skills, but also improve your vocabulary. There are thousands of blogs, newspapers, magazines and newspapers to choose from online. Practice makes perfect.

3.Read the instructions VERY carefully

So many easy marks are lost by good IELTS candidates because they fail to read the instructions properly. This is especially true in the reading and listening tests because they give very specific instructions. If you don’t follow these instructions exactly, you will get the question wrong.

  • For example, the instructions might state write two words and/or a number. This could mean:

One word
One word and a number
Two words
Two words and a number

  • Even if a number is written as a word it counts as a number e.g. Thirty two is counted as 32. Thirty two cars is one word and a number. If you don’t do this, as stated in the instructions, you will lose a mark.
  • If the answer asks for two words only and the answer is red and yellow, you should write red, yellow, not red and yellow. Red, yellow is two words. Red and yellow is three and therefore incorrect.
  • Finally, one word only means just one word. We should therefore be very careful with articles like a and an. For example, the text might say an earthquake, but if it asks for one word simply write earthquake. An earthquake is two words and is therefore wrong.

4.Don’t panic

  • Some of the questions will be easy and some will be extremely difficult. The key is not to panic when trying to answer a difficult one. Nearly all of the IELTS teachers I know have to check the answers to some questions because they are so difficult.
  • The wrong thing to do is spend a large amount of time on a question and fail to spend enough time on the rest of the questions. If the answer does not present itself, move on to the next. You can always come back to the difficult questions later and answering the other questions will often help you.
  • Time and nerves need to be controlled in order to do well in the reading test all the IELTS reading tips in the world won’t help you if you can’t control your nerves. You are probably not going to get all of the questions correct and accepting this will help you to control your time and emotions on test day.

5.It’s really a vocabulary test

  • In many ways, the reading test is more of a vocabulary test than a reading test. They will use synonyms and paraphrase sentences to test how wide your vocabulary is. To prepare for this I advise my students to do three things: read, note and review.
  • As mentioned in tip number 2, reading is the best way to improve your vocabulary. Memorising lists of words is not as effective as seeing words in context. When you see a new word you don’t understand, try to guess the meaning from context. This means that you try to guess the meaning based on the words and sentences around it. You will be expected to do this in the exam so it is a good idea to get practicing now. Only when you have done that should you check the meaning.
  • Next, you should put all of your new words in a special IELTS vocabulary notebook. Record not only the meaning but also things like synonyms, antonyms, collocations, form, examples, pronunciation and pictures. You don’t have to record all of these things; just the ones that work for you. All our brains work differently so find out what helps you remember vocabulary and use it.
  • Finally, there is no point in recording all this new vocabulary if you don’t review it. After putting all the effort into looking up the meaning and record everything in a notebook, it would be a waste of time if you don’t look at it regularly again. I advise students to look at new vocabulary one week after first studying, then two weeks later and finally a month later. Test yourself by covering up the meanings or try to think of a sentence.
  • By following these steps you will soon have a notebook full of words that you will remember and be able to use effectively in all sections of the IELTS test.

6.Timing is crucial

  • If you spend too much time on one question you will leave less time for the other questions, however, if you try to do the test too quickly you will miss information and may get confused.
  • I advise my students to try and get each section finished in 20 minutes. This breaks down to 16-17 minutes to read and answer the questions and 3-4 minutes transferring and checking your answers.
  • Some teachers advise students to spend a set or fixed amount of time on each question but this is bad advice for one main reason- some questions are more difficult than others and will, therefore, take you more time. What you should do is pay attention to your timing when practicing. You will notice which questions take you longer and which questions take you less time. This will give you the confidence to spend a little longer on certain questions and stop panicking in the exam.
  • Everyone reads and answers questions at different speeds and styles, so work out what is best for you and be wary of people who tell you to spend a set amount of time on each question.

7.Ignore anything you already know about the topic

  • The higher the level the more this problem affects people. Please remember that you are being tested on your understanding of the text only; your own knowledge of the topic should not influence your answers.
  • I had one student who I thought was going to get an 8 or 9 in their reading test. All of their practice tests had been at this level and I wasn’t worried about them at all. Unfortunately, this person had a degree in biotechnology and the reading was on this subject. Instead of carefully reading the text they used their own knowledge to answer many of the questions. They were very angry when the results came back and it was only after talking about the test that we established what had happened.
  • Make sure you don’t make the same mistake and base your answers on the text only. Don’t make assumptions based on your own knowledge.
  • For example, when you read the title of this article IELTS reading tips, you probably made lots of assumptions about what was in it and you probably knew some tips already, but I’m sure there have been some that have surprised you or even contradicted your views.

8.Practice slow and fast

  • Many teachers advise students to practice for the IELTS reading test under exam conditions. This means you do the practice test in one hour without any help, just like in the exam. This is poor advice for a few reasons.
  • By doing the test under exam conditions you put too much pressure on yourself and you don’t give yourself time to reflect on how to answer specific question types, spot patterns in questions and how you answer them, note down common vocabulary and notice how much time you spend answering certain questions.
  • It also does not give you a chance to analyse your mistakes. You should really focus on your mistakes and figure out why you were wrong and then improve. This is a slow process and should be prioritised.
  • Once you have practiced several tests slowly, you can then practice them under exams conditions.

9.Be careful when transferring your answers

  • In the test, you will be asked to transfer your answers to an answer sheet. A common mistake is to spend too much time on reading and answering questions and leaving very little time to transfer the answers. It is only natural that silly mistakes are made when people are under pressure.
  • I advise my students to practice with an IELTS answer sheet and see how much time it takes them to transfer their answers. This will allow you to familiarise yourself with the process and have confidence on test day.

10.Leave no blanks

  • This might seem one of the most obvious IELTS reading tips but you would be surprised how many people leave blanks. Even if you don’t know the answer, make sure you attempt every question. There are no penalties for incorrect answers, so have a guess. You might get lucky and you have nothing to lose.

11.Reading tips and a strategy for each type

  • Check how many words it asks you to write. If it says no more than two, you can write one or two words. If it says no more than three, you can write one, two or three words. Remember that numbers written numerically, such as 72 count as one word and hyphenated words, such as state-of-the-art, count as one word.
  • Sometimes the question will state using words from the text or from the text. In this case you should only use words from the text and not change them or use different forms of the words. If it does not say this, then you are allowed to change the words as long as the meaning is the same.
  • The answers appear in the same order as the questions. The answer to number 1 will be above number 2, and the answer to number 3 will be below the answer to number 2. Remember that your answer should be grammatically correct. Check the type of word that fits in the space. Is it a verb, noun, adjective or adverb? This will help you answer the question correctly.
  • When scanning for your answer, make sure you are thinking about paraphrasing and synonyms.
  • Find where the answer is located in the text before you try to answer the question. Remember where before what.
  • Read the questions before reading the text.

12.Strategy

  • Read the instructions carefully, noting how many words you can write and if they want you to include the exact words from the question or not.
  • Read the incomplete sentences first. Think about what word form can be used and try to predict the answer. Also think about keywords and how they could be represented by synonyms or paraphrasing.
  • Locate where the information is located by scanning quickly. If you can’t locate the answer quickly, move on.
  • Read the incomplete sentence again.
  • Study the reading text more carefully to establish the answer.
  • Check your spelling.
  • Repeat with the other sentences.

13.Summary, note, table, flow-chart completion

Tip:

  • Try to predict the answers before you look at the options or the text. This will help you spot the correct answer.
  • Should the gap be filled with a verb, noun, adjective or adverb? If your answer makes the sentence grammatically wrong, then you have the wrong answer.
  • Look for synonyms and paraphrases in the text rather than words that directly match.
  • Don’t spend too much time looking for the answer to one question. If you can’t find it, mark what you think it might be and move on. Focusing on the easier answers is a better use of your time.
  • The answers normally come in the same order as the questions.
  • If you get a list of words, think about the ones that can’t be the correct answer because of meaning or grammar. You can then eliminate these words.

Strategy:

  • Read the question carefully. Note how many words you can write (normally one, two or three) and if you should get the words from the reading text or a list.
  • Skim the summary and try to understand the overall meaning.
  • Try to predict the answers before you look at the reading text. Also, think about the word type (noun, verb, adjective) that should be included.
  • If you have a list of words, try to guess which 2 or 3 the answer might be. Pay attention to words that collocate well with the words in the sentence.
  • Identify which part of the reading text the summary relates to. Scanning for synonyms from the summary will help you do this.
  • Look at that part of the section more carefully and choose the correct answer. Remember to be careful with synonyms.
  • Check to see if your word makes the sentence grammatically correct.

14.Short-answer questions

Tips:

  • The answers appear in the same order as the text.
  • Look at and understand the questions first before you start reading the text. What is the question actually asking?
  • You will probably be given a word limit, for example NO MORE THAN THREE WORDS AND/OR A NUMBER. Make sure you don’t go over this limit.
  • As stated above, the answers do not need to be grammatically correct, just short answers.
  • Don’t give your opinion, just the answer in the text.
  • Keywords in the question will normally be nouns or noun phrases.
  • When you find your keywords always think synonyms and paraphrases.

Strategy:

  • Read the instructions carefully and note the word limit.
  • Read and understand the questions. Think about the information you will need to find.
  • Underline any keywords in the questions.
  • Think about synonyms or paraphrases for these keywords.
  • Find part of the text question 1 relates to.
  • Read question again.
  • Read the section containing the answer carefully and identify answer.
  • Continue with next question and repeat until finished.

15.Diagram label completion

Tips:

  • Check how many words you are supposed to write, it will tell you in the question. In the example above you can only write one or two words, any more than this and you will lose marks. Remember that numbers count as one word and hyphenated words like state-of-the-art count as one word.
  • Identify the type of word (noun, verb, adjective) you need. This will help you find the correct answer.
  • The answers do not always come in the same order that the paragraphs are in.
  • Do the easiest questions first. You are more likely to get these correct. If you cannot find the answer to a difficult question, move on and come back later.
  • Try to predict the answer before you read the text. This will help you find the correct answer.

Strategy:

  • Check how many words you can write.
  • Study the diagram and try to understand generally what is happening. Don’t spend too much time doing this.
  • Highlight keywords or labels.
  • Identify the types of words required and try to predict the answer.
  • Scan the text and identify where the information is located.
  • Read in more detail to find the answer.
  • Check spelling.

16.Multiple choice

Tips:

  • Read the questions before you read the text.
  • You will often be able to eliminate 2 of the four answers and this leaves you with two choices. Think about the difference in meaning between these two choices and this will help you get the correct answers.
  • If you are unsure of what the difference is between two or three sentences, it can help to rephrase them in your own words.
  • If you are running out of time or you really don’t know the answer, have a guess. You will not lose marks for wrong answers and you have a 25% chance of getting the correct answer just by guessing.
  • Don’t be tricked by the examiner’s distractors especially keywords from the questions that look the same as the text.
  • If you don’t know anything about the topic, don’t panic. It is a reading test, not a test of your knowledge.
  • Try to predict the correct answer before you read the text. This will help you find the correct answer
  • Before deciding on your answer, always go back and carefully read the questions before making your final decision.
  • The answers will be in the same order as the text.
  • You might be asked about both facts and opinions. Facts are things that are always true or can not be disproved but opinions are just what people think.

Strategy:

  • Read the questions carefully.
  • Skim the text to get the general meaning.
  • Underline any keywords in the question and think about any synonyms that might appear in the text.
  • Read the choices and underline any keywords. Think about the difference in meaning between the difference choices.
  • Predict the correct answer.
  • Read the text and using keywords and synonyms locate the part containing the answers.
  • Read that part of the text very carefully, thinking about the difference in meanings.
  • Think about not only which options are correct but how the other options are wrong.
  • Go back and read the question again and mark your final choice.

17.Matching information

Tip:

  • Do this question last. If you do other questions first, you will become familiar with the passage and this will help you identify the correct information more quickly and easily.
  • Try to find names, place names and numbers in the questions. These are often easier to find in the text.
  • Be aware that there may be synonyms. For example, you might see 34% in the question but it might say just over a third or about a third in the text.

Strategy:

  • Read the instructions carefully.
  • Read the questions first. Think about synonyms and how you could paraphrase the statements. This will help you identify the answer. Saying each statement in your own words can help do this.
  • Quickly skim the reading text to try to understand the general meaning of the text.
  • Read the question statements again and predict which paragraph contains the answer.
  • Scan the text paragraphs you think might contain the answer for synonyms. If you find a possible answer underline it.
  • Check back with the question statement and mark answer if correct. If not, move on to other paragraphs.

18.Matching headings

Tips:

  • Do this question first. By doing this you will be able to get the general meaning of the text as a whole and this will help you with the rest of the question that requires you to take a more detailed look at the text.
  • You are not expected to read every word of the text. This will take too long and you don’t have time for this. In this kind of question you are only expected to understand the main idea of each paragraph. A good way to do this is to read the first one or two sentences and the last sentence of the paragraphs. You can also briefly look at the rest of the paragraph but you don’t have to read every word.
  • If there are words you don’t understand, don’t worry about this. Again, you should only worry about the general meaning of the paragraph as a whole, not individual words. Even native speakers will fail to understand every word in the IELTS reading test.
  • Be aware of synonyms. Many students look for words that match exactly with words in the text and ignore synonyms. For example, a keyword in the heading might be Beautiful, however the word you’re looking for could be many different synonyms of beautiful like attractive, pretty, lovely or stunning.
  • If there are two or three headings that are similar, write them beside the paragraph and try to find out the difference between the two headings. What are the keywords? How does this change the meaning? Which one matches the paragraph best?
  • If you still can’t decide which one suits best, move on and come back to it later. The answer will normally be easier to find after you have matched some more headings.
  • Ignore anything you already know about the topic. You are being tested on the text only.
  • Don’t read too quickly. Some teachers advise that students should just skim the text because you don’t have much time. In my experience, this leads to students not understanding most of the text and making mistakes. It is better to do this a little slower and actually understand what is in front of you.
  • Don’t panic if you know nothing about the general topic of the reading text. The IELTS reading test is not a knowledge test and you are not expected to have prior knowledge of the topic.
  • Don’t look at the headings first. This will automatically make you look for specific words in the text rather than the main idea. Remember it is your ability to find the main idea that is being tested, not your ability to find specific information. Instead of reading the headings first, ignore them and get the general meaning of each paragraph first by reading the first and last sentences.

Strategy:

  • If this type of question is on the test, do it first.
  • Don’t look at the headings.
  • Read the first one or two sentences and the last sentence of each paragraph to understand the general meaning of the paragraph. Don’t worry about highlighting keywords in the test. Try to sum up the general meaning of each paragraph in one or two words.
  • Look at the headings and identify keywords within each heading.
  • Match any headings that are very obvious and you are sure about.
  • For the others, write 2 or 3 headings beside the paragraph. Identify the difference between each of the headings. Establish if there are any synonyms in the paragraph to keywords in the headings.
  • If you still can’t pick one, move one. The answer will often reveal itself later.
  • Repeat until finished.

19.Matching features

Tips:

  • Focus on the easy questions first. If you can’t find the answer to a question, move on and come back to it later.
  • Find the names in the text quickly by scanning for them and then underline them.
  • The names might be shortened to just a first or last name. For example, John Jones might appear as only Jones in the text.
  • Think of synonyms that might appear in the reading text. For example, the phrase intense burst of energy could look like explosive release of energy in the text.
  • Some of the names might be used more than once. Check the question for instructions on this.
  • The questions do not follow the order of the text. You might have to go backwards and forwards to find the correct answer. This is a very unnatural way to read and requires you to use your scanning skills.
  • If you like to categorise things by colour, use different coloured pens to underline the different names.

Strategy:

  • Read the question carefully.
  • Focus on the names first. Read them and then scan for the names in the reading text and underline them. Remember that some names will appear more than once and you should underline them all.
  • Focus on the names that appear only once first because these are the easiest.
  • Read around the name to see if their findings or research come before or after their name.
  • Read their research or findings and then go back to the statements in the question and match. Be aware of synonyms.
  • When you find a statement that matches a name, delete the statement. Each statement can only be used once.
  • Repeat for the rest of the names.

20.Matching sentence endings

Tips:

  • The answers are in the same order in the text as they are in the questions, so the answer to question 2 will be after the answer to question 1 and so on. Locate question one first and then you know where to begin.
  • Try to predict how each sentence will end before you look at the endings.
  • Start with the incomplete sentences first before you look at the endings or the text. There are more endings than required, so looking at all of these in detail is a waste of time.
  • Think of synonyms and paraphrases that the examiners could be using instead of exactly the same words.
  • All of the sentence endings appear in the text, but you don’t need to read all of them, just the ones that you decide to match with the incomplete sentences.
  • When highlighting keywords, it is often a good idea to highlight any names, including place names, or dates. These are often easy to find in the reading text.
  • Don’t just match words. Make sure the meaning in the reading text matches.
  • Spend more time on the first question because this is the most difficult. You have lots of different options for the first question and it will take you more time to work out the answer. The last question should take you much less time because you have less options to choose from.

Strategy:

  • Read the question carefully.
  • Read the incomplete sentences first and don’t look at the endings yet. Try to understand what they mean and highlight any keywords especially names, places or dates.
  • Predict what the endings might be before looking at them. Think about what word type (verbs, nouns, adjectives, adverbs) makes the sentence grammatically correct.
  • Look at the endings but not in too much detail. Try to see if there are any obvious answers.
  • Eliminate endings that definitely cannot match. Think about grammar, collocations and meaning.
  • Match the endings you think might be correct. Write two or three options if necessary.
  • Find the correct part of the reading text for each incomplete sentence. Be careful with synonyms and paraphrases.
  • Understand the meaning of that part of the text and choose the correct answer.

21.True, false, not given

Tips:

  • Ignore anything you already know about the topic and don’t make assumptions. Base your answers on the text only.
  • Identify any words that qualify the statement, for example some, all, mainly, often, always and occasionally. These words are there to test if you have read the whole statement because they can change the meaning. For example, Coca-Cola has always made its drinks in the U.S.A. has a different meaning from Coca-Cola has mainly made its drinks in the U.S.A
  • Be careful when you see verbs that qualify statements, such as suggest, claim, believe and know. For example, The man claimed he was a British citizen, and The man is a British citizen mean two different things.
  • There will be at least one of all three answers. If you don’t have at least one true, false or not given you have at least one answer wrong.
  • Don’t skim and scan the text to find the final answer. You will have to read the appropriate part of the text very carefully in order to understand what the author means.
  • Don’t look for words that exactly match those in the statements. You should also look for synonyms. Remember that you are matching meaning, not words.
  • If you can’t find the information you are looking for, then it is probably not given. Don’t waste time looking for something that is not there.
  • If you have no idea what the answer is put not given. You probably have no idea because the answer is not there.
  • Answers are in the same order they appear in the text. Do not waste time going back. Keep on reading.
  • YES/NO/NOT GIVEN questions are slightly different because they deal with opinion. TRUE/FALSE/NOT GIVEN questions deal with facts.

Strategy:

  • Always read the instructions carefully and make sure you know if it is a TRUE/FALSE/NOT GIVEN or YES/NO/NOT GIVEN question.
  • Read all the statements carefully, trying to understand what the whole sentence means rather than simply highlighting keywords. Watch out for qualifying words such as some or always.
  • Try to think of what synonyms might be in the text. This will help you identify the matching part of the text.
  • Match the statement with the correct part of the text.
  • Focus on the statement again and then carefully read the matching part of the text to establish if it is true or false. Remember the meaning should exactly match that of the statement if it is true.
  • Underline the words that give you the answer, this will help you focus and you can check back later. Again, be careful there are no qualifying words in the text.
  • If you can’t find the answer, mark it as not given and move on to the next question.
  • If you are really unsure or can’t find the answer, mark it as not given.

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