Top Tips for IELTS Reading

Make the most of your Reading test:

  • lookout for the title, headings and any special features such as capital letters, underlining, italics, figures, graphs and tables.
  • make sure that you understand the questions and follow instructions carefully.
  • pay attention to timing; do not spend too long on one passage or question.
  • do not try and read every word; remember, you are reading for a purpose.
  • if you do not know the answer to a question, attempt it but do not waste time; move quickly onto the next one.
  • do not panic if you do not know anything about the subject of the text; all the answers can be found in the text.
  • the word(s) you use must be taken from the Reading text; you must not change the form of the word(s) in the text.
  • do not worry if there is a word that you do not understand – you may not need to use it.
  • check your spelling.
  • be careful to use singular and plural correctly.
  • focus precisely on what you are asked to do in ‘completion’ type questions.
  • if the question asks you to complete the note ‘in the…’ and the correct answer is ‘evening’, just use ‘evening’ as your answer; note that ‘in the evening’ would be incorrect.
  • pay attention to the word limit; for example, if you are asked to complete a sentence using no more than two words if the correct answer is ‘silk shirt’, the answer ‘shirt made of silk’ would be incorrect.
  • attempt all questions; there are no penalties for incorrect answers, so you have nothing to lose.
  • check your answers.

DOs and DON’Ts

Keep an eye on the time: it will probably seem to pass very quickly, so take care not to spend too much time on any one passage or question. Remember that you only have 60 minutes to answer the questions and to transfer your answers to your Answer Sheet.
Start at the beginning of the test and work through it. If you cannot do a particular question, leave it and go on to the next. You can then return to that question later if you have time. Put a mark next to this question on the Question Paper so that you can find it again quickly.
Answer as many questions as you can.
Look carefully at the title of the passage and any subtitles and illustrations it may have. You can get a quick idea of what the passage is about from these.
Read the instructions for each set of questions very carefully: it is important to do exactly what you are asked to do
Where appropriate remember to skim the questions before reading the passage so that you have a purpose for reading.
Make sure you give the passage a quick read through so that you are familiar with the topic and how it is developed in the passage. An understanding of the text structure can be very helpful in answering the questions.
Use the glossary, if there is one provided, to help you understand unfamiliar words.
Pay attention to any examples that are provided.
Make sure that your answers keep to the word limit asked for: if you are asked for ‘NO MORE THAN THREE WORDS’, for example, then do not write more.
Make sure that you copy words accurately from the text: spelling mistakes will mean that you will lose the mark for that question.
Make sure that where you have to write an answer yourself, your answer is grammatically correct, (e.g. Short-answer Questions, Sentence Completion, Summary Completion).
XDon’t waste time reading the whole passage each time for each set of questions. Remember that many task types ask you to locate or check details in the text. In cases like this you need to skim quickly through the passage rather than read it all carefully.
XDon’t go back to the beginning of the passage for each question when you know from the task type that the answers will come in the order of the information in the passage.
XDon’t forget that questions can come before the reading passage as well as after.
XDon’t become anxious if there are questions you cannot answer. Leave them and move onto the next questions. You can always come back to the ones you couldn’t answer at the end of the test if you have time.
XDon’t worry if you don’t understand every word. It may not be necessary to understand all the words in order to answer the questions correctly.
XDon’t forget that you must write your answers on your Answer Sheet. You will not be given extra time to do this at the end of the test.
XDon’t write more than one answer when only one is required; even if one of your answers is correct, you will not receive a mark.

Tips of Exam Day

Before the Exam

  • Make sure you are familiar with the instructions for the different question types so you can quickly glance at the questions and know what to do.
  • Read as much as possible.
  • Work on your reading skills such as ‘guessing the meanings of unknown words’, ‘understanding reference words in texts’ and reading quickly.
  • Read newspaper articles and practise the following:
  • Dividing the content into facts and opinions
  • Finding the topic sentences of paragraphs
  • Writing summaries
  • Interpreting any diagrams or tables
  • Thinking of headings you could give to paragraphs
  • Underlining the pronouns and working out what they refer to
  • Underlining unknown words and seeing if you can work out what they mean
  • Reading the first paragraph and seeing if you can predict what will come next
  • Do as many practice tests as you can to get used to the rubric and the task types.

During the Exam

  • Look through the whole reading module first.
  • Quickly look at the texts. Study any:
  • Titles
  • Headings
  • Sub headings
  • Illustrations
  • Diagrams
  • Words in bold type or italics
  • Read the questions carefullyIdentify the question typeMake sure you do exactly what they say.
  • Read the glossary beside the passage, if there is one.
  • Don’t spend too long on one question.
  • If you don’t know the answer, guess. Incorrect answers are not penalised.
  • Make sure you copy all words taken from the texts correctly as incorrect spelling is penalised.
  • Don’t forget your answer may be given in a diagram, graph or illustration.

In-Depth Guidelines 

1. Beat the fear – read as much as possible

My first IELTS reading tip is to read as much as possible. By this I don’t mean do endless IELTS practice tests, I mean do as much general reading as possible. I suggest you focus on reading short articles on topics that interest you or on topics that are common in IELTS – newspapers and magazines are a great resource here.

One reason why this is such a good idea is that many candidates freeze in the reading believing it is too hard and so fail to get their band score. If, however, you read enough “native English” before the exam, you will become more and more confident in looking at texts where you don’t understand every word. Confidence is a very important concept in IELTS.

If you look at Daily Exercises, you will find lots of possible exercises for you. The idea is to find something that interests you and read. That’s all.

2. Improve key skills – skimming, scanning and reading in detail

A major problem in the exam is the length of the texts and you will not have time to read them all carefully. You need to train your speed reading skills so that you can read as efficiently as possible. 2 skills here are skimming which is reading quickly for general meaning and scanning which is looking for specific information.

You may sometimes see advice saying that you don’t need to read in detail. Incorrect. Bad advice. You shouldn’t read the whole text in detail but you will need to parts of the text in detail – if you want to get the right answer. Put simply, skimming and scanning are useful skills to help show you where the answer might be: reading in detail tells you what the answer is.

You might want to look at this post on improving your reading speed.

3. Time management – experiment to see what works

Because the texts are so long you need to have a definite strategy for how you manage your time in the exam to make sure you finish on time. This means deciding:

  • how long you look at the text before answering questions
  • how long you spend on each question
  • how long you spend on each group of questions
  • how long you spend on each text
  • do you leave time at the end to go back at look at unanswered questions?

There is a lot to consider here. You will find books and websites that insist you do it their way. They may claim to have a magic formula and that you must do this or you must do that. Ignore them. Their advice may be good for some people but not for you.

The key point here is that different learners have different styles and different needs. Much the best advice here is to experiment and try different approaches and see what works best for you.

See this earlier post on time management.

4. Focus on the question – avoid careless errors

The texts in IELTS are typically quite hard, so candidates spend as much time as possible reading the texts. Mistake. Why? Well, a huge amount of mistakes are made by not focussing enough on the exact question. It can be easy if you are in a hurry to miss a word such as “always” or “often”: the problem is those sorts of words can change the meaning of questions.

There is an easy solution to this problem: it is to go back and look at the question before you write in the answer. Make sure that the question says what you think it says. You will normally save yourself 2/3 marks this way.

5. Learn the exam – know the different types of questions

There are 8/9 different types of reading question that examiners may use. Before the exam, you should make yourself familiar with each type of question as they are slightly different. What I suggest is that you look at my series of tutorials on the different types of reading questions as a first step to see what the question types are. The next stage is to experiment and see what techniques you are going to use for each type of question.

This may mean that you approach different types of questions differently.

6. Train yourself, don’t test yourself

One common mistake candidates make is to practise exam questions too much. Exam practice is important to learn the timing (3 above) and learn the question types (5 above), but that does not mean that every time you practise reading you need to do it in exam conditions. My suggestion is that you do some “open book” tests where you can see the answers as you do the questions. This way you will  learn how examiners set questions and how to find the answers. If you just test yourself, this may not happen. How often and when you do this training will depend on your preparation programme.

7. Learn how to underline

This is a very specific piece of advice. You may believe it is wrong to write in books and generally I’d agree with you, but IELTS is different. A very strong suggestion is that you should underline words in the text in the exam. There are at least two reasons for this:

  1. if you underline key words in the text, it can help you organise the text and this will save you time in the exam
  2. if you find an answer, it is sensible to underline the part of the passage that relates to the question as a check (see 4 above) and to write the number of the question next to it in case you find a better answer later

How you do this will depend on you and your style. Some people underline different types of words in different ways.I’d only add that less is more: if you underline too much, it can become confusing.

8. Beware word matching – be careful with key words

One very common mistake is to match a word in the question with a word in the text and to think you have found your answer. It is almost never that simple and I am tempted to say that if the words do match, then that is not your answer. What you are normally looking for are either synonyms (words with a similar meaning) or paraphrases (short bits of text that say the same as the question.

One reason candidates make this mistake is that teachers (myself included) tend to say look for key words in the question. This is helpful advice to show you where the answer might be and which paragraph it might be in. After that you need to go back and read the whole question carefully to see what the answer is.

9. The questions follow the text – normally

This is a very practical piece of advice and could save you a lot of wasted time. Typically, the questions will come in the order of the text: so the answer to question 3 will come after the answer to question 2. This can be very helpful in the exam if you are a quick worker who goes through the questions once for the easy ones and then a second time for the harder ones. If you have answer 4 underlined (see 7 above) and answer 6 underlined then you know where answer 5 must come.

One word of warning. In certain types of question (eg paragraph matching) the order of the questions are jumbled.

10. The questions or the text – which do you read first

There is no one right answer here.

Text books tend to advise you to read the text quickly first so that you know how the text is organised. This helps as you will save time later by knowing which paragraph will contain the answer. This can be a good approach, particularly for high level candidates provided you don’t spend too much reading and you have notes/underlinings afterwards.

Many teachers say that you should read the questions first and not read the whole passage. There is logic here too. Normally, you do not have to understand the meaning of the whole passage to answer the questions, so why waste time reading it? This approach can work, especially for lower level candidates who might not understand too much of the passage anyway.

However, thee is always a third way. Life is not black and white. It is quite possible to decide to use different strategies for certain question types. In paragraph matching you are going to have to read the whole passage, so you might decide to read first then. In the short answer questions, you might decide you look at the questions first. As ever, you decide.

The only bad piece of advice is the one that tells you you must do it their way. Ignore them. The only right way isa the way that works.

11. Fill out the answer sheet

Okay, this is an eleventh tip. Practise filling out the answer sheet before you get to the exam. Too many  avoidable mistakes are made this way. I’d go further: whenever you practise IELTS reading, use an answer sheet. This is what I do with my classes. Two points:

  1. when you go through the answers in your practice book, make sure that you have written the answer exactly as it is in the book – anything else will lose you the point
  2. you need to fill out your answers in the 60 minutes. They don’t give you any more time.
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