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Effective strategies for IELTS Reading

In our previous IELTS blogs­ we’ve looked at the speaking and writing parts of the exam. Now we’re going to turn our attention to the reading test. First of all I’ll give you an overview as well as some general advice, before looking at some specific examples of reading tasks.

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The IELTS reading exam lasts for an hour, and it consists of three texts, or ‘passages’. The passages are on topics of an academic nature, in other words they’re the kinds of text you might read as part of a university course. Generally the passages become longer and more difficult (so the first one is the ‘easiest’!) Each passage has a number of reading tasks, with thirteen or fourteen questions that you have to answer, and in total there are always forty questions. There are different types of questions, and we’re going to look at some of these.  Before that, let’s think about the problems you might have in the reading exam, and how you can avoid them.

  • Time is the biggest issue that candidates usually face – it can seem very difficult to read the passages and find the answers to forty questions in sixty minutes. However, it’s important to be aware that you don’t actually need to read, or understand, every word of each passage. Instead, you need to understand what the question is asking you to do, and then identify the part of the passage where you will find the answer.
  • When you read the task you need to identify the key words in each question or statementThese are the most important words which express the main ideas. For example, in a passage about employing young people, if the statement is ‘they do not stay with the same company for very long’ the key words are ‘not stay’, ‘same company’ and ‘very long’.  Doing this will help you to find the part of the passage you need. Another important point is that the language in the questions is not the same as the language in the passage. Therefore you will need to paraphrase the questions in your head, in other words think of different ways of saying the same thing. You can do this by thinking of synonyms, or words with similar meanings. In our example, ‘not stay.....same company’ could be ‘change jobs’.
  • The two most important reading techniques that you’ll need to use are skimming and scanning. Skimming means looking over a text very quickly in order to get the gist - in other words, a basic idea of what it’s about. You can do this by looking at the title of the passage, the subheadings (if there are any) and the first and last sentences of each paragraph. The first sentence of each paragraph is especially important as it tends to contain the main idea of that paragraph. Skimming the passage before you try to answer the questions is essential, as it gives you an idea of the topic and of how the passage is organised.
  • Scanning means looking through the text very quickly for a specific piece of information. This could be something like a name or date, or it could be an idea or statement, for example someone’s opinion. It could also be looking for key words or words with similar meanings, as we talked about above.  When you’ve read the question and understood what you’re looking for, you’ll then need to scan the text to find the answer. (This will be easier if you’ve skimmed the text first!) Notice that neither scanning nor skimming involve reading the text word for word. Again, it’s important to remember that you’re not supposed to read every word.
  • A common mistake that candidates make is to spend too much time looking for the answer to a single question, especially if it’s difficult. Instead of trying (and maybe failing) to find the answer to a difficult question, you could be answering two or three easier questions. Every question is worth one mark, so they are all equally important. If you can’t find the answer to a question, don’t waste any more time – just move on to the next one. You can always come back to it later, or you can guess. On average you have about 1.2 minutes to answer each question.
  • You will need to transfer your answers to the answer sheet during the sixty minutes (unlike in the listening exam, where you are given extra time). It is essential that you do this – the worst thing that can happen is that you have an empty answer sheet at the end, even though you might have found the correct answers! You can either transfer your answers after you finish each passage, or transfer them all together at the end – but if you do this, allow yourself enough time. Don’t wait until you have only a few minutes left, because if you copy your answers in a hurry, you are much more likely to make mistakes. You will lose marks for spelling mistakes, or for writing the right answer in the wrong place. One other thing is that you should never leave an answer blank – if you couldn’t find the answer or you didn’t have time, just guess. Leaving it blank means you’re sure to get nothing, but if you guess you might be lucky!

Now let’s look at some of the tasks that you’ll have to answer.

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Matching headings to paragraphs

In this task you are given a list of headings which you have to match with the different paragraphs or sections of the text. There are always a couple of headings which you do not need to use. Each heading is basically a short summary of one of the paragraphs, so first you should try to identify the main idea of the paragraph. Then, compare this with the list of headings, and look for the one that has the most similar meaning.

Multiple choice

As the name suggests, these have three or four possible answers, and you have to choose the correct one. Sometimes it is a direct question, sometimes it is an incomplete statement, like in the example below:

According to the writer, ‘bridge’ jobs

A   tend to attract people in middle-salary ranges.

B   are better paid than some full-time jobs.

C   originated in the United States.

D   appeal to distinct groups of older workers.

When answering multiple-choice questions, it’s better to focus just on the question at first, without looking at the options, and to try to find the answer yourself by looking at the text.  Then, you can compare the answer you’ve found with the options and choose the one that you think is closest. The reason for not looking at the options at first is that you’ll have too much information in your head– focusing on the question means you only have one thing to think about. If it’s an incomplete statement, like in the example above, it’s a good idea to turn it into a question. So ‘according to the writer, ‘bridge jobs’....’ becomes ‘what does the writer say about ‘bridge jobs’’? Doing this can make it easier to find the answer.

"True/False/Not Given" or "Yes/No/Not Given"

In these tasks you are given a number of statements and asked if they agree with the information in the passage, or with the writer’s views. If the statement agrees then the answer is ‘true’ or ‘yes’. It’s important to understand the difference between ‘false’ or ‘no’ on one hand, and ‘not given’ on the other, and this is something that candidates often find difficult. ‘False’ or ‘no’ means that the passage states the opposite of the statement, or the writer’s opinion is the opposite of the statement; ‘not given’ means that it is impossible to say by reading the passage if the statement is true or not. Make sure that you focus on what’s in the passage when you choose your answers, instead of relying on your own ideas.

Test your knowledge

See how well you know IELTS Writing with these TRUE/FALSE questions. All the answers are given in the article above.

1.  You have to answer a total of forty questions. 

2.  It’s essential to read every word of the texts. 

3.  Some questions are worth more marks than others

4. You should guess any answers that you can’t find

5. In multiple choice questions you shouldn’t read the options immediately. 

This blog post was written by Daragh, one of our trainers at The London School of English

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