Apart from the Writing section of the IELTS test, the Reading section is generally considered the most difficult for many test takers. However, both sections work on the same principles of structure, sentence constructions, syntax, etc. This is the reason we recommend starting your preparations for the IELTS test by strengthening your writing skills as this will then make the Reading section much easier.
That being said, here are some tips and strategies to improve your reading skills and score high on this section of the test:
- Timing: You are given 60 minutes for this section. You will have to read three passages and answer 40 questions about them. The passages are progressively more difficult, passage 2 being harder than passage 1, 3 harder than 2. This is because of a longer word count, more complex structures, and higher-end vocab. As well, you will become more tired as you go on. This is why you need extra time for passage 3. Spend 15-18 minutes on passage 1; 20 minutes on passage 2; 22-25 minutes on passage 3.
- Strategize: Keep in mind that you do not need to achieve a perfect score in this section. To get a band of 7.5 you need to answer 33-34 answers correctly. This means that you can let a few questions go unanswered, or answered incorrectly. This also means that if you are spending too much time on a particular question and can’t find the answer, skip it. If you have time after completing the rest of the section, then go back and try that question again.
- Instructions: Know the directions ahead of time so that you do not need to read these and waste time on them. The only things that you will need to pay attention to is numbers or wording. For example how many words you are allowed for a fill-in-the-blank answer; how many choices you need to make in a question with multiple choices; in the case of Yes/No/Not Given, or True/false/Not given, make sure you are answering correctly. Do not write Yes when the answer should be True, and so on.
- Prepare: The best way to achieve success in this section of the test is to read a lot before test day and do as many practice tests as you can. Also, build up your vocabulary because this is the section where this is most directly tested. Do not only learn a word in isolation. Learn as many synonyms to words as you can; most questions in the Reading section will use synonyms to the words that you will find in the passage.
What are some ways that you can prepare?:
- Read every day. Read anything, so long as there is some variety in the texts and some use of more sophisticated language. Novels are great for punctuation use, style, vocabulary variety, and are also excellent for gaining a “feel” for grammar. Comics, on the other hand, though fun, are not going to help you very much in preparation for the IELTS Reading section.
- After reading an article, column, story, etc., write a short summary of what the main ideas are. Then check your summary and ask yourself: if someone read this summary, would they have a good idea of what this reading is about? If the answer is no, then either you misunderstood the reading, or the writing needs some work.
- Write down new words that you come across as you read. Then find the other forms of the word (noun, verb, participle, etc.) and at least two synonyms, if there are any.
- Keep a journal of new vocab and review it daily.
- Every day, analyze one paragraph from your readings. Cut every sentence into its components: what is the independent clause? What is the subject of the independent clause? What are the modifiers? What other clauses or phrases are in this sentence? Are they necessary, or do they just add extra information? Etc.
- Practice paraphrasing: rewrite one paragraph every day and make sure that all the information in the original is present in the paraphrase, without a loss or change of meaning. Try to avoid as many words from the original as possible by using synonyms or other structures.
- Practice scanning and skimming by taking key words out of the questions and looking only for those words or their synonyms in the passage.
- Approach: It is crucial that you develop an approach to this section of the test. By this we mean that you need to practice a few different methods for tackling the passage itself. Having done this, come to a conclusion as to which way works best for you and then continue to practice only that method every time you do a practice test. In this way you will approach the official test relaxed and confident in your ability to do well.
- Different approaches: Here are three possible methods to tackle the reading passages (you may, of course, have your own method. Feel free to share with others on our forum). Each has its own value, and each needs to be practiced to be useful:
1– Read the entire passage carefully. Understand the overall topic and have a clear idea of the structure of the passage and its details. Once this is done, begin the questions. You should have a good idea of where the information you need should be and where to begin looking for it. While this is the ideal method, it is also the one that is most difficult for most test takers because of the time it takes. Not everyone is a fast reader, especially when the reading requires good comprehension and a use of memory. We do not recommend this approach to anyone for whom reading is difficult even in a non-pressure situation.
2– Start with the questions: More often than not, reading questions on the IELTS follow a linear path. This means that answers will generally follow one another in terms of sequence in the passage. With this in mind, you can begin a set of questions without looking at the passage at all until you have an idea of where to begin looking. Each passage will have 12 –14 questions. They will bunched into groups, some groups, for example, may contain 2 answer possibilities, others might contain 6. Look at a longer bunch of questions; read and understand the first couple to see what the main idea is for these questions; then, scan the passage for the key words in the question, or their synonyms. That is your starting point to answer that group of questions. You will not normally be asked to go backwards in the passage within a group of questions, so you can scan for answers to each question knowing where not to look; in other words, go forwards in the passage.
When the group of questions is done, go to the next biggest group. By now you will have read enough that you should have a good sense of what the passage is about, how it is structured, and where information “ought to” be. Repeat the process with the next bunch of questions.
The main benefit of this approach is that you actually read less and thereby save precious time. The disadvantage here is that you might have a hard time finding the starting point for a particular bunch of questions. This can turn out to cost you more time. Moreover, finding the correct starting point depends quite heavily on your vocab level as you will need to look for synonyms to key words in the questions. This approach works very well when questions give you names or dates or other numbers that are easy to scan for and find quickly. It is especially useful for question groups that ask for a summary of a section of the passage (see Question types below).
We do recommend that you at least attempt this approach. To make good use of it, you will need to practice it, just as with any other skill, in order to take full advantage of it.
3– Summarize the passage first: Sounds time consuming, doesn’t it? With practice, this could be the most efficient approach to the reading section. In fact, we believe that this approach will allow you to answer all 40 questions in the Reading section and have time to look over your answers to make sure you spelled things correctly, or even go back to questions you had difficulty with.
This approach involves skimming and scanning. You can have a quick look at the title of the passage, though this usually won’t give you enough information. However, if the passage does not have a title, keep in mind as you look through the passage that one of the questions you will face will surely be to choose a title for the passage.
Start with the first paragraph, which will normally be some sort of introduction to the topic. Read the first sentence to get an idea of what the paragraph is about. Then skim the rest of the paragraph, scanning as you go for key words that relate back to the topic. Then, in no more than one sentence, or even just a few key words, write in the margin next to the paragraph what the paragraph is about, or what its aim is, or what function it plays in the overall structure of the passage. This is not easy and, again, takes practice. Eventually, you should be able to summarize an entire passage in this way in less than five minutes, leaving you the rest of the time to concentrate on the questions.
The main purpose of this approach is to minimize the amount of reading you do. One of the most common deficiencies in many test takers’ approach is that they end up reading the passage two or even three times by going directly to the questions and then scanning the entire passage for answers. They skim and scan for every question set, wasting valuable time in the process. The point of this third approach is to direct your attention to the appropriate location for answers right away. After you have summarized the passage, you can look at the questions, and based on the notes you have written in the margins, you should know where the answer is supposed to be, rather than aimlessly looking for clues. You then focus your attention on the right paragraph based on the question, find your answer, and move on.
In the General test you will have one passage that is similar to the academic style passages. You will also have shorter readings. For the passage (it will be the third of the readings in the Reading section) you can follow the approaches above. For the shorter readings, your best approach is to begin with the questions and then go skimming for answers.
- Question types: Before you go write your official test, you should know the types of questions you might have to deal with so that there are no surprises and so that you can remain calm and focused on what you need to do. Let’s look at the types of questions the IELTS Reading sectin will give you:
- Matching: Here you will have to match information, part of which is given to you in the question, the other part to be found in the passage. For example, you may be given a list of names, and a list of opinions; you need to match the opinion to the name. You will normally be given more opinions than names, as some of these opinions are not mentioned at all in the passage, even if they appear to be correct. Again, remember that the correct answers will usually use synonyms, so if an opinion uses too many words that also appear in the passage, be suspicious of it.
You might also need to match headings to paragraphs. If you approach the Reading section using approach #3 mentioned above, then you have already done the work for this question type. All you need to do then is match your summary notes to the choices given in the question set.
Other matches might include, facts (animal A does action 1, for example), or causes and effects (and vice versa, experiment and result, steps in a process and effect of each, etc.); and others. The best approach to these questions is a) know where to look for the info, and b) scan for the key words. Names are usually easy as they are always capitalized and so stand out a little.
- Task completion (also known as fill-in-the-blank): These will appear in several forms, such as a summary completion, a table/chart/diagram completion, or straightforward sentence completion. In any case, the information will follow the linear pattern of the passage, which means that you will need to find the starting point in the question set, and then find the corresponding starting point in the passage, then follow to completion.
NB: Spelling counts. You should not make any spelling errors in the Reading section as you are taking words directly out of the passage. They are spelled correctly in the passage, so make sure you copy well.
- True/False/Not Given or Yes/No/Not Given: These cause many test takers a lot of problems. Firstly, when you find information in the passage that corresponds to information in the question, make sure that you fully understand both samples; they will test your grammar and vocab knowledge here by using synonyms and different structures to see if you can recognize that a sentence in the passage means the same as one in the question set. For example, they will use an active sentence in the passage and a passive sentence in the question. Make sure you recognize the subject and verb combination in each and that they mean the same thing. Also, be suspicious of sentences in the question set that use the same words as those used in the passage. The correct answer will most often have synonyms.
Also, close enough is not good enough. For an answer to be true, it must be ALL true, or it is not true. Even one word that changes the meaning or fact makes the entire sentence not true. The same applies for false sentences. As for Not Given questions, do not assume anything and do not infer anything—it is either stated clearly and directly in the passage, or it is not.
For Not Given answers: Do not spend valuable time looking for an answer that is not there. Know where the answer “ought to” be and look for it. If you can’t find it, then it is not there and the answer is Not Given.
Last note: many test takers lose points for a very silly reason: they write YES when they should write TRUE and vice versa. Don’t let this happen to you. Be very aware of the question type you are dealing with.
- Multiple choice: This is the simplest of the question types and probably needs no explanation.
Short answers: These are also straightforward. You will be given open questions (wh- type questions) and asked to answer them in a limited number of words/numbers. Make sure you know the word limit and then look for the answers. Do not use your own words—take them directly from the passage.
- Last notes: Take very good care when transferring your answers to the answer sheet to spell things correctly. Double check that TRUE should be TRUE and not YES, and so on. You will not be given extra time to transfer answers, so it is recommended that you do this at the end of each passage, or make sure to leave 2–3 minutes near the end of the section to do this carefully.
We cannot stress enough how important it is to practice for this section of the IELTS. Read every day. Write every day. Learn new vocab every day. Mostly, though, learn to relax and approach the test with confidence.