IELTS Reading Tips
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 and a number
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. You might get lucky and you have nothing to lose.