The IELTS reading test is one hour long and consists of three passages taken from a variety of sources. These sources might be journals, books, magazines, reports, etc. You have to answer 40 (usually) questions based on the texts. 12-14 questions per passage. The texts are usually of a similar level of difficulty, the three sections do become slightly more difficult from one to three, and this is achieved by making the questions more difficult.
Question types could include any of the following: gap fill, multiple choice, labelling a diagram, sentence completion, notes completion, summary completion, selecting suitable headings for paragraphs or sections, selecting which person holds a particular view, selecting the most suitable title for a passage. Obviously, all the question types will not appear on every test, however, you should be familiar with all the types and the strategies used to successfully answer them.
What to read
The following information may seem surprising, but a good tip is to understand what you need to read and what can be ignored. There are potentially 2000 or so words per reading passage plus perhaps another 200 words in the questions. 6200 words or possibly a little more in total and only one hour to read, understand, and answer 40 questions. The answer is NOT to read all the texts. A native speaker would find reading and understanding this amount of text challenging. Clearly, we need to find a way to answer the questions correctly and speedily.
As an example, a text is about the Ford Motor Company from its beginnings until the present day. Your first task is to carefully read the questions, underline key words, take note of HOW MANY WORDS YOU CAN USE, this is in bold because it is important. It does vary and is not always three words. Then you should read the whole of the introductory paragraph. This gives an overview of what the whole topic is about and after reading this and the questions you will have a good idea of the text’s content.
Now because academic writing is following a formula we can reliably predict that each paragraph contains one idea only and everything in that paragraph will be either content or ‘signpost words’ to help a reader navigate through the text. Therefore, if we read the introductory or ‘topic’ sentence in each paragraph we can be sure we know what each paragraph is about. Once we have done this all the way through the text we can then begin to find the appropriate paragraph which will contain the answers we need.
Imagine the question you need to answer next is this: What strategies will the company employ to increase sales in the future?
Now using the first sentence knowledge we now have it would be easy to ‘dismiss’ many paragraphs after reading just a few words. For example, the following sentence beginnings are parts of the topic sentences of seven paragraphs:
- During the early years of the company…
- The First World War brought different challenges to the engineers…
- The inter-war years saw a slump in sales…
- The second worldwide conflict, WWII, saw the company struggle with outdated machines…
- Not until the sixties did sales show an upturn…
- Nowadays the firm have consolidated…
- Looking towards the future, in an attempt to increase market share…
What paragraph would you need to look at to find the answer to the question about increasing sales in future? _______
Now, how about this question: What was the main problem that the company faced during the Second World War? _______
As you can see, this strategy saves doing a lot of reading that is not required to answer the question.
Establishing the truth about YES / NO / Not Given questions
This type of question causes huge problems for some students. Mainly because they will not stop looking for the answer. Y/N/NG questions are still all about a particular topic and the same techniques can be employed to narrow down where any evidence for/against/or just not mentioned is. If you do not find positive or negative evidence to support Yes or No then it MUST be Not Given. You may have to look at two paragraphs if the main topic runs over both, occasionally three paragraphs in a section could potentially contain the answer. However, you do not need to read the whole text to establish that it is not there.
Here is a typical paragraph about rainforests:
There are many reasons why rainforests are being lost at such a high rate nowadays. Chief among these reasons is the never ending quest for new agricultural land. Secondary reasons of importance are timber extraction for profit and clearance to access the underlying resources just below the soil. Minor reasons include, man-made forest fires, expanding urban areas and flooding with associated landslides caused by changing and unusual rainfall patterns.
Now, answer this Y/N/NG question based on the paragraph.
Drilling for oil is a major factor in rainforest deforestation. Y, N, Not Given
- Can you find positive proof that this happens?
- Can you find negative proof that this does not happen?
- Do you think that drilling for oil is not mentioned?
There is neither positive nor negative evidence for oil drilling. Although access to resources was mentioned, oil was not specifically mentioned. Therefore the answer is Not Given. There is no need to read any more of the text, this is the section which deals with reasons for the loss of rainforests.
Another point to remember is that in a series of questions featuring Y / N / Not Given options, at least one of each will be used. Look at the series of answers below. If you are sure that questions 1-4 have been correctly attempted, then the final answer MUST be Not Given as it has not yet been used.
- Y / N / Not Given
- Y / N / Not Given
- Y / N / Not Given
- Y / N / Not Given
- Y / N / Not Given
When we read there are some high frequency words which we know without having to ‘decode’ them. Words such as: and, because, sometimes, get, are most likely in everyone’s list of words which don’t need any effort to recognise. These words are in our sight vocabulary, those that we do not recognise, such as Madame Issac Periere, Asa Griggs Candler, 1896 AD, £14.6 million, are very often the answers to IELTS questions. We can use this to help to locate answers by scanning for either unrecognised words or specific words. See how quickly you can find the name of the place where the coldest temperature in the UK was recorded and what that temperature was?
The UK has what is known as a Northern Temperate climate. For its latitude it is relatively warm. The capital of Scotland, for example is Edinburgh, the temperature here varies from as low as -5°C for short periods to approximately 22°C in summer. This may not sound very warm; however, compared to Moscow, the capital of Russia, which lies on the same line of latitude as Edinburgh it is positively hot in winter. Moscow’s winter temperature regularly drops to below -10°C for weeks on end. There are, however, some places in the UK which do display more severe weather. The small town of Braemar, also in Scotland, regularly sees very low temperatures due to a freak of its geography. The lowest temperature ever recorded in the UK was in Braemar during winter 1982 when it plummeted to -27.2°C. Perversely, the town also regularly holds the record for both lowest and highest temperatures recorded in the UK during one day.
(Written by Ian Paul from data supplied by http://world-weather-and-climate.com, accessed 18/11/2015)
In some texts you are required to choose suitable headings for sections or individual paragraphs. These do mean you may have to read a little more than other question types. However, there will not be an exercise like this in all three passages.
You should also only use information from the text to inform your answer, even if it is about something you have studied or that you know very well. Do not be tempted to bring in extra information, all the information you need to answer the questions is in the texts.
You may read a word that you do not know. Do not worry about this, the meaning is usually available through context. If you need to know the meaning of a less frequent word in order to complete a task there may be a glossary at the bottom of the page. A glossary is a ‘mini dictionary’ giving definitions of more difficult words in a text. Alternatively there might be an explanation in the following sentence, such as you have just read to help explain the meaning of glossary.
Finally, the test is marked positively, in other words if you get an answer incorrect your score does not go down, it merely does not increase. Use this to your advantage and guess any questions you really get stuck with, or are running out of time with, you never know, the guess could be the difference of a band score.
So, to summarise, only read what you need to, the questions are a must, as is the first introductory paragraph and the topic sentences of the other paragraphs. Use the knowledge of the layout of the text to guide you to where the answers are. Use scanning techniques to locate words from the questions not in your sight vocabulary, these are often the answers. Never leave any blanks on your answer sheet.
Good luck with your test.