How to get the best score you can in the academic IELTS reading test
There are 2 types of IELTS test – IELTS Academic and IELTS General training. The academic IELTS is typically required for students who want to study at a UK university at undergraduate or post-graduate level. Most language schools in the UK, therefore, offer this training.
The IELTS test assesses your English language ability in all 4 skills – listening, reading, speaking and writing. In this blogpost we are going to look at the IELTS reading test and in particular we are going to give advice on exam preparation for the academic IELTS module.
The academic reading paper lasts 60 minutes and there are 40 questions based on 3 long texts taken from books, journal, magazines and newspapers.
Pre-Test IELTS Reading Test Practice
The IELTS reading test involves reading about 2400 words and answering 40 questions in 60 minutes, which is a major challenge for most students. However, there are things you can do to maximise your chances of getting the band you need.
First, long before your test, spend time every week reading long, detailed articles about a variety of topics. Read for the basic idea (the gist) and then try to follow the argument and see how the ideas are linked together.
When you think you have the general idea think about who the article is aimed at, what the intentions of the writer are (to inform, entertain, try to change people’s ideas about something or to change government policy? Practise this by reading texts from a variety of sources such as serious newspapers, magazines (eg New Scientist, National Geographic, The Economist, Time, Newsweek, History Today) and websites.
When you have understood the basic ideas behind your article, look at each paragraph and identify the main topic and find reasons and examples the writer uses to make their point. After that look at how the writer has constructed the whole text. Is it a historical analysis (past history – present effects – future predictions), a problem/solution analysis, a description of a process, an argument for change or new ideas? Or a mixture of some or any of the above?
Lastly, highlight and check any vocabulary you are unsure of, highlight all the linking words you can find (eg firstly, secondly, while, but, whereas etc) and see how they work in the sentences and paragraphs. Also you could spend time each week checking through an academic word list and seeing how many of the most common words in academic articles you recognise/understand/can use.
Remember, all the above is also essential practice for task 2 writing. Don’t forget, the IELTS reading test is as much a test of vocabulary as a test of reading. So, as you widen your vocabulary make lists of synonyms. The people who write the questions do not use the same words as those in the text – that would be too easy!
During the IELTS Test
Do not spend a long time reading the text before trying the questions. Read quickly to get the gist and identify the topic of each paragraph. You might underline words and phrases that you think will be important in answering the questions. When you have done that, start looking at the questions.
However, some people prefer to read the questions first before looking at the text. This will give you an overview of the topic and can save time. As you read the questions underline key words and phrases and then try to find the answers in the text. If this works better for you, then do it.
Try to understand new words from the context and also from its similarity to a word you do know. Identify the part of speech (noun, verb, adjective etc) then try to guess what the word might mean. However, you probably will not have a lot of time to struggle with new vocabulary so just make the best guess you can and continue on.
In the real test be sure to spend only 20 minutes on each text to maximise your opportunities to respond properly to each question. If you don’t know the answer, guess; there is no extra penalty for a wrong answer. If you can’t find the answer in the text and Not given is an option, choose that. If the question is multiple choice, then discount the answers which are clearly wrong and then guess from the remaining answers.
Identify key words, phrases or ideas in the questions and use these to locate the paragraph or sentence with the answers.
Remember that different text types (problem/solution, historical description, process description, comparison and contrast, structured argument) have different structures and this can help you locate the answers to the questions. For example, you would normally expect to find solutions described after details of a problem and a historical description is likely to follow the pattern past-present-future.
Use headlines, titles, pictures and any other information provided to help you orient yourself to the text and help you understand the content.
Tips for the other IELTS papers
If you want tips on the listening, writing and speaking parts of the examination, look at our other blog posts from Simon.
Simon Cummings is Assistant Academic Director at The English Language Centre, an English school in Brighton, Sussex, on the south-coast of England. ELC offers intensive 4-week IELTS exam preparation courses that help students prepare for Academic IELTS. Simon has helped students learn English for more than 25 years and has around 20 years' experience helping students successfully prepare for IELTS. He was an IELTS examiner for 15 years and regularly teaches on the IELTS Examination Preparation Course at ELC.