The IELTS Academic Reading module consists of the three passages and 40 questions. The module lasts one hour and student must manage their own time.
Teaching IELTS Reading isn’t everyone’s idea of a good time. However, just like speaking practice, reading lessons can be communicative and rewarding. Below are my top ten ways to teach IELTS Reading while also giving students the opportunity to work in groups.
These tips assume that you’re teaching the IELTS Reading Academic module to small groups. However, many can be adapted to IELTS General Training lessons and to one-on-one teaching situations.
Looking for a basic guide to IELTS Reading? Read this first: IELTS Reading: Introduction
Completely new to teaching IELTS? Read this first: How to Teach IELTS: The Basics
1. Teach anything important before students see the text
Once you allow students to look at a reading text and/or questions you may find it a struggle to maintain their undivided attention. Their natural inclination is always to dive into the text on the assumption that this will make it easier for them to answer the questions later. (Hint: it doesn’t.) If there’s anything important you need to do in the early stages of a lesson – activate knowledge of the topic, brainstorm relevant vocabulary, teach or review reading strategies – make sure this is done before the text appears.
2. Use analogies to teach skimming and scanning
Students may have trouble understanding the difference between these two reading techniques. One solution is to avoid teaching them together. Another is to use analogies from real life. My favourite are skimming a stone and catching a flight. In the former, get students to close their eyes and imagine they are at the beach. Use the analogy of a stone skimming the water to illustrate that they must keep their eyes moving across the text when skim-reading. To demonstrate scanning, talk students through a scenario in which they arrive at an airport fifteen minutes before their flight is due to depart. Here, they have to block out all other sensory data and search quickly for information about their own flight, just like scanning a text for the answer to a question in IELTS. These visualising techniques also create powerful emotional connections to the techniques being taught. Try them!
3. Use flash-reading and predicting before skimming
Flash-reading can be used as a precursor to skimming and involves trying to get as much information as possible from a text in a very short time, e.g. 30 seconds. The main purpose of flash-reading is to identify the topic by looking at titles, subtitles and headings, and trying to locate the thesis statement. Once the text is covered again and the topic elicited from the class, this can also be a useful jumping-off point to get students to predict in small groups what the writer will say, keeping the reading task communicative. Then the students can be given 3-5 minutes to skim the text and confirm their predictions.
4. Ask checking questions after skimming
Good checking questions are those that can be answered simply and that activate the areas of knowledge of the text required to complete the exam task. Examples: How many causes are mentioned? In which paragraph does the writer mention solutions? Bad checking questions are those that ask too much, such as What do you think of the writer’s views? The only effect of these questions will be to force students to re-read the whole text.
5. Get students summarising in pairs
This is a good way to check if students have picked up on the main ideas in the text. Ask your students to close the book or cover the exam paper and spend 2-3 minutes verbally summarising the text with a partner. It’s important that this doesn’t go on too long as there will be little time to reflect on the article during the actual IELTS test.
6. Demonstrate paraphrasing from the question
When it’s time to move on to the questions, demonstrate several paraphrasing techniques using the first question in a set as an example, and then get students to practice paraphrasing the remaining questions with a partner. Do this before they begin looking for the answers. Again, separation of skills practice from test practice is what I’m advocating here. The goal of skills practice is often to get students to try something new, whereas in test situations they will tend to rely on existing habits and familiar strategies. New techniques can only be introduced and mastered through skills practice, which often means withholding the test practice part of the lesson from students until you think they are ready.
7. Demonstrate guessing unknown words
When an unfamiliar word is queried, avoid giving a definition right away. Act as if you don’t know the word either and demonstrate how to look for contextual clues. Often the word will be a technical term and there will be a clear definition in the text. Otherwise, demonstrate to students how logical connectives, parallel expressions and collocating words usually provide enough information to guess the meaning of an unknown word in IELTS Reading.
8. Set your students realistic goals
None of your students should be aiming to get 40 correct answers, so any frustration at failure to achieve this is potentially damaging to the student’s progress. Stress that 30 out of 40, equivalent to IELTS 7.0 in the Academic module, is a very good score, meaning that attention should be focussed on answering the 30 easiest questions, not the 10 most difficult. Once they accept this, your students should improve in time management as well.
9. Separate academic vocabulary from technical vocabulary
Naturally students will encounter many unfamiliar words in the Academic Reading module of IELTS. Help them cope with this influx of new vocabulary by directing them towards the right words to learn. Show them that vocabulary can be divided into three broad groups.
- General vocabulary consists of the words we use in everyday communication. Estimates for general vocabulary range from 2000-3000 words, most of which will already be known to your students.
- Academic vocabulary is estimated to consist of around 1000 word families. These include many adjectives used to describe and evaluate things, and many verbs used to describe relationships. Academic vocabulary may sound foreboding, but many of these words will again be known to students, just not used very often, if at all, in everyday speech.
- Technical vocabulary, by far the largest group of words, consists overwhelmingly of names for things. Where they appear in IELTS Reading, technical words will usually be defined.
Help your IELTS students to recognise the difference between academic and technical vocabulary and prioritise the former in their vocabulary acquisition. There are resources to help with this, such as the Academic Word List and University Word List.
10. Encourage task-based reading outside class
A common question students ask concerns what they should be reading outside class. However, it’s not what they read but HOW they read that matters most. Since reading is a largely passive activity, reading for test preparation should incorporate tasks that provide more targetted practice of reading skills. As long as students are practicing these skills, any newspaper, magazine or online article will do. Examples of task-based reading include:
- Underline topic sentences.
- Find five academic words and five technical words in the article.
- Join any pronouns to the nouns they refer to.
- Identify the writer’s argument and write a one-paragraph response.
- Find names of people and paraphrase their ideas and opinions.
- Practice giving a two-minute spoken summary of the article, as though you are recounting it for a friend.