Category: Techniques

IELTS Reading: Essential Skills and Strategies

Do you wish there was a magic device that would enable you to become a more effective reader? Many IELTS candidates probably do. Most EFL students I have taught have a low opinion of their own reading ability. This is because they consider every unclear word or sentence a serious failure on their part. In fact, it’s possible to get a very high score in IELTS Reading without fully understanding a passage or many of the words within. Mastering a few basic skills and strategies, some of which you probably already use in your first language, is the key to success in IELTS Reading.

Important: The article assumes you are familiar with the IELTS Reading test format. If you aren’t read IELTS Reading: Introduction first.


Skilled readers quickly ‘get the gist’ (understand the main idea) of a passage by using speed-reading, or skimming. They glance quickly at titles and headings to identify the general topic. They know where to look for the writer’s main idea: near the end of the introduction and the beginning of the conclusion. When reading body paragraphs, they stop as soon as they have understood the main idea and they don’t bother reading supporting sentences such as examples and quotations. If they see a word they don’t recognise, they never stop to consider what it means. Instead, their eyes are constantly moving across, or skimming the text. Practice skimming every time you encounter a new reading passage and, as a general rule, don’t spend more than 5 minutes skim-reading a passage in IELTS, not even the longest of the three passages.

Understanding how a text is organised

Another skill that goes hand-in-hand with skimming is understanding the organisation of a text. How many paragraphs comprise the introductory section? Where is the thesis statement located? What is the main function of each paragraph? Which linking expressions indicate a change of topic or argument? Some readers mentally note these observations, some prefer to underline key topic words and signal phrases, while others annotate (write brief summarising words) in the margins. Understanding how a text is organised will help you locate information more quickly when it comes to answering the questions.


When reading a question, the temptation is start scanning the text for the answer immediately. However, effective scanning begins with careful study of the question. What information do you need to find? A person’s name? A year? A reason? An effect? Are there specific names or technical terms in the question that are certain to appear in the text? To locate specific facts such as dates and names, one high-speed technique is to scan backwards through the text, which prevents you from re-reading the sentences. To find ideas, you will need to become a master of paraphrase.

Identifying paraphrase

The majority of the 40 questions in IELTS Reading will involve some form of paraphrase of the original text: headings and summaries are typical examples. As a paraphrase expresses the same meaning using different words, it naturally helps to have a huge vocabulary. However, vocabulary size is not everything. Paraphrase recognition starts with knowing which words are most likely to be paraphrased: conceptual words like find/discover, avoid/prevent, and theory/explanation are typically paraphrased, while more technical terms such as infectious disease, volcanic eruption, or silicon chip are likely to re-appear in the text. Concentrate your vocabulary learning on the former group, the core concept words, many of which appear in the Academic Word List.

Guessing unknown words

It’s guaranteed that there will be words you don’t know in the Reading module of IELTS. In fact, the test writers deliberately place difficult words in the passages to see if candidates can figure them out using contextual clues. These contextual clues can include a definition, a paraphrase elsewhere in the text, collocating words, or word parts, i.e. prefixes and suffixes. Skilled IELTS test-takers have more than just a well-stocked vocabulary; they also have the skills to cope with an unknown word and guess intelligently at its most likely meaning.

Time management

By answering 30 out of 40 questions correctly, you can achieve a score of 7.0 in the Academic Reading module of IELTS, which is considered good enough to enter most universities in the world. The lesson here is: Don’t spend too much time on the 10 most difficult questions. It’s more important that you allow yourself time to answer the 30 easiest questions and give the remaining 10 your best guess. As a general rule, if you’re still unsure of an answer after one minute, pencil in your best guess, move on to the next question, and come back to it later if there’s time.

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