IELTS pre-reading strategies

As we have previously mentioned it is IMPOSSIBLE to read ALL three texts in the IELTS reading exam.  So, what can you do to pass this exam?  Well, you need to work what the text is about, and know where to find the answers.  Easy, right?  It is if you know how!   We’ve got some tips for you about how to tackle the reading exam. 

Just to remind you – Texts for the Academic Reading test are taken from books, journals, magazines and newspapers. They are on topics that normal  people – like us and you – should have some knowledge about.  There are three texts and the third one is usually harder than the first two.  

In a nutshell, to get an overview of the text, we recommend a particular strategy.  Before you look at the questions, look at the title, then the structure of the text, scan the text, read the first paragraph and first sentence of each line and then the last paragraph.  After that, you should have a very good idea what the article is about and how it is structured. Sounds complicated?  We’ll explain a little more about each stage below. 

But first, why do we recommend this strategy?  Well, as we’ve stated, it is impossible to read ALL three texts, in full, in twenty minutes or less, unless you are proficient in English.  Another reason is that getting an overall feel or impression of the text will help you to know where to look for the answers, and THEN, you can read sections of the text in detail, AFTER you know what you are looking for.  

Predict from the Title

Look carefully at the title. For example, if the title is Making Time for Science, ask yourself some questions:

What do I know about this topic?  Time?  Science?  How do Science and Time go together?  How time affects science?   What could the article be about? It could be about how we need to spend more time on science?  

Don’t limit the ideas that you come up with, just spend 30 seconds thinking about the topic and what you might  read in the article. This is called predicting. Why do we do this?  It activates schemata.  Sounds very smart, doesn’t it?  It simply means that when you think about a topic, your mind finds any information that you might know about the topic and brings it to the front of your mind.  Think of it as a million little pieces of a spider’s web going out into your mind and making a map around the topic. This will help you to better understand what you are reading.  

Scan the article in one minute

So now you are about 30 seconds into the exam.  Next, take 1 minute – only a minute – and scan vertically DOWN the pages, letting your eyes pick up random words that you know. Focus on the words that you know, not the words that you don’t know.  In the same article as above, your writer scanned the text and saw the following words:



Rhythm of time

Position of the sun

Circadian rhythms


Never skip breakfast

After dinner espressos – sleep

(and others)

So if we take those words and again, predict, what the article is about, we can make a very good guess what the article is about.  It’s about how time in the day affects the biology of our bodies.  Correct, no?

As you scan, circle words that have capital letters like people’s names, or the names of cities, countries or books, or words that are in italics.  You can also circle or draw a box around dates.  Later, these markings will help you when you are looking for something.

Read the first paragraph

Next, before you read the questions, read the first paragraph in full.  This will give you a very good overview of the whole article and explain what you are going to read. For example: 

Chronobiology might sound a little futuristic – like something from a science fiction novel, perhaps – but it’s actually a field of study that concerns one of the oldest processes life on this planet has ever known: short-term rhythms of time and their effect on flora and fauna.

Was that close to our guess from the title?  Or from the scan?   Quite close!  So now you know that the article is about the time of biology, about the rhythms of life – ours and other living things.

Sample the text

Then you read the first sentence of each paragraph – this is called sampling.  Generally, but not always, the first sentence of a paragraph is the topic sentence (See paragraph structure blog) which will give you a little summary of what the entire paragraph is about.  So if you read this sentence,

When it comes to humans, chronobiologists are interested in what is known as the circadian rhythm.

you know that the entire paragraph is about circadian rhythms!  Even if you don’t know what circadian rhythms are, if there are any questions related to circadian rhythms, THIS is the paragraph you need to come to.  We suggest that you circle the word or put a box around it – something to make it JUMP out at you! 

What do you think this paragraph is about?  

The average urban resident, for example, rouses at the eye-blearing time of 6.04 a.m., which researchers believe to be far too early.

Did you guess that it’s about our morning routines?  Correct!

So, if you read the first sentence of each paragraph, and identify the topic of that paragraph, it will be much easier to find what you are looking for when you read the questions.

Read the last paragraph

Then, finally, we suggest that you read the last paragraph in full to see how the article concludes.  

At this point, you should have a very good idea of what the topic is, how the article is structured, and what each paragraph is about.  NOW you are ready to look at the questions!  Later on, we’ll deal with the different types of questions in detail, individually!

So this blog post deals with ways to support yourself in the reading exam.  It gives you a number of great ideas to make understanding of the reading texts as easy as possible.  It may sound complicated but if you practice, and can do each stage swiftly, it will help you immensely in dealing with the answers in the quickest way possible!  Good luck!

Follow our blog for more specific tips and strategies on the IELTS reading and other papers.

Check our other IELTS articles Reading Strategies, Speaking Strategies , Pre-writing Tips and How to get a Good Score in Writing Task 2.

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