Intro to the IELTS Reading Paper

IELTS Academic reading is probably the paper that students struggle most with, especially because of the short time allowed to read the three texts and answer the forty questions. Here’s a quick intro to what you can expect from the reading paper.

It sometimes feels like the people who set the reading paper of the IELTS exam have deliberately decided to set you an impossible task – and in some ways that is true!  If you want to calmly read and consider every sentence, ponder every word and mull over each paragraph, then I can almost guarantee that you won’t complete the test in the time allowed.  But this isn’t some cruel game the examiners are playing with you, in fact they do it for a very good reason.  As a test that is used for university admission, the IELTS exam has to try and reflect the kind of reading you have to do when studying for a university degree.  That is to say, dealing with large volumes of written text, some of which is important to you, but most of which isn’t. 

Obviously, the IELTS exam doesn’t present you with a library and tell you to write a thesis!  Rather, it gives you three passages (another word for ‘texts’) of about 900 words each, and makes you answer a total of 40 questions, so about 13 or 14 questions for each passage.  To complete it successfully in the one hour allowed, the you’ll need to quickly assess the questions and decide what information you’ll need to answer it, analyse the text to decide what information is important to you and where that information is located, and then efficiently understand the meaning of that important information and use it to answer the questions.

What are the passages about? 

The passages could be about almost topic, from science and technology to history, music, art and architecture.  They are generally in a semi-academic, informative style and intended for a reader who has a good level of education but does not necessarily have any specialist knowledge of the subject matter.  All the passages are taken from authentic sources, such as journals, magazines and newspapers – so these are ‘real’ texts that were intended for an audience of native English speakers.

What kinds of questions do I have to answer?

There are several different types of questions, each with its own particular format and requiring different strategies from the reader.  Some of the most common ones are listed below:

  1. Matching paragraph headings.
  2. Here you are given a list of headings or paragraph titles and you have to match them to some or all of the paragraphs.  The heading summarises the general meaning of its paragraph using synonyms and parallel expressions.  There are more headings than paragraphs, and IELTS loves to trick you with ‘red herrings’, for example giving a heading that uses the same word as is found in a paragraph but with a completely different meaning!

  3. Matching paragraph information.
  4. Similar to matching headings, but with the specific information in the paragraph rather than the general meaning.

  5. Yes/No (or True/False)/Not Given questions
  6. These are some of the trickiest (or for an IELTS geek, most interesting!) questions in the reading paper.  You have to decide if a statement the same (Yes/True) or the opposite (No/False) of information in the passage, or if the information is not found in the passage at all (Not Given).  The statements are paraphrases of the text so there’s no point in just matching the words you see – you need to get to the underlying meaning.

  7. Sentence completion and Summary completion.
  8. In these questions you are given a sentence or paragraph (summary) with missing words and you need to fill in the missing words based on information in the passage. For summary completion, you’ll be given some words to choose from.

  9. Multiple choice and list selection.
  10. You need to choose the correct answer to a question from a choice of four possible answers, of in list selection you need to choose two or more correct answers from a longer list.

  11. Matching sentence endings.
  12. Choosing the correct endings to the beginnings of sentences from a list.  You will need to use the information in the passage but can also use your knowledge of grammar to help you here.

  13. Completing tables, diagrams and flow charts
  14. In this question you will need to complete missing information from a table, diagram of flow chart using exact words and phrases from the passage.

How much time do I have?

You’ll have a total of one hour to do the whole paper so try to keep to just 20 minutes for each passage.  The time is very short, so you’ll need to be smart about how you approach the tasks.  For example, it’s usually a good idea to read some (though not necessarily all) of the questions before you start reading, so that you are reading with a purpose.  Often the questions go in the same order as the passage, so you can read the questions and the passage at the same time.  There might be some sections of the passage that you don’t read at all, because you don’t need that information to answer the questions.

How many questions do I need to get right?

For each reading paper IELTS produces a band score conversion table which will translate your score our of 40 to an IELTS band score from out of nine.  The conversion does vary depending on the difficulty of that particular paper, but the score to aim at is 30 points out of 40.  Most of the time this will give you a band 7, and if you are just below you’ll still get a perfectly respectable band 6.5. Anything under 20 points and you’re looking at band 5 or below.

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

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