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The IELTS Reading Answering Process Explained

Bibin Francis is an IELTS enthusiast guiding students in securing a good score in the exam.

A good score in the International English Language Test (IELTS) enables you to pursue a career or higher education in your dream country. Here, we focus on the strategies and techniques to get a seven-plus band score in IELTS reading section.

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Breaking Down the International English Language Test (IELTS)

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of the methodologies applicable for various question types in IELTS reading, let us familiarise ourselves with the structure of this subsection. The reading test involves 40 questions in total, across three different sections, which you should answer in 60 minutes.

The three different sections within the IELTS reading test exhibit a progressive increase in difficulty. This means that section 1 is comparatively easier while section 3 is a tad difficult. But no need to worry too much—it’s not rocket science! With the right approach (which we will discuss soon), it’s as crackable as a nutshell.

To begin with, how much time should you allocate for each subsection within the reading test? Prominent IELTS examiners recommend that you allot 17–18 minutes for section 1 and section 2 each and the remaining time (24 minutes) for section 3.

Bear in mind that the answering process for IELTS reading is immediate, which means that you won’t get additional time after the 60 minutes to transfer your responses to the answers sheet—you have to do it right away! This starkly contrasts with the IELTS listening section, where you get extra time to mark your answers at the end of the audio track. Just keep this difference in mind.

IELTS reading tests you on three different aspects: the ability to identify the keywords (subject, object and/or verbs) in the question, locating those words in the passage fast (a process known as “scanning”), as well as understanding the language at the sufficient proficiency level.

The key to your success in IELTS reading depends on these four factors: vocabulary enhancement, scanning (which I defined earlier), time management and, above all, avoiding the mistake of reading the whole passage first (don’t do it!). Believe me: you can answer the questions without reading through the entire paragraphs, I will show you how shortly.

Types of Questions on the IELTS

But before that, I need you to understand that one can expect 13 main question types in the IELTS reading test. For the sake of convenience, let us categorise them into three, based on previous exam question patterns.

Question types that always go in order:

  1. short answer
  2. yes/no/not given (true/ false/not given)
  3. fill in the blanks
  4. headings (identify section/title)
  5. flowchart
  6. standard multiple-choice question

Question types that mostly go in order:

  1. sentence completion
  2. summary question
  3. tables
  4. diagrams

Question types that do not go in order:

  1. paragraph location (this one is trouble maker, do it last!)
  2. matching/classification
  3. Pick 2 or 3 from a list

If a question goes in order, it means the sentences in which the answers appear follow the same order as when one reads the given passage from the beginning. For example: suppose the answer to the first fill-in-the-blanks question is located in the second paragraph—then the answer to the second question will be after that (in the same paragraph or second or third paragraph etc.). However, this trend cannot be observed in questions that do not follow an order. The answer to the first matching question might be in the fourth paragraph, while that of the second question in the first paragraph!

To tackle the questions, you need to finish those question types that go in order first, followed by those which go in order most of the time. Finally, attempt those question categories that do not follow any order, as they require more time to finish.

Do These Strategies Apply to IELTS Academic as Well as General?

Yes, of course! The only considerable difference between the IELTS academic and general reading section lies in the difficulty level, with the academic version being slightly more challenging than the other one.

Let’s take a closer look. The academic reading section typically consists of three long, multi-paragraph passages (one in each section), while the general training shows two to three passages in section one, two passages in section two, and one long passage in section three. You might find three question types for each passage in the academic version but only one to two question types for each passage in the general training. Further, IELTS academic passages use more difficult and technical vocabulary, making it a tad harder to establish synonym relationships between the keywords and the matching language in the passage.

Generally speaking, IELTS academic reading is related to fields like Science, Geology, History, Archaeology, Sociology, Psychology etc. General reading usually focuses on matters related to social/work/personal life, newspapers or journals, advertisements, and employee manuals.

Study Apply, and Analyse

Students take a lot of mock exams as part of their IELTS preparation but get disappointed once they don’t receive the expected score. I would like to suggest a three-step approach: study, apply, and analyse.

In the initial stage, you grasp the essential methodologies to tackle the questions properly. For example, reading this article can be considered as part of this stage. The application stage comes when you take one of the previous IELTS reading question papers and answer it under the specified time limit, simulating the environments comparable to that of the real exam.

Most students skip the final stage of analysis and this leads to failure. The analysis stage focuses on identifying the wrong answers and evaluating what went wrong so that you can avoid it next time. Without this process, all your practice becomes a futile exercise.

So, What Exactly Goes Into the Answering Process?

Attack those questions that go in order first. For instance, suppose you chose to answer the fill-in-the-blanks question. Among the series of questions within this question type, you can further filter those which are easier to answer first and do them. For example, if a question contains a proper noun like the name of a place or a person, it can be easily located in the reading passage, and the answer will be in its vicinity.

So, you underline the keywords in the question (subject/object/verb), and then scan the passage to find the matching sentence corresponding to those keywords. Once you locate the required section of the passage, it’s just a matter of connecting the languages using synonyms and paraphrasing relationships, and you get your answer.

In the case of fill-in-the-blanks type, you can focus on the language before and after the blank line to connect to the answer choice. Bear in mind that the examiners may use two sentences from the passage to form a single-sentence question.

I have to specify one caveat for true/false/not given type. In the IELTS reading context, true means 100% true. This means all the essential information from the question is in the passage. You cannot make assumptions or inferences based on your general knowledge. Along the same lines, false implies that essential language from the question has been changed or made different in the passage. If the information from the question is missing, you will mark the answer as not given.

Do the questions that do not go in order last in the set. They consume more time, but there’s a trick here. If you have already answered other question types in the set, you must have gone through most portions of the reading passage as part of your scanning process. Now, when you attempt a question like a paragraph location, it would be much less strenuous, as you already know where most of the information is located.

I hope this discussion has helped you on your IELTS preparation to secure a good education and future in English-speaking countries.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Bibin Francis

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