IELTS Reading Tips & Strategies That Help You Improve Your Band Score

Apr 3, 2023 | IELTS Test

Many candidates find IELTS Reading the hardest part of the test. Reading, even in your native language, requires a lot of concentration, and when you are assessed against the clock in a second language, it can become overwhelming for many. 

In our experience mentoring IELTS candidates, many fail to achieve the score they need either because of a weak vocabulary base or because they approach the IELTS Reading passage incorrectly and need to learn the correct techniques.

For example, if you are reading everything, you are approaching the Reading test in the wrong way!

Below we introduce you to the skills you should be using and give you IELTS Reading tips to help you gain a few vital marks.

We also provide some background information for both the General and Academic versions of the Reading section.

What Is The Format Of IELTS Reading?

The IELTS Reading section is designed to assess your ability to understand and analyse written English in academic or general contexts. The test aims to test three specific skills: skimming, scanning, and reading for detail. 

Depending on how you count, there are around nine different question types. These question types can be divided into three groups, each requiring a different technique. 

All in all, you have one hour to complete three readings and 40 questions. This is not long, so time management is crucial! 

The test has been deliberately designed so that you do not have time to read all of the text and answer the questions. You need to learn which section of the text to go to for each question type. 

If you would like some more information on the IELTS Reading format and which skills the examiners are assessing in more detail, you can visit this IELTS Reading page.

What Are The Differences Between The General & Academic IELTS Reading Tests?

Both the General and Academic versions of IELTS test the same skills; however, they differ in how they are presented.

The IELTS Academic Reading test consists of three sections with one long text each, taken from books, magazines, or newspapers. These texts will be scholarly in nature and may be factual, descriptive, analytical, or discursive. Because these texts can be more scientific, some technical terminology may be defined to help candidates.

The IELTS General Reading test also has three sections, but sections 1 and 2 contain more than one text. Section 1 includes two to three short factual texts, one of which may be composite, covering topics related to everyday life in an English-speaking country. Section 2 includes two short factual texts on work-related issues. Section 3 has a slightly longer and more complex text on a general topic taken from real-life sources such as notices, company handbooks, advertisements, books, and magazines. You can see a list of the General Reading topics here.

Why IELTS Reading Strategies Are So Important

We’ve already spoken in a little detail about why having a good strategy for IELTS reading is crucial to success. Let’s expand on those points and hopefully help you understand why getting the preparation right will be your ticket to IELTS Reading success.

Because the test has a time limit of 60 minutes for 40 questions, it’s essential to read and understand the structure of the texts quickly. Good reading strategies for IELTS will help you understand the texts and find the information you need to answer the questions. Using these strategies can also make you feel more confident and less worried when taking the test. Not only this, but you can also use these skills in real life, like when reading for university or work. 

Our Ultimate IELTS Reading Tips & IELTS Reading Strategies

image of a collection of books

With years of experience mentoring thousands of IELTS candidates, we have seen the many ways in which IELTS Reading skills can be improved. We know the common pitfalls and mistakes that are made, and below we have compiled a comprehensive list of tips that candidates can use in the Reading section to help them attain the band score they need.

1. Skimming

Test candidates’ biggest mistake on test day is to think they need to read everything carefully or quickly. This is not the case. The test has been deliberately designed so that you do not have enough time to read everything.

Another mistake candidates make is to go straight to the questions and start looking for the answers.

Instead, you should be reading the topic sentence of each paragraph and underlining the keywords. On a computer, you can instead highlight the keywords. Each paragraph starts a new topic or subtopic, and the words you underline should be the words that define the new topic. Once you have done this, you should skim over the rest of the paragraph and go to the next one. This means you do not read anything else in that paragraph. 

NB You should not usually underline dates, names and places. This kind of information usually contains a digit or capital letter that can be quickly found using the skill of scanning described below.

Once you have practised this IELTS Reading tip, you should be able to skim through a text in 3-4 minutes, and by the time you have finished, you will know what each paragraph is about. Once you start answering the questions, you will know exactly which paragraph to go to.

2. Scanning 

This is the 2nd most important skill and is used once you start answering the questions.

Scanning means simply that you just look at a block of text and let your eyes find a keyword without actually reading anything. 

For example, if your question contains the word 2nd, you should be able to find that in the reading very quickly. This is true for numbers and CAPITAL letters. Both numbers and capital letters are slightly higher than the rest of the text, and our brains should be able to pick them out quickly.

This skill should obviously only be used once you have identified a keyword in the question which contains a number or a capital letter – or stands out in some way.

Matching names to statements is one question type where this skill is most useful.

3. Reading for Detail

If you use the skills of skimming and scanning correctly, once you start answering the questions, you should know exactly where to go to find the answer. This is when you should start reading for detail.

Reading for detail means you read a small section of text that you know contains the answer carefully to make sure you are choosing the correct answer. You should always try to confirm the answer in the text and avoid guessing.

4. Understanding questions types 

It is also important to understand the purpose behind each question type since this will help to find the answers quickly.

Global questions are always in text order. For example, True, False, Not Given or short answer questions. Knowing that the answer to number 2 is between 1 and 3 and that the following answer will come after the last answer saves you a lot of time. The answers are also usually spread fairly evenly throughout the text.

Other question types are not in text order, but the answers appear in a small section of the text. For example, summary questions are often summarising one or two paragraphs, and although the questions do not have to be in text order, all you have to do is read that small section of the text carefully.

Other questions, such as matching questions, are neither in text order nor in a small section of the text. However, with these question types, the answers usually contain numbers or capital letters that can be found by scanning. 

5. Don’t Worry If You Come Across Unknown Words In The Exam

It’s not uncommon for candidates to be confronted by an unknown word in the Reading section, this is as true for native as for non-native speakers of English. However, the context in which the word appears will allow you to rough guess or infer the meaning.

If you are faced with an unknown word when taking the test, take the time to read the sentence or phrase and consider the context. Think about the relationships between the words and their implications, and try to use the surrounding information to understand the word’s meaning.

The process of elimination can also be helpful in this situation. If you can easily eliminate certain options as being clearly incorrect, it may be easier to then work out the correct meaning of the unknown word.

6. Check Your Spelling, Especially That Which Has Been Copied From The Text

Accurate spelling is an important factor in the Reading section. This is because the test assessors are looking to evaluate your comprehension of the text, attention to detail, and ability to transcribe the information accurately.

If you spell an answer wrong – it WILL be marked as incorrect. 

Therefore, it’s crucial to take the time to double-check your spelling before submitting your answers. 

Clerical markers rather than examiners mark the Reading and Listening parts of the test. They will only accept answers that exactly match that on their answer sheet.

7. Organise Your Revision Schedule To Give Yourself Time For Focused Reading

Organising your revision schedule is key to ensuring that you perform well in the IELTS Reading section. Focused reading is an essential aspect of preparing for IELTS, as it allows you to improve your reading speed and comprehension, build your vocabulary, and familiarise yourself with different types of texts you may encounter in the test.

One effective way to organise your revision schedule for focused reading is to allocate a certain amount of time each day for reading practice. This can be anything from 30 minutes to an hour, depending on your availability and schedule. You should choose materials that challenge you and push you out of your comfort zone during this time. This can include academic texts, news articles, and even fiction books, as long as they are written in English.

Myths About IELTS Reading That Won’t Help You

1. Speed Reading

Speed reading will not help you and is more likely to lead you to a wrong answer. Instead of reading quickly, you should use the skills outlined above to quickly identify the sections of text that contain the correct answer and read that small section slowly and carefully. Cambridge sometimes says that you should read quickly, but when they say that, they are talking about reading through a text quickly by focusing ONLY on the topic sentences.

2. When Practising, Read A Diverse Range Of Different Texts

This might help a little, but the variety of texts used in the IELTS Reading section means it is likely you will not have encountered a text like it before.

However, by reading a diverse range of texts, you can improve your vocabulary, improve your ability to understand complex sentences and develop your ability to understand the relationships between ideas. This will help you a great deal in the Speaking and Writing sections of the test.

We have listed a few different places where you can find high-quality and relevant examples of IELTS reading passages on our “How To Improve Your Vocabulary” page. Using sites like the BBC & The Guardian can be great as they cover a wide range of topics and are written to a high journalistic standard, making them good starting points for takers of either the General or Academic test.

What Else Can Be Done To Improve Your IELTS Reading?

We hope that the information above and our IELTS Reading strategies will help you improve your skills and conquer IELTS. But, if you’re still struggling to master the skills and abilities needed for this complex part of the IELTS exam, other solutions are available.

One-To-One IELTS Coaching. We’ve mentored over 4,500 students in a similar position to yourself and helped them get the band scores that they were after. If you feel that dedicated lessons with your very own IELTS tutor are the answer, then you can book a demo lesson with us by clicking this link.

Free IELTS Reading Practice Tests. You can also test your IELTS Reading skills or even test our IELTS Reading strategies by taking one of the online free practice tests with the British Council. They publish and update these practice tests on their own website, all of which you can view on this page.