The importance of time in the test
The reading test has three sections and 40 questions. You have 60 minutes to complete the questions and transfer your answers onto a separate sheet. High-level candidates can do this within the time limit, making few mistakes, while lower-level candidates struggle. The difference comes down to language and reading skills. So, as we will see, the time limit plays an important part in the test, because it forces you to read efficiently, and use a range of reading skills.
What are the key skills needed for IELTS reading?
To answer this question, we need to remember that IELTS aims to find out whether or not you have the skills needed for academic study, work-related training, or as part of your profession. Let us begin by looking at a real-life example of this. Over the last few years, several of my nieces and nephews have completed university degrees. Their subjects were wide-ranging, covering fields such as dentistry, business, engineering, and fashion, but they had one common factor: a dissertation. This involved writing a question, carrying out research, reaching a conclusion that answered their question, then writing up their findings. One of my nieces carried out a review of clinical studies into the effectiveness of a specific treatment for gum disease. Before beginning her research, she decided on her key terms, and common synonyms for those terms. This helped to narrow down her research. Nevertheless, her initial search still resulted in a list with over 800 possible references. Clearly, no one has time to read this number of studies in detail. Furthermore, as the vast majority of the references she found were not as relevant as they first appeared, attempting to do that would have been a waste of her time. To work efficiently, and finish her dissertation within the deadline, my niece had to use key reading skills. She had to quickly scan the titles to eliminate any that were duplicates or simply not useful, which left 65 studies. Next, she had to skim read the abstract for the remaining papers to see if they were truly relevant to her very specific question. This left 6 studies, which she then read in detail to reach a conclusion and answer her question.
What is the difference between skimming and scanning?
To read efficiently, you need to be able to scan and skim read. In language teaching, ‘scanning’ means moving your eyes very quickly over a text to find a key detail, such as a word or a number. A real-world example of this is searching for a telephone number on a web page. When we scan, we do not read individual words, our eyes just search for the detail, a little like trying to quickly spot a detail in a picture or photograph. Skim reading means reading a text very quickly to get the general idea of what it is about. When skim reading, your eyes move more slowly over the text, noticing key words and phrases but without pausing to read details. So, you will not be able to answer specific questions after skim reading a text, you will only be able to give a general impression or overview of it.
Should I read the questions or the passage first?
Remember, this is a reading test, so your main focus should always be on reading. At the start of each section, I advise you to glance quickly at the question types, just to satisfy your curiosity, then skim read the whole passage in under 3 minutes. Make sure to include the heading, subheading, and any footnotes. Those who advise reading the questions first may do so because they have seen materials where you can guess answers without reading. But materials like this do not accurately reflect IELTS. The materials used in the real test are written slowly and carefully by professional test writers; it takes 12 months to write, edit, pretest, and check the real test materials to make sure that the questions are fair and the answers cannot be guessed.
The impact of vocabulary and grammar on reading skills
We are able to perform tasks quickly if we do them often. However, you need more than skimming and scanning practice to be able to read IELTS reading passages quickly. You will struggle to build up skim reading skills for the type of language and structures found in IELTS reading passages if your own language level is band 5 or lower. So, if your current IELTS reading test score is relatively low, aim to focus on learning vocabulary and grammar before you work on IELTS passages. You can still develop skim reading skills using simpler passages; the first two sections from General Training practice tests are perfect for this. The more familiar the language is to you, the faster you will be able to read it. So, building vocabulary can help improve your reading speed.
Reading in detail
Many people struggle with time in the test because they attempt to read the passages in detail. Remember, the amount of time you are given is a deliberate way of forcing you to use a range of skills, and scanning and skim reading will help you manage your time in the test. Reading in detail is the final stage that helps you answer the questions correctly. Just as my niece did not attempt to read 800 papers for her dissertation, you should not begin by reading the whole passage in detail.
When we read each word slowly and carefully, we are reading in detail. In my experience, mistakes occur at this stage because of:
• looking for an answer in the wrong part of the passage
• misinterpreting the question
• misinterpreting the passage
• mistaking a small detail for a big idea
• trying to simply match words instead of using reading skills
These problems can be linked to a lack of reading skills, problems with vocabulary and grammar, and practising with materials that do not reflect the real test.
The effect of grammar on reading in detail
The reading passages in the test are authentic academic, or professional texts. They contain complex ideas, which are described, explained, and discussed. You will often need to follow the development of a main idea within the passage. This requires an understanding of referencing within and between sentences. At the detailed-reading stage, language problems can interfere with your ability to do this. For example, if you struggle with the use of articles, relative clauses, or pronouns, you may not be able to see how different ideas are connected to each other, which will affect your ability to answer the questions.
Why are there so many different question types?
A reading test with only one type of question means that your test preparation is very limited. For example, if there are only multiple-choice questions, then you only need to practise choosing an answer from a list. The different reading tasks in IELTS are a way of ensuring that the test has a positive wash back effect on your studies, because they force you to use and learn a range of skills. We could see the different tasks as a way of asking:
• When did this happen?
• Where did this happen?
• What happens first / next?
• How does this work?
• How / why did they do this?
• What exactly does this mean?
• Does this mean xyz?
• Who said this?
• What is the main idea here?
• Why did the writer say this?
• What is the writer suggesting here?
• Where is this information?
• What is the cause or effect of this?
Which questions are in the same order as the passage?
I often talk about IELTS being a fair test. This means that, rather than trying to trick you, the questions are organised into the most helpful and logical order possible. This is why I always advise people to answer the questions in the same order as they appear on the question paper, rather than going to a favourite question type first.
How should I answer these questions?
As the testing aim with these questions is to check that you have a precise understanding of one part of the passage, they generally contain information that will help you to quickly locate the relevant part. In other words, they force you to use your scanning skills.
To answer these questions, you should:
1. Read the question in detail and identify key terms.
2. Scan the passage for the terms (or any synonyms) – N.B you may find the same detail mentioned in more than one place.
3. Skim read each part where you found the key terms to help identify the right one.
4. Read the relevant part in detail to answer the question.
Let us see how this works in what is often seen as the most problematic question type in IELTS reading: True, False, Not Given.
True, False, Not Given and Yes, No, Not Given
These tasks consist of a list of statements, and you must decide if they are True, False or Not given, based on the information in the passage. The difference between ‘True, False, Not given’ and ‘Yes, No, Not Given’, is in the passage rather than the questions. The former are used with a factual passage, while the latter are used with passages that contain the views or claims of the writer. For brevity, I will mainly refer to ‘True, False, Not given’ questions here, but the following advice applies to both tasks. The confusion over these questions often occurs because of examples that do not reflect the real test. Consider this, if you were to see some puzzling maths questions that were confusing and had no clear answer, you would not immediately conclude that there is a problem in the world of mathematics. Similarly, when you find T/F/NG examples that are confusing, you should not reach a conclusion about IELTS based on these.
What do ‘True’ and ‘False’ mean?
A True statement is one that accurately reflects the information in the passage and seems to cause little confusion. However, there is some discussion over what ‘False’ means, with many people stating that a false statement is ‘the opposite’ of the information in the passage, but this idea is misleading. Very often, these statements are simply factually incorrect. For example, the passage may state that something occurred at a certain date or in a certain place, while the statement in the question gives the wrong date, place, or event. Thus, it is more accurate to say that ‘False’ means incorrect, or untrue. Most importantly, we can correct a false statement, because the correct information appears in the passage.
The confusion about ‘Not Given’
The idea of ‘Not Given’ causes the most discussion and confusion, and there appears to be a common belief that it means searching through a passage for something that is not there. This is not true of the real test. If it was, the task would be frustrating and unfair, because you would waste time looking for something that does not exist. Some videos say, ‘don’t bother to look for Not Given answers, they’re not there!’, and ‘if you can’t find it, then it’s not given’. If you follow this advice, when you do find the same key terms in both the passage and the question, you will wrongly conclude, ‘I found something, so it can’t be Not Given, it must be either True or False.’
Remember, these questions are in the same order as the information in the passage, and they are really asking: ‘Does this mean xyz?’ So, for these questions, you will always know which part of the passage you must read in detail, whether the answer is True, False, or Not given. Once you have found a key detail in the passage that matches a key detail in the question, this simply signals that you know where to read in detail – it does not give you your answer. This is where materials that do not reflect the real test hinder your progress. These materials train you to simply match vocabulary and to stop reading once you have found a key word or synonym; such materials discourage you from using the skills you must develop for the real test.
IELTS is fair, valid, and reliable, and the tasks clearly reflect the purpose of the test. To help explain the validity of True, False, Not given questions, and also demonstrate how they work, I will use another dissertation example. Let us imagine that I have a nephew who is studying engineering, and he has decided to write a dissertation about the effect that building design has on climate change. He would first do some research and find some good sources of information. Then, when writing his dissertation, he would need to refer to this source material to provide support for his claims.