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IELTS Reading: Exam skills

IELTS Reading: Exam skills

When I have a new IELTS class, the first thing I want to assess is their exam skills. So I ask them to read and complete some IELTS Reading tasks. Almost always, the questions go to one side, and the candidates focus on the text and read it word-by-word from beginning to end. I can always see some students panicking about words they don’t know. Meanwhile, the minutes are ticking away and no answers are being noted down…

In the Reading test, time is precious. This post focuses on three key strategies that can help you save time, and improve your band score.

1. Focus on the questions

It’s essential that you make the questions the priority rather than the reading passage. Start by reading the questions so that you know what information you need to look for when you turn to the passages. As you find the information, note it down straight away. Remember, the keywords in the questions may not be the same words they use in the passage. Make sure to look for keyword synonyms. That way, you are using the time available in the most efficient way. The alternative is to read the passage, then read the questions, then go back to the passage to look for the information you need — but that doesn’t make sense when time is limited.

2. Don’t worry about unknown words

Okay, you’re into the questions and you’re doing well… Suddenly, you see a word you don’t know and you start to panic. Calm down! The key here is not to worry and not to allow unknown words to distract you. Remember that even native speakers see words that they don’t know from time to time. As long as there aren’t too many of them, they should not stop you from understanding the passage. In any case, once you’re already taking the test, it’s too late to look the word up so you’ll need to try some reading strategies instead. Let’s look at an example. Here is a sentence with an unknown word (the unknown word is shown by XXX):

Among the animals threatened by climate change are elephants, XXX and polar bears.

Your first strategy should be to ignore the word. Can you understand the sentence anyway? If you can, carry on until you come across a word you can’t ignore.

Your second strategy is to then guess the meaning of the word from the other words around it. So in the sentence above, it is easy to guess that XXX is a kind of animal. If you are asked to name three animals that are threatened by climate change, it is reasonably safe to include XXX, even if you don’t know the word.

3. Move on!

If neither of these strategies works and you are still stuck, just move on to the next question and come back later if you have time. Time wasted on answers you don’t know is time lost on later answers that you might get right.

What’s next?

If you want to see more ideas on how to improve your band score, read this post about seven key tips for IELTS Reading. Or if you’d like some advice on how to give yourself the best chance on your test day, take a look at this post.


  1. Veronika says:

    It’s important not to get stuck on unfamiliar words. I made that mistake the first time I took the exam a few years ago. And I’m sure my result would have been better if I had focused on what I know. One of the texts was about medicine, and I didn’t have much time to answer all the questions because I read the text for a long time (and the questions were not that complicated). Do not repeat my mistakes.

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