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IELTS Reading: How important is culture?

IELTS Reading: How important is culture?

How does culture affect your reading?

Back in 1978, researchers at the University of Illinois conducted an experiment to test if culture or cultural knowledge would affect reading comprehension. In the experiment, they asked subjects from India and the US to read two passages: one about an Indian wedding and the other about an American wedding. They then tested their recall and understanding. They found that ‘Subjects read the native passage more rapidly, recalled a larger amount of information from the native passage, produced more culturally appropriate elaborations of the native passage, and produced more culturally based distortions of the foreign passage.’

In other words, subjects understood and remembered more information from the passage about their own culture. Their research suggested that your culture can affect your reading performance and the way you interpret a text.

How is this relevant to IELTS?

The official IELTS Guide for Teachers states that IELTS Academic Reading test passages ‘are taken from books, journals, magazines and newspapers and are on academic topics of general interest. All have been selected for a nonspecialist audience.’

However, it is more accurate to say that they have been selected for a nonspecialist audience from the Western academic tradition. If you are from a very different academic tradition — say, Chinese, or Arabic — the Illinois experiment suggests you may not relate to the texts in the same way as your Western counterparts.

The solution

You should familiarise yourself with the kind of topics that you might see in the IELTS Reading test. The topics are fairly predictable. You can take a look at the list below to get an idea of where to start:

  • welfare and social support
  • environmental issues
  • technology and society
  • language and communication
  • the ageing population
  • travel and tourism
  • language and communication
  • health

Now you know the kind of topics you should be reading about, you must familiarise yourself with the kind of text you will see in the IELTS Reading test. Luckily, this is quite easy to do because many journals, magazines and newspapers are available free of charge online. You can read the sections of these newspapers which target non-specialist audiences from the Western academic tradition:

  1. The Guardian, Environment
  2. The Independent, Tech
  3. The New York Times, Travel

Look at the structure of the article. How does it start? Can you follow the argument? And lastly, is there a conclusion? And if you have a lot of time, look for vocabulary items that appear more than once, note them and learn them.

Through a programme of structured reading you can overcome any cultural barriers that you might find in the IELTS test. Take the time, everyday, to choose an article and practice reading about different themes and ideas. You are now aware of the University of Illinois research, but you definitely don’t have to let it affect your score.

What’s next?

There are lots of things you can do to prepare for your IELTS Reading test. Start small with these daily preparation ideas. It is also worth having a look at other critical exam skills to improve your overall score.

Check out our other guides on IELTS:


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