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IELTS Reading: How important is culture?

Will your culture affect your performance in IELTS Reading?

Back in 1978, researchers at the University of Illinois conducted an experiment in which 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 reading comprehension. 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, they found that your culture does affect 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, that you will read the text more slowly, and that you will remember less.

How do you solve this problem?

You need to 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 online, and topics are fairly predictable.

Firstly, here is a list of the kind of topic that might be selected for a nonspecialist audience:

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

Secondly, here are three suggestions of newspapers that are widely read by a nonspecialist audience from the Western academic tradition (together with suggested sections):

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

Every day, choose an article and set aside some time to read it. If you have more time, look at the structure of the article. How does it start? Can you follow the argument? Is there a conclusion? And if you have a lot of time, look for vocabulary that appears more than once, note it and learn it.


  1. Evgen says:

    Its true at some point, but on the other hand IELST tests your understanding of material covered in the text, and not relays on the general knowledge of the subject . It can be tricky, if you aware of something but this information is not explained in the article they way you know it – you may choose answer based on your personal knowledge of the subject which can easily contradict with the information presented in tested material.
    In other words, your knowledge of the subject (indian weddings e.g.) may be an obstacle if its described differently in text on your test.
    Some people also believe that if they totally familiar with the subject or concept, they pay less attention to what is actually written in the text, and thus the result can be jeopardised as they can easily choose the “wrong” in that case answers.

  2. NR says:

    Hi, what about the sources from where the reading texts are picked up for General Training test? The ones given above are for Academic Training only!

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