I often receive emails or Facebook messages from IELTS test takers saying ‘How can I improve my reading?’ or ‘I am poor at reading.’ The problem is not that these candidates need to improve their reading, but that that they need to do it quickly. You may be one of them.
Imagine that you want to improve your physical fitness. We all understand that you can’t achieve this in days: it takes months — in the case of long distance runners, it takes years. Reading is the same.
The foundations of reading are vocabulary and grammar. Improving your vocabulary takes a lot of effort. You need to identify words to learn, memorise them, understand how they are used in a sentence, and you need to learn how to use them accurately. That takes time and hard work. Similarly, grammar needs to be studied for years. What is the difference between ‘He stole the watch’ and ‘The watch was stolen’? Do you know? Can you explain it? Do you know why a writer might choose to use one rather than the other? You need to see a grammar structure many times in many different contexts to truly understand it.
So, if you only have a month before your IELTS test, is the situation hopeless? No. There are a number of things you can do which will help you, even in the short term. In this blog post we will focus on vocabulary.
Here are some suggestions.
- It is reasonable to expect to learn 10 new words a day. Over a month, that means 300 new words — and that can make a difference, especially if you choose the new words intelligently.
- To do this, think about the kind of topics that typically appear in an IELTS Reading test. In IELTS Academic, they are generally topics that are of interest to an educated Western audience: the environment, language and communication, sport and leisure, health, welfare and social support, science and technology, and so on. It is relatively easy to find articles on these topics online on news sites written for an educated Western audience. Search for the relevant sections in The Guardian (UK), The Age (Australia) and the New York Times (US). These articles will be written in a similar style to your IELTS Reading passages, and this will help you become familiar with the genre and its grammar and sentence structures.
- IELTS General Training has a wider variety of text types. According to the IELTS: Information for candidates booklet (which you can find here), ‘Texts are authentic and are taken from notices, advertisements,company handbooks, official documents, books, magazines and newspapers.’ If you are living in an English-speaking country, pick up and read magazines in the doctor’s waiting room, take flyers and free booklets from the library and study them, read notices on the wall of the local school. If you are not living in an English-speaking country, it’s more difficult. Probably the best solution is to subscribe to an IELTS preparation package like Road to IELTS, which will give you a wide selection of typical texts.
- In either case (IELTS Academic or IELTS General Training), print out the texts, and underline words you don’t understand. Look them up in the dictionary, and if they seem useful (i.e. not highly technical or specialist), copy them into your vocab notebook to learn.
- Search for vocab learning apps or websites, such as memrise. These really can help — especially if they systematically repeat the words you are learning.
If you really want to improve your reading, you need to understand that it will take hard work and dedication. Target reading at least one target text every day and learning at least 10 words. Be disciplined: if you stick to your plan, it really will make a difference.