Home » IELTS Reading: Keyword synonyms

IELTS Reading: Keyword synonyms

IELTS Reading: Keyword synonyms

Many candidates think IELTS Reading is one of the hardest modules in the IELTS test. This isn’t surprising — the timing is tight, you have to understand all the different task types, and on top of this, the examiner is constantly trying to confuse you! So, to perform well in the IELTS Reading test you need to develop strategies. One strategy is being able to recognise and use keyword synonyms.

What is a keyword synonym?

Keywords are the important words in the question – the words that hold meaning. Synonyms are different words that mean the same thing, for example, ‘ask for’ is another way of saying ‘request’. So when you are looking for keyword synonyms, you will look for different words, in the text and the question, that mean the same thing. Examiners use keyword synonyms to test if you really understand what the text means, rather than just recognising words.


What does this look like in practice? Let’s look at an example of a True/False/Not given question. We’ll look at the text later on, but let’s focus on the question first:

An attachment to the use of the private car led to increased suburban development. True/False/Not given?

The keywords are: attachment, car, increased and suburban development. These are the words in the question that carry the meaning. But remember, you almost certainly won’t find these exact words in the text – you will be looking for keyword synonyms.

To help you understand this concept, try thinking of a list of synonyms for these words. Note them on a piece of paper. You will find suggested answers at the end of this post.

  1. attachment
  2. car
  3. increased
  4. suburban development

If you find it difficult, go to thesaurus.com and search for the words.

If we now turn to the text itself, you can see how the words in the question match the synonyms in the original passage:

The expansion of the outer city since the 1960s reflected a continued preference on the part of many people in the western world for private automobiles over public transit.

Can you spot the keyword synonyms? Here they are in bold:

The expansion of the outer city since the 1960s reflected a continued preference on the part of many people in the western world for private automobiles over public transit.

As you can see, three of the four keywords in the question are present in the text as synonyms — and the statement is True. This exercise is great practice for recognising keyword synonyms.

Try this

In the IELTS test itself you won’t have time to note down three or four synonyms for each keyword. So, what should you do?

  1. Be aware that you are unlikely to find identical words in the question and in the text.
  2. As you read the question, actively think of synonyms for the keywords. Keep them in your mind.
  3. Make sure you are looking for answers in the right place. In a previous post, an IELTS tutor said that, ‘Questions are usually in the same order as the answers in the text. This means the answer to question 1 will be earlier in the text than the answer to question 2.’ However, within questions and sentences in the text, the information may be in a different order. In the example given above, the question mentions the car first, whereas in the text it is at the end of the sentence. Expect this in the test itself.

Final note

It’s not too difficult to understand the tips above in theory; however, under the pressure of test conditions, it is much more challenging. So, I would strongly advise you to take plenty of practice tests beforehand. Good luck!

Example answers

Here are some suggestions:

  1. attachment: liking, preference, affinity
  2. car: automobile, vehicle
  3. increased: greater, growing, enhanced
  4. suburban development: city growth, neighbourhood growth, expansion of cities


  1. Mbagwu Ifeoma Rubby. says:

    Thanks for this tip. Listening, Reading and writing has been my greatest challenge in IELTS. Can you send me more updates on this .

  2. Fawad says:

    Hey, since in the question is not mentioned anything about public transportation, than why putted the confusing words ” Over public transit” because this can led us to false statement.

    • Hi there! In the True / False / Not given section, you will read a text then answer the questions. The line you are referring to about ‘public transit’ is part of the original text, not an answer. Sometimes the texts are a little bit confusing so the examiner can see if you’ve really understood it or not.

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