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IELTS Reading: Time management is the key

‘I don’t understand how some candidates can complete the IELTS Reading paper within one hour — there is just so much to read!’ The most common concern we get from IELTS candidates is about the lack of time in the Reading test. The articles are long and difficult, and it seems impossible to complete all the questions in an hour. In the General Training module, it is possible to predict some of the content that might appear. But this will only get you so far. In this blog post, I will look at a few time management tips you can try when preparing for the IELTS Reading test.

IELTS Reading: Time management is the key
Before you start, try to imagine that you only have 50 minutes to complete all the questions. Yes, this seems odd — after all, we are saying that you are already short of time, and now we are cutting it further! But if you are aiming for a high band score (i.e. allowing only one to two incorrect answers), you need to leave 10 minutes at the end to check all your answers. We will come back to this later.

The first thing to be aware of is that the three sections in the IELTS Reading test are not equal. Your time management should work the same way. Let’s start with how to approach section one.

Section one: Topic sentences

The first section contains a text and a set of questions. How to approach it? Start by reading the topic sentences only.

Topic sentences are usually the first sentence in the paragraph. The topic sentence (or sentences — sometimes there are two) tells us what the paragraph is about, or introduces the topic of the paragraph. The sentences that follow then explain the topic sentence, expand on it, or give examples.

Look at the topic sentences (in bold) in this text from an IELTS Reading test paper.

Once you’re up and ready to go, what then? If you’re trying to shed some extra pounds, dieticians are adamant: never skip breakfast. This disorients your circadian rhythm and puts your body in starvation mode. The recommended course of action is to follow an intense workout with a carbohydrate-rich breakfast; the other way round and weight loss results are not as pronounced.

Morning is also great for breaking out the vitamins. Supplement absorption by the body is not temporal-dependent, but naturopath Pam Stone notes that the extra boost at breakfast helps us get energised for the day ahead. For improved absorption, Stone suggests pairing supplements with a food in which they are soluble and steering clear of caffeinated beverages. Finally, Stone warns to take care with storage; high potency is best for absorption, and warmth and humidity are known to deplete the potency of a supplement.

Notice how the topic sentences in these paragraphs clearly tell the reader what is coming next: information about weight loss and food; information about vitamin consumption.

Have a go yourself. In a practice test, try reading the topic sentences first, then go straight into the questions and get a sense of where the answers can be found in the text. The first section should take you roughly seven to ten minutes to complete. Try to aim for that the next time you work on a practice test.

Sections two and three: Complex texts

The second and third sections in IELTS Reading contain more difficult questions, require more detailed reading, and, therefore, better time management. Notice the sentences in the reading are longer and more complex. If you are careless, you may get thrown off by distractors and infer information incorrectly. In these two sections, you should spend about fifteen minutes reading each article and five minutes answering each set of questions. Look at this text from a practice test.

Road to IELTS - reading practice test example

Do you find it difficult? If yes, practise reading 1200-word long news articles until you can comfortably finish them in 15 minutes. Remember: a good test result always requires hard work. To test yourself, try to read this article. Time yourself.

The last check

Now you have completed your test in 50 minutes, there are ten minutes left, and it is time to check your answers. This is, however, where most candidates get it wrong. It’s not just a simple spell-check — you will need to use that 10-minute window to (quickly) read the questions again and ask yourself these questions:

  • Am I sure about this answer?
  • Is this a trick question?
  • Where in the passage did I get my answers from? Should I double check?

Don’t forget to check the answer numbers against the question numbers. No matter how good your English is, you can always lose marks for being careless.

Tips from a tutor

Let me finish with some tips for IELTS Reading from Steve Maginn, a respected IELTS tutor.

  1. You have 60 minutes to answer 40 questions. That means 90 seconds per question, excluding reading time! So you must not waste time on questions you don’t see the answer to. Skip them, move on and come back to them later. Engage your exam skills.
  2. Questions are usually in the same order as the answers in the text, i.e. you will find the answer to question 1 earlier in the text than that to question 4. Bear this in mind as you look for answers.
  3. The reading passages generally go from easier to harder, and so do the questions. So don’t panic if you find the later texts and questions more difficult — they are supposed to be!


So, let’s review what we have covered.

  1. The test sections are not equal — your time management should reflect this.
  2. Try to complete the test in 50 minutes so you have 10 minutes to check for spelling, grammar, and to make sure you are confident with your answers.
  3. Focus on topic sentences in section one.
  4. Sections two and three are complex texts. Make sure you practice reading long articles in short periods of time to prepare for this.
  5. Listen to teachers and tutors for advice — they have some great insights.

Time management is a useful skill in any test, and the best way to master it is through practice. I advise you to test out your time management in some practice papers. Want to know more? Take a look at our seven frequently asked questions here. Get going and good luck!


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