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What Your Students Need To Know For IELTS Academic Reading

The Test

Students have 60 minutes to answer 40 questions based on three texts of between 2000 and 2750 words, including transferring their answers to the answer sheet.

The task types are:

  • multiple choice
  • True/ False/ Not given and Yes/ No/ Not given
  • short answers to questions
  • completion of sentences, a text or visuals
  • matching headings or statements to particular paragraphs
  • other matching tasks

There is usually more than one type of task for each text. The questions are usually given in the same order as the text.

What Students Have To Do In The Exam

There isn’t enough time for the students to read whole texts carefully, so they have three choices when they first look at a text:

  1. Read the whole text very roughly in two or three minutes, just to get an idea of the topic of each paragraph and overall structure of the piece
  2. Look at the first group of questions and keep them at the back of their mind as they quickly read through the text
  3. Look at the questions and try to do the task straightaway, scanning the text for the right information and only reading larger parts if they can’t find the right information

All three are possible, so students will need to decide which one suits them best. However, if they find it impossible to skim through a text in less than four minutes or find that reading that quickly means they learn absolutely nothing from it, they will have to avoid the initial read through and start on the questions straightaway. The other possibility is to take different approaches with different tasks, and the format of the paper helps somewhat with this because the questions are sometimes given before the text with exactly the tasks with which you would probably want to look at the questions first.

The other thing that students can do when they look at the task is to choose the easiest questions first. This is particularly useful when they have read through the text first and then look at questions, at which point at least some of the questions should jump out as ones they know where in the text the information is. Answering these questions first will boost their confidence, and they might well come across the information for the other questions along the way. This is especially useful with matching tasks.

Whichever technique they choose, when they look at a question their first task is to find the place in the text where that question is answered (or something similar in the case of “Not Given”), at which point they should underline it. Even for matching tasks, this usually comes down to underlining just a sentence or two, and sometimes just a few words.

The tactics then depend on the type of task, and other articles will follow on specific tactics and practice activities on each one.

What Students Need To Know

In order to quickly find the information in the way described above, students will need some knowledge of paragraphing, topic sentences, skimming and scanning. When it comes down to it, though, the main thing they need to do is understand the information when they find it! To do so they might need practice with referencing expressions and understanding some complex grammatical forms, but the main thing they will need is lots and lots of vocabulary. Luckily, the best way to learn vocabulary is through lots of reading, which will obviously be good practice for this part of the IELTS test and their future academic progress in other ways too.

The other skills and knowledge they will need are:

  • Identifying synonyms and antonyms
  • Identifying trick questions
  • Eliminating wrong options
  • Making a few grammatical changes to match the space in gapped sentences

What Students Should Do at home

As stated above, students need to read lots. They also need to make sure that it is the right kind of text and that they read it the right way. Magazine articles that are on academic topics like ecology but are not designed for a specialist audience are usually the best things to read, as they are most similar to the semi-academic texts in the exam. Sources include the non-business related parts of business magazines such as The Economist, non-news related stories from news magazines such as Newsweek, and popular science magazines like New Scientist and Scientific American Mind. Fairly low level textbooks (e.g. GCSE revision guides) are also good.

Students should read the first time quickly for enjoyment and general understanding, then a second time for more detailed understanding and to look up vocabulary in their dictionaries. Alternatively, they can circle words they don’t know as they are reading, coming back to it with a dictionary later to select words to look up and learn.

The kind of vocabulary that students should concentrate on is academic and semi-academic language, excluding jargon. One rule of thumb is that if a word is explained in the text, given in quotation marks or given in italics, they shouldn’t bother learning it. They should also stick to an Advanced level learners’ dictionary and ignore any words that are in the text but not in the dictionary.

They will also need a way of actually learning the vocabulary that they have selected. Possibilities include reading the same text again a while later, writing something such as a summary of the article using the same vocabulary, and keeping word lists or vocabulary learning cards.

They can also do basically the same thing with practice tests. With these, they will also need to check their answers and make sure they know why the other options are wrong, meaning they will need help from a teacher or a book that has that information in the answer key (rather than just the usual list of answers). As they approach test day, they will also want to time themselves and do a whole test in one sitting.

There are also specific self-study books for IELTS Reading and vocabulary for IELTS, as well as books on academic English more generally. The former are generally much more useful for all but the highest level students.

Written by Alex Case for TEFL.net October 2011
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic.

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TEFL.net : TEFL Articles : Teaching : What Your Students Need To Know For IELTS Academic Reading