The IELTS Academic Reading exam lasts for 60 minutes and contains 40 questions. There are three reading passages and several different question types.
It makes sense to think about two sets of skills you will need for Academic Reading (although they are closely connected):
1. Skills to understand the text
2. Skills to understand the language
1. Skills to understand the text:
a) You need to be able to predict the type of information which a reading passage includes. Take an IELTS Academic Reading passage and look at the title and any pictures, sub-titles or headings. A sub-title is a small amount of written information just below the main title and headings are titles of paragraphs or sections. After looking at this information for a few seconds, write down five pieces of information you expect to find in the passage, or five questions which you expect the passage to answer. Next, read the passage carefully and find out how well you predicted. You will probably find that if you do this regularly, your ability to predict will improve. If your ability to predict improves, you will be able to read passages more quickly and find answers more quickly.
b) You need to be able to see how the passage is organised. Take an IELTS Academic Reading passage and begin by doing the predicting activity we just described in a). Then read the first paragraph quickly. It probably gives information about the general topic. Next, read the first sentence of every paragraph and try to decide the main point of that paragraph. If you cannot decide the main point of a paragraph after reading the first sentence, read the final sentence of the paragraph. When you think you know the purpose or main point of the paragraph, read the rest of it and find out if you were right. Having this ability will allow you to find the information you need more quickly and will help you to answer questions more effectively.
c) You need to be able to find important information quickly. Take an IELTS Academic Reading passage. Look at the title and any pictures, sub-titles or headings. Predict what information the passage might include. Based on your prediction, decide a type/category of word which you expect to find in this passage. For example, if the passage is about science, you might decide to look for ‘scientists’. If the passage is about space exploration, you might look for ‘the names of planets or missions to space’. If the passage deals with language, you might look for ‘names of languages’. Next, read the passage very quickly and look for words in this category. You should read the whole text in under a minute. You should find that if you practise this skill, you will start to need less and less time to find relevant words. This skill will allow you to find relevant information more quickly and will make it easier for you to answer questions without reading the whole passage. This will mean that you can complete questions more quickly.
2. Skills to understand the language:
a) Word families: You probably need to widen your vocabulary in order to understand as much language in the text as possible. If you can understand 90% of the passage, there is a good chance you can answer the questions. If you understand only 80% of the passage, you probably cannot answer many questions correctly. An easy way to widen your vocabulary is to learn new members of word families. You may know the noun ‘error’, meaning ‘mistake’. You could learn the adjective ‘erroneous’ and the adverb ‘erroneously’ as well as the verb ‘to err’. Whenever you see a word, ask yourself how many words from the same word family you know. If the answer is less than two, learn some more. Because these words are connected to words you already know, they should be easier to learn. Having this knowledge will help you to recognise more words in the questions and in the reading passage. This will make it easier for you to answer correctly.
b) Different ways of saying the same thing: nearly all IELTS Academic Reading questions test your ability to decide if the language in the question means the same as the language in the passage. If you know two or more ways of saying the same thing, you will be more successful. When you see a word or phrase, learn to recognise another way of expressing it. For example, when you see the word ‘university’, learn that ‘an institution of higher education’ is an alternative way of expressing this idea. When you see the phrase ‘policeman or policewoman’, learn that the phrase ‘law-enforcement officer’ can be used instead. Developing this ability will help you to understand whether text in the question has the same meaning as text in the passage. This is a key ability and developing it will improve your chances of a high grade.
c) Language chunks: at lower levels, language students often learn individual words. At higher levels, and especially when you study English for academic purposes, you need to learn and recognise ‘chunks’ of language. A ‘chunk’ is a group of words which often go together. Some are called collocations and others are called set phrases. Examples include ‘a step in the right direction’, ‘a nightmare scenario’, ‘to broaden your mind’ and ‘unintended consequences’. There are thousands of these and it is not possible to learn them all quickly. However, they are very common in English and knowing some of them has two main benefits. Firstly, it allows you to understand the more complex language which appears in IELTS Academic Reading passages. Secondly, it allows you to read faster because when you see the first word of a ‘chunk’ you only need to check very quickly if the next few words are also from that ‘chunk’. This is how native-speakers read and is far more effective than analysing every word.
d) Recording language: the best way to learn new language - including word families, alternatives and chunks - is by recording it and using it. Many IELTS candidates write down a new word when they see it, and put a translation next to it. For most people, it would be far more effective to spend 5-10 minutes on every new word. You should write it in a sentence, find out about the members of its word family, find similar ways of expressing the idea, and discover which ‘chunks’ it is used in. Probably most important of all is that you use your new language. If you manage to write or say a new word, either in IELTS practice of any other type of practice, it will probably stay in your head. When you see it in the IELTS Academic Reading test, you will recognise it and be able to answer questions connected to it.
General strategy: analysis
It is a good idea to do some IELTS Academic Reading practice tests. We would suggest that at first you do not set a time limit for yourself. When you feel a bit more confident, you might set a time limit of 90 minutes and slowly reduce this to an hour.
When you do a practice test, it is essential that you analyse the things you did well and the things you did badly. You will learn a lot more from your mistakes than from anything else. If you get a question wrong, ask yourself ‘Why?’. It might be because you didn’t understand the text or because you didn’t understand the language. Most candidates say that they get questions wrong because they struggle with particular question types. However, what they really mean is that they do not understand the text or the language well enough.
What about question types in IELTS Academic Reading?
You are probably wondering why we haven’t discussed different question types such as ‘multiple choice’ and ‘true/false/not given’. It is true that there are some differences between the different question types BUT they nearly all test your ability to do one thing: You need to find language in the text and decide if it means the same as language in the question. If you work on the two sets of skills we have explained in this document, you will develop this ability.
There is certainly a lot more to say about IELTS Academic Reading. We hope this short document will answer some of your questions and give you some useful advice on how to prepare. There is no easy way to get to IELTS Academic Reading grade 7.0, 7.5 or even 8.0 but if you follow our strategies you will improve.