Many people ask us how they can improve their reading for IELTS. This is a very important question, because the IELTS Reading test is challenging. It exists in two forms: General Training and Academic. Each of these comes with its own challenges and it’s essential that you have a thorough understanding of the test before you attempt it. In this post we are going to discuss both forms of the IELTS Reading test. We will also consider some common advice that appears on social media, evaluate this advice and provide alternatives where necessary.
IELTS Reading: General Training
The General Training form of the test has three sections. The first section can have up to three short texts. Usually these texts relate to community life or commerce. They could be public notices, advertisements or instructions. The second section can contain up to two, work-related texts. The third section contains one text, of around 700 to 800 words. This text is an article on a topic of general interest. It is the most challenging of all the texts. You have to answer 40 questions in total within one hour.
IELTS Reading: Academic
In the Academic test, you will have the same time limit and you will also have to answer 40 questions. However, the Academic form of IELTS Reading is different in several respects. One major difference is that each section contains only one text. Another difference is that these texts are all articles on topics of general interest. Each of them is approximately 800 words in length, so the exam is quite long.
Advice: Learn to Speed Read
Because IELTS Reading is quite a long test, it’s not uncommon to see speed-reading advice on websites and social media platforms. The reasoning goes something like this: the IELTS Reading test involves a substantial amount of text. You need to answer questions about these texts, but you have no way of predicting the subject matter. Therefore, you should focus on improving your reading speed, so that you can quickly read the texts and absorb them. This will make answering the questions easier.
This sounds good, but there are some problems. Firstly, the amount of information in an IELTS Reading exam – in excess of 2000 thousand words – makes speed less relevant than you might think. Even if you are a very competent speed reader, reading all of this, word for word, and then attempting the questions, will be unrealistic. While it’s certainly true that improving your reading speed will benefit you if you are a slow reader, it’s not the ultimate goal. If you have a normal or average reading speed, it shouldn’t even a priority.
Better Advice: Learn about Question Types
Secondly, while it’s true that you can’t predict the subject matter, it’s equally true that you don’t need to. This is because you can predict the types of questions you will face. There is a finite list of question types for IELTS Reading, and they will all feature in your exam. Rather than wasting time and money on speed-reading courses, you should learn about these question types. Learn strategies for each question type, so that you can go into the exam ready to handle all of them. For more information on reading strategies, click here.
Advice: Read Novels
Novels are book-length fictional stories. Of course, reading them will increase your proficiency in the English language. You may even learn new vocabulary and new grammatical structures. A good novelist will display many of the qualities of a high-scoring IELTS Writing candidate. There is even a speaking topic that comes up every now and then that requires you to talk about your thoughts about novels.
However, we generally don’t recommend novels to our IELTS students. There are several reasons for this. The first is that novels are very long and reading them takes a lot of time. Most people who are preparing for IELTS are under pressure and making significant life plans. In light of this, it doesn’t make sense to burden them with another time-consuming project. Also, novels reflect the style of their times. If you read a Victorian novel, you will develop habits of expression that will look very out of place in an IELTS exam in the 21st century. Modernist and postmodern novels in English carry an additional risk: they often play fast and loose with grammatical and stylistic conventions. You definitely don’t want to emulate that.
Better Advice: Read Articles
A better use of your time, if your goal is to improve your reading for IELTS, would be to read articles. This will reflect the kind of material you can expect to see in the actual exam. You are also more likely to encounter useful vocabulary in this genre. Moreover, you will see this vocabulary used in the manner that is more common in our times. For scientific articles that resemble the kind of content you can expect to see in IELTS, read National Geographic. For economics, current events and global trends, you can check out The Economist. Neither of these recommendations is an endorsement of the content or character of these publications. We refer simply to the quality of the writing.
Advice: Learn Vocabulary Lists
It’s very common to see advice like this on noticeboards and social media posts. On the face of it, it seems like a good idea. Nobody can deny that having a broad vocabulary is essential to success in IELTS. This is true for all the four sub-tests of IELTS, not only reading. To many, it seems like common sense. The more vocabulary you learn, the better your chances of understanding every word in the IELTS Reading exam. You can do this by reading lists of words with definitions alongside them. Problem solved. Right?
Wrong. The problem with this revolves around what we understand by the word “learn”. As it happens, list-learning is probably the least suitable method when it comes to language. It may work well in other domains, but not here. This is because words are not discrete units in a machine. Rather, they are sites of intersection between many different concepts. Consider a “difficult word”, of the sort that often makes it onto these “memorisation lists”: ameliorate. This word means something like: “to make something better”. You can use it to describe the action of improving conditions for people affected by poverty, for example. You could conceivably use this word in a writing task about social issues. It could also come up in the reading test (and in fact, it has).
But my simple word plus definition formula is only half the story. We recently had a candidate seeking a band 8 for IELTS. He is a highly educated professional who uses English as a second language. In his words, he needed to “ameliorate his language skills”. It sounds good, doesn’t it? After all, going off my simplistic definition of “making something better”, it looks like this is a well formed phrase. The problem is that “ameliorate” doesn’t go with “skills”, so this comes across as unnatural.
Better Advice: Practise Paraphrase
So what can an IELTS candidate do with regard to vocabulary then? Am I saying that improving your vocabulary is pointless? Thankfully, no. The impulse behind list-learning is actually a good one and we can channel it in productive directions. Possibly the best way to do this is to practice paraphrasing. You will have heard all about paraphrasing if you have investigated the writing test. But paraphrase is a key skill in speaking, listening and reading, too.
What is Paraphrase?
We paraphrase when we express one idea in more than one way. For example, imagine a situation in which someone defends his home from intruders. Two people discussing this might say that he was fully justified in what he did, or that he was in the right. Both of these phrases have the same (or very similar) meaning, but they use different words and a different sentence structure. Consider this writing topic, with a possible paraphrase:
The government should help to reduce poverty
It is the responsibility of the state to alleviate the conditions of the poor
Both of these sentences communicate the same idea. We understand from both of them that the writer has a high view of the commons, of society as a set of mutual obligations. But the words and sentence structures are totally different.
How this Helps Reading
Developing your ability to paraphrase will actually improve your reading for IELTS. A person who is good at paraphrase will be an effective reader, because he or she will be able to match meaning between sentences. This is crucial for at least two of the most difficult question types in IELTS Reading (Matching headings and True/False/Not Given). More broadly, though, it is the best way to improve your vocabulary. This is because paraphrasing requires you to take account of the context in which a word lives, not merely its form, spelling and limited “dictionary definition”.
Steps to Improved Reading
The first step in preparing for any of the IELTS tests is to understand what the test is about. Our IELTS Workshops, now available fully online, are a comprehensive guide to the structure and requirements of IELTS Speaking, Listening, Reading and Writing. For reading in particular, learning the question types, as we’ve discussed here, is essential. Thereafter, it’s all about developing the various sub skills that make up the act of reading and ensuring that your English language proficiency is ready for this challenging test. To improve your reading for IELTS, you will need to know your current skills profile and set realistic goals in light of these. Get in touch today – our academic team is ready to help you succeed!