IELTS Reading – Tips and common mistakes to avoid

How is it logically possible to answer 40 in-depth questions on 3 completely unrelated topics, about which you have no prior knowledge, within a one-hour time frame? Such a task initially appears overwhelming, but as the title of this blog suggests, there are some tricks and tips that will help candidates tackle the IELTS reading section in a more manageable way.

Firstly, the amount of questions related to each text will roughly be the same, so I would always suggest dividing time equally between each section, i.e. 20 minutes per section.

Secondly, tell students to READ THE QUESTIONS BEFORE LOOKING AT THE TEXT! This piece of advice cannot be emphasised enough. There is simply not enough time to read and fully understand the entire content of each passage – indeed this is not the expectation of the examiner. For each section, skip immediately to the questions at the end, and then read the related text afterwards, looking solely for the answers to the questions and not trying to understand everything. This skill takes time to master, so students should be encouraged to practice reading for gist prior to taking the exam. As with many exams, it is not necessarily the candidate’s knowledge that will help them pass with flying colours, but rather the techniques they have acquired through extensive practice, in order to prepare themselves for the format of the exam.

It will feel unnatural at first for students to skim through a text without spending time fully comprehending all the different implications, but this is because essentially we are accustomed to reading for pleasure, whereas the IELTS exam tests a more general level of comprehension. The best way to prepare your students for this exam is to actually do practice exercises within the specified time limit, so that reading for gist becomes something natural, and the association of reading for pleasure is eliminated – at least for the time being!

In further reference to the exam format, students can do additional preparation by familiarising themselves with the different styles of questions, which fortunately don’t change; such as ‘Multiple Choice’, ‘True, False, Not Given’ and so on. However, at times there will be some variation within the questions, and there have been many times I have witnessed students write a three word answer rather than a two word answer because they had misread the instructions, which will subsequently result in a lower mark even when they do actually know the correct answer.

Moreover, students would be advised to bear in mind that the questions will always be in chronological order, so the answer to question 1 is likely to be found in paragraph 1, and the answer to question 2 will most likely be located in paragraph 2 and so on. The examiners are not so crafty that they expect candidates to work backwards…

Lastly, there will certainly be some more difficult questions than others, so it is important for candidates not to waste precious time on the extremely challenging ones, and instead move on to those that can be answered easily – there is always the hope of some additional time at the end to give the remaining questions another go.

Martin Wilson has been working as a teacher of English to non-native speakers for over 13 years, since qualifying from St. Giles International College, London, in 2004. His Trinity Tesol Certificate was followed shortly after with a Masters Degree in Linguistics and Philosophy from The University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Martin’s experience within the various fields of ELT has been plentiful, and has involved teaching children and teenagers in Thailand, as well as asylum seekers and refugees throughout Europe, and university students and business professionals in London, UK. In this series of blogs, Martin aims to share his insights into the world of ELT, including tips and tricks for students and teachers alike, in addition to observations and reviews regarding current available material and resources. Martin can be contacted at

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