IELTS Test Day Observations Part 2: The Reading Test

How to avoid common mistakes and maximise your score in the Reading Test

I regularly supervise test day sessions, because they give me the opportunity to see first hand what candidates do in the pressure of an exam situation.

In this post, I’m going to tell you about some of the common mistakes and examples of poor exam technique I see in the reading part of the test. Although it is primarily about the paper–based test version of the test, most of the tips to avoid these common errors, apply to CD IELTS as well.

No 1. Reading the texts too closely: This might seem a bit strange, after all you are doing a reading test, but the IELTS reading paper is actually designed to test the speed and efficiency of the different reading skills you would need in an Academic or Business environment. These include skim reading or reading quickly for overall understanding, scanning to spot where the answer is located in the text and reading for detail.

However, I often see candidates spend up to 10 minutes simply reading the whole 900-word passage, puzzling over the vocabulary, without answering a single question. I want to say to them ‘Stop reading, it doesn’t matter if you don’t understand everything, just focus on answering the questions’. It is important to remember that even native speakers would find some of the texts difficult to understand and this doesn’t mean your English is bad!

If you are someone who is tempted to do this, try answering some practice questions after simply reading the first and last paragraphs in the passage and the first and last sentence of each paragraph – you should see that it is actually possible to answer questions without reading all of the passage.

Reading quickly [skimming] is a really important skill to master if you want to do well in the IELTS test, which brings me to my next point.

No 2. Skimming technique: Don’t just go through the motions, reading too quickly without absorbing any information, otherwise you have wasted valuable time - focus on the nouns and verbs in a sentence as they convey the content. Underlining keywords in the text or using the highlighting tool [in CD IELTS] works for some people as they skim read, but don’t just underline or highlight lots of random words, which is what I see some candidates do. Instead put a box around/highlight names, dates, places or anything you think will help you scan for the information later on. You should also underline/highlight the relevant parts of the passage when answering the questions, to ensure you don’t miss anything.

No 3. Finishing the test: I see candidates agonising over the answer to a particular question, instead of marking the part of the text they think contains the answer with the corresponding question no so they can come back to it later. Remember, you have about one minute or so to answer each question, so it makes more sense to spend the time answering 3 or 4 easier questions correctly, than wasting precious minutes on one you find difficult.

Also, by answering the easier questions, you will understand more about the text and often come across the answer to the trickier ones. Remember, there is a reason that the instructions say ‘you should spend about 20 minutes on each section’. When practising always work to this time frame. Don’t do what some candidates do and think it’s a good idea to spend more time answering all the questions correctly in the first two passages and only leave enough time to answer a few in the third. This may work if you only need a score of 5 or 5.5 but risky if you’re aiming higher!

No 4. Leaving answers blank: This is linked to the previous point, if in doubt guess. It’s really sad to see incomplete answer sheets, particularly if they are multiple-choice questions. With these, always eliminate the obviously wrong answers immediately and then decide which is the more likely answer.

No 5. Using your time efficiently: Candidates often write True, False, Not Given instead of abbreviations T, F, NG. Even more time consuming is writing the whole word in a sentence completion task, or multiple-choice question, when the instructions state ‘choose a letter’. Don’t make the test harder than it needs to be; maximise the time you have to answer the questions and minimise your writing time.

Be strategic when deciding which questions to start with. For example I always tell my students to start with the matching headings questions. Why? Because by doing this task first, you will automatically gain an understanding of what each paragraph is about and where the information is likely to be located, saving time when answering the next set of questions. Also, in a set of questions the answers come in order, so if you find the answer to say Q3 you’ll know the answer to the previous question is in the preceding part of the text.

No 6. Overthinking: This is really easy to do with True, False and Not Given questions. Remember, for the answer to be False, the statement has to be the opposite of what is in the text and for it to be True, it has to be the same, anything else is Not Given. From my observations, there will almost definitely be one answer that is ‘Not Given’ in a sequence of answers. If you’re not sure of the answer, go with your instinct and resist creating imaginary, logical connections or ideas that are not in the text.

No 7. Following instructions: Don’t jump straight in without reading the instructions carefully, particularly with questions that state ‘write no more than 2 words and/or a number’; otherwise you might lose a lot of easy marks. Remember, two words and/or a number means either one word, one word and a number, two words or two words and a number. For example, if the answer is dogs and cats, you should write ‘dogs, cats’, not dogs and cats because this would be considered to be three words. Also, pay attention to articles, even if the text says ‘a museum’ but instructions say write one word and you write ‘a museum’ this counts as two words, so will be marked wrong.

No 8. Transferring answers: Sometimes candidates leave it until the last 5-minute time check, to start writing their answers on their answer sheet. I see them start panicking with the clock ticking down and, as they rush, they often make careless spelling errors, which will lose marks. You shouldn’t really make any spelling mistakes, because you are simply copying the word from the text to the your answer sheet. So ALWAYS leave enough time [3 - 4 minutes] at the end to read what you have written on your answer sheet and, don’t forget, unlike the listening paper, you don’t have extra time at the end to transfer your answers!

No 9. Handwriting: In the instructions that are read to you at the beginning of each paper, you hear ‘spelling is important, clear handwriting is important, unclear answers may not receive a mark’. This is 100% true. Write clearly, use capital letters and, most importantly, don’t write a letter that could look like another letter. For example, I sometimes see papers where the candidate thinks they will fool the markers by writing a letter that is somehow ‘combined’ and could be either a ‘T’ or an ‘F’ - if it’s unclear it will be marked wrong!

It’s worth mentioning here, that if you’re planning to do CD IELTS you don’t need to worry about these last 2 points! One of the advantages of doing your test on a computer is the fact that you answer the questions as you go along, using the ‘drag and drop’ or ‘copy and paste’ [CTRL + C/V] functions.

I hope this post has given you some tips to help with your exam technique particularly for the paper-based test. Watch out for my third test day observations post, this time about the writing paper.

Jane Prescott is an experienced English language teacher [CELTA qualified] specialising in teaching IELTS. Having taught for many years in language schools in London, she now runs Kingscote English, a private language school based in South West London providing personal, flexible and affordable lessons for Adults and Au pairs.

She also worked for many years as a Supervisor for the IELTS exam, which has given her an insight and unique perspective on the exam, experiencing it from a candidate’s point of view, seeing first hand common errors, and also the effectiveness of the different exam strategies, commonly taught to students.