How To Get A High Score In IELTS Reading

Every IELTS article and every IELTS book seems to parrot the same old advice: take IELTS practice tests! Whilst this is, of course, essential, there is a whole lot more you can do to get a high score on your IELTS test. In his How To Get A High Score In IELTS… series, The IELTS Teacher offers his top five tips for IELTS success.

1. Don’t read everything
Question: why do so many candidates leave the exam centre feeling like they “didn’t have enough time on the Reading”?

Answer: they read everything in the text.

Of course, intuitively, this makes sense. If you read everything in the text, you’ll soak up all the information needed to complete the questions later on. If you don’t read everything, you’ll miss out one essential piece of information, and thus compromise your score. Or you’ll waste more time going back to read it all again anyway.

Get A High IELTS Reading Score

Besides reading everything from start to finish, throwing your exam papers in the air is also something you should avoid.

So the candidates read every word intensively, fearful of glazing over a vital clue to a question. By the time they’re done reading, the minute hand on the clock has swung forward a seemingly impossible amount. Anxiety strikes, the candidate panics, concentration is lost, and the errors begin to pile up.

There is a solution to this problem, and it’s called ‘not reading every word like your life depends on it’. Or ‘scanning’, for short.

Here’s the thing: there are over 2,000 words to read in the Reading exam, and you only have 60 minutes to read them all. Unless you’re a speed-reading champion, this isn’t possible. So you need to ‘scan’ to extract the information you need. You’re not reading for pleasure here; you’re reading for purpose.

Scanning is a pretty easy skill to learn and an incredibly valuable one to master. Mastering the skill could mean the difference between a 7.0 and an 8.0, and has allowed some candidates to skip the text altogether and go straight to question 1, then work their way back in. Imagine how much time you would save if you did that! No more anxious glances at the clock, much more time to answer each question with confidence.

Whether it’s a matching task, a sentence completion task, or a TFN (True, False, Not Given) task, scanning is absolutely essential if you want to succeed in IELTS. But to scan like a master, you need a few sub-skills to bolster your scanning ability: identifying keywords, understanding paraphrasing, and intensive reading. These skills can be acquired with self-study, but for the fastest improvement it’s best to find a qualified tutor.

2. Read the question
Moving from one seemingly counter-intuitive tip to one seemingly obvious one: Read the question.

No, I’m not taking you for an idiot. So many candidates come out of their exams with errors that could have been avoided simply by reading the question carefully.

The chief culprit amongst these errors is in the ‘completion’ questions. In these questions, you’ll see a sentence or note with a gap in it which you must fill. Sometimes this gap asks for you to fill it with one word, sometimes two, sometimes three.

This is the first error some candidates make: they use the wrong number of words in the gap. To ignore such a simple instruction seems quite astonishing in retrospect, but perhaps the pressure of the exam gets to them, they have half their mind on the clock, and they scribble down three words instead of two. So make sure you use the correct number of words. They write this instruction in BOLD CAPITALS after all…

Another problem that frequently occurs with the sentence completion task is the wrong word form used. This is easier to forgive as it often depends on your vocabulary and grammar knowledge, but there are still many occasions where a candidate slips up in a way that even an elementary student wouldn’t.

For example, a sentence may ask you to complete a question on an article about journalism. The sentence reads ‘Editors look for someone who can ……….’. What word precedes the missing word? A modal verb: can. And what follows a modal verb? That’s right, a verb. So already with this question, we have narrowed down our possible word to one select group: verbs. This also makes it easier to scan the article; we know what we’re looking for.

And yet, candidates miss this. They get an idea in their head about what the word could be without reading the question. They will think of an adjective, like ‘motivated’, simply because they did not read the sentence; they saw ‘is’ when the sentence read ‘can’. They then see this word in the text and transfer it to the answer sheet. These are such silly, avoidable errors that they break my heart. Don’t let them happen to you. Save me from the pain.

3. Learn to love reading
Reading shouldn’t be ‘endured’. Reading should be ‘enjoyed’. It shouldn’t draw groans and make you want to reach for the TV remote (spoiler: there’s nothing good on), it should genuinely interest you and make you want to reach for the nearest paperback.

If you can learn to love reading, your chances of success in IELTS (and in life) are going to be much better. This is because your mind will be fully engaged in the task, you will read faster and more accurately, and you will be far less likely to find distractions.

“But what if I hate reading? What if I’ve never enjoyed it, and never will? Is there no hope for me?”

Get A High IELTS Reading Score

Before you can love to read, you have to read what you love.

Well you’ve made it this far in the article. That says something. I don’t write the shortest articles in the world, and you can find IELTS tips elsewhere, so there must be something keeping you here. It may be because I try to make these articles fun to read as well as informative, because I want my students to want to read. I want them to be challenged and entertained. This is what reading should do for you.

Reading widely, consistently and actively (taking notes) offers innumerable benefits for IELTS. It will prepare you for certain topics that often arise in the Reading passages, thus giving you experience with the tricky vocabulary. As you read, the grammar will infiltrate your brain and after time difficult grammatical structures will begin to make sense. The speed of your reading will improve. Your vocabulary will explode (not literally). You’ll be able to relax in the exam.

Even away from the Reading component, a wide reading range offers benefits. Reading up on different topics will give you far more opinions – and opinions you can back up – in the Writing component. The same goes for Speaking, you’ll be able to speak for much longer if you actually have something to say. Formal language in articles and journals will benefit you in Writing, whilst informal language and colloquialisms from dialogues taken from novels will help you in the Speaking. But the only way you can read so this widely and this consistently is to learn to love reading. So, read what you love.

4. Do the ‘Match Paragraph Headings’ task last
This is a tip which, if you’ve read many IELTS training books, or have already sat the exam yourself, seems a little… off.

In case you’re not aware, a Match Paragraph Headings task is task which asks you to match a selection of headings (marked A-E or whatever) to the number of paragraphs in the text. It always appears before the text to encourage you to do the task first. And if the exam asks you to do it first, that must be the best way to do it, right?


Think about it. If you do this task first, you’re going to spend a lot of time scanning each paragraph trying to work out which goes with which heading. It’s a completely new text and you’ve never seen it before, so your head is working frantically to try and make connections that simply haven’t had time to form yet. These are general connections, about the theme of the paragraphs rather than one or two details, and these kind of connections are harder to secure. Furthermore, the exam is sneaky and gives you more headings than you need (and all very similar), so you’ve also got to filter these out.

On the other hand, consider what happens when you do this task last. Start with the other questions; as this is a Passage 2 exercise, these may be the Matching Names, Locating Information or Summary Completion tasks. The answers to these questions may not appear in order, BUT the information required to complete them is much more concrete. Scanning in these tasks is much easier – you’re not scanning entire paragraphs but scanning for specific keywords. You’ll complete these questions much faster than the headings task, even if you did the headings task first.

Now comes the good bit. As you move from the other tasks to the final task – matching paragraph headings – your brain will have already made many of the connections needed to match the paragraph headings. It will have soaked up all the necessary information whilst completing the other tasks. The text is no longer fresh. It’s had time to stew in your brain. You’ll look back at the headings and find yourself matching them to the paragraphs at lightning-speed. Yes, lightning. Handle with care.


5. The Little Things
Here’s a tip for you: five tips are better than one. And having already offered you the wisdom of four tips, the fifth and final tip in these How To Get A High Score In IELTS… series is dedicated to offering you five more tips. They’re as useful as all the others, but a bit smaller, so I call them ‘The little things’.

Little thing #1: Besides your scanning skills, it’s a very good idea to brush up on your previewing, predicting, skimming and evaluating skills. You’ll be using all five in the exam, but it’s scanning which is going to prove most useful when it comes to managing your time efficiently (work on that too). And the fastest way to improve these skills is with the right kind of lesson.

Get A High IELTS Reading Score

Don’t worry, nobody’s going to break down your door if you get an answer wrong. These guys just lost their keys.

Little thing #2: So you’re reading an article online, and you see a word you don’t know. Don’t just skip over it, look it up! In fact, don’t stop there. Get out a pen and paper, or open a Word doc, and write up all the word forms around it (e.g. verb, noun, adjective and adverb if they exist). This will not only increase your vocabulary, but also improve your ability to remember the word.

Little thing #3: Take one question at a time. Don’t look at the clock, look at the words on the page. A lot of the time the answers to these questions will run in order (especially in Passage 3), so doing them one at a time will help with locating the answers.

Little thing #4: Attempt all the questions. Nobody is going to come to your house in the middle of the night if you get an answer wrong. There is no penalty for a wrong answer. And you just might get the answer right, especially if it’s a multiple choice task.

Little thing #5: Don’t sweat the small stuff. When it comes to the exam, and you see a word you don’t know, don’t worry about it. See if you can work it out from context if it looks like it might be an answer to a question. What are the words around it? What form are they? What’s the situation? If it’s not important, breeze over it, and don’t look back. You’ve got an IELTS test to ace. 

Thanks for reading my top 5 tips for achieving a high IELTS Reading score. I hope they have been helpful. If you have any more tips for improving your reading, I’d love to hear them! Use the comments section below to share your ideas with me and my students. Thanks, and good luck with your exam!

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