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Reading Exam: Overview and Tips

Updated: Feb 25, 2023

This article will give an overview of the reading exam and some useful tips to help you get the score you deserve!

In this class we are going to do 4 things:

  1. 🔎 Give an overview of the reading exam format and content

  2. 🤔 Discuss some common challenges students often have

  3. 💪 Learn the most effective overall reading strategy

  4. 🧠 Outline some general reading advice and Pro-Tips

In a future post, we will look at specific question types and how to answer them.

1. 🔎 Reading Exam Format and Content

Time to Complete the Exam:

1 hour

Number of Sections:


Number of Questions:


Lengths of Texts:

700 - 1000 words

Types of Texts:

Academic Exam:

Academic Articles about subjects such as Architecture, Business, Economics, Engineering, Science, etc.

General Exam:

Advertisements, texts related to ‘workplace survival’ like pay schemes, job applications or contracts, a magazine article / piece of fiction.

What kinds of reading skills are tested in the exam?

  • Your ability to comprehend facts in a text.

  • Your ability to comprehend opinions in a text.

  • Your ability to understand specific details.

  • Your ability to understand main ideas.

  • Your ability to distinguish between similar, but different ideas.

  • Your ability to read quickly.

  • your ability to concentrate on reading English for 60 minutes.

  • Your ability to identify synonyms.

  • The extent of your English vocabulary.

What kinds of questions are in the exam?

  • True, false, not given

  • Yes, no, not given

  • Gap-fills (sentences, summaries, diagrams, tables, etc.)

  • Multiple choice

  • Matching sentence endings

  • 'Short answer' questions

  • Matching paragraph headings

  • Which paragraph contains / which paragraph refers to

  • Matching names with statements or information

2. 🤔 Common Challenges and How to Overcome them

What kinds of things do candidates find most challenging about the reading exam?

  • Not having enough time / not knowing how to manage the time.

  • Not knowing vocabulary.

  • Not understanding how to answer certain types of questions.

  • Trying to carry too much ‘cognitive load’ by reading things in the wrong order / with the wrong intensity.

Some DOs and DON'Ts which can help you overcome these challenges.

​✅ Read as fast as you can but not any faster.

​❌Don’t read so fast that you don’t understand what you’re reading.

​✅ Read phrase-by-phrase and sentence-by-sentence.

❌ Don’t read word-by-word. If you do this, you’re not ready to take the exam.

✅ If you’re not sure of an answer, mark it and come back to it later.

❌ Don’t spend too long on any one particular question.

✅ Use certain reading strategies such as scanning to navigate the text quickly.

​❌ Don’t rely too much on reading strategies such as ‘scanning’ as it is important to take the necessary time to understand what you’re reading.

✅ Develop a tolerance for reading fluently while not knowing every single word.

❌ Don’t get stuck trying to understand every single word of a text.


  • The reading exam is essentially a vocabulary exam. Knowing a wide range of words and synonyms is essential for getting a good score. The majority of the questions essentially test your knowledge of synonyms and differences between similar words.

  • While practising reading, take note of new words and phrases and review those notes.

  • While studying and recording vocab, get into the habit of thinking about synonyms and paraphrases of new language you learn.

  • As mentioned before, in the exam, guess meanings from context/don’t worry if you don’t know every single word.

Difficult question types

  • Familiarise yourself with the different question types.

  • Before the exam, practice each question type with past papers.

  • We will look at how to answer different questions in the next lesson.

‘Cognitive load’

Trying to remember, understand and analyse too much information from the text and the questions will make you confused and slow you down. This is especially true on test day when you might be feeling nervous and/or tired.

Imagine trying to read and remember 10 paragraph heading options, many of which will be quite similar, then reading and trying to understand a paragraph of a difficult text, then trying to recall one of the 10 headings to match with that paragraph. Imagine reading 4 multiple choice questions, all with 4 multiple choice options (16 sentences), then trying to skim read and understand a text while keeping the questions in mind.

These would be terrible strategies and at best you would forget 90% of the information you’d just read and have to constantly re-read things, and at worst, you’d be totally exhausted and lost.

Ideally, you want to use reading strategies which not only allow you to read quickly and understand what you’re reading, but also strategies that make reading ‘lighter’, more efficient, and don’t make you try to ‘carry too much of a cognitive load’.

3. 💪 The Most Effective Overall Reading Strategy

Here's a nice simple strategy for completing the reading exam

The following is a simple strategy which allows you to understand the text and questions, and not overload your brain with too much information. Also, with very small adjustments, you can use this strategy to answer every type of question in the exam.

Credit goes to the wonderful Lar Ryan at for originally sharing this strategy.

In brief:

  1. Read the Title (if there is one)

  2. Read the First Paragraph

  3. Answer Any Questions You Can

  4. Repeat with the Next Paragraph

In detail:

  1. Most IELTS texts have a title, and some have a short extract before the main text. You should read these first to get an idea of what the text is about.

  2. Read the first paragraph quickly, but not so quickly that you don’t understand the text. Also, be interested in what it says. Comprehending IELTS reading texts is easier if you’re enthusiastic about and open to learning about new interesting topics. If you read a paragraph about Roman architecture, Artificial Intelligence, or sports science, wouldn’t it be cool if you learned something new that you could tell your friends and family about?

  3. Then, look at the first question. You can probably answer it, as the first question/questions after a passage is/are often about the first paragraph. You might need to look back and forth between that question and the paragraph to check your answer, but the ‘cognitive load’ of 1 paragraph and 1 question are quite light, so you should really be able to focus on understanding the paragraph and the question. Next, look at the next question, if you can answer it based on the first paragraph, then answer that too, if not then …

  4. Read the next paragraph, and repeat.

The trick is to try and deal with one paragraph at a time, and in order. This avoids misunderstanding the text and the questions by rushing yourself and reading too fast and superficially, and it also avoids overloading your brain with too much info and too many reading strategies at once.

The majority of questions appear in the same order as the information in the text, so this strategy allows you to deal with the text and the questions systematically.

Furthermore, if a question type requires you to ‘scan’ for a name, date, or technical word, if you’ve already carefully read the relevant parts of the text, relocating that word or part of the text will be easy.

4. 🧠 Some General Reading Advice and Pro-Tips

How can I improve my reading skills?

  • Practice, practice, practice. Read as much English as possible.

  • Practice ‘sustained reading’. In the IELTS exam you have to concentrate on reading English for 1 hour.

  • Reading the right kinds of things (Magazine articles, Opinion Pieces, Academic texts)

Pro-Tips and Important General Reading Advice Points

⭐ You get the score you deserve. If you don’t read enough in English, you won’t get a very high grade. If you don't know enough vocabulary, you won’t get a very high grade.

⭐ You have to understand the questions 100%, you don’t have to understand 100% of the text.

⭐ Reading in general will do more for your score than ‘tips and tricks’.

⭐ ‘Skimming’ and ‘scanning’ have very limited use. They are mainly there for orienting yourself around the text, not usually answering questions. Getting correct answers will mostly come from ‘detailed reading’.

⭐ Use ‘scanning’ when looking for names, numbers, and technical words.

⭐ Questions such as ‘matching headings’ start off as quite difficult when you’ve still got 8-10 options, but get much easier as you start deducing the answers, so don’t panic if you start a bit slowly.

⭐ Try to find the text interesting. The articles usually contain genuinely fascinating information and insights. Use the text to inform yourself about the topic being discussed. This will help you answer the questions.

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