“I ran out of time!”
“I got stuck on this one question!”
“I couldn’t finish all the questions!”
“I couldn’t find the answer to a reading question!”
Ever heard any of these statements from students after an exam? Anyone listening might assume ‘Oh the exam must have been very hard’ whereas an IELTS teacher would immediately think ‘Aha, that student needs to work on their exam skills!
Good exam skills are crucial to doing well in the IELTS exam. Time is limited and so it is important under exam conditions to use that time efficiently. This is particularly important in the Reading test, where you must have an overall strategy and employ specific reading skills for certain types of text. Many students are only familiar with the ‘from first word to last word’ approach. However, in the IELTS Reading test you will waste time if you do not use other techniques more appropriate to the task. For example, for shorter texts which only contain factual information or advice you will mostly need to scan the text, but for longer texts which contain more complex ideas, descriptions and arguments you will need to use the skimming technique.
Before you start to read any passage, you should always ask yourself these three questions:
- What am I reading?
- Why am I reading it?
- How will I read it?
These questions will help you focus specifically on the text in front of you. The next step is to begin reading – BUT remember: you should not read from first word to last! You need an efficient strategy.
A useful acronym to remember is: SARC. This stands for Survey – Analyse – Return – Check
Survey the text
The aim is to build up an idea of what the text as a whole is about, to see the ‘forest’ before looking at the ‘trees’. This will involve your skimming skills.
- Look at the title, section headings, special print, illustrations, graphs and tables to understand what the passage is about.
- Then look at each paragraph. Read by skimming your eyes over the sentences and not stopping.
- Underline key words.
- Try to find the ‘topic sentence’ which will summarise what the paragraph is about. It is frequently the first in the paragraph but not always, sometimes it may be the second or last. Your purpose is to understand the main points of a passage so you should locate and underline this topic sentence in each paragraph.
- Don’t read word by word at this stage and don’t follow the text with your finger or your pen.
- Don’t stop at or worry about words you don’t understand.
- Never take longer than two minutes.
Analyse the questions
- Ask yourself “What is the purpose of this question?”
- If you can recognise that the question is asking about the general them of the passage, then you already know how to find the answer quickly.
- If the question is asking for specific information, make sure you are clear what the information is (is it a number? a period of time? an activity?).
- Analysing the question has another meaning too. It means read it carefully to see what form your answers should be in (one word? three words? a number?)
Return to the text
- Go back to the text to find the answers to the question. This will involve your scanning and intensive reading skills.
- Do not read every word.
- Pay attention to your timing. Move onto the next question if you cannot answer one. No question is worth more than a minute!
- Do not worry if you don’t understand everything. Remember that you are reading for a purpose. Be clear about what information you need to find and just look for that information. You must do this quickly.
Check your answers
- Allow a short period of time at the end for checking.
- Look at any answers you are unsure about.
- Read all the instructions again and make sure you have followed them all exactly.
- Make sure you always write something – there are no penalties for incorrect answers so if necessary, GUESS!
Following this strategy in the Reading Test enables you to maximize your time, leaving you enough time to attempt all the questions as well as some time at the end for checking. You will also increase your overall comprehension because you will understand what kind of information you are looking for and where in the text to find it. Basically, you will be reading efficiently and this in turn increases your chances of answering the questions correctly.