When it comes to the IELTS reading exam, there is a lot to consider. You need a good vocabulary, the ability to read quickly, and so on. However, at the core of it you need good strategies in order to have a good chance of success.

In today’s lesson, I want to outline a few strategies that you can employ to improve your IELTS reading scores. Some of these will be overall strategies that guide how you approach the exam and others will be focused ones to approach certain passages or questions.

Also, it is important to note that there is no single perfect strategy and that people have achieved band 9 by approaching the exam in very different ways. As such, it is up to you to figure out what is the best way for you to do IELTS reading.

1. Read the Text Quickly Before You Begin

This is probably the most common piece of advice that you will hear from IELTS tutors around the world and there is a good reason for it – it allows you to find answers more easily and complete the exam without wasting much time.

The strategy is simple: Read the text very quickly before you even look at the question. That means scanning the headings and quickly running your eyes over the paragraphs to note keywords and whatnot. Don’t think too much about details. Get an idea about the content without delving into it.

This is a great approach and it works well for most people. However, some tutors suggest doing things a little differently…

2. Read the Questions First

This is the opposite of the previous suggestion, so don’t try to do them both!

Basically, this strategy suggests reading the questions before you jump into the text. Rather than scanning the text for a general idea, read the questions so that you know what to expect from the text and what to focus on when you read.

After reading the questions, you can quickly read the text and you will start to see where those answers may be found. Then you can go through the questions one by one and carefully answer them. Easy!

Whether you choose this or the previous suggestion is really a matter of personal choice. I definitely see a lot of value in both, but I think I prefer the first strategy and I typically recommend it. Still, this one should not be overlooked and does work better for some people.

3. Learn to Use Synonyms to your Advantage

In IELTS reading, synonyms are of the utmost importance. Anyone who has done a few practice tests (or a real one!) will know this. Let’s look at an example:

Question: Which section contains the following information? An example of a domestic product made of high-quality gum.

Text: The first major commercial use of kauri gum was in the manufacture of high-grade furniture varnish, a kind of clear paint used to treat wood. The best and purest gum that was exported prior to 1910 was used in this way. Kauri gum was used in 70% of the oil varnishes being manufactured in England in the 1890s.

This is actually quite a difficult question because there is nothing that is really a synonym of “domestic” here and in fact “commercial” almost acts to deter the reader from choosing this section. The key, though, is the phrase “the best and purest gum,” which is the only phrase in the whole article that is a synonym of “high-quality gum.” Beyond that, we have the reference to furniture varnish, which is certainly a domestic product.

As such, by locating synonyms and examples, we can find the correct passage in a long article.

4. Use Grammar to Guide your Choices

Grammar is difficult and one of the best things about IELTS reading is that you don’t really need to be an expert at it. However, having a basic knowledge of grammar can really help you to choose the right option. At its core, you should be able to decide whether you need a verb, noun, or adjective to fill a gap. Just knowing that can save you from making a huge mistake. You should also be able to tell whether you need a singular or plural form word, and in some cases whether it is a single word or a longer phrase.

Here’s another example:

Complete the notes below:

Responsibilities include

– writing for a number of ______, produced for both IFCES and a wider readership

We can locate the answer to this paragraph under a section called “Responsibilities”:

Write and edit copy for publications intended for internal and external use including Chemical Engineering Monthly.

So how can we use grammar to find the right answer?

We know the answer cannot be “internal” or “external” because those are adjectives and we need to find a noun. Also “both IFCES and a wider readership” mean “internal and external use.” The phrase “a number of” shows that we need a plural noun and so we cannot say “copy.” NOTE: We also cannot modify words, so it would not be possible to say “a number of copies.”

Thus, the only possible answer here is “publications.”

Remember: When you are faced with a difficult question and you have some challenging vocabulary to deal with, grammar can reduce the number of options, sometimes bringing you to the one correct answer.

5. The Questions are in Order

This is a really important thing to note. In IELTS reading, the questions and answers will be in the same order (confirmed by IDP), meaning that if you get questions 4 and 6 right, then you are searching for question 5, you know where to search!

ielts reading strategy - the answers are in order

As long as there’s not a massive gap between the two answers, this can really help you to narrow down your search. Once you do this, you can go back to strategies 3 and 4 to locate the answer.

6. Figuring Out Difficult Vocabulary

It is important to have a good vocabulary for IELTS reading, but inevitably you will encounter words that you do not know. In fact, even I sometimes encounter unfamiliar vocabulary when I do practice reading tests! I’m a native speaker and a professional writer, but sometimes there is some scientific language that I do not know.

So what do I do in this situation?

Well, it depends. If the word is not necessary for answering a question, I will just ignore it. After all, if it isn’t needed, then it is a waste of time for me to think about it.

If I do need to know what the word means (ie it is located where I think an answer will be found), then I will guess its meaning from context. To do that, I need to read the sentences before and after this word to get clues. There may be other clues elsewhere in the passage, but usually you will be able to tell from the surrounding words.

For example:

The US government has ordered the families of all American personnel at the US embassy in Ukraine to leave the country amid heightened fears of a Russian invasion. The state department told the dependents of staffers at the US embassy in Kyiv that they must leave the country. It also said that non-essential embassy staff could leave Ukraine at government expense.


What does the word “dependents” mean here?

There are two ways to figure this out and we can use them together:

  1. Looking at the previous sentence, we can see “families of all American personnel” and then the phrase we need to decode is “dependents of staffers.” Thus, we know that “dependents” and “families” are linked.
  2. We can look at the word “dependent” and see that it is partly made from “depend.” Thus, a dependent is someone who depends on another person.

Putting these together, we know that a “dependent” in this context is a family member of a US worker at the embassy.

You can read more about figuring out difficult vocabulary in this article.

7. Don’t Waste Time

This is quite obvious, but do not waste time in the IELTS reading test. Remember that you only have one hour to read several long passages and answer 40 difficult questions. If you spend ages trying to find one answer, maybe you will run out of time and miss several other answers.

I see this quite a lot in practice reading sessions, actually. People panic and force themselves to search repeatedly for a difficult answer. Instead of moving on to the next question, they waste five or ten minutes on this one. Instead of losing one point, they lose four or five points. It is a big mistake.

Remember that you can always come back later if you have spare time at the end. This leads me to a related idea…

8. Always take a guess

Finally, I cannot finish this list without stating the obvious – always take a guess! You should really never leave a blank space on your answer paper because that will guarantee you do not get a point. If you guess and get it wrong, it is the same as not choosing an answer, but at least you have a choice.

This is really helpful when there are only limited options, such as guessing A, B, C, etc. But also, if you have narrowed the search down to one paragraph and you know the that answer must be a verb, then you can just choose one of those verbs as your guess. Maybe it will be right!

Video About IELTS Reading

Before we finish, you might find this video useful. In it, I go through an IELTS reading test and explain how to find the right answers: