The IELTS Reading tasks tests only one thing: the candidate’s ability to answer questions correctly on the basis of the reading. None of the other reasons people regularly read – to acquire and retain information, say, or for entertainment – come into play. If you learn something from the IELTS Reading test and remember it, good for you. If you enjoy the readings, better yet. But stay focused on the questions.
During the one-hour task, there are three readings, of gradually increasing difficulty, with a total of approximately 40 questions, or about 13 per reading. (The number varies from exam to exam.) Having time read both the questions and the readings, and then to arrive at the correct answers, requires fast reading – but not “speed reading” in the ordinary sense of the word.
The reading and reading-related skills tested include:
- Following instructions. Any of ten or so question types may be used in the Reading task, and it is essential that the candidate understand the question type, the particular way it is to be answered (e.g., multiple possible answers or a single correct answers), and the most precise, direct answer to the question as asked.
– Identifying the main ideas. Not only is it not necessary to understand everything in a particular reading, it is unwise to try to. If there is no question pertaining to a particular word, sentence or passage, it doesn’t matter if you understand it. But it is important to grasp the main ideas of all reading passages. Some questions are based on these main ideas, and knowing what – and where – they are in the text is often critical to the accurate and quick answering of questions.
– Seeing how principal ideas in a reading passage are connected. Various questions types, most conspicuously matching, require seeing the connection between main ideas. However, virtually all of the question types may produce questions that require the candidate to see the relationship between ideas or the way individual ideas must be connected to arrive at a correct answer.
– Testing the truthfulness of statements in the questions against “word strings” found in a reading text. Often, IELTS Reading task questions, particular true-and-false and fact-or-opinion, are comprised of sequences of words found in exactly the same form in the readings. However, phrases or clauses prior to those word strings (e.g., “some scientists think that…” or qualifiers following them (e.g., “but”, “unless”, “except for”) may turn what appears to be a fact into an opinion or a what appears to be a true statement into a false one.
– Grasping ideas underlying the main arguments. Some questions require the reader to see the writer’s motivation in writing or organizing the passage as it finally appears. These underlying concepts sometimes emerge only with careful reading or by looking for evidence of them when the candidates know there are questions about them.
– Understanding the writer’s point of view. This is perhaps the most difficult of the reading skills. It requires that the candidate understand more than just the words but the perceptions and attitudes behind them. Most readings have a “point” that is not stated directly. Sometimes these motivations can only be discovered by a look at the kinds of words writers choose to address their subjects, particularly judgment words. Candidates may also need to find the author’s feelings, if any about the topic – e.g., advocacy, affection, concern, alarm, and even neutrality. These techniques together are what English speakers refer to as “reading between the lines.”
The Reading task is the one most candidates find the easiest. However, the rigorousness of the questions, more than the difficulty of the readings, may make the task more difficult than it appears.
Svend Nelson is a university lecturer and Internet entrepreneur. He is director of UniRoute Limited, a Hong Kong based company with offices in Bangkok and London providing IELTS preparation and a free online application service to study abroad in UK including courses like tourism management. Svend lived and worked in various countries across Latin America, Europe and Asia and currently lives in Thailand.