Number one for English language teachers

IELTS strategies 1: what is the key word?

Type: Teaching notes

Aims to help students to identify the key word in sentences.

I believe many students find the true/false/doesn’t say and yes/no/not given questions in the IELTS academic reading module particularly difficult, especially the difference between 'no' and 'not given'. Many teachers attending the recent IELTS clinics shared this feeling. One approach to help students focus on the task is to get the students to underline ONE keyword from each statement. It’s often advised to underline keywords in questions but it may not be clear to students what kind of keywords to look out for. I’ve illustrated this below with a list of statements from 't/f/dns' and 'y/n/ng' questions in Sam McCarter’s IELTS Testbuilder.


Tell the students to select ONE keyword from each of the following:

  1. Networking is not a modern idea.
  2. People fall into two basic categories.
  3. All teachers are cynics.
  4. The first piece of Hesse’s art has little effect on visitors to the gallery.
  5. The New Forest has already been made into a National Park.

Suggested answers:

  1. not
  2. two
  3. all
  4. little or perhaps first
  5. already


The suggested answers I’ve given may not seem that obvious to the students who would possibly consider keywords such as 'modern' or 'New Forest' as more significant. However, the keywords shown have a greater significance in terms of the meaning of the whole statement and illustrate a number of traps in the test. For instance:

  1. 'not' makes the statement negative as opposed to possibly being positive in the text
  2. 'two' determines a specific number of categories which may differ in the text.
  3. 'all' determines that every teacher is a cynic and not a proportion of.
  4. 'little' has a negative connotation as opposed to 'a little' another one to watch out for is 'few' and 'a few'
  5. 'already' shows that the New Forest was made into a National Park in the past and is not a future proposal i.e. an indication of past, present or future time.

These examples hence illustrate the importance of looking out for: negativity, a specific number, the whole or a proportion of, positive and negative connotation and reference to time. Other ones to watch out for include:

  • Modals e.g. words like must, should, have to (varying degrees of obligation or certainty)
  • Adverbs of frequency e.g. sometimes, always
  • Words such as most, some, all

This can be used as a regular activity in class when attempting this question type. The keyword the student selects may not turn out to be the correct one but at least the student is focusing on the task. A useful addition to this activity is to compare what the student perceived to be the keyword before reading the text and what the keyword turned out to be after having read the text.


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Readers' comments (11)

  • Thank you for posting this , it is really very useful for frustrated students, now they will have something to look for-KEY WORDS! Keep up the great lesson plans Richard.

    fiona hatz

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  • Hi bartonim,

    Thanks for your feedback. Glad you found the tips useful.

    Best wishes,

    The onestopenglish team

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  • This is a useful tip. Thanks fr posting!

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  • very good.I didn't know this before.I hope this tip can help me to improve more in this exam

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  • Great

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  • thank you very much. very spot on and easy to give lesson.

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  • very useful

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  • Well done!

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  • Thank you very much! This is a great explanation on how to look key words in every question.

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  • Thank you, Richard. I'm storing this one in my memory bank.

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  • Very useful

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