In this article, IELTS teacher Iffaf Khan offers practical tips and strategies to help students to improve reading skills for the academic or general reading component of the IELTS exam.
The reading test is 60 minutes long, has 40 questions and involves reading up to 2,700 words. It can feel like a really long test and be quite tiring for your students. To help with this, it is important to provide your students with both reading strategies as well as analysing the question types they may encounter. For example, the true/false/not given questions ask you whether something is a fact or whether the author felt a certain way or not. How will your students know about what the author wants to say unless they know what kind of writing this is and how the questions have been organised?
Whether your students are taking the academic or general training exam (see here for information about the exam format), this article will provide tips and strategies to help them analyse and process texts.
Tip 1: Reading aloud for language analysis
Problem: Five of the questions – matching sentence endings, sentence completion, summary completion, note completion and table completion – require very close reading. There are a lot of words to read in these sections and this can be stressful for students. When asking students to read aloud, you may find they are saying both the function * and content ** words with equal stress. Reading with equal stress on both content and function words makes reading slower and less natural; the important words become lost as students wait for a comma or a semi-colon to pause before they get to their full-stop.
* Function words (such as articles, propositions, or conjunctions) are practical and signify the structural relationships between words, helping sentences make grammatical sense. These should be unstressed and read quickly.
** Content words (e.g. nouns, verbs, adjectives or adverbs) give sentences meaning and provide the real content of the sentence. These should be stressed and read more clearly.
Solution: An observation of tense choices, adverbs and even punctuation can help students along the way to an understanding of each text. Training students to identify content words and reading aloud will help students focus on the important words in sentences while improving their reading speed.
- Choose a reading passage from a test they've just done.
- Select a topic sentence from a paragraph (this is almost always the opening sentence). A topic sentence is a good place to start because you want to support your students with a very clear and important sentence that identifies the main idea in the paragraph. For example:
The question of whether we are alone in the Universe has haunted humanity for centuries, but we may now stand poised on the brink of the answer to that question, as we search for radio signals from other intelligent civilisations.(Taken from Cambridge English IELTS 9, see Related resources)
- Read it aloud 'the unnatural way' by over-emphasising each word, then the natural way, with more stress on content words and less on function words. Ask students to listen and underline the content words (see above).
- Ask your students to practice saying this sentence in the same way as you. They should under-voice or whisper it.
- Give each student a new sentence from the reading passage and ask them underline their key words and whisper-practice. If students are having difficulties pausing, you may need to help your students with chunking (see related resources).
- Now bring the whole class together to read their sentences aloud.
Tip 2: Facts for the day
Problem: Another issue with students focussing on individual words is that they forget about the importance of understanding the precise meaning of statements and identifying whether these are facts. Identifying facts is particularly important for the true/false/not given question type.
Solution: Get your students to practise identifying whether statements are facts or opinion.
- Ask them to read through an article once a week or every evening for homework. For example, articles from this link: https://www.newsinlevels.com
- Ask them not to bring a print out. They must only tell you what they've learned from the article.
- Now ask students to read out their statements in class. For example:
Student 1: It’s important that astronauts have the right psychological features to cope with living in space.
Teacher: Is this fact or opinion? (Answer: opinion)
Student 2: Potatoes are root vegetables.
Teacher: Is this fact or opinion? (Answer: fact)
Tip 3: Building a mental model for global comprehension
Problem: In the exam, your students will have to match headings to paragraphs or sections of a reading passage; quite often students can’t see each section in relation to the whole text.
Solution: Get students to create their own mental representations of headings or choose from a selection of photographs. If you see an idea in your mind, you might see it in a different way from someone else. When you hear or see the word ‘ice’ in a paragraph heading, do you think of ice in your drink or do you see the North Pole? Whatever representation you see in your head is your mental model. The purpose of a mental model is to allow you to get to the heart of an idea and visualise it. Students’ individual ‘mental models’ of headings can be used in a pre-reading prediction task, and checked against the relevent paragraph for meaning.
- Use an article from an IELTS reading that contains a paragraph and heading matching exercise. E.g: ‘Seeking the transmission of radio signals from planets’ (Taken from Cambridge English IELTS 9, P.21, see Related resources)
- Go to any file-sharing site and look for photos. (e.g. https://www.flickr.com/photos/tags/radio/).
- Write the paragraph heading on the board. Now put some pictures up that you found earlier (e.g. pictures of radio signals and planets).
- Ask students to select the best picture that they think best summarises the paragraph heading.
- Ask them to select another heading from the matching exercise and find their own photo, or even drawing.
Tip 4: Understanding text function
Problem: Students need 'global comprehension' (an understanding of the general meaning of a text) before they begin reading. Global comprehension includes an understanding of different articles or text types, particularly in General Training, but this is often overlooked.
Solution: Demonstrate the importance of genre in understanding text function. This will help your students to identify the purpose and conventions of a text quickly and help them understand it (e.g. the purpose of a film review). The text types used in academic reading in IELTS tend to be taken from books, journals, magazines and newspapers; in the general training module, the text types tend to be things like notices, signs, leaflets, workplace related texts (e.g. signs in an office about facilities or even texts which explain company policies) or general reading texts that might include newspaper articles or magazines.
Get your students to think big and look at global comprehension, by thinking about genre and the purposes of texts.
- Put these text purposes on the board.
- To inform
- To instruct
- To warn
- To discover
- To clarify
- Divide your students into groups and get them to discuss the list . Ask them to think of text types that are written with these purposes in mind, giving them an example before they begin (e.g. a film review – to inform, to entertain).
- Ask students for their examples and feedback some examples from the IELTS reading exam; either general training or academic training, depending on which exam your students are taking, e.g.:
- To inform – scientific articles in the academic paper or company policies in general training
- To instruct – ‘how to’ articles (e.g. making ceramics or finding a location) in either paper
- To warn – ‘notices’ in general training or an article on the danger of poor designs in architecture in the academic paper
- To discover – new ideas or findings from research in the academic paper.
- To clarify – an article about why it rains in the academic paper or the informative and shorter notices in General Training
- Each time you read a new text with students, ask them to decide on the purpose of the text, based on the genre.
Cambridge English IELTS 9: Authentic Examination Papers from Cambridge ESOL, (2013) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. P.21-23
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