Guessing is a super important skill in IELTS reading. Everyone at some stage needs to guess answers in IELTS reading. The reason for this is that the texts are made for band score 9.0 candidates and so you cannot be expected to “know” the answer simply by using your language and reading skills.
But there is a big difference between guessing blindly and making what we call an educated guess. Guessing is also a reading skill – something you can learn and practise. Here is how I suggest you start to learn this skill of how to guess answers in IELTS reading.
Don’t panic – keep thinking straight
This is where lots of people go wrong. They find a question they can’t answer – or answer immediately – and they shut down – thinking it’s too hard they forget their basic reading strategies.
The idea is rather to keep thinking about general IELTs reading strategies – they help you guess well. If you use them well, you still may get the answer wrong, but you also have a chance of guessing correctly.
Is that too general? Let me a little more precise about what to do
- don’t guess immediately
- think about how each question type works and what reading skills you need
- understand that you may need to use a different strategy for each type of question
- think about where the answer might come
- eliminate the obviously wrong answers
- guess at what the answer is most likely to be
I’ll explain a little more about each of these points further.
Give yourself enough time
The first step is to understand that if you leave yourself no time, you cannot make intelligent guesses. Also it helps to see that the more time you give yourself and the more systematic you are, the better chance you have to guess right.
So make sure you still leave yourself time to guess answers. Don’t spend lots of time on one or two questions and expect to guess the rest.
In practice this means that you should have and keep to a timing strategy for the whole paper. This means that you know how much time you leave for each group of questions and each text.
A common mistake is to lose track of time by spending too long on one part of the reading and so have to guess the remaining questions blindly. That is precisely the wrong way to guess answers correctly.
Know when to guess each question – keep an eye on the clock
A connected idea is you’ll also do this much better if you have a plan about when to guess each individual question. This normally means that you decide to mark an answer after a set period of time – even if it involves guessing. Look at the clock and mark an answer after this set period of time.
How much time do should you spend on one question? That will depend on you, But the key idea is that you want to
spend almost the same amount of time on each question – don’t spend too much time on one question
the simple reason for this is that if you spend lots of time on just one question, your chances of guessing the next questions are much smaller.
Think about the type of questions – some are better for guessing than others – make the odds work in your favour
The central idea is that each question type works differently and when you can’t find the answer, you need to use slightly different strategies.
This involves some basic maths. The matching headings to paragraphs questions are really tough. Why? There are often around 10 possible answers to each question. That gives you a one in ten chance of being right by guessing blindly. Look at the T/F/NG questions though and you suddenly have a one in three chance. That’s much better. The multiple choice questions? They normally give you a one in five chance.
How does this work in practice? Does it mean that you shouldn’t guess in paragraph matching questions? No. If you don’t have a certain answer, you’ll still need to guess. You just need to learn how to improve the odds so that it’s something more like a one in three chance. I’ll explain more about that below.
What it can also mean is that if you know you have timing problems you may spend less time on T/F/NG questions than others. You have a reasonable chance of getting the right answer after all. It also means that the paragraph matching question is precisely where you don’t guess randomly.
Answer the questions you know first by using a marking code
This can be a key skill that is particularly useful in paragraph matching questions.
You should see that you are certain about some answers, 50/50 on some and lost on others. The idea is that you go through the questions by marking
- the answers you know first – perhaps using capital letters
- then the answers you are 50/50 on with a ? or two variations
- then the answers you have no idea about with a X
How can this help? Well. Once you have put in your known answers, you are much more likely to guess your 50/50 answers correctly, so focus more on them. Only after have you done them, do you go for the “unknown” answers. If you do this, when you come to guess the unknown answers, the odds aren’t one in ten any more but often around one in six – simply because you have deleted a lot of possible wrong answers.
if you blindly guess the odds are one in ten
but delete the correct answers and the odds are now one in eight (if you know 3 answers)
delete the 50/50 answers and the odds are now one in 6 (if you get one of them)
now guess the others and the odds are at worst one in six but maybe much better because you can also delete some obviously wrong answers
You should note that this will mean that you go over each set of questions more than once – perhaps three times. That may seem like wasting time, but it isn’t if you get more answers right! In fact, the more you go over the questions, the more likely you are to see the right answer – a lot of mistakes are made by moving too quickly and other s are made by moving too slowly!
Learn to section the text – at least decide which part of the text the answer comes in
This is a related idea. IELTS reading questions (except the matching types) follow the order of the text in each set of questions. This means answer 2 is found between answers 1 and 3. So what’s the smart thing to do here?
- Make sure you at least look at the right part of the text when you guess
- Mark the part of the text that each set of questions relates to
- Mark where you find the answers by writing the number of the question in the text. So you put 1 against the place where you find answer 1 etc
- When you have a question where you need to guess, make sure you guess in the right part of the text
As before, you should note that it may mean taking the questions slightly out of order and focussing on the questions you can answer first before you look at the “unknown” answers.
Delete the wrong answers
Quite often you can’t find the right answer but you can at least see which answers are wrong. Use this simple technique to help you. Cross out the answers you know that are wrong and then you are left with fewer options to choose from.
This is a technique that works well with multiple choice type questions.
Make sure your answer fits the question
If you do guess, make sure that what you mark on the answer sheet at least fits the question. So make sure:
- in summary/text completion questions the words you write in are grammatically correct – i.e. work out if you need a verb/noun/adjective etc
- you write only two words if the question asks you to write no more than two words
Be aware of general meaning
The idea here is that the more you understand the meaning of the text, the more likely you are to guess the correct answers. So although very few questions do ask about general meaning/gist, it can still be worthwhile spending some time thinking about gist.
Let me give you an example here. If you know the idea of the text is about how food additives are harmful to our health, then it is a sensible guess to decide that any question saying food additives are beneficial is not right. It is a guess and you may go wrong, but you are far more likely to guess well.
Some notes on T/F/NG questions
This may surprise you but it is not a question type to get stressed about. They may be some of the hardest questions around but your odds of getting them right are quite high – at worst one in three.
You can often improve your odds to one in two. To do this simply ignore the NG option – which is the confusing one. Rather look simply for the True and False answers. Decide if each question is T or F by looking at the text. This is a much simpler process.
If you can’t find an answer – guess NG. The chances are you have a 50/50 chance of being right.
Paragraph matching type questions
This is a type of question to be very careful with. Don’t try to make guesses quickly here. One key skill is to find some answers you are sure about and go through the questions 2/3 times. If you can find 3 correct answers, then the odds of guessing the others correctly is greatly improved. All you need to do is delete those answers from the options.
A second skill is to focus on the beginnings and endings of paragraphs as that is where the answers are most likely to come. This applies generally but most especially when you are guessing.
Also, it helps to ignore “common” words in the questions and look at just a few words. This means that in a text about dogs, you ignore any “dog” words.