Why do IELTS candidates make mistakes in the reading paper? Time and the difficulty of the texts are two reasons. Another reason is that they do not read in the right way and they focus on key words only. Key words can help but only if used correctly. Used incorrectly, they can in fact cause more mistakes, not fewer. In fact, my belief is that not knowing how to use key words causes more problems in the reading paper than anything else.
I want to help you, so let’s look at why and how and when you should look at key words in the IELTS reading paper.
Why use the key words approach
Key words can help you read more efficiently. This is helpful because the texts are quite long and normally complex. If you focus on key words, you can read more quickly by only looking at the part of the text you need to. Great.
Why not to use the key words approach by itself
Sadly, only using the key words approach probably causes more avoidable errors than anything else in the reading paper. This is because it makes you try and match words in the question with words in the text. In fact, the reading paper doesn’t work in this way: you are not matching words but the meanings. This is an extremely important distinction which it is important to understand.
Here is an example adapted from an English language textbook:
For a few years, there has been a campaign to improve school meals in the UK. Daniel Brown is the head teacher of a school that banned junk food and started serving healthy food in 2006. “Our research shows that, since 2006, the children’s behaviour in class has been a lot better. They are now calmer and they concentrate more. As a result, they are learning more.”
The question is:
How many years ago did the school start serving healthy food?
Which is the answer?
- a few years ago
- since 2006
You will find the correct answer as a comment. The teachers’ book actually gives the wrong answer. Why? Whoever wrote the question forgot to check the meaning of the question, they only looked at words
When to use key words?
Key words are useful, of course they are. However, they only ever tell you where the answer is in the text. They do not tell you what the answer is. So my strong suggestion is this:
- look at key words in the question
- underline key words in the text
- always, always, always read the whole question for meaning before you fill in your answer
It may take more time this way but you will certainly get more answers correct and this is the goal: not to do it quickly but to do it quickly and well.