Top Tips for IELTS

How to use key words in IELTS reading

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 IELTS reading.

Why use the key words in IELTS reading 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.

An example

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?

  1. a few years ago
  2. 2006
  3. 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:

  1. look at key words in the question
  2. underline key words in the text
  3. 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.

How to like it, share it and save it


Get more help with IELTS preparation on the main pages of my site

Home page

Speaking Guide

Writing Guide

Essay writing guide

Academic task 1 guide

Letter writing guide

Reading guide

Listening guide

IELTS vocabulary

IELTS grammar

Keep up with me on Facebook - all the updates and even more advice there


Or just get all my free lessons by email

Subscribe to DC IELTS by Email


72 Responses to How to use key words in IELTS reading

  1. Dominic Cole January 20, 2010 at 8:30 am #

    The answer in the book was “since 2006″: this has to be wrong as you cannot answer the question”How many years ago” with “since”. How many is asking for a length of time and since is a point in time.

    This is an important mistake to understand: you are not just looking for words, you are looking for meanings of words. The meaning of words can include their grammar. Be very careful.

    The correct answer is of course “a few years ago”.

    • mukesh June 14, 2011 at 2:34 pm #

      thnks for guiding us

    • kudy March 11, 2014 at 4:40 am #

      my first answer was since ”2006 bugger”! “a few years ago” make sense than the ”2006 bugger”.

      thanks Dominic.

    • anil November 13, 2014 at 1:20 pm #

      “few year ago” is for whole UK but in the question there is school not the UK then it could be correct ans.

    • Faaonea Daniells July 19, 2016 at 6:32 am #

      Fancy teachers getting it wrong. My gosh

  2. Aung Si Thu January 22, 2010 at 3:00 am #

    Thanks you Dominic.
    It provides valuable information in a second.

  3. Reshad January 31, 2010 at 8:39 pm #

    The correct answer is :a few years ago”. why? let’s eliminate other answers
    2006 can’t be so B is eliminated. C since 2006 is not the answer because since 2006 means 2007, 2008, 2009 (I think pls correct me if i am wrong). But actually in text it is given in 2006 so I chose A.

  4. ALI February 9, 2010 at 5:51 pm #

    Thanks you Dominic.
    for making such a wonderful site

  5. Name February 27, 2010 at 10:50 pm #

    thank you for your great tip.

  6. Stanimira March 2, 2010 at 4:41 pm #

    Dear Dominic ,
    the information that you have provided is really relevant and helpful.
    Thank you so much !

  7. chris March 29, 2010 at 4:20 pm #

    thanks Dominic , the way you make people understand ..shows that you are a great and caring teacher

  8. Name May 12, 2010 at 10:31 pm #

    Just thought of saying Thank you for your IELTS tips,Its really helpful..

  9. Amy June 8, 2010 at 11:24 am #

    I am extremely bad in reading, I am not sure why..
    But to me, this is a very tricky question, and I am still struggling to understand your explanation.

    • Dominic Cole November 14, 2010 at 5:10 pm #

      Reading is tricky. Perhaps the most technical skill. If you’re having major problems, my suggestion is to read for meaning and not simply word match. Matching words from the question to words in the text is probably where most marks are lost.

      • curious April 29, 2014 at 6:58 am #

        hi i think it is 2006
        Daniel Brown is the head teacher of a school that banned junk food and started serving healthy food in 2006.

  10. zaheer iqbal Kashmiri June 8, 2010 at 10:48 pm #

    Thank you Dominic

    You are doing a marvelous job for us, who are preparing for IELTS.
    Your tips and guide lines helped me in my test


  11. Ramjee Lal August 10, 2010 at 11:18 am #

    Thank you Dominic.
    This would be valuable tips for my coming IELTS test. Please give me more instruction to improve my reading and speaking skills as I
    got only 4.5 bands in both modules in previous test.

    • Dominic Cole November 14, 2010 at 4:31 pm #

      4.5 means you have quite a lot of work to do probably. On reading I suggest you read plenty every day – get into the reading habit. A good place to start is with Words in the News on my Little but often page. Also, try newspapers and magazines such as the Economist as they contain exactly the right sort of language.

  12. deepthi August 15, 2010 at 2:03 pm #

    thank you sir

  13. Orville Atienza August 16, 2010 at 7:09 am #

    Thank you dominic, do you have tips on how to get the topic sentence just like in some questions regarding choosing the statement that discusses a certain paragraph?

    • saira May 22, 2011 at 6:48 am #

      i also need it

  14. Ale Machuka September 7, 2010 at 1:45 am #

    Thank you very much Dominic!!

  15. Rosario Nineth Aparicio Guzman September 11, 2010 at 3:53 am #

    I am English´student, in El Salvador, in next I going to
    take the exam ielts,and this e.g. helpeme in the interpret
    of the paragraph.

  16. Trang October 1, 2010 at 4:57 pm #

    It’s very helpful. thanks a lot

  17. Kyaw Wunna October 5, 2010 at 7:35 pm #

    Meaning does not always exist within words and sentences but sometimes meaning exists in context.

  18. Name November 30, 2010 at 3:27 pm #

    I have sat for IELTS previously and missed by 0.5 in reading. I scored 6 in reading but I needed 6.5. Is there any advised how to improve on it ?
    Thank you

    • Dominic Cole November 30, 2010 at 4:52 pm #

      Tough one.

      What did you get on the other modules? Were they about the same as your reading score or much better? If they were much better, then you clearly have a problem with your reading skills. If they were about the same, then it may simply be a language problem.

      The difference between 6.0 and 6.5 isn’t much though and you could look at these suggestions that can make some difference:

      Always underline on the question paper the words that give you the answer – there is always something there. This technique helps you concentrate on looking at the exact wording and not what you thought you read.

      Always, always refer back to the exact question, before you write in the answer. It’s surprising how many mistakes come from not reading the question well enough.

      If you want to go pro, try practising different types of questions.

      Don’t practise complete tests, rather look at the reading skills. Forget about time and concentrate on getting the answer right. Time is not the problem in the exam – it’s making mistakes.

      Whenever you practise, don’t just check your score, review why you made mistakes and how you could get the right answer

      Hope that helps.

      • thomas June 23, 2011 at 11:59 am #

        thank q 4 ur valuble advise…

  19. Name December 2, 2010 at 2:51 pm #

    Thank you Dominic for your advise. My other modules, I scored 7 for speaking,writing and listening. My overall score band is 7. My requirement is at least 6.5 in each module.I ran out of time for my reading module. You are right I should concentrate on getting the answer right. I actually read the first 2 passages and understand it before answering the questions.But ran out of time on the third passage .So I panic and just could not concentrate to fill in the blanks.
    Some candidates that resit told me the reading passages is much harder now compare with previous years.Is it true?

    • Dominic Cole December 2, 2010 at 4:01 pm #

      Another piece of advice you might think about is this – particularly as time is a bit of a problem. Consider how long you spend on each part of the paper. 20-20-20 is of course one option. Another is to spend more time on parts 1&2 which are somewhat easier with the idea of maximising your score there and not worrying too much about part 3 ie going 25/20/15. The problem with that is my online calculator tells me you need 32 or thereabouts. So the third option is to spend more time on part 3 than part 1, ie 15/20/25.

      No, personally I’m not sure that there has been any real change in the standards. It’s always been a tough exam. If it makes you feel any better, educated native speakers would struggle to max out on some IELTS readings and that includes IELTS tutors – myself included.

  20. kmc December 23, 2010 at 9:24 am #

    thanks for tips…..appreciate your helps!…

  21. Adil December 29, 2010 at 4:08 pm #

    Hi, Mr. Coles

    This may sound strange but whenever I take an IELTS reading test, the first passage turns out to be the most difficult to me. Questions there are really tough and often too generalised so that it’s hard to deduce which heading to choose or if a statement is T/F/NG. Eventually it takes me about 25 minutes for the passage 1.

    Is this a common problem, and can you suggest any possible solutions ?
    thank you.

  22. Dominic Cole December 29, 2010 at 8:21 pm #

    Theoretically the first passage should be the most straightforward. I have to say though that I am not always convinced by that and I am not too surprised by what you say. It is slightly unusual, however, and something is probably not quite right of you are having consistent problems like this.

    Can I ask when you are taking the exam? It may be that you are shouldn’t be focussing on timed exercises just yet. My general view is that the best way to prepare is to learn how to get the answers right and that may mean not trying to do the reading papers in 60 minutes. The danger is you get plenty of practice but you don’t improve your skills. You only need to finish 3 readings on the day itself! Think of marathon runners if you like who prepare by running shorter distances.

    You might learn more by giving yourself around 75 minutes for a complete paper or by only doing single passage exercises or even just focussing on question types that give you problems. For me this is a real learning process – particularly if you spend plenty of time afterwards analysing how you could get the right answers.

    My other general advice is something like this:

    Don’t spend too long on any one question. Some questions are just plain hard and designed to sort out band score 8 from 9.

    Figure out a “guessing” technique. Don’t be random – but try and eliminate the answers that can’t be correct.

    Try leaving tricky questions and come back to them later. Sometimes it’s obvious when you come back to them. To do this, it helps to mark the right bit in the passage so you don’t waste time.

    You don’t necessarily need to go 20;20;20 on the time. It can be more efficient to go 25;20;15 or 15;20;25. It depends on who you are and what band score you need. Experiment to see what works best for you. Normally I only advise people who need around 6.0 to spend 25 minutes on the first passage. I say this on the basis that they can get almost enough points from the first two passages for their score and that the third passage may be too hard.

    In your particular case, you could try doing the 3rd reading first and see what happens. It could be that you concentrate better as you go on.

  23. Adil December 30, 2010 at 6:47 am #

    okay, thank you very much , I’ll follow your advice. My exam is on the January 15. I’m counting on a score 7, at least.

    • Dominic Cole December 30, 2010 at 10:49 am #

      Good luck.

      For what it’s worth, I wouldn’t try and do too much in 3/4 days immediately before the exam. Your English is what your English is by then and you are unlikely to “learn” any useful skills/language in a few days. I

      It’s a personal thing but I would relax and get my exam strategies clear in my head for each of the papers. If you have clear strategies and plans, that should give you more confidence and confidence is a good thing.

      If you want to do some practice, how about going through papers you have already done?

  24. nils January 1, 2011 at 1:23 am #

    This is very good website.I like it.It help me lot to organise my reading style.Thanks……

  25. ana January 3, 2011 at 10:39 am #

    Thanks a lot for this wonderful site.
    my problem is i always ran out of time in reading module.if i do the reading test at my own pace,i am able to get band 7 but in timed test i hardly manage to get 6.5……can u please advice ,how should i prepare???my exam is on 22 jan….

    • Dominic Cole January 3, 2011 at 11:50 am #

      Well from one point of view there isn’t a great distance between 6.5 and 7.0 – so you are close. The real problem is of course you need to make sure that 7.0 is the worst case scenario and that means you need to be getting 7.5 when you study in your own time. It may be that you just need more time to “guarantee” your 7. It does take a while to move from one band score to the next – tips and tricks only take you so far, the core problem is language.

      That said, if time is your problem, you need a strategy to cope. It’s important to realise that a number of the questions are really tough and designed to test reading at native speaker level. So one suggestion is to make sure you limit the amount of time you spend on any one question. If you can’t find the answer, move on and come back later. Also, you need to clear about your timing strategy in general. Are you going to do the questions once – slowly and carefully? Or are you going to go through them twice or 3 times – doing the easy ones first and then going back to the others? There isn’t any right answer to that question – different people work differently. You just need to find out what works.

      The practical suggestion is to time yourself doing a reading. How long do you spend on each passage? Are you spending more than 2 minutes on individual questions? Is there any one question type that causes you problems?

  26. kmc January 5, 2011 at 9:18 am #

    Hi Dominic,

    Happy new year to you and your loved ones!!..
    I totally agreed with the rest, this is very good website, i’ve been here almost everynight!.(since last week) my exam is scheduled on 22 jan too, this is my fourth exam, i need minimal all models 6 atleast or 7 is better. I always ended up with one model 5.5(the rest either 6.5,6,6.5), i really not sure what is the reason/problems-(I failed my first listening, second -reading, third – writing,…)….seriously, i really don’t know what went wrong or what to do now….haha…perhaps i really have to pt more efforts on the reading…..

    appreciate all your helps!

  27. Anonymous January 14, 2011 at 9:18 am #

    for the wonderfull tips and website

  28. Julieann Nanz January 18, 2011 at 7:35 pm #

    I am very thankful to this topic because it really gives great information `”`

  29. Margarita Kanode January 19, 2011 at 11:02 am #

    I am very thankful to this topic because it really gives up to date information .:.

  30. Anonymous January 24, 2011 at 8:07 am #

    Hi Dominic,

    I read your blog and also I asked for advise for Reading because I scored 6.0 both times.I listened to your advise and this time I scored 7.5.for my reading.

    I cannot believed when I saw the results . When I practised with my IELTS tutor , I scored above 6.0 but in the actual exam I just panicked. But I remembered your advise to concentrate on getting the answers right.So I did as much as I could and those I do not know I still put an answer and put a tick to come back to it. This time I managed to finish the exam and I managed to fill in the blanks with correct answers.

    Previous two times my reading was 6.0 and third time is 7.5.
    Thank you Mr Cole for all your help and advise.

    God bless.

    p/s .Also I think I managed to finish the passage 1 under 20 minutes, passage 2 in 20 minutes( as it turns out passage 2 was the hardest) and rest of the time on passage 3 which is the easiest passage of the 3.)

  31. michael mitchell February 19, 2011 at 10:11 pm #

    Dear Dominic, Your site is excellent. It is a pity that time is spent on questions such as this one. There is no choice actually, you must give time to such nonsense.

    This sort of question only highlights the virtual worthlessness of some of the finicky questions in both the IELTS and especially in TOEFL. They are of use only in TV quiz shows. In real life or even in academic studies??…. of utterly no significance. Thankfully, so few questions require such concentrated effort and it is possibly best to remind students that no one can get 100% in these tests and so it is often best to take lucky dip with one or two or three questions. I think this is another example of “We are the IELTS examiners and we know more than you do” snobbery. I say that the IELTS people are rascist and like to think they are as superior to the rest of the world as the Royal Family is in The King’s Speech.

  32. iamme March 4, 2011 at 8:14 am #

    im so glad to find this site. i’am very anxious right now because i am about to take my exam on march 19 yet for the past 2 mock exams i only got a score of 5 for my reading. i agree with mr. cole that during practices i should focus more on gettin the correct answers and work on the time-bounded approach concern right now is that can i make it the remaining weeks left???is it possible and how can i do it??pls help me!

  33. Luis April 6, 2011 at 6:43 pm #

    Awesome point-out. I really love this blog.

  34. flora June 11, 2011 at 6:52 pm #

    Hello Sir, i am going write IELTS iam preparing at home only.Your tips are very good. i am going to follow these tips. and i intrest to join and write mock tests.My native language is telugu.Icompleted my Masters.i am intrest to study in my Masters again Australia please kindly give me advice how can i get 6.5 score.

    Thanking You.

  35. Trupti June 14, 2011 at 7:46 pm #


    I have appeared IELTS exam for 3 times.I am struggling to get 7 in each band.

    I am always getting 6.5 in reading which is problem.Constantly for 3 times i scored 6.5.

    My target is i should get 7 in each module.But just bcoz of reading i am loosing.

    For me true/false/not given was always a tough job.And Section 4 is worst.

    Dont know wht goes wrong:(

  36. Shakeel Qurban September 6, 2011 at 4:24 pm #

    Thank you Dominic for your guidance and now you are my teacher sir.

  37. koko September 20, 2011 at 2:49 pm #

    hi sir
    thanks for your useful question is that what i have to do with vocabulary???there are a lot of vocabularies that i dont know their meaning when i practice for reading test….what i have to do for them???

  38. Talal Shoaib October 16, 2011 at 3:52 pm #

    Thank you sir for providing such sagacious piece of information 🙂

  39. KHK June 28, 2012 at 12:25 pm #

    Hi Dominic,

    I have been giving IELTS exams again and again and i am not getting my required Band that is 7 in each my problem is Reading Area i always end up with 6.5 in reading rest are OK and i get every time 7 or 7.5 in Listening,Writing,Speaking.
    I think i dont get much band in Section 1 of Reading as far as the second section is concerned i do well in it but when third section comes i took me ages to understand then what i do is normally guess.What should i do now and yes T/F/NG do create problem for me in Section 1.

  40. kayzee August 15, 2012 at 10:06 pm #

    hello! i have read your articles and a lot of tips were certainly very helpful. i just have a question regarding the reading where i often get confused on when to give the “false” or “not given” question. do you have any tips for this? thanks much!

    • Dominic Cole August 16, 2012 at 7:00 pm #

      Yes I do. You should find the advice on my reading page. if that doesn’t work I know Tish of Yes!IELTS also has some excellent materials that may help you.

  41. meme September 2, 2012 at 2:29 pm #

    Wow !!! almost everybody in this site get 6.5 and look for more O.o”

    thnQ very much for your tips but i just wish i could reach at least band 5 in each test (( Writing …etc

  42. naveed November 6, 2012 at 5:51 pm #

    You are the best man out there, dont listen to the haters like @michael mitchell , above in the comments .

    Thanks much, for all the effort you put out on this site .


  43. sriram February 5, 2013 at 3:17 pm #

    hi Dominic
    actually my problem is that I completed 10th class with Telugu division.after that English i had a problem that i can make a sentence correctly in my mind but when i want to open the same sentence lot of breaks were coming out that thing is very disturbing me.Sir please give me some tips to beat that problem.

  44. Yooness March 11, 2013 at 8:44 pm #

    Hi Dominic;
    At th moment,I need to pass IELTS By 7.Can U PLs help me in this way?
    All best for U;

  45. Beck September 28, 2013 at 9:09 am #

    Hi Dominic, How can I improve my score in any part of IELTS

    I got listening 5, reading 5, writing 5.5 and speaking 6, but I need 6 band score in any part.

    My overall score band is 5.5, but Uni requirement is at least 6 in each module..

  46. Almutairi Khalaf October 25, 2013 at 3:18 am #

    Thanks alot

  47. Nouf November 23, 2013 at 10:53 pm #

    ok , now i know how use key word , I fall in more mistake because using the wrong for key words , I was interested about meaning each words .

    thank you 🙂

  48. haider naqvi February 21, 2014 at 10:38 am #

    i am very have lot of experience and your research on ielts is very effective

  49. bikram February 27, 2014 at 10:17 am #

    Hi Dominic, this is a very valuable information for ielts taker especially for reading.I recently took an ielts and got 7 for reading after 2 attempts.However,i didn’t get 7 on writing.My problem is i am not yet confident whether i could achieve 7 on reading again??how can i overcome this fear??

    • Dominic Cole March 1, 2014 at 7:57 am #

      This is a common problem I’m afraid – scores go down as well as up. I don’t have any magic answers for you. Do stay positive though – if you are confident and clear in your thinking opyu are much more likely to answer well.

  50. salem March 22, 2014 at 10:21 am #

    Thanks a lot Dominic, you really helpful teacher.

  51. Blue eye March 28, 2014 at 12:36 pm #

    Thank you so much , very informative example , and my answer is a few years age , and I answered it during 6 seconds without looking at the passage because of the question . In the question there is (ago and did ) that is mean we can not use perfect tense ( since 2006 ) and also can’t use 2006 because the question how many . so the answer is a few years ago.

  52. Blue eye March 28, 2014 at 12:40 pm #

    Thank you so much , very informative example , and my answer is a few years age , and I answered it during 6 seconds without looking at the passage because of the question . In the question there are (ago and did ) that is mean we can not use perfect tense ( since 2006 ) and also can’t use 2006 because the question how many . so the answer is a few years ago.

  53. venki April 21, 2014 at 3:57 am #

    hi sir,
    i gave exam on 5th april 2014 i got result- R=5.5,L=6,S=6.5,W=7, i want to improve my band in reading and listening,
    any comments and ideas, pls suggest tips.,

  54. Vraj pandya April 21, 2017 at 4:58 am #

    One of my problem in reading module is that I always stuck when I read the question which differs by the passage(not in actual) . How can I get rid of this problem?


  1. IELTS Reading Decoded | ielts365-The IELTS GURU - September 18, 2015

    […] very common mistake is to match a word in the question with a word in the text and to think you have found your answer. It is almost never […]

  2. 轻读物 - September 23, 2015

    […] very common mistake is to match a word in the question with a word in the text and to think you have found your answer. It is almost never […]

Leave a Reply