The IELTS paragraphs and headings task
- The task is to match between 5 and 7 headings to paragraphs in the text.
- There are always more headings than paragraphs
- You may need to read the whole text or only a part of it
The reading skill – skimming and general meaning
The main skill tested here is your ability to read quickly and get the main meaning of a paragraph. This means that:
- If you find a word you don’t understand: ignore it – you are looking for meanings of paragraphs not words
- Don’t simply match a word in the question with a word in the text – read the sentence/paragraph to see how it is being used
- Concentrate on the openings and closings of paragraphs – that is where the writer normally makes the main point
Some problems and their solutions
This can be one of the easier types of question but it is also easy to get them all wrong! Here are one or two difficulties.
Guessing and getting all the questions wrong
This is one type of question where if you guess blindly things can go badly wrong. The odds are not in your favour if you guess too quickly – you may have only a one in seven chance. You can still guess but you need to do it intelligently by using a marking code. What does that mean?
It means for each paragraph look at all the headings and decide which headings are possible. For example for paragraph 1 there may be 3 possible headings – a b and c. You write down on the paper a b and c. Do this for each paragraph. As you do this you may decide that heading b is almost certainly paragraph 3. You mark that B (a capital letter too how that you are sure). Now you have a 50/50 chance of guessing paragraph 1 – it’s either a or c.
A large part of the text – too much to read
You may need to read the whole text or a large part of it anyway.
One idea is that you do this task first – even if it is not the first set of questions. This allows you to understand what the text is about.
A different solution is to skim the whole text before you start the questions. There are various advantages to doing this anyway and it’s something higher level candidates should certainly consider. I explain a bit more about this in this video lesson on reading the whole text.
Just matching words
Sometimes you can find the answer by matching words in the heading with words in the text. Often though it is not as simple as matching words.The word in the heading may be environmental and the word in the paragraph may be green.
Think meaning, not words. When you look at the headings remember that the paragraphs may not contain those exact same words.
Some of the headings seem quite similar and contain similar words.
Make sure you spend time reading them all and try every heading with every paragraph. This may take time but you will avoid a lot of mistakes.
Avoid concentrating on words that are common to all or many of the headings. Look for words that are special to that heading.
Only looking at first lines – trying to go too quickly
You want to work efficiently, so often you avoid reading the whole paragraph. Often you can guess the meaning from the first few lines of the paragraph. This is because the writer uses a topic sentence at the start to say what the paragraph is going to be about. The problem is that this only works sometimes. The meaning you need may be in the last few lines of the paragraph, or sometimes from the whole paragraph itself.
Look to see if the final sentence of the paragraph gives a summary of what the paragraph is about.
Don’t stop reading too quickly and skim the whole paragraph. Some paragraphs are a combination of ideas and to get their general meaning you need to skim the whole paragraph for general meaning.
Wasting time on one paragraph
Often you waste time because the first paragraph is the hardest to match. You may spend a long time concentrating on that one because it is one of the harder matches and you have lots of options.
Easy. Write in 2/3 headings it could be and move on. When you come back after doing the other questions, it may seem obvious. Don’t guess immediately. Do the task twice and using a code. The code I suggest is that you mark in capital letters (CD etc) if you are certain and small letters (cd etc) if you are unsure.
A suggested procedure
- If you haven’t skimmed the whole text first very quickly look at the headings. Don’t spend too much time on this, as at least some of them will be wrong. Try and identify what the more important words are. By looking at the headings first, you get a good idea of the general meaning of the text. That will help your reading.
- Now go through each paragraph in turn to decide which heading is best. Start with the paragraphs and not the headings as some headings will not be used.
- Look at the first paragraph. Try to ignore the detail and look for the main point – these are normally found in the first few lines – that may be the topic of the paragraph. Does it match any of the headings? Don’t forget to check final sentences too – that may be a summary of the paragraph.
- Try all the headings for each paragraph. Lots of mistakes happen because you try and work too quickly.
- If you are unsure and it could be heading a) or b) – write down a) or b). Don’t guess yet. Come back at the end.
- Make sure you underline/circle the words in the text that best match the heading. If you do this, you can easily check your answer, if you want to use the same heading for another paragraph later on.
- Move onto the next paragraph and repeat the process. Don’t expect to complete all the paragraphs first time around.
- Go back at the end and make a decision about the paragraphs you didn’t do first time. Try and be as careful as possible. Don’t rush.
- If you are uncertain, it sometimes makes sense to use the same heading for 2 paragraphs. You will get one wrong and one right. If you guess, you may get two wrong (or two right!)
How to practise
This is a very simple practice suggestion. When you are reading texts (for IELTS and otherwise), when you get to the end of the paragraph try to summarise what that paragraph was about.Get more reading advice