Top Tips for IELTS

Activities to train your reading skills for IELTS

This is a training idea to help you improve your reading skills for IELTS. I think it’s something everyone should consider doing but it’s particularly aimed at people who have developed “IELTS reading phobia”. That is a very sad and common complaint. The idea is based on these principles

people who read most tend to read best

it helps to focus your reading 

it also helps to read in different ways

What is the idea? You read more. You read in a focused way. You vary what you do as you read. Overall – you can improve your IELTS reading skills by working on general reading skills.

Below I chat you through:

why you should consider this type of reading

what to read and where to find it

and 10 ++ different things you can do as you read. 

Why read “hard texts”

1. Beat the fear – jump in the deep end – get used to it and build your confidence

IELTS reading is hard because the level of the texts is at least band score 8.0. If  you’re much below that level you can have serious problems and even develop IELTS reading phobia. That can create bad habits. The idea is that if you get used to reading texts that are harder you beat the fear and when you get to the test you’ll be quite used to looking at things that are hard and you’ll be more confident.

2. Treat reading as an understanding exercise not a vocabulary exercise

One problem with IELTS reading is that sometimes people treat it as a vocabulary test – they concentrate too much on the meaning of individual words and unknown words in particular. Actually IELTS reading is a test of understanding not a test of vocabulary. Even though you understand most or all the words you still may not understand. Look at this example:

Dr Carole Easton, the chief executive of Young Women’s Trust, which supports and represents women aged 16 to 30 struggling to live on low or no pay in England and Wales, said it was distressing that so many young people were struggling at a time of life traditionally characterised by youthful confidence

You probably know all the words but it is hardish to understand because it is one very long sentence with complex structures – and in this way is very similar to IELTS reading texts. You need to find a way to understand this type of language efficiently. Reading lots of it is a good start.

Don’t concentrate on words, concentrate on meaning and build your self-confidence in reading hard texts

What to read – focus on topics

IELTS readings can be about almost any general interest topic – although politics and anything controversial is excluded. But you can help yourself by focusing on certain topics. One sensible way to do this is too look at the type of topics you get in the writing paper. Why? You’ll also get ideas and language to help your writing. Try these:


the environment


the family



popular culture

traditional culture


government and local affairs



A good idea is to vary the topics you read about and use the ideas you read about help you with your essay writing
Choose topics that interest you – you’ll understand more that way and just read better
Choose texts of different lengths – sometimes a paragraph can be enough
Choose native speaker texts – those are the ones you’ll be tested on


Where to find things to read

There are lots of possibilities. Here are a few to try.


One idea is to look at magazines that contain the articles that are on the right topics.

The Economist

The New Scientist


National Geographic


Think tech and apps on your mobile phone/laptop 

This is the 21st century solution of course. There are a number of apps that collect articles on topics for you. You just have to decide what topics you want. Click and you get all you need

Apple news for Apple victims (like me) – you Androids need an alternative I suppose

Flipboard it does the same job and is available on all platforms

Feedly – ditto pretty much

Listen and then search Google News not Google

This is something I do for myself. I hear something on the radio – a general interest news item – and I look on Google news to see what has been written about it. It’s a good exercise as it involves listening and not just reading.

To make it work you really want to use Google news and not Google – something very few people try. Look here to see where it is:


Different ways to practise your general reading

This is a list to give you ideas. The main point behind it is that you can/should read in different ways. It helps to keep you interested and you practise slightly different skills. Some of these exercises are of course very similar, but each one works slightly differently as training

  1. Just read

Don’t ignore this. Just reading is good for you. Choose something interesting for you and read it. If at the end you can say “Yes, I generally understood it” then score yourself 100%. It isn’t written for you, it was written for a native speaker. You’re one step closer to IELTS.

2. Black out the words you don’t know

This is great – especially if you have reading phobia. You go through the text and black out completely all the words that you don’t know. All of them. Completely. Then you go through the text and try and see if you can see what it’s about. My experience is that you will still generally understand it – it’s an exercise I’ve used with very low level classes. This is great for IELTS as it shows you that you can still work with hard texts even if you don’t know all the words.

3. Highlight the words you do know

This is equally great. It’s the same exercise in reverse. This time you are concentrating on the positive. You should see that in fact you do know most of the words in the text. That’s a good feeling and a way to beat reading phobia.

4.  Read then summarise

This is more of a “learning activity”. You read something and then at the end you try and summarise what you have read. Doing something active after you read is always a good idea. I’d suggest keeping your summary quick and general here – don’t get lost in the detail.

This will help with paragraph matching type questions in IELTS and it’s also good practice for your summary skills in Academic Writing part 1

5. Read then summarise using 5 words/phrases from the text

This is of course similar. Here though this time you’re thinking about learning words. The idea is that you choose words that you think are important for the meaning of the text. I suggest you choose

words that are repeated – they’re normally the important ones

words that you half-recognise – if the word is completely unknown then it may not be that important/useful

not just words but collocations/phrases – this is much more useful for vocabulary learning – to understand why read this lesson on vocabulary learning

6. Summarise paragraph by paragraph

This is very like an IELTS exercise and will help your test skills. This will involve more close reading of the text and make you think about how paragraphs fit together and how they are about one main idea.

7. Choose 5 or so key points or ideas

This may be very similar to the paragraph exercise above. This time though you are concentrating on ideas – perhaps ideas you can borrow for your writing.

8. Look at the headings and predict the content or write headings for the sections

This is may be a very familiar exercise to you but it has a real purpose. What it can do is help your ability to section the text into different parts – something that is really important in IELTS. One thing that helps is to be able to identify what each part of the text is about. Do this and you can decide much more quickly where to find the answers.

9. Don’t read the whole text, just read a paragraph

Why not? If you just read one paragraph you are able to focus on “detailed meaning” and “close reading skills”. This is how you get most of the answers in IELTS. This is a quality not quantity exercise. A good proposition.

10. Decide if you agree with it or compare it with your culture or ask if it was interesting

This is a thinking exercise – it helps you engage more with what you are reading. If you compare it with what you know then you are more likely to focus on the meaning of the text. Making learning personal is always a good idea.

11. Find another article on the same topic compare them

This is excellent practice. Just the process of looking for another article is good for reading/research skills – Google News works very well here. It’s interesting to compare similar articles – your brain gets engaged. It can also help by seeing which words/phrases are used in both articles – they’re likely to be the important ones.

12. Look for names and dates and numbers and see what they’re about

This is a scanning type activity -something that can help with IELTS. What I suggest here though is you don’t just find the names and numbers etc, you decide if they’re important to the text or not. Here you’re practising two skills – scanning and close reading. Something that is very close to IELTS

13. Use a dictionary – but only for a few words

Don’t overdo this one. The more you use a dictionary the slower you read and the less you read. When I do this sort of exercise in class I normally only allow 5 words per text. If you only give yourself 5 words this forces you to “guess” the meaning of other words – excellent for IELTS. The dictionary I most recommend is Macmillan.

14. Read and listen and watch – TED is a great great resource

This idea is slightly different. Reading can be tiring and sometimes you want a bit of a break. How about watching one of the TED videos with an interactive transcript?

How does this work? Well, you keep reading as the speaker talks – you go forwards at a  natural pace. It’s one way to forget about getting stuck on difficult words. I suggest you just choose a talk that looks really interesting to you and just watch and listen and read. What’s likely to happen is that you forget about the difficulty of there reading part and concentrate more on meaning. One benefit of video is that it makes it slightly easier – you get visual clues too.

More suggested reading lessons

To make these exercise work it helps to understand how IELTs reading works. You’ll find my key IELTS reading lessons here:

IELTS reading guide


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

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Writing Guide

Essay writing guide

Academic task 1 guide

Letter writing guide

Reading guide

Listening guide

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4 Responses to Activities to train your reading skills for IELTS

  1. Shah Javid September 22, 2016 at 11:38 pm #

    Many thanks for fantastic advises to improve ielts score.

  2. arif moin September 23, 2016 at 9:42 am #

    simply excillent pice of advice

  3. Sindra September 24, 2016 at 3:52 am #

    You have given a detailed description on how to go about the reading section carefully…Thank you very much for these valuable tips.I failed terribly in the reading section thrice, could not increase my band score from level 6. I ‘ve stopped now after wasting a lot of money.Will take your advice seriously and try to work on this.Thank you…

  4. kiran March 21, 2017 at 4:11 pm #

    hlo sir ….i have problem in reading section i got only 4 to 5 band ….how can i improve reading …pls help me

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