Top Tips for IELTS

IELTS reading – time management

In this lesson I look at one of major problems in IELTS reading – time management or how you can help yourself by finishing the questions in time. The main ideas I discuss are:
  • Work to a guideline of the average time you spend on each question, block of questions and each text
  • You may spend time reading the whole text
  • Some questions are harder than others!
  • Look at the type of questions
  • Develop a time management strategy for blocks of questions and individual question types

The main advice is:

Think about time management for the 3 texts, blocks of questions and individual questions
Experiment and practise until you find a time management strategy that fits you and your reading skills
Just spending one and half minutes for every question looks sensible but isn’t practical

time management in IELTS reading

No extra time to fill in the answer sheet

The first point to remember is that there is no extra time at the end to fill out the answer sheet. A relatively common mistake for people taking the test first time around is to think that they have more time at the end – you don’t.

Another related mistake is to leave some questions – or blocks of questions – until the end believing you’ll have time to complete them. Very often it happens that the clock ticks too fast and some questions are left unanswered. The moral: fill out the answers as you go.

Whatever timing strategy you use – please fill out the answers as you go, not at the end

The basic calculation – only a starting point

It looks easy:

one and half minutes per question

20 minutes per section

This I suggest though is only a starting point. In practice you’ll need more time for some questions than others and you might not spend exactly 20 minutes on each section. Read on to find out why.

Spend 20 minutes on each text – approximately

There are 3 texts and 60 minutes. What does this mean? It means that you should spend approximately 20 minutes one each text. A very common mistake is to get stuck on one text and find there isn’t enough time for the last one.

Consider leaving time to check your answer sheet

You should at least consider doing this and you need to do it during your 60 minutes. This should only take a minute or so but you should check:

  • all the answers are filled in
  • your spelling is good
  • you have answered in the correct form i.e. writing True if the question asks you write True of False or Not Given

Consider giving yourself mini breaks between each section

You’re not a machine. The reading texts are hard and your brain will get tired. It really can make sense to give yourself 20/30 second breaks between each section. Just relax and go again. You will almost certainly work more efficiently this way. At least try it. I explain this a bit more here when I discuss stress.

Using strategy to focus on 2 sets of questions only

I discuss this in a bit more detail below.

If your English is less good you may decide to concentrate on just two texts and make guesses on the third. I have had students where this strategy works. It can be dangerous though. Another solution if you want to “cut corners” is to think about different question types and guess some and not others.

Be careful about not spending around 20 minutes on each text

One a half minutes per question – a very rough guideline

At first sight this looks easy. There are always 40 questions and one hour. This means that you should spend one and half minutes per questions.
60 divided by 40 = 1.5
I’m going to suggest, however, that this should be only be a guideline and not a rule. You need to be more flexible in the test itself.
Also, the longer I teach IELTS (over 15 years and counting), the more I believe that it makes sense to find a system that suits you. I have stopped trying to get students all to do the same thing – experiment to see what works for you.
In the rest of this lesson I’ll chat briefly about some of the things you need to consider as you work out your own system.
Think about the guideline but work out your own system – one that works for you – don’t be governed by “rules”

Think about skimming the whole text – that takes time

This is the method I first introduce to my students – to see if it helps them. The idea is that you look at the whole text first to understand not just what it is about but also to see how it is structured. How does this help? Very few questions ask about the meaning of the whole text but:

it can help you to make sensible guesses – something almost everyone needs to do.

it can help you decide which part of the text to read to find the answer – I explain a bit more about this here

it helps with some question types that ask you to look at large parts of the text – especially paragraph matching questions – something I talk more about below

Decide before the test if you are going to read the whole text. If you do this will take time and you’ll have less average time per question

Not all questions are equal – some are just harder – think about average time per block of questions

Here’s something else for you to consider. Some questions are much harder than others and you may need to spend more time on some questions than others. This is where you need to work out your own system. If you’re able to answer some questions very quickly in 30 seconds or so, then that means you can have more time for other questions. Here is what I suggest:

don’t spend too long on getting one question right – it may be just very hard. Move on when you can’t find an answer. A general guideline is 2 minutes is the longest you should spend on any question.

work out a maximum amount of time you can spend on one question

don’t think about individual questions but groups of questions – the questions come in blocks of 4/5 normally. Decide how long you spend on average on each block of questions. This is just sensible. If you do this you’ll stay on schedule and give yourself the chance to spend less time on easy questions and more time on harder questions.

It can help to think about how much time you spend on blocks of questions and not individual questions

Learn to think about blocks of questions – develop a strategy

This point is slightly different. Each time you come to a new block of questions you need to start again and you may spend more time than the average time on some questions. Why?

you need to work out which part of the text to focus on to get the answers. You’ll do this much quicker if you have skimmed the whole text first

the first questions in each block are typically the hardest to find and may take longer. Why? Two reasons. 1. You’re looking at a new part of the text. This makes finding the first answers harder. In contrast the last answers can come quicker as you are now familiar with that part of the text. 2. With some question types you can work out the last questions much more quickly because you have already deleted some answers earlier.

Decide how long you spend on each block of questions and think about spending more time on the first question in each block

Consider having a marking strategy – some questions you look at twice

Here’s another idea for you to consider. Some questions you look at once briefly and then move on without answering. You then come back to that question at the end of the block. How does this work?

A good example is paragraph matching questions. First time around you can’t quickly find the answer to question 3. It could be either paragraph A, C or E. You don’t spend too much time worrying which one. You mark down a,c,e on the question paper and move on. You then find that the answer to question 4 is A and question 5 is C. This means the answer you need must be E – you can fill in the answer very quickly.

So even if you look at a question twice, you’ll not just move more quickly but also be more likely to get the right answer than if you had divided the time equally between questions.

This is an approach that needs practice but it can work very well. To use it you need to ignore the general guideline of spending the same amount of time on each question.

Think about developing a marking strategy and looking at some questions twice.

Think about different question types – some may take YOU longer

The main idea is that you spend roughly the same amount of time for each question or block of questions as they all count equally. But.

The “but” is that sometimes – and this especially true for people around band 6.0 and lower – it may make sense to spend more time on some question types than others. The one question type that causes most candidates bother is the T/F/NG type. The questions here are harder but you have a much better chance of guessing (part of the reason why they’re harder of course).

Be careful how you use this strategy but you may find it works for you to spend less time on T/F/NG and multiple choice questions – simply because you ahem a greater chance of guessing answers there. This leaves you more time for paragraph matching and find three word type questions where guessing is much much harder.

To make this work it really helps to look at all the questions before you start. If for example you see T/F/Ng you may decide that you’ll spend less time on those questions. If you see paragraph matching you may decide you want a bit more time for those questions.

Think about YOUR reading skills and adapt your time management in IELTS reading to your skills. Some questions you may find harder and some questions it makes mores sense to guess at and not spend too long on

Experiment – find out what works for you

As I say the suggestion is that you spend 20 minutes on each block of questions. That’s almost certainly the place to start. But what happens if that doesn’t work for you. Easy. Try something different. Try for example spending more time on one set of questions and less time on another. This can work for some candidates.

A possible approach

Text 1 – 20 minutes

Text 2  – 23 minutes

Text 3 – 17 minutes

How can this work? At the start of the test you have lots of energy and you should be working quickly. Then as your brain gets tired you may start working slightly more slowly and need more time to find the answers. So for the second text you just give yourself more time. By the time you get to third text you’re probably slightly tired and are likely to make mistakes. If so, then it can work to guess most on the third text and use less time.

Does it work?

It can do. Just make sure it works for you – keep a record of your scores. Make sure that your results improve by getting better scores in texts 1 and 2.



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21 Responses to IELTS reading – time management

  1. Nitin Singhal June 6, 2011 at 9:08 am #

    In addition to what you say just, maintain an equal distribution of time over the sections.. For example, the reading part has 3 sections to be done over 60 minutes.. So ensure to allocate 20 minutes to each section and not more!!

    • Dominic Cole August 16, 2011 at 6:41 pm #

      Ordinarily I would agree with you, The suggestion is that you should spend 20 minutes on each group of questions. There is, however, a strategy where you spend 25 minutes on one group of questions to ensure more right answers.

      This is a strategy that can work for “weak” candidates who are unable to move quickly enough in the exam. This way they have a better chance of getting some questions right. It sounds wrong, but it can work in practice.

    • amit August 21, 2012 at 9:28 pm #

      I think, for general training, its better to give 15 mints on section 1, 20 mints on section 2 and then 25 mints on section 3. As the first section is the easiest one and then it gets tougher.

  2. dolly October 24, 2011 at 11:01 pm #

    hi Sir Dominic, I wonder if u have an effective reading practice tests in this website that must be very helpful..I have been practicing cambridge books yet I don’t get any help from it only familiarization of exam types. Any suggestions that could greatly help me? i always get 6.5 in my reading tests and I have tried my best yet still got frustrated..

    • Dominic Cole December 8, 2011 at 8:09 pm #


      I’m in the process of putting together more reading materials. In terms of books, my favourite book is this one. It gives excellent explanations of why answers are right or wrong.

  3. Elgun March 22, 2012 at 5:58 pm #

    hi Sir Dominic. It is already 4 days that I am preparing for IELTS within this site.( I would like to say that it great source for IELTS I have ever seen.) I have done all Cambridge books, PRactise test plus2 plus 3….However my score is never constant. Sometimes I get 36 correct answers, however I also get 23 correct answers sometimes. I don;t understand what is wrong with me. But I just suppose time management could be problem for me. I also sometimes can not understand reading texts which after time ends I read again and understand everything. What you suggest me to do? to make practice tests or just to read academic texts?

    • georaft November 7, 2015 at 8:38 pm #

      After taking the test (did not perform well in the reading section NO TIME to read properly THE 3 passage) and despite i did almost 200 readings (scores between 32 36) for preparation, i feel now that the IELTS test is not so much about understanding a reading passage but a time issue The time provided is not enough in order to understand and remember essential thing in such so long passages and about so specialized topics like for example ANTS I dont feel it s a fair test because even if you comprehend the meaning of the passage and you are able to answer the questions, the time given is not enough SO at some point of time you start to guess …… the answers SO ILETS READING IS A TIME ISSUE

  4. Harpreet Singh May 22, 2012 at 5:45 pm #

    sir i have given my ielts exam 2 times but m not abe to score more than 5 bands both times in reading nd my requirement is 6band in reading. so sir please help me out. waiting for reply soon.

  5. amirabas November 14, 2012 at 6:14 am #

    To complete your advices,I have to say that in my own experience the first passage is not easier than 2 others,even i think that it is more difficult.The reason is simple.As you said that answering first questions of a passage is tougher because you are unfamiliar with text,it is also true about the whole exam.First you start to take the exam ,you are confused a little and need some time to get warm to read passages.So I think that it’s reasonable to allocate more time for first passage than last passage.In my own experience I can answer the last passage’s questions in about 15 minutes because I am completely warm and I can find the related part of text to questions sooner !
    Thank you

  6. February 4, 2014 at 3:20 am #

    Thanks ffor sharing your thoughts. I truly appreciate your effvorts and I will be waiting for
    your next post thank you once again.

  7. M February 28, 2014 at 10:58 am #

    Hi Dominic,

    During all years of preparation for IELTS, doing reading is much difficult than the other to me, to be honest, Im good at lexicon resources and reading fast,but when it comes to the exam day It become terrible results. I dont know how should I mange my time.


  8. yahoo July 16, 2014 at 4:21 pm #

    Excellent post. I am dealing with some of these issues as well..

  9. Asal September 24, 2014 at 7:09 pm #

    Hi Dominic

    I have given the exam 2 times,but I got 6.5 both times.My result was:L=8,R=6.5,S=7,W=7.
    On reading tasks I lose my concentration, and sometimes I am not able to find the exact part relating to the question.I make lots of minor mistakes as well.I need 7,and I do general module.What should I do?I am disappointed.

  10. vishal dhiman September 10, 2015 at 10:44 am #

    Hi Dominic,
    Is it so, that the text passages turn harder as we proceed from 1st to the last? Am asking you specifically about the Academic IELTS.


    • Dominic Cole September 10, 2015 at 11:26 am #

      Perhaps slightly but it is nowhere near as evident as in GT IELTS. There is an element of luck here as you may no more about the topic of the reading and I wouldn’t really suggest that you left more time for the last reading because it was likely to be more difficult.

  11. Sepehr March 30, 2016 at 2:31 pm #

    Hello Mr. Cole,
    I have been teaching English language (EFL) for almost 3 years. Simultaneously I have been tutoring candidates for both modules. It is believed that the general technique optimizes your performance in reading section and by general technique I mean “skim-scan-detailed reading”. I myself have taken the test for a few times and this technique helped me achieve a maximum band score of 7.5 in reading section which is not so promising especially for a tutor!
    Recently, I have changed my strategy. I still go from question to passage but instead of skimming and scanning I read the whole passage, paragraph by paragraph, as fast as I can to find the answer I look for. Surprisingly, I am able to finish the all 3 passages and their questions in maximum 50-52 minutes and get 37-8 correct answers which is approximately 8-8.5 in academic module.
    I’d like to hear your comment upon my newly & personally invented technique.
    Yours truly.

  12. Christabel March 29, 2017 at 9:28 pm #

    Please I wrote the exam and the exam timed out,am worried

  13. OLUCHI March 30, 2017 at 2:27 am #

    If you are writing through Skype and it times you out,please does it cancel that one you already wrote

  14. Kumar May 8, 2017 at 6:49 pm #

    Hi Domnic,

    I feel you are an experimental person.
    Also I feel , you are not just a teacher, but a coach.
    What you have coached above is excellent and students who knows the DNA of the IELTS can understand.
    And students who do not know their DNA cannot understand the molecules of IELTS.


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