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Teaching heading and paragraph matching

This is a couple of ideas and resources for teaching heading and paragraph matching in IELTS reading. The central idea is that one of the best ways to teach this can be not to do IELTS style exercises that replicate the test, but rather focus on exercises that develop skills that will help with the test.

The two exercises here focus on two main skills:

understanding the general meaning of the text – how it is structured 

understanding how paragraphs fit together

The idea is that if students develop these skills in isolation from test practice they will be better equipped to do test style exercises.

Understanding general meaning and text structure

My starting point is that this type of question requires an understanding of texts fit together – that they are not a random series of paragraphs, but each paragraph/section develops a main idea. This mainly involves skimming for general meaning – the whole text. Not everyone likes this of course, but my belief is that there are major advantages in doing this and that it is not wasted time (except perhaps for very low level candidates who are unable to skim effectively.

An efficient skimming idea

One objection to skimming is that it has no end product and questions rarely ask for understanding the whole text. This need not be the case. Give the skimming an end product and understand that paragraph matching involves general understanding – the sort of understanding you get from skimming.

Basic classroom exercise – notes

My most basic classroom exercise is to “force” the students to make notes as they skim. Whenever they reach the end of a paragraph/section they write down a couple of words that they think summarise the text. These notes need to be simple e.g. “history” “causes” “problems”. It is possible to simply ring/underline words too of course but my belief is that is much less effective. I restrict ringing/underlining to:

names /dates etc (i.e. words that help you navigate the text when you are scanning

passages that provide answers to questions (this is necessary for cross-checking for when an alternative answer is found and for ensuring that the text really does match the question)

A variation – download exercise

A variation on this is to give students a text with no headings at all and ask them

  1. to decide how many paragraphs it has
  2. to decide how many sections it has ( a subtly different question that is necessary for IELTS because often they need to match sections not paragraphs to headings)

Then they decide what headings they would put for each section/paragraph. This deletes the problem of the test where there are a confusing number to choose from, but develops the same skill: the skill of understanding general meaning.

Smog - two exercises for paragraph/heading matching (1628)


The feedback can be both interesting and informative. You may well get different answers to how many sections and you are certainly going to get different headings. That’s good. You now have the chance for communication in the IELTS classroom! Which is the best and why.

Understanding paragraph structure

How do you find the general meaning of paragraphs? Well, typically the answer is found by looking at the first sentence. That is in fact way too simplistic but still contains a general truth. It is simplistic because IELTS texts are not constructed like school essays where we start with boring old topic sentences – or not always. See my lesson on this or of you prefer check the site and see how there are difficult questions where you need to understand whole paragraphs, not just first sentences.

The basic exercise – match reading to writing

In my class I often try to connect skills together. Here the idea is that when students write paragraphs they start by using one sentence that explains the whole paragraph to come and a lot of writing (not all) follows a similar pattern. The connection to make is that they should concentrate on first sentences of paragraphs when they are looking for main ideas.

A variation – download exercise

My download exercise is simply a refinement of that idea. It is the same text, simply with the first sentences of each paragraph removed – the goal is to put the sentences back in of course. But the real purpose is to show how main ideas are introduced in first sentences typically and then developed in different ways through the paragraph. Once this concept has been got across then the process of doing test style exercises becomes more straightforward.

Smog - two exercises for paragraph/heading matching (1628) – same download as before

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