How to Pass your English Language Reading Test – 6 Top Tips!

Manage your time

You’re up against the clock, and it’s stressing you out! One easy way to fix this is by managing your time. If you’re taking any of the big exams like IELTS (the International English Language Testing System), the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) or the FCE (Cambridge English First), then you have a strict time limit. For the IELTS academic reading test, for example, you have one hour to answer the reading section and there are three reading passages.

You have 40 questions to answer within that one hour time frame. So, how do you split this up? First, you need to roughly divide that into three sections – 20 minutes for each reading passage. If you divide it up further, then that gives you about one minute and thirty seconds per question, or 90 seconds. Don’t worry about sticking to this too rigidly, but keep as close to it as possible. If one question is fairly easy and it only takes you thirty seconds to answer it, then you know that you have an extra minute to answer a harder question. This is the same for any exam. At EEC our reading sections are usually a mixture of different comprehension style questions, and we tend to have one reading passage. So, if our students have eight questions to answer, and about half an hour to complete that section, then they have about 3-4 minutes per question. Ask your teacher about roughly how long you’ll have to answer that portion of the test so that you know in advance how to calculate your time.

Why should you do this? Well the obvious reason is that you’re far less likely to run out of time, but even more important is that it will really help you to manage your stress levels. You’ll feel much more in control and ready to handle whatever is thrown at you! If you really want to get ahead in reading tests, go ahead and practice some example IELTS reading questions and see if you can improve your vocabulary at the same time!

Skim the text

If you want to pass your English reading test, it’s all about reading it all as fast as possible, right? After all, as mentioned above – you’re against the clock!

Well, not exactly.

You’re going to want to skim it first. Skimming is the process of letting your eyes hover quickly over the text, seeing the keywords, and getting the ‘gist’ (the idea) of what the subject is about. You might have a picture to go with the text if you’re lucky, and this will also help too. For example, if you’re reading a passage on the history of Saudi Arabia, then you might have a picture of a desert and some men dressed in traditional Saudi clothing. It might be a black and white picture to show that it’s quite old. If you don’t have a picture, don’t worry – you can get the idea entirely from the text! Keywords or phrases such as Saudi Arabia, Riyadh, Mecca, Najd, or Saudi dynasty will probably be scattered throughout the passage. Maybe you’ll notice certain dates like 1744 or 1930. Even if you’ve never taken a single history lesson in your life, you know that those dates are quite some time ago, and even if you struggle to name parts of a map, you probably know that Saudi Arabia is a foreign country! Put the two parts together and it’s very likely that the reading is about the historical development of Saudi Arabia. Having an idea of the topic of the exam is going to help you, but that’s just a starting point. To pass the reading test with high marks, you need to do a few more important things.

Read the questions

So far, you’ve skimmed the text, and you hopefully have some idea of what it’s about. Now you need to focus on the questions, and I mean FOCUS! Even if you forget all the other advice I give you here, don’t forget this! When I was at university, my professor came into the room on the first day of class and wrote some letters on the board – ‘RTQ’. He asked us to try and guess what they meant. It was a French politics class, so immediately we started flicking through the contents of our brand new textbooks and looked at each other in the hopes that someone would know the answer. What could it mean? After a few minutes, the professor wrote the word ‘exam’ underneath the RTQ, and we managed to come up with an answer. It meant ‘Read the Question’.

But wait, isn’t this obvious? Everyone reads the questions in exams!

No, they don’t – not properly.

Let me explain. I’ve been teaching now for about ten years, in different countries around the world. My students speak different languages, have unique cultures and lifestyles, and they each have their own particular problems with learning English. But there’s one thing that almost every person on the planet has in common – we ALL feel stress during exams. Stress impacts your thoughts in ways you don’t expect. You’ll have a tendency to try and skim the question because you know that you only have a short time to complete everything. This is a mistake. While it’s okay to start with skimming the reading passage, you SHOULD NOT do this with the exam questions. Ever since my professor wrote those three letters on the board twenty years ago, I have been going into exams with RTQ floating through my head. This is what I do:

a) I read the whole question, slowly. For example,

‘Chronobiology is the study of how living things have evolved over time.’ True/False/Doesn’t Say

I read it again, and make note of the keywords – the main points of the question.

Chronobiology is the study of how living things have evolved over time.’ True/False/Doesn’t Say

b) I try to think of some possible synonyms for those keywords:

study of – investigation/examination/analysis/learn about

evolved – developed/grew/progressed

living things – creature/organism/being

Chronobiology – this one is a little different. There are no direct synonyms for technical words like this because the average person can’t be expected to know what these words mean – unless of course you are taking an exam about Chronobiology terms – poor you! However, you may find that the reading passage has changed the part of speech, for example ‘chronobiological,’ or ‘chronobiologist’ – and that’s fairly easy! Don’t be scared of technical words – they can actually be easier than the general ones because the exam doesn’t expect us to know what it is.

c) I read the question a third time to make sure I haven’t misunderstood anything.

In the example above, the question is asking us if chronobiology is about studying living things or not. Maybe the text will tell us if this is a true or false, or maybe it won’t say for certain which means that the answer will be ‘doesn’t say’.

Maybe you’re thinking – but doesn’t all of this take a really long time?

No. To get through a, b and c for each question takes me less than thirty seconds in total, and with practice it should be the same for you.  Believe me, if you can really get to grips with the question – the chances of passing your reading test are much, much higher!

Read the passage and use context

Okay, now that you’ve spent a few minutes skimming the text, and a further few minutes analyzing the questions, you need to understand what the reading is all about. Go back to the beginning and read it through carefully – but not at a snail’s pace! Now, this is dependent on the TYPE of exam you are doing and it’s NOT the same for all tests. In the IELTS exam, you probably won’t have time to read the entire passage. But if you’re taking a general reading test at your local English academy, like at EEC, then that’s what you’re expected to do. You’re more than likely going to find words that you don’t understand. Don’t freak out! It’s perfectly normal. If you understand absolutely every word, then chances are that the exam is too easy for you and you’re not learning enough! So, what do you do about words that you can’t understand? Well, you try to guess the meaning from the context (the situation/story that’s presented). For example:

‘The Titanic was confidently proclaimed to be unsinkable.’ 

Imagine that you don’t understand the word ‘proclaimed’ here. Does it stop you from understanding the sentence? Not too much. If you know what all of the other words mean, then you can guess that it’s probably a synonym for ‘said’. Now, if you don’t know what ‘unsinkable’ means, but you know the word ‘sink’, then you can guess that by putting an ‘un’ at the beginning that it’s negative – you might just be able to guess that it means ‘can’t sink’. But you know that the Titanic sank, so you might be a little confused. Well, when you read the rest of the passage and put the pieces together, hopefully you’ll be able to see that the reading is talking about. People thought the Titanic was unsinkable before that disastrous day when it went down in the water. Obviously, they were wrong!

I’m not saying that guessing from context is easy, but it wouldn’t be an exam if it were! It takes practice that’s all. Lots and lots of practice.

Scan the text for the answers 

Let’s take a look at our earlier question example:

Chronobiology is the study of how living things have evolved over time.’ True/False/Doesn’t Say

First, of course, you’re going to look for that scary technical word chronobiology. If you find it, then you’ll need to read the sentence before, and the sentence after, in order to understand what that particular section is talking about. This will give you the context. You might see some other synonyms for that question as well, such as developed instead of evolved, or over many years instead of over time. Scanning the text is the process of looking for something in the passage by glossing over it with your eyes. There are many ways to scan, but my favourite way is from left to right, in a zigzag fashion, from the bottom up. Why do I do this? Because it stops my eyes from starting to actually read the story. I don’t want to fall into that trap – I’m only scanning and it needs to be fast. The zigzag scanning method:

The difference between scanning and skimming is that you know roughly what you’re looking for when you’re scanning. You might find something like this:

‘Dr Chambers was a chronobiologist, which meant that he’d dedicated most of his life to analyzing how different organisms evolved over a long period of time.’

Hopefully, if you’ve studied hard and practiced a lot, you’ll know that the answer to the question above is: true.

Practice, practice, practice

Ask your teacher if she’ll give you some exam-related questions to practice, or if you’re taking an official exam, use the Internet to download and print some past exam papers. When you’re feeling confident enough take one of the exams and time yourself at home. Don’t fret if you do really badly on the first time – everybody does! I once got 5 out of 50 for a really hard test! I felt utterly disappointed. But I didn’t let it stop me and I practiced so much over the next few months that steadily my mark went up. It went from 5, to 12, to 16 and eventually to 48 out of 50! I actually went into the exam with a mixture of nerves AND excitement on that day!

Now, if you think we’ve missed out any important steps, feel free to comment and let us know. We’d love to hear from you and get some feedback! In the meantime, get practicing and good luck with your reading test!!

Which tip works best for you?

 

Do you really have to go abroad to learn a language?

Nowadays, people are learning English in incredibly high numbers all over the world. Studying in academies like EEC, at university, or through online courses are just a few of the methods that students use to learn the most important language in the world. Another method, and quite a popular one, is ‘total immersion’. Total immersion is when the learner is completely immersed, or surrounded, by the language they are trying to learn. That usually means going abroad to an English-speaking country like the USA, Canada or the UK, for example, and living there for a short while. It’s a great way to learn, but it comes with an expensive price tag which many people simply can’t afford.

So, for those who want to see what it’s like to learn through immersion but don’t have the money to travel overseas, is there a similar alternative?

Well, there is a way of creating your own immersion, without having to spend so much money! Here are a few tips on how to do it:

  1. When you wake up in the morning, tune in to English-speaking radio while getting dressed and having your breakfast. Even if you don’t understand what is being said, you’ll pick up more and more key words each day. Eventually, you’ll start to understand the gist of the subject. This is called ‘tuning your ear’ to the sounds of the language. This is exactly what happens when you live in an English-speaking country – it’s a form of immersion! This has shown to be one of the most effective ways of learning a foreign language. BBC World Service is a good radio station to start with. The accents are clear and neutral, and the speakers don’t talk too fast. From there, you can try www.wbbmam.radio.net, www.timestalks.com, and one of my favorites for students at any stage in their learning process, www.newsinlevels.com. Try it out!

  2. Do you visit a coffee shop in the mornings? Eat lunch out or grab a sandwich from a cafe on your break? Maybe you like to take a look around the mall after work or school. Wherever you go in Saudi’s major cities, it’s possible to do all of this in English now. Order your Starbucks, ask about clothes sizes, and inquire about products – all in English! Even if you’re spoken to in Arabic, try changing your response to English and see what happens. Most people will happily follow your lead and continue in English. Many people love to practice! You’ll need to master the phrases you’ll need first, such as “I’d like….”, “Can you tell me….”, “How much….” but once you’ve done this, you’re good to go!

  3. What is something we all do when we have a quick break at work, or travelling in taxis, or waiting for something like an appointment? Yes, you guessed it – we check our phones! Whether you’re a fan of Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat or Facebook, why don’t you experiment with changing the language settings? Don’t worry, you can always change it back if it’s too confusing. Go ahead and try it, for a few hours, and see if you can still understand what’s going on in the world of social media. Remember, you’re trying to immerse yourself which means being totally surrounded by the language. One of our students reported a huge improvement after doing this for just one day. She was thrilled with the result and her new vocabulary was impressive!

  4. While we’re on the topic of social media, if you have a Twitter account, try following topics in English. Whether you like to keep up with the news, stay ahead of the latest fashions, find out about new recipes, get fitness tips, or anything else, there are thousands of Twitter pages out there devoted to your favourite subjects. Follow a few of them in English instead of Arabic and that way, each time you check your phone, you’ll be reading in your target language! You’ll be amazed at what a difference this makes. You’ll start to see new words more frequently and understand them from the context of what is being said, without the help of a dictionary or Google Translate. This is very typical of immersion-style learning. You could even go one step further and comment on things that you see in English. Before you know it, you’ll have started a conversation with someone. Being able to have a successful conversation online, in the language you are trying to learn, is a huge confidence boost for students. You’ll want to keep going!

  5. So, by now, you’ve woken to the sounds of English radio, spoken in English at public places you’ve visited, read in English when checking social media, contributed to English discussions, and now you’re back home at the end of the day. Why not relax with a movie? Instead of putting on the subtitles as you might usually do, try to watch the movie without the help of Arabic. You won’t understand everything, nobody understands everything (that’s important to remember!), and maybe you’ll struggle to follow the story – but you can always watch it again later and try to figure it out, or put subtitles on when you watch it a second time. This is how immersion works. You’re not meant to understand everything, you’re only meant to try and work out the key points, much like a listening or reading exam. Give it a week, and see how you get on.

And there you have it – our tips for creating your own total immersion experience, without having to get on a plane or spend all your savings! Good luck!

 

Celebrities have to learn English too!

There’s no denying that English is the world’s language. We use it to travel, to do business in a global environment, to speak with people from other countries and so on. It is also the most popular language of entertainment and the media. The most popular movies, TV shows, books, magazines and newspapers are usually in English. Therefore, for those who want to make their careers in entertainment, it’s just as important for them to learn English. We’ve put together some surprising examples of famous people (celebrities), who also had to learn the world’s number one language.

Penelope Cruz

First up is Penelope Cruz. Penelope is famous for movies such as ‘Vanilla Sky’, ‘Pirates of the Carribean’ and ‘Vicky Cristina Barcelona’. The ex-girlfriend of Tom Cruise was born and brought up in Madrid, Spain and has a distinctive Spanish accent which most people find endearing. Penelope knew how to say ‘How are you’ at the age of 20, and not much more! She admits that she was certainly a late learner. She developed her English through memorizing film scripts and asking people to help her with her pronunciation. She admits that she is always learning, and still has to continue studying the language, often online when she has a rare day off. She’s now married to Javier Bardem, another popular, Spanish actor, and they often switch between Spanish and English when chatting to each other. Sounds like fun!

Benicio Del Toro

Born and raised in Puerto Rico, this well-known Hollywood actor’s first language was also Spanish. He started learning at the age of 12 when he first moved to the United States with his father. When asked how he managed to learn it so successfully, he states that hard work and perseverance helped him to become fluent, although he still has some difficulties with pronunciation. He was never one for textbooks and grammar, and struggled a lot with that when he was younger, but through complete immersion from living in America, he soon picked it up. He says that learning English was one of the most useful things he ever did, and it helped him to get the career he has today. He has since starred in blockbuster hits such as ‘The Usual Suspects’ and ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’. Not bad Mr Del Toro.

Milla Jovovich

This young lady is famous both for modelling and acting; clearly a woman of many talents. Not only did she have to learn English due to her first language being Russian, she also mastered an ‘alien’ language for her role in the film, ‘The Fifth Element’, which consisted of over 400 words! We’re not sure how much she’s going to be using that! Milla claims that watching English television when she was younger, along with practising her speaking whenever possible, helped her to become fluent. She wasn’t afraid to make mistakes and took a step-by-step approach to learning. She compares learning English to dieting; a little bit of effort each day will make the world of difference, but you won’t see results over night!

Sandra Bullock

This one is a surprise! I bet you thought the woman famous for ‘Miss Congeniality’ always spoke English, right? Wrong. She has a German mother, and for the first decade of her life, she was raised in Nuremburg, Germany. Her English was pretty good, considering her father is American, but she still had to study in school in order to be completely fluent. In fact, Sandra became so good at speaking English after moving back to America, that now she has forgotten some of her German! She admits that she now needs to practise German more.

Natalie Portman

This Oscar winner, famous for the darkly dramatic movie Black Swan and the woman who played Padme in ‘Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith’, didn’t actually start speaking English until the age of three. Her first language is Hebrew, being that she was born in Jerusalem and on top of English, she now speaks French, German, Spanish and Japanese! She’s therefore what we call a ‘polyglot’. What tips does she have for learning any language? Well, she thinks that choosing a language which you love is absolutely crucial, and if that language happens to be useful then even better. We all know that English is the most useful language in the world, but it helps if you’re passionate about it too. But what if you don’t enjoy it? Natalie says that watching soap operas in the language of your choice and following along with the stories every day can actually help you love the language. When your favourite TV stars are using it day in and day out, you can’t help but learn it, sometimes without trying too hard! That certainly sounds positive!

So, if they can do it – so can you!

Interview with an English Teacher at EEC

A few weeks ago we interviewed our assistant manager here at EEC, Sahar. Following on from that, we thought we’d have a chat with one of our English teachers. Laura joined EEC one year ago now, and comes from the UK. Here’s what she had to say…

What did you do before you became an English teacher?

Well, I pretty much tried my hand at everything! When I was at university, I had a weekend job cleaning at a hotel, and then I became a receptionist. I also worked in a clothes shop for a while, which was actually great fun. After university, I worked at a bank in the south of England. I didn’t actually think about teaching until I was 24 years old, a couple of years after I graduated. It was a great decision and I’ve never looked back!

What made you decide to become a teacher?

I was a bit bored with my job in a bank, and with living in England too. I wanted some excitement and I had always dreamed of traveling the world, only I wasn’t sure how to do it. Even as a kid, I would study maps and plan the countries I’d try to see when I was older. One day, an education company sent me an advertisement about an English teaching course in Australia. Without too much thought, I decided to apply for it. I got accepted and soon departed for Sydney to learn how to become an English Teacher.

Where was your first teaching job?

My first teaching job was in Seoul, South Korea. When I first arrived, I was very homesick. I wasn’t used to the climate, the smells, the sounds, the people, the food – everything! It was such a huge and dramatic change for me, and I was only 24 years old, after all. However, I was lucky because I met a really nice person in my first week and she showed me around the city, introduced me to lots of other people, and even taught me to speak some basic Korean! My first month there was really tough, but I ended up living in Seoul for two and a half years and having the best time of my life. I have some great memories and friends from my time in Korea.

Where did you go after that?

I knew that I still wanted to explore a lot of the world, so after some time back in the UK, I went back to teaching. I taught in Brazil, Spain, and Palestine. I had a great time. Finally, in 2011, I came to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. I thought I would be here for just one year, but I’m now on year 5!

What has kept you here so long?

A combination of things, I think. I have some wonderful friends here, I actually enjoy the weather (although not so much in July and August!), and I enjoy my job. It feels like home now. Saudi Arabia is a fascinating country, and the people are so hospitable. For example, if you are invited to someone’s home, you’ll always be given Arabic coffee and dates! It’s the little things like that, which I really enjoy.

How would you compare all the countries you’ve been to?

Each country has something unique to offer. Brazil was certainly fun and lively, and Brazilians are among the friendliest people in the world. I also loved living near a beach, as I was based in Rio de Janeiro. Spain is wonderful and I’ve been visiting that country since I was a child with my family, so I know it well and it’s familiar to me. I also speak some Spanish, so it was nice to be able to chat with the locals. Palestine was a new and incredible experience for me, and I made some lifelong Palestinian friends, and Korea was my first adventure abroad so that will always have a place in my heart. Korean food is always going to be my favourite kind of food. When I first came to Saudi Arabia, I experienced a bit of culture shock. I couldn’t read the numbers or letters, I had never tried Middle Eastern food before, and I had never met any Saudis or, of course, worn an abaya. It was strange not seeing so much greenery and living within a completely different environment. However, I met some amazing people and started learning a lot about the region and culture. It was fascinating for me. After six months of adjusting, I started to feel really comfortable in Riyadh. Now, I think of this place as a second home. The best thing about teaching Saudi students for me is their sense of humour. It’s similar to the British humour and so classes are more fun. Unlike other students from other parts of the world, Saudis are not afraid to speak up in class and make mistakes, and so we have some fun and interesting conversations in class.

What do you enjoy most about teaching at EEC?

Unlike universities, we’re a much smaller team here and we all get on really well. There are just a few of us and I enjoy the family-like atmosphere. We have unlimited resources (which is fantastic for a teacher), great technology, and small class sizes. I like getting to know each one of my students not just by name but by personality and it means I can develop a really good rapport with them, and help them develop. I feel like I’m making an impact on their learning. Everybody is always smiling around the academy and there is no stress. I enjoy that kind of working environment.

What does your future hold?

I don’t really know. I know that I’ll always love traveling, so I’m sure I have many more countries to visit in the future. I still really enjoy teaching, especially writing and IELTS, so I’d like to keep doing that. Beyond that, who knows?

Teacher Laura, UK

English Idioms: Can you use them?

So, you come out of your English class full of confidence and ready to speak! There’s just one problem. These native speakers still seem to be speaking some other kind of language! Is it because they’re speaking too fast? Well, that’s part of the problem. But it’s also because they’re using special phrases and expressions known as ‘idioms’.

Idioms are created by speakers over time, as a quick way of explaining something in just a few words. Because they’re created over time, they keep changing! It is estimated that there are at least twenty-five thousand idioms in the English language, but don’t worry – you just need to know a few of the most common ones.

The confusing part is that the words are usually very different from what you’d expect them to be. They don’t really make any sense to non-English speakers. For example, ‘see the light‘ is an idiom. It means to understand, or to agree, or realize something after a long period of doubt. It’s really nothing to do with seeing any lights! How exactly is it used? Well, imagine that you’ve been eating fast food almost every day for years, without taking the health concerns seriously. After all, you’re young, and everyone else is eating it, so it’s probably fine, right? Then your friend explains to you in detail what is in that fast food and exactly how bad it is for your body. You decide to change your ways and start eating fruit and vegetables. Your friend tells you, “I’m glad you’ve finally seen the light.” This is just one of MANY examples. We native English speakers just love using idioms. It’s built into our culture, especially in the UK, and much of what you hear in movies and on TV is idioms.

To that end, we’ve decided to compile a list of our favourite idioms for you to start practicing straight away.

  1. ‘Piece of cake’. Nope, we’re not talking about your favourite dessert here. It actually means that something is very easy. For instance, did you get full marks in your last English exam? Then it must have been a piece of cake! Were you asked to solve a problem and it took you only five minutes? Clearly it was a piece of cake! Weird, right? All idioms are just a little bit weird, but that’s what makes them easy and fun to learn! A piece of cake to learn, you could say….

  2. ‘Hit the books.’ This is a strange one, isn’t it? Do we English speakers have a strange custom of punching our textbooks when we can’t understand what we’re reading? No, thankfully, or we’d all end up with bruised hands! To hit the books means that you need to open your books and get studying. For example, “I need to revise for my test tomorrow so I’m going to hit the books tonight.”

  1. ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover.’ Whether you’re a bookworm (a lover of books), or you prefer a bit of Netflix, don’t worry – this isn’t about books! It means that we can’t judge someone by their appearance. We need to get to know that person first. For example, “I didn’t like her when I first saw her, but I guess we can’t judge a book by its cover. I’ll try to get to know her.” This is one idiom that I find to be particularly true.

 

4. ‘When it rains, it pours!’ By now you’re probably noticing a pattern – that most idioms have absolutely nothing to do with the words within them! So, let me ask you this – do you think that this idiom has anything to do with the weather? Of course it doesn’t! It means that when bad things happen, they tend to happen all at the same time, or at least that’s how we feel sometimes. For instance, if you’re late for work, then you accidentally spill coffee over yourself, then your computer breaks down, you probably want to shout “Ahhh! When it rains, it pours!” I think, knowing the weather in the United Kingdom, this idiom was probably created in cold and rainy England!

 

5. ‘Rain or shine’. Since we’re talking about the weather now (kind of), what do you think this one means? Let’s give the example first this time to see if you can guess. You promise to pick up your friend from the airport, even though there is snow on the roads, your car is making a funny noise and might break down, and you might not finish work on time to get there by the time she lands. However, you say to her, “Don’t worry. I’ll be there, rain or shine.” Guesses? Well, it means that you’ll be at the airport no matter what happens. It doesn’t matter what obstacles are in the way – you’ll overcome. The positive nature of this idiom makes it one of my favourites.

Can you help add to this list at all? Which one did you like best? If you can ‘get to grips‘ (yes, another idiom) with this kind of style of speaking in English, then you’ll be sounding fluent in no time at all!

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