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?


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