The hardest IELTS discipline – Reading – the problems and the solution


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Anyone who has sat their IELTS exam has to admit that the Reading section is definitely the most difficult of the four disciplines. But why is that? By the time you get to do IELTS you should be good enough at all the aspects of English that the Reading section should be just as easy as the other parts, but it’s not, so why is that?

There are many reasons why the Reading is more difficult:

  1. You just don’t know what kind of subjects that will be covered
  2. You just don’t know which vocabulary will be presented
  3. The writing section can be done perfectly simply by using the vocabulary you already know
  4. The speaking section can be completed perfectly simply by using the vocabulary you do know.
  5. The listening section requires the listener to tend to focus on information and ideas rather than specific words meaning

So as you can see there are a few common points here, subject coverage and vocabulary. It does seem to be that when we embark on a new reading passage, the vocabulary and subject area right from the start can throw you off and make it difficult for you to concentrate.

I myself did the TOEFL exam just so that I could get a feeling for what was required at this level and I have to tell you, I am a native speaker, and expectedly did well in the speaking and writing and listening, but the reading still threw me. Why? Because as soon as I read the title I had a psychological flip on whether I was interested in the subject or not.

Here is a list of the four subjects I had to read on:

  1. The history of agriculture in 18th century Germany
  2. The changing unemployment rate in northern England today
  3. The analysis of a rare biological species from the Great Barrier Reef
  4. Modern trends in the computerization of education

To tell you the truth No. 2 and 4 were of general interest to me and so it was a lot easier to find the content easy to understand, the other two were full of either full of dates and timelines or long complex biological names.

Yet when we learn to prepare for the Reading we are told to not be phased by the titles, we need to learn not to read but to skim and scan, that the way the exam is set up is learning how to extract information correctly.

The key is exactly this. Some people get really good at this. They understand the technique extremely well and don’t sway from that. They understand the time limit well and don’t deviate from that either. This really is the key, and something I personally would recommend everyone to follow. Don’t be phased by thinking that you need to be interested in the subject.

So what do you think?


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5 thoughts on “The hardest IELTS discipline – Reading – the problems and the solution

  1. Thanks for another great post.

    To answer your last question – I think you bring up a great point. When I am preparing people for the TOEFL exam, there tends to be a lot of anxiety over the dates and specific terminology in the Reading passages. But I feel that this is exactly the purpose of it being there. A person doesn’t first learn the subject and THEN go to University… they go to University and then learn a new subject. This exam does not test the knowledge one already HAS, but the ability to gain new knowledge.

    Because of this, I really do like the philosophy behind the TOEFL. However, I sometimes imagine that there is a team of “mad-scientists” in the inner sanctums of “the TOEFL laboratory” that are wringing their hands and laughing maniacally when creating the certain tasks – because I have found that there is a “trick” or a “trap” in nearly every question and task (on the whole exam – not just the reading part.)

    One of the “traps” in the reading section is that quite often, the numbers, dates, names, etc…. the things that we would usually think are very important to write down in our notes… are actually not important at all! The “trick” is that, even though nearly all of the text-books and teachers say that it is very important to take notes… it really isn’t. At least not in the way that a person would if they were actually reading something for a class or if they were listening to a lecture (as the Reading and Listening section are very similar in philosophy and task-types.)

    The only thing that is really important to skim and scan for, is: The Main Idea (usually plainly described in the title), The Supporting Details (usually briefly explained in the first paragraph), The Purpose (to give information, make an argument, contradict some idea), and The Format (what happened first, second & third, etc. – This will help the test-taker immensely with the summary tasks.)

    Other than that, the rest is plainly laid out in each question. For example, if they want the test-taker to define a word (which they are assuming will probably be a new vocabulary word) they say exactly where it is in the text and give options for the meaning.

    As for whether or not a person is interested in the topic is completely irrelevant to the task, and can sometimes even be a hindrance (as you mentioned.) I have seen this work against people when they get a subject that they actually know something about. For example the question will have some words that say something like, “according to the article”… but then the choices for the answers may contradict what the test-taker already knows about the subject… but that doesn’t matter… the “trap” there is that it is “according to the article” – not according to what the test-taker already knows.

    So to summarize, I guess the most important piece of information that one could take from this (as far as the TOEFL is concerned, as I know nothing about the IELTS) is that, the “normal” or standard way of taking notes that most students have learned, will actually work against the test-taker in the Reading Section of the TOEFL exam.

    This is because the main purpose of the TOEFL Reading passages is, not to learn the subject (like one would in University), but to simply answer the questions, showing that one has the capability OF learning something.

    I hope that is of some help to people.

    Have An Excellent Day

    • Thanks for your short sharp summary!…..just kidding….hahahaa…I am going to sleep tonight with nightmares of those maniacal test makers wringing their hands and laughing wildly!
      I think you have hit the nail on the head about assessing the capability of learning something (using English of course), this is where so many test takers get it wrong.
      Thanks so much for your in depth feedback.

  2. Pingback: IELTS READING #ielts #learnenglish | Joseph McTaggart , English Teacher, Author, and Voice Coach,

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