Improving your reading skills

I have a lot of students who ask me how they can improve their reading skills. Often students need to get a good score in their IELTS exam and they have found out that they don’t do very well in the reading part. The thing I tell my students is that there is no quick fix! There is no magic trick that you can adopt which will get suddenly get you high marks!  You will get good marks in reading the more you read. There are three things that students should do to help improve their mark in the reading section of the IELTS exam:

1. Read extensively.

2. Practice reading IELTS style materials quickly for gist and more slowly for understanding.

3. Do practice tests before the exam.

If you ONLY do number 3 then you will not achieve your highest possible score.

1. Read extensively

In order to improve your overall reading skills and all your general English skills it is important that you read extensively in English for some time everday. ‘Extensive reading’ means reading longer passages in English when you focus on the meaning. An example of this would be reading a story book, a magazine or a newspaper. You need to find something that you are prepared to read regularly. What kind of books do you like? One thing that you can do is read short novels which are ‘abridged’ – that means shortened – for language learners. If you can find some stories which you are interested in and you read long passages in English focusing on the story your English will rapidly improve. You may find English readers in a library or a good bookshop with English language books. Alternatively read about things you are interested in using magazines and newspapers.

This type of extensive reading may be best done away from your computer! Relax in a comfortable place and read, forgetting that you are improving your English! You can use a dictionary to help you with words that you think you need to understand, but you don’t have to understand every single word.

Here are some useful links to help you find things for your extensive reading:

Penguin Readers Website

English language newspapers and magazines

Make a regular time everyday to do your extensive reading and do it!

2. Read IELTS style materials in an IELTS way

The second thing to do is to practise reading IELTS type materials. The sort of material that you see in IELTS examintions is academic articles. When you are doing type 2 reading you should sit at a desk and regard it as an academic exercise. This means that you have to find some articles to read. They may come from books, magazines, or the Internet but if they are online it is much better to print them out and practise reading from paper and not the computer.

1) Skim through the article quickly. This means reading the title, and the first sentence of each paragraph carefully. But then you look very quickly through the rest of the paragraph to get an idea of the general content of the article. It is important to practise doing this because you do not have enough time to read everything carefully in an IELTS test. Do not worry about difficult words.

2) Then go back and read each paragraph more carefully a second time. This is when you try to understand the detail.

Here are some examples of types of articles that you should be reading to improve your ability to deal with IELTS type articles:

TV for babies: does it help or hurt? from Time Magazine

Optimistic women live longer from Time Magazine

You can see that these articles from a magazine, are academic, but easy enough to understand for the general reader. This is the sort of reading that you need to do a lot of.

3. Do some IELTS practice tests before the exam

There are lots of IELTS practice examination materials available on the Internet and in bookshops. It is a good idea to buy a practice test book and do some tests before the exam so you know what sort of questions you have to do. The reading module tests your ability to:

  • “identify the writer’s overall purpose, target audience, sources etc.
  • identify and follow key arguments in a text
  • identify opinions and attitudes as opposed to facts
  • locate specific information
  • read for detailed information
  • extract relevant information
  • distinguish the main idea from supporting detail
  • recognise key points for a summary
  • group pieces of information in a text in accordance with salient criteria
  • extract information from a prose text to put into a diagrammatic representation
  • make inferences
  • use correct spelling and correct grammar in their answers”

(List taken from:

Doing practice tests is only ONE part of your IELTS preparation. It is important you do other activities too to continually improve your overall level of English. When you do a practice test DO IT AWAY FROM THE COMPUTER IN PROPER TEST conditions. Check your answers and note which sort of questions you do badly on, and practice those sort of questions.