The Difference between Testing and Improving your IELTS Reading Score

The Difference between Testing and Improving your IELTS Reading Score

Testing vs Developing

The IELTS reading test is designed to test, not improve, your reading. One common mistake that many of my students make is trying to use practice tests to improve their reading skills.

Doing an IELTS practice test is mainly just going to test your reading skills, just like with listening.

It does not improve your reading very well. In the long-term, it does. Over years and years it will work but it is a slow way to improve.

And because IELTS readings are very boring you will probably lose motivation over time.

The other option is to develop your reading using these 4 keys: read a short passage, read it more than once, do different activities when reading, and take great notes.

The Keys

Key #1: Read a short passage

Don’t use a full practice test! Instead, read a single passage in a reading test or find a more interesting article online in the news or another page you like.

Some suggestions to find interesting readings are:

Key #2: Read it more than once

The reason why you should read something short is so that you can read it more than once.

A whole book or a whole reading test is too long!

And the reasons why reading something again and again improve (not tests) your reading is: you review the same words and improve the same skills.

That’s the whole reason why you should read something more than once to improve your reading.

Key #3: Do different activities when reading

In order to improve your reading skills you have to read in different ways.

One example of this is reading for gist or skimming. This means to read quickly for the main idea.

Practice this one skill again and again and again until you get better at it.


Key #4: Take great notes

In my experience, one of the main differences between passive and active learners is the quality of their notes.

Some students don’t take good notes and expect to learn English just from sitting in the classroom. This won’t work.

Other students take pride in keeping beautiful, detailed notes and reviewing them.

Which kind of student do you want to be?

When it comes to reading, vocabulary is king. And when it comes to vocabulary, the vocabulary notebook is king.

Simple Reading Activities

Here are 10 simple reading activities designed to focus on improving different reading skills that you can practice:

1. Read and write down the keywords in your notebook. Go back after and try to remember what each word means.

2. Read quickly and write down a 1 sentence summary after you finish. Then read again and add another sentence.

3. Read half a sentence and try to write the second half before you read it. Change it up and read the second half of a sentence and try to figure out the first half.

4. Write down all the keywords in a paragraph. Try to use the keywords to rewrite the whole paragraph.

5. Read the first and last paragraph of a reading. Write down what you think is in the other paragraphs then read and check.

6. Read the tapescript of a listening test. Then listen to it without the tapescript and try to remember the words you read.

7. Write down all the words in a sentence you don’t understand. Try writing a new sentence with the words before you understand what the word means. Then look up the word in a dictionary and correct your sentence.

8. Read and draw a picture of what the reading is about (or make a mind map).

9. Write down the question words ‘Where,’ ‘When,’ ‘Why,’ ‘Who,’ ‘How,’ and ‘What’ and try to answer while you read.

10. Write down all the proper names in a reading before you read it. Then read it quickly and fill in why each name is important (you can also write down dates and numbers).

For all of the ideas above you should read multiple times – that’s how you improve!

Do this at least once a day and I promise your reading will improve more quickly than any other method.


Now it’s your turn! Put your answers in the comments.

Do you have any links to interesting readings?


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Here are some ‘frequently asked questions‘ about IELTS reading. If you can’t find your question, please put it in the comments or send us a message.

The Test

“How many questions are on the reading test?”

There are 40 questions.

“How long does the reading test last?”

1 full hour with no extra time to transfer your answers.

“How many readings are there?”

There are 3 readings.

“What kind of topics are on the reading test?”

The most common topics are related to science and history. For example, astronomy, psychology, chemistry, biology, neuroscience, etc. Biographies are also very common. Some less common topics include…

“How many different types of questions are there?”

There are 14 different question types.

“How long should each reading take?”

Each one should take around 20 minutes.

“When should I write on the answer sheet?”

You do not have extra time to transfer your answers so don’t write them on the test – right them immediately on the answer sheet.

“Can I write in all capitals?”

Yes, if you want.

“Is capitilisation important?”

No, you will still receive full marks for ‘london’ or ‘London.’

“Is spelling important?”

Yes, you will be marked down for mispelling words.

“Do my answers have to be grammatically correct?”

Yes, pay close attention to the gap-fills to be sure the grammar is accurate.

“What counts as a word for the ‘no more than ____ words’ questions?”

Dates, times and numbers all count as 1 word. 200 is one word, 3,000,000 is one word, 11am is one word, 22% is one word and so on. Words with hyphens like mother-in-law are one word. For dates, 18th September is one word and a number.

“I don’t understand the test. Do you have a guide?”

Yes! Funny you should ask, I have it right here:

“Do wrong answers hurt my score more than blank ones?”

No, fill in all answers even if you are guessing. Do not leave any answers blank.

“How is the reading test made?”

It takes 1 – 2 years for a reading test to be made and every question must be approved and adjusted by dozens of people. The test is very reliable.

“How is the reading test marked?”

Usually the local staff in your country will mark them by hand before recording your scores.

“Do the readings get harder as the test goes on?”

Yes, they do.

“Should I read the questions or the reading first?”

You should skim the reading before reading the questions and finding the answers.

“Do the answers come in order in the reading?”

Sometimes. For some questions they will, like T/F/NG they will, but for other ones, like matching the heading, they will not.

“Is there a difference between the general training and academic reading?”

Yes, the topics on the general training are related to everyday life and newspapers. The topics in the academic test are … uh … more academic.

“Can I write ‘T’ instead of true?”

Yes, abbreviations are generally accepted throughout. You can write ‘T’ for True, ‘F’ for False, “NG’ for Not Given and even things like ‘Y’ for yes and ‘N’ for no. But our advice is to just write the full words to be safe. Why risk it?

“I keep studying but I can’t improve. What should I do?”

The key to reading test (and listening test) is vocabulary. There’s no shortcut to learning thousands of English words. Improve your English vocabulary and your score will improve. But this may take years depending on the score that you want!

Test Day

“Can I write on the test?”


“What if there’s a problem?”

Tell one of the staff working at the center. They will help you.

“Should I write in pen or pencil?”

Pencil for both listening and reading.

“Can I go to the toilet during the test?”

Yes, in most countries this is OK. But you won’t get additional time.

“Can I bring a drink?”

Yes, as long as the bottle is transparent. (Be careful, in many countries there are no bathroom breaks allowed.)

Improving your reading

“How can I improve my reading?”

In general, follow the tips here:

For specific tips for IELTS reading, check out this one:

“How long should I practise everyday?”

It depends on your level of English and the score you want. The important thing is that you do it everyday – that’s more important than how long you practice!

Now it’s your turn! Ask us a question in the comments

What would you like to know about IELTS reading? We’ll answer your question ASAP!