According to official sources, an overall band score of 7 describes a good user of the language, able to handle complex language well and follow detailed reasoning. In other words, someone not fully fluent but more than competent enough to study, work or live where English is the language of communication. Many universities will demand a minimum overall 7.0 band score, especially for those wishing to take courses that are linguistically more demanding.
To put it another way, a band 7 should be what you are aiming for at the very least.
Just how many test takers achieve at least an overall 7.0? Well for candidates aiming to study at undergraduate or postgraduate levels, around one fifth, 21 % obtain a 7.0 or above and more than half of those, 11% of the grand total, achieve an overall 7.0.
In IELTS reading, a band 7 is easily identified. There are 40 questions in total in both versions, the Academic and General Training. Official IELTS sources state that a band 7 means a score of between 30 and 32 in Academic IELTS and 34 or 35 out of 40 in General Training.
From statistics published by ielts.com, it is clear that many test takers will end up in the 6.0 -6.5 overall band score bracket. For those aiming to study, 41% fall into this category. For General Training, the percentage falls to 31 % with a corresponding rise in those obtaining at least a 7.0 (26% of the total).
So, when it comes to the test as a whole or, as here, when it's reading we are interested in, it's a question of knowing what to do to make sure our band score is up there with the best. If we know the very least we have to aim for and there are so many practice tests from official sources and elsewhere, is it now simply a question of doing them and checking our scores? If I am able to consistently score a band 7, is that the end of the story? And what of those of us who are not quite there yet?
Start off by doing a practice test or two to find out how you might score in the real test and to get a feel for the test itself. Do it under exam conditions. One hour to answer 40 questions. Check your score and look over the test again to see where your strengths and weaknesses lie. This will help you to work on areas where you need to improve.
But to push up your band score to 7.0 or above, it's not simply a question of doing practice tests. There is probably far too much IELTS practice material around and there is the danger of overloading yourself with tests and tips. Doing practice tests is not a waste of time but you have to mix them with a thorough understanding of the types of questions set and how they relate to the skills you need to best answer them correctly.
What types of questions do you find easier to handle and which more difficult?
While it's obviously true that the IELTS reading test requires an understanding of and practice in the types of texts and question sets asked, it is also a test of your knowledge of English: knowledge of grammar and vocabulary. It is also a test that to a large extent benefits those who have read more widely in English particularly on topics that often come up in the IELTS exam.
So, let reading extensively in English be our first step towards that 7.0 band score. To make your reading as effective in exam terms as possible, follow these steps.
Make a list of the most common topics that appear in IELTS tests. Look through some online IELTS exam practice tests as well as those in books. Note down general text topics. The first practice test in the Official Cambridge Guide to IELTS has a passage on archaeology, one business-oriented passage about airports and a third which poses the question "Is Photography Art?" Look at topics and make a note of the sources they come from. The Official Cambridge Guide, for example, has several source acknowledgements to the New Scientist magazine.
It's a good idea to start reading these sources. We would all have our preferences, often because of our own backgrounds and interests. Mine would include articles from newspapers such as The Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/uk) and the Independent (https://www.independent.co.uk/), as well those from selected academic journals and publications such as The Economist (www.economist.com). Try looking for academic journals available on open-access sites. A good start is through https://www.elsevier.com/open-access/open-access-journals. It depends on your interests and background but areas like psychology, urbanism and technological advances (robotics, artificial intelligence) are my favourites.
Check out a selection of key sites where you can find reading material similar in topic and subject depth to those in the exams. Remember that for obvious reasons, reading passages do not go into great technical detail but rather, appeal to a well-read audience with an interest in a range of subjects from the humanities to the sciences by way of the social sciences.
Texts can also be generally classified according to whether they are merely descriptive or more argumentative, for example. Texts which put forward and consider points of view on any given topic, tend to be more sophisticated linguistically speaking with longer, more complex sentences probably with a fair amount of modality (should, may, could, etc.) and conditionals (if, if ...not, unless, whether). These texts we often find as the third and final one in Academic IELTS and the last passage in General Training.
At the same time, try to read in areas less familiar to you. In my case, that might be in the applied sciences, medicine, architecture and urban planning. Read outside your knowledge comfort zone, read extensively and regularly.
With these two points, text topic and text purpose, in mind, ask yourself if just reading is enough or is it just enough to end up with 6.0, a reasonably good score but not good enough to help you stand out from the crowd.
In other words, it's what you do before, during and after reading that matters. As we shall discuss a little later in more detail, the key to success in IELTS is vocabulary, the ability to paraphrase and recognise synonyms, to see connections between groups of words. To do that in a second language requires effort and organisation. One tip we often see mentioned in second language learning is the idea of keeping a vocabulary notebook where significant items can be stored, ordered, placed in groups with relevant examples of synonyms and contexts as well as comments on the register and grammatical features.
The next step is to prepare for the test itself. IELTS preparation has to include doing some of the IELTS tests but not just for the sake of seeing how many correct answers you get or even how your score improves over time. The benefit of reading test practice lies in how you can clearly relate different types of text with certain types of questions. In General Training for example, the shorter, informative part 1 reading passages are almost always tested through a relatively straightforward matching exercise asking you to identify statements with parts of the text. The use of paraphrase and synonyms evidently provides you with a way to obtain a high score in this set of questions.
Similarly, in both versions, questions that test your ability to interpret the passage at a deeper level, such as judging whether a series of statements concerning content are either true, false or are simply impossible to judge as either for lack of evidence or asking you whether a statement backs or refutes the writer´s opinion or would be impossible to judge given the information at hand, also demand the test taker's lexical range as well as grammatical knowledge, although at a more sophisticated level.
Enriching your lexical resource is one vital way to prepare for the test as well as finding the most appropriate strategies to tackle the different types of reading passages and the questions set on them.
Anyone entering the exam room knowing what to expect, having the resources to deal with whatever comes up, is more likely to obtain a good band score.
The third area is the test itself. It's not mentioned as often as it should but an IELTS reading test is not really just about reading. It is a test of your lexical resource, the more you know the better your overall score will be. It's a test of your knowledge of how texts are put together, how coherence and cohesion give us the final product.
It is also a race against time. Sixty minutes, forty questions, three texts in Academic IELTS and more than that, though they might be of shorter length, in General Training. There is no way you can sit and read through each text from beginning to end trying to understand everything. That's not the point at all. It's how you apply certain reading strategies, such as skimming a text for gist, scanning it for specific information to be able to answer questions.
Time is equally important when we try as far as possible, to devote equal portions of time to each set of questions, say, twenty minutes per reading passage in the Academic version. Timing in all parts of IELTS, in the writing and speaking tests, for example, is vital. In the listening test, timing is decided for us and we have to keep up with it but in reading, we have to be in control. Twenty minutes maximum for answer 13 or 14 questions on a reading passage of up to 900 words in length.
Perhaps by taking regular practice tests we can decide what works best for us in exam conditions.
Personally, I've always recommended reading the instructions carefully first to know exactly what type of questions I have to answer. It also helps me to get a good general idea from the beginning as to the text topic and enables me to focus on it. Then I would skim the text quickly to get a general idea and hopefully begin to see how to answer some questions. Then it's a matter of moving between the text and the questions. To be sure I have the correct answers, I need a few moments to check.
It's these checking moments that sort of the high scoring candidates from the rest. An IELTS reading test holds no secrets. There may be questions that are more difficult than others. Many test-takers report that it is hard to be fully convinced that something is "Not Given" in the text probably because we are so used to a kind of duality, it's there or not, it's true or false. But if there is insufficient evidence, even though through studying IELTS, I know that there will be some truth or falsehood in the question statement, then it is "not given". Only through practice and the knowledge that everything you need to know is there, written in the text, will you have total confidence with this trickier type of question.
It's a reading test not a writing test but, just as in the case of the listening exam, you have to write the answers on the answer sheet. Often that will simply be choosing a letter from A to D or writing TRUE or YES but it frequently involves fill in exercises, be it notes, a summary or sentence completion, where a certain number of words is specified, such as "no more than two words" or "no more than one word and/or a number". Of course, all the answers once again are just there, somewhere in the text, not hidden from view. Those responsible for exam marking are instructed to only mark as correct perfectly spelt answers that comply with the word count instructions. All else is worthless. Therefore, simple advice though it may be, be sure that your spelling is clear and correct and that you have carefully followed instructions so as not to lose valuable points unnecessarily. Again, having a minute or two at the end to check your answers could mean the difference between a good score and a high score.
Likewise, as there are no penalties for incorrect answers, never leave any questions blank. Take multiple choice questions for example. You have a 25% chance of getting it right if you are not sure.
So a reading test is not just about reading. It's about knowing when not to worry about total comprehension. IELTS reading passages are not overly complicated in terms of topic or specialised vocabulary. In fact, they are intentionally aimed at a general, well-informed readership. All the more reason to read around, to read extensively on a variety of topics in preparation for the test while also working intensively on question types and reading strategies.