You’ll find these in the question NOT the text. Sometimes when I start to work with IELTS students I see them going through the passages and underlining lots of ‘keywords’ – ‘Why are you doing that?‘ I usually ask them, ‘You don’t even know what the questions are yet so how will that help you?’ It is also a great way to waste time – and time is very precious in reading. (The only words that it might be a good idea to underline in the text at the beginning are the names of people for the specific matching exercise of names to their comments or ideas – but check first that you actually have this question!).
No, the keywords that everyone talks about are in the questions. These are the most important words to underline.
There are two types of keyword.
I call them:
Location Keywords – these are obvious and you will be able to match them easily in the text or indeed find them (or synonyms) fairly easily. The best are numbers, names, places, companies etc. If there are no words like these then words related to the topic or an aspect of the topic – try to choose words that are not all over the text in order to make life easier;
Detail Keywords – these indicate exactly what it is that you wish to find and sometimes they can be words that are overlooked like all, everyone, the first, already, in the past etc. these are really important (especially in questions like YNNG or TFNG as they help you decide which choice to make) and you should underline them.
You need more than one keyword in IELTS reading.
In fact I think you should have at least 3 and possibly 4. The reason for this is that the more words you can match from the question to the text, the more certain you can be that you have the right information in the text and the easier it will be to see the answer.
Indeed, if you can’t match your 3 or 4 keywords, it could be an indication that you are in the wrong place and that there is another place when all of these will be found. If you are trying to squeeze the place you have found into an answer and if it doesn’t really fit or make sense then look at the keywords again and search the text for a different location.
Don’t abandon your keywords
There is a danger of jumping on the first keyword you see in the text and then spending time exploring this and forgetting all about the other keywords you selected. This is a risk and frequently causes you to choose the wrong place and, worse, choose completely the wrong answer!
Check first if there are other keywords in the same place (you may not find all the keywords you have selected and this is fine) if so, then look more carefully for the answer. If not, then unless the answer is obvious, it’s probably better to look elsewhere.
Keep checking the question
There is so much going on in reading and a lot of pressure to find the answer that often we completely forget what the question is asking us exactly. I keep going back and forth from question to text to make sure I am correct. This may sound like a lot of time spent but actually with regular practice this process is very quick.
If you are happy with your answer then put it down and move on. If you still have doubts, don’t worry, write it on the paper with an large question mark or asterisk (so you can find it easily later) and move on – come back when you get to the end of those questions and check quickly again. If you are still not sure, you can check at the end of the passage and again, if necessary, at the end of the test. If you still have doubts just write it down – you may be right. Hopefully as you work through you will either be sure or will have chosen another answer.
Practise this regularly
IELTS is about English language, English language is a skill (all language is a skill) the more you practise the better you will get and, more importantly, the faster you will get so that sometimes you can even anticipate what the answer is going to be (always check!).
When it comes to skills practice certainly makes perfect. In the past 6 months I have taken 12 students from constantly getting 6.5 in their reading exam to achieving 8 and even 8.5 in a matter of weeks. Much of this work was done around understanding and using the right keywords in the right way. One student told me that it was like a switch being turned on. However, once the switch is on you HAVE to practise regularly. Languages, like other skills-based activities, can go backwards as well as forwards.