Many IELTS students have the belief that if you read the first sentence (or first two) of the first paragraph and then read the last two this will be enough information to answer the questions that are set. In actual fact for some passages this may just work – but it is too strict and not all passages fit into the same pattern of writing.
Take a look at this opening paragraph from an IELTS reading below:
The infamous Sardar Sarovar Dam on the Narmada River in India was initiated with World Bank loans. It was designed primarily to irrigate 1.8 million drought-prone hectares in the state of Gujarat. Despite the extensive canal and pipeline work, the 20 million people in Gujarat have this year experienced their worst drought for a century.
If we read the first two sentences – as per the general ‘rule’ many students use and then go on to the questions, this is what happens.
The first question for this passage is:
Choose the most appropriate title for Reading Passage 3
A. Drought: Small Scale solutions for a Very Big Problem
B. Water: A Women’s Work
C. Dams: Providing Water for All
D. Drought: An Unsolvable Problem
This is actually a global question which means you need to skim the WHOLE passage to answer it – but using the 2-sentence rule strictly which many students do, I know (because I have used this passage many times) that most students will choose C
Now, if we go back to the first paragraph we can see that the first word in sentence 3 is Despite – this is a linking word used to introduce a contrast and so if we go further and read the 3rd sentence we can see that the answer C is, in fact, the opposite of what the paragraph is telling us namely: that this hugely expensive Dam has not solved the problem of drought. The ‘rule’ about 2 sentences has failed and this is the problem with these so-called ‘rues’ they don’t work in every case.
A word like despite, yet and but, which often occur in the middle of a paragraph, tell us that the truth is the opposite of what the first part of the paragraph tells us. This is a very common convention in writing (one you can use yourself to great effect in your own IELTS task 2) and not realising the significance of this contrast means that you will inevitably get the answers wrong.
This is one example of a ‘rule’ that has somehow become part of IELTS mythology and these restricted ways of working are causing many students to consistently choose the wrong answers. Another strongly held belief is that answers are chronological so you’ll find the answer to question 2 after question 1 etc. this is not always true and leads to a lack of common sense. It is far better to deal with the substance of the passage and also the key words in the questions to find the answer. Far from being ‘short-cuts’ these arbitrary rules simply stop you from really understanding what you are reading and being logical about the process.
So how can we move forward with reading if we stop applying these ‘rules’?
Firstly, spend more time reading and understanding text generally. Read widely. All students that I meet who have achieved high reading scores tell me that they read a lot and enjoy reading. This will also improve your vocabulary. Also think about how reading and writing are connected. How do you plan your writing? You will find if you analyse reading paragraphs that the same patterns emerge. It’s logical. Be systematic and don’t make assumptions which are external to the text – the question and text itself will tell you everything you need to know to get the right answer.
Secondly, notice linking words and other ‘helpful’ vocabulary. In the paragraph above there is a very interesting word that tells you something important – infamous- when I have used this passage with students many of them read this as ‘famous’ – which it isn’t in fact the word means famous for something bad and so straight away we know that there is a problem with this dam. Once we realise this then we can be on the lookout for why this dam is infamous, what are the problems with it and it gives us a whole different interpretation of the paragraph!!!
Here is another sentence from the passage which has caused some issues for students.
While I was there, the newspaper headlines announced the first human casualties.
A ‘Yes No Not Given’ question stated:
Many People have died as a result of the drought
The answer lies in the word ‘casualty’ – is this a synonym for fatality – which would be a death? Many students again put YES. Understanding the word casualty means that you would understand that it is not necessarily fatal, it could also mean injured. Therefore, as we don’t know the extent of the injuries and whether or not there have actually been deaths from the drought, (it is possible but we are not told) we have to answer Not Given.
A good understanding of vocabulary, the interplay between sentences, the role of linking words can all help to make sure that you get the right answer.
Finally, use common sense. A student recently was struggling to find the answer to a question. She was using key words and had chosen the correct ones in the question to find the answer. I could see that all of her key words were sitting in the first paragraph but she was frantically search in paragraph 3. I was a little puzzled and asked why she had started looking here. Because the previous answer was in paragraph 2 she told me so it must be in 3 and beyond. I asked her to have a look at paragraph 1 and immediately she found the correct answer – common sense not arbitrary ‘rules’.
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