How to manage your time in IELTS Reading

How much time do I get for IELTS Reading?

You have 60 minutes to answer 40 questions. That’s 90 seconds per question. Why is it then that so many people have trouble managing their time in IELTS Reading and how can you manage your time effectively?

That’s what we’re going to answer in this blog.

Before I show you how to manage your time effectively in IELTS reading, let me give you a quick overview of the challenge you’re facing.

IELTS Reading Overview

How fast do I need to read the IELTS Reading section?

In your reading test, you will get three reading passages. The 40 questions will be based on these three passages. So you’ll complete about 13 or 14 questions per passage.

The total word count of all three passages is important because it allows us to calculate the speed at which you need to read. According to the IELTS official, the three passages have a total of about 2,500 words and then there’s about 500 words in the questions, so about 3,000 words in total.

To read 3,000 words in 60 minutes means that you need to read at an average speed of 50 words per minute. That is not fast. That’s, in fact, very slow. Let’s put it into perspective.

The average native-English speaker read at an average rate of 250 words per minute – by analogy, that’s the equivalent of driving at 100km per hour.

So if you only have to read at only 50 words per minute. Well, that’s the equivalent of driving at about 20km per hour. 

So what’s the problem then? Because it seems that you have more than enough time to read. If I read the three passages at 250 words per minute, an average speed, then I could read from top to bottom, including the questions in just 12 minutes. So why do so many people struggle with time management in IELTS reading?

There are a few critical things we need to iron out because it’s not necessarily how fast you read, it’s not just about speed or pace; it’s actually more about how you read and what you do with your mind (and eyes) on test day. 

But before we look at critical strategies to improve your reading speed and accuracy, let’s firstly understand the reading test a little bit more deeply so we know what we’re dealing with.

IELTS Reading General vs Academic

The first thing you need to know is that there is a difference between the IELTS General and IELTS Academic reading tests in terms of the texts types.

If you’re taking IELTS General you’ll have to read texts similar to:

  • Newspapers
  • Advertisements
  • Handbooks
  • Notices

If you’re taking IELTS Academic, you’ll have to read texts similar to:

  • Newspapers
  • Books
  • Journals
  • Magazines

The academic test will use language that is a little more complex in terms of its vocabulary and sentence structure; but that’s the only real difference between the two test types. Apart from that, everything else is the same. 

Both tests have eleven different question types. You might not get all eleven types on test day, but you’ll get a variety. There’s

  1. Multiple choice
  2. True / False / Not Given (facts)
  3. Yes / No / Not Given (opinions)
  4. Matching information
  5. Matching headings
  6. Matching features
  7. Matching sentence endings
  8. Sentence completion
  9. Summary, note, table, flow-chart completion
  10. Diagram label completion
  11. Short-answer questions

Reading Types

Okay, now that we know what we’re dealing with, let’s take a closer look at how to maximise our reading efficiency and accuracy, and to do that we need to discuss:

There are actually three ways of reading or three types of reading that you need to do on test day:

  1. Speed reading
  2. Search reading
  3. Careful reading

Let’s understand: 

1. Speed Reading

The first thing you should do when you sit down and open your test paper is a very quick ‘speed read’ of the passage. You should speed read the passage at about 500 words per minute. That’s the equivalent of driving at about 200 km an hour. Or, put another way, you should read the entire passage in about 60 to 90 seconds. 

Let me help you to understand this a bit better.

Imagine that you are driving through a country town at 200 km per hour. Don’t worry, there are no police or pedestrians on the road. If you’re driving this fast, what information can you pick up about the town? What can you see? Well you certainly won’t see much. You’re driving way too fast to read street signs or house numbers but you can get an idea of what’s in the town. As you drive, perhaps you notice a school or a supermarket or even a football oval.

This is speed reading. You should do this to get an idea of what the text is about generally, and hopefully, what each paragraph is about at a very basic level.

After you have sped read passage one you should then go straight to question 1. And this brings me to an important point:

The order of the questions follows the order of the text. 

This is critical to understand. The questions and the paragraphs are in the same order. Let’s say, for example, that there are 12 questions relating to passage one. The answer to question one will be located at the top of the text. And the answer to question two will be located slightly below the answer to question one and the answer to question three slightly below the answer to question 2 and so on. 

So if you need to find where in the passage to read you need to keep in mind that the question order follows the passage from top to bottom.

Okay, so, you’ve sped read passage one at 200km per hour, you’ve carefully read question one. You know that that the answer to question one will come at the top of the passage so you turn your attention to that particular part of the passage.

At this point, you want to slow down and do some… 

2. Search Reading

Search reading is different from speed reading. When we speed read we rush through the text to get an idea of what it’s about. With search reading you are looking for something, similar to how you might look for your keys in your bedroom thinking ‘where are my keys, where are my keys’ while looking under clothes or under your bed. 

If we go back to our car analogy, it’s like driving at about 60 km per hour. You want to slow down because you’re looking for something but not driving too slow because you’re not worried about details yet.

The reason why you search read is to find information that was mentioned in the question in the text. Sometimes you will find the exact same word from the question in the text, but most of the time it will be a synonym or paraphrase. 

Let me explain… Take a look at this table:

Same wordalmond milkalmond milk
Paraphrasewatch out forbe cautious of

Rarely, will you see the word “almond milk” in the question and the exact same word in the text but sometimes it might happen.

Most of the time you will see a synonym or paraphrase. So, for example, you will see the word ‘purchase’ in the question and ‘buy’ in the text or ‘watch out for’ in the question and ‘be cautious of’ in the text.

This is what we’re looking for, so to speak, when we search read. We’ve located an important key word or phrase in the question and now we’re hunting around looking for the same or similar word in the text. 

So, let’s say you’ve 

  1. Sped read the passage (200 km)
  2. Carefully read the question (20 km)
  3. Searched for the right section of the text (60 km)

Now we’re gonna really slow it down because you’re going to do some:

3. Careful Reading

When you careful read you read word by word, phrase by phrase and sentence by sentence for a full and maximum understanding of what’s being said. 

It’s the equivalent of slowing right down to about 20 km per hour to find a house number. You really have to slow down and concentrate. Is the number on the letterbox or is it on the door. Wait, was that it? No, that was 14 and I’m looking for 4…. Let me reverse my car and take a closer look.

So, again, this is what you need to do:

  1. Speed read the passage (200 km) – only do this once!
  1. Read the question (20 km)
  2. Search for the right section of the text (60 km) – a particular sentence in a paragraph!
  3. Carefully read the important part of the paragraph (20 km) – a sentence!
  4. Answer the question

You will then repeat steps 2-5 until you have completed all of the questions related to passage number one. Then you will repeat the whole process for passage two and again for passage three.

How you actually read in when answering IELTS Reading questions

But it’s not that easy… I wish it were.

This is a great plan going from 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and then 2, 3, 4, 5 etc– but what actually happens when you complete reading questions is that you’re going to go back and forth and back and forth and back and forth between the question and the text dozens of times. 

In fact, take a look at this image. This is from a scientific study that used eye-tracking to see how many times an effective reader looked back and forth from the question to the text:

ielts reading, good readers eye positions on one question

(Bax, 2013)

Bear in mind two things: This is a good reader and this is for a single question.

ielts reading good reader eye heatmap

Here’s a different way to look at it. You can see from this heat map that the reader has spent a lot of time looking at the question and then read very widely in the second and third paragraph to find the answer.

And that was a good reader! Now let me show you a bad reader, most likely a very slow reader  – someone who got the question wrong and who probably struggled with time management:

ielts reading, eye positions of a bad reader
(Bax, 2013)

Yikes! Their eyes went all over the place – up, down, left right and looked back and forth, quite literally over 400 times. They even looked at the timer 6 times! Their heat map looked like this:

ielts reading, bad reader heatmap of question
(Bax, 2013)

And you can see why they got this question wrong. This is question two and they’re looking in paragraph four. They don’t understand the order of the questions and the text and they’re spending way too long and they’re in the wrong place.

This is not an effective reader. If you move your eyes around too much you’re not concentrating and you’re wasting valuable time. Imagine how much time was wasted on this single question moving your eyes back and forth over 400 times.

So let’s think about…

Effective’ and Efficient Reading in IELTS

Reading efficiently and effectively means that you read quickly and accurately with minimal back and forth so that you complete all the questions in time and get them all correct – that’s the aim. 

When effective readers read, they move through a text from left to right and from word to word or phrase to phrase with minimal re-reading. If they do re-read a word or a phrase it’s to ‘reprocess’ the meaning to make sure they have understood what was said. 

Sometimes effective readers will stop and ‘focus’ on a word to comprehend its meaning before continuing to read through the text. 

And sometimes effective readers will also ‘sweep’ back to a certain part of a text to re-read a particular section or sentence until they have fully understood it. 

Importantly, effective readers can memorise ‘where’ in the text they need to re-read so they can try to find an answer. They remember where things were mentioned in the text.

Let’s compare good fast readers with bad slow readers…

Effective, efficient readersIneffective, inefficient readers
Continue from left to right moving through the text understanding the meaningRead up, down, left, right – all over the place!
Don’t often re-read single words or phrasesDo lots of re-reading of single words or phrases or entire sentences or even paragraphs
Sometimes re-read a section of textDo lots of re-reading of whole sections
Concentrate and focusLose focus

So you can see that effective readers and ineffective readers do a lot of the same thing but one simply does it much more efficiently. 

Let me take you through a process now so you can see how to tackle a passage from beginning to end and complete it efficiently and accurately:


Try it yourself below:

Milk is not what it used to be. For centuries milk was associated with animal milk – and certainly in the UK, with cow’s milk. But now there are dozens of different types of milk products, which are derived from vegetables, legumes or nuts. While soy, almond, oat, rice and coconut are the current popular milk alternatives, there are even lesser-known milk types including pea, hemp and macadamia. Many people are choosing these different types of milks for environmental purposes, while others are doing it for health reasons.

Milk alternatives aside, what are the health benefits of dairy milk – the world’s most popular milk? Dietician and celebrity chef Marcus Adams says that there are many reasons to stick to the most classic of milk types. It’s a great source of vitamin A, D, B12 and zinc. And while it might be slightly higher in saturated fats than plant-based milks, there is always the option to buy low-fat milk.

As for its environmental impact, London University professor, Dr. Mary Wilks says that it is indisputable that cow’s milk is the worst possible choice for the planet. Wilks’ research suggests that a single glass of “moo juice” accounts for three times the amount of greenhouse gas emissions compared to non-dairy milks.

It also takes much more land to raise dairy cows and they consume huge amounts of water.
Question 1

Choose the best answer from the options in each question. Macadamia milk

A. is a well-known dairy alternative

B. has negative environmental impacts

C. is a relatively obscure type of milk

D. has many positive health benefits 

Questions 2-3

Does the information in the statements match the information in the passage?

Choose TRUE if the statement agrees with the information, choose FALSE if the statement contradicts the information, or choose NOT GIVEN if there is no information on this statement. 

2. Dairy milk has a high sugar content.

3. Plant-based milks contain less saturated fats than cow milk.

Questions 4-5
Complete the sentences below.

Choose NO MORE THAN TWO WORDS from the text for each answer. 

4. That dairy milk has the most devastating impact on the environment is ____. 

5. Comparatively, the production of dairy milk creates ____ as much greenhouse gas as plant-based alternatives.
  1. Speed read the passage (200 km) – only do this once! Read from top to bottom very quickly to get an idea of what the passage is about and perhaps what each paragraph is about. Hopefully you’ll pick up some key words as well.
  1. Read the question carefully (20 km). Make sure you understand it fully.
  2. Search for the right section of the text (60 km) – a particular sentence or phrase in a paragraph! Keep in mind that the order of the questions follows the order of the passage.
  3. Carefully read the important part of the paragraph (20 km) – It’ll be a sentence or a phrase. Reread it again and again if necessary.
  4. Try to answer the question

Now, more than likely, because of your memory you’ll need to go back to the question to remember what it asked you and that is fine but concentrate. Stay on task. Don’t let your mind and your eyes wander. You can do this!

Before I wrap it up, I want to give you some critical additional tips:

Critical Tips for IELTS Reading on Test Day

When you prepare for IELTS Reading and on test day:

  1. Remember that you have enough time (if you don’t waste time). 
  2. Don’t move your eyes all over the place. Relax and let the information sink in.
  3. If you’re taking the paper-based test remember that you need to complete the answer sheet as you go. You do not get extra time to complete it. 
  4. If you can’t find an answer to a question skip it and come back to it later or at the end. Don’t waste time on answers you can’t find or are unsure of. 
  5. Answer every question – even if it’s a blind guess; there are no points lost for incorrect answers.
  6. Relax. One of the main reasons people can’t manage their time is because they can’t manage their anxiety. I know it’s hard, but relax and breathe – you have plenty of time!

Knowing all of this will help you with IELTS Reading time management, but if you really want help then you need to learn the methods so you understand each of the question types and then you need to complete practice questions.

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