IELTS Reading Tip: Matching Headings to Paragraphs

IELTS Reading Tip: Matching headings to paragraphs

The problem

The IELTS Reading test includes unusual and difficult task types that are not typically found in other reading exams. These include Yes/No/Not Given, sentence completion and matching headings to paragraphs. Are you familiar with these question types? If not, you need to get to grips with them well in advance of your IELTS test day. In this post we’ll have a look at matching headings to paragraphs.


Along with dodgy food, cramped seating and screaming infants, turbulence is one of the banes of modern air travel. Avoiding turbulence is a somewhat haphazard business. Pilots do their best to fly around storms and to steer clear of turbulent areas reported by aircraft further along the route. But a series of experiments that has just finished in Colorado could eliminate some of the guesswork, by enabling airlines’ existing radar systems to pick up signs of the most common kind of turbulence, called ‘convective turbulence’, with just a simple software upgrade.

a. How convective turbulence could be identified
b. A potentially dangerous phenomenon
c. Current methods and new research

Note down your answer (a, b or c), and when you have done

Have you chosen your answer? Okay, let’s look at the three options, one by one.

Option a: How convective turbulence could be identified

At first sight, this option is attractive. The words ‘convective turbulence’ appear in the paragraph, as does the word ‘could’. Moreover, the paragraph does identify a new method for identifying convective turbulence. However, this is only in the second half of the paragraph, and you need to make sure that the heading summarises the whole paragraph. So this option is not correct.

Option b: A potentially dangerous phenomenon

The key word in this heading is ‘potentially’, which means that the danger does not exist now. But convective turbulence is not a potential danger — it is a current danger. This option is therefore not correct either.

Option c: Current methods and new research

You will not find any of the words in this heading in the paragraph, but this does not mean it is incorrect. Examine the two topics in the heading. Does the paragraph cover ‘current methods’? Yes, it talks about how pilots report turbulence to each other. Does the paragraph cover ‘new research’? Yes, it talks about ‘a series of experiments in Colorado’. Note that ‘a series of experiments’ means the same as ‘research’. Option c is therefore the correct answer because it summarises the whole paragraph accurately.

Learning points: IELTS Reading Tip: Matching Headings to Paragraphs

What can you learn from this single example? Here are three lessons.

  1. The heading is really a summary, and it needs to summarise the whole paragraph, not just a part of it.
  2. Look at every word in the heading. If even one of them does not accurately reflect the meaning of the paragraph, then this heading is probably wrong.
  3. Watch out for distractors. This question is a good example of how the examiner can try and mislead you by including words or phrases from the passage in the wrong heading; and missing them out entirely from the correct option.

I hope this example has shown you just how tricky some of these unfamiliar task types can be. The most important thing you can do in preparing for IELTS is to make sure you thoroughly understand the task types

  1. Do this question first. By doing this you will be able to get the general meaning of the text as a whole and this will help you with the rest of the question that requires you to take a more detailed look at the text.
  2. You are not expected to read every word of the text. This will take too long and you don’t have time for this. In this kind of question you are only expected to understand the main idea of each paragraph. A good way to do this is to read the first one or two sentences and the last sentence of the paragraphs. You can also briefly look at the rest of the paragraph but you don’t have to read every word.
  3. If there are words you don’t understand, don’t worry about this. Again, you should only worry about the general meaning of the paragraph as a whole, not individual words. Even native speakers will fail to understand every word in the IELTS reading test.
  4. Be aware of synonyms. Many students look for words that match exactly with words in the text and ignore synonyms. For example, a keyword in the heading might be ‘Beautiful’, however the word you’re looking for could be many different synonyms of ‘beautiful’ like ‘attractive’, ‘pretty’, ‘lovely’ or ‘stunning’.
  5. If there are two or three headings that are similar, write them beside the paragraph and try to find out the difference between the two headings. What are the keywords? How does this change the meaning? Which one matches the paragraph best?
  6. If you still can’t decide which one suits best, move on and come back to it later. The answer will normally be easier to find after you have matched some more headings.
  7. Ignore anything you already know about the topic. You are being tested on the text only.
  8. Don’t read too quickly. Some teachers advise that students should just ‘skim’ the text because you don’t have much time. In my experience, this leads to students not understanding most of the text and making mistakes. It is better to do this a little slower and actually understand what is in front of you.
  9. Don’t panic if you know nothing about the general topic of the reading text. The IELTS reading test is not a knowledge test and you are not expected to have prior knowledge of the topic.
  10. Don’t look at the headings first. This will automatically make you look for specific words in the text rather than the main idea. Remember it is your ability to find the main idea that is being tested, not your ability to find specific information. Instead of reading the headings first, ignore them and get the general meaning of each paragraph first by reading the first and last sentences.

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