Mastering IELTS Reading to reach the high upper bands

Mastering IELTS Reading to reach the high upper bands

Let's apply two main methods for the reading test, that will enable you to answer correctly because you know language, and can pair language together correctly.


  1. Using show not tell to expand your vocabulary
  2. Using context to understand the text
  3. Actionable take away's

The reading test heavily relies on your range of vocabulary. The reading test would be easier for example, if you were excellent at skimming and scanning a text. But, students don't get a band 9 solely on these skills. What does separate students from the middle bands to the upper bands, is vocabulary.

If you don't know the majority of the words in a sentence then the meaning will naturally be harder to understand. If there is only a word or two that you don't know, it won't hinder your understanding by much.

The simple rule is: The wider your vocabulary, the easier the text is to understand.

How do I improve my vocabulary?

The good thing is, is that the methods to improve one's language are easy to implement and easy to practice with. Apply them often and you will see a spike in your overall understanding and application of language.

Method 1: Show not tell

This method of Show not tell is something I used a lot when I worked as a secondary school teacher. Show not tell is a method where the writer doesn't say things exactly as they are, but alludes to them. Show not tell isn't a literal way of saying things, but a more coded, figurative way. Show not tell is also very similar to the skill of paraphrasing. As you practice this skill, you should be able to see how writing a similar version of a sentence to another, is a form of show not tell. You are having to replace language with alternative language and by doing so, are significantly expanding your vocabulary.


  • She was crying
  • Her eyes were incased in puffy sockets, and dried streaks covered her cheeks.

Here, we can understand that 'puffy sockets' could translate to tears because this tends to happen when we cry. We can also understand that streaks could be the imprint of fallen tears.

  • The sun was rising
  • An expanse of orange began to fill the sky, highlighting the hills and trees

It is about using language to your advantage and making well-informed estimations about what the language means or what it is trying to say. Show and tell should not be viewed as guess work. You are figuring out the meaning of language through a series of words and what they are collectively trying to say.

Method 2: Context

Let's use an IELTS example, the full text can be found here.

Context is about using what you do know and making sense from this. Use what surrounds the sentence to unpick meaning. Let's apply this here.


A   Open your eyes in sea water and it is difficult to see much more than a murky, bleary green colour. Sounds, too, are garbled and difficult to comprehend. Without specialised equipment humans would be lost in these deep sea habitats, so how do fish make it seem so easy?

  • murky, bleary- if you didn't know these two words, what can help is to look at what comes before with 'difficult to see'. This helps to understand the following words as we can contextually assume, that murky and bleary must mean unclear.
  • garbled- look at what follows with 'difficult to comprehend', so we can make out that garbled means something that is audibly difficult to understand and in this case we are under water, so this further makes sense.

B   Electroreception comes in two variants. While all animals (including humans) generate electric signals, because they are emitted by the nervous system, some animals have the ability – known as passive electroreception – to receive and decode electric signals generated by other animals in order to sense their location.

  • emitted- we only have to look at its neighbouring word 'generate' to assume that emitted means something similar in terms of producing or generating. You could even look at the preposition that follows it and further understand that if something is emitted, there is a direct response/outcome
  • passive- if we look at the word 'receive' occurring shortly after passive, then we can assume that if something is passive, it is happening to them, not because of them, such as receiving.  

Actionable take-away's

Try this strategies as soon as you can with your IELTS preparation!

  1. Read a practice text every day and identify words you don't know. Interpret what the paragraph is about between the not knowing.
  2. With the words you initially didn't know, write down the definition or a synonym of these words in your notebook
  3. In your notebook, write your own sentences with the words you didn't know. The sentence can be about anything but it should be short with the new word being accurately used in a sentence.
  4. Read a practice text and after each paragraph, explain to someone what it is about
  5. Practice skim reading where you make a note next to each paragraph, with what the main idea is
  6. Take a number of sentences from the text and re-write them using similar vocabulary but not the same
  7. Think of a series of literal sentences and rewrite this using show not tell- (prompts: she was angry, she shouted, the sun rising, two people saying goodbye to each other, someone's fear of the dark)