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One type of question that test takers often find tricky in the IELTS test is matching headings in the Reading test.

This question type requires you to match the heading in the question to the correct paragraph or reading section in the text. There will always be more headings than paragraphs or sections so that some headings will not be used. It is also possible that some of the text may not be included in the task. This task type is used with texts that contain paragraphs that have clearly defined themes. It tests your ability to recognise the main idea in the paragraph and to identify supporting ideas.

The question type can be tricky because of the following reasons:

  • It takes a little more time than other questions to complete.

  • Often, there are more headings than paragraphs.

  • Some paragraphs don't need headings.

  • There are some similarities between headings.

  • Headings that only include specific details rather than the main idea may mislead you.

  • Some headings have the same words that are in a paragraph but don't match.

How you approach this question type is personal, so you should choose the strategy that suits you best. We outline two strategies to help you match headings more successfully.

Strategy #1: Read the question first

1. First, read each heading

Try to completely understand the meaning of each heading by reading all of them thoroughly. Understanding the main idea of the heading can be made easier by paraphrasing.

2. Circle keywords within the headings

Underline or circle keywords in each heading such as names, places, dates, and nouns, once you have read them fully. Connecting the correct heading to the appropriate paragraph may become easier with this step.

3. Any similarities or differences between the headings should be noted

In this type of question, headings are often very similar or completely opposite. Similarities and differences will become clearer among the headings, once you have picked out keywords. This will make choosing an option clearer.

4. Read the first and last sentence of the paragraph

The first and/or last sentence of a paragraph often contains the main idea. It is good practice to read these sentences carefully as it will save time. It is also important to skim the other sentences quickly within the paragraph because the main idea might not be apparent until the second or third sentence.

5. The heading that is most suitable for the paragraph should be chosen

Choose the heading that most closely matches the paragraph once you have read through them again. Make a note if you are unsure of the difference between multiple headings, and move on. You may be able to cross some heading options out and answers may become clearer once you’ve read all of the paragraphs. Remember, a heading is the main idea of the paragraph, NOT a specific detail. The same detail in the paragraph such as a matching word may be in the heading, but it may not be the main idea. This can be confusing to test takers.

Strategy #2: Read the text first

Some test takers prefer to skim through the text reading each paragraph quickly to get the general gist of what the text is about and what the main idea of each paragraph is. However, be very careful with timing. Remember you only have 20 minutes per Reading part, so you don't want to spend the full 20 minutes on one question type.

1. Read one paragraph at a time

Again, spend more time on the first and last sentences of a paragraph, trying to identify the main idea.

2. Create your own heading

As soon as you have skimmed through the paragraph, think of your own heading or short sentence that summarises what you have read. Your heading should encompass the main idea and not just specific details.

3. Read each individual heading

For a complete understanding of the meaning, read the headings thoroughly. This time, try to choose a heading that is closely related to the heading that you made up for the same paragraph. Again, make note of multiple options that may fit the paragraph and move on. As you read more paragraphs you may be able to eliminate options. Mark keywords that note similarities and differences as this will aid in eliminating headings with similar meanings.

General tips

Be as efficient with your time as possible when choosing the correct heading for both strategies as this can be very time-consuming. Make a note of all answers and move on to the next paragraph if you are unsure of the difference between two or more headings.

Eliminating possible answers as you read further into the passage may be an option. Crossing out the heading on the test booklet once you are sure you have the correct heading for the paragraph or have eliminated an option is good practice. This results in less time spent on repeatedly reading the same heading.

Finally, skimming is an essential skill for time-consuming question types such as matching headings. This skill will also provide you more time to do the other questions within the reading section.

What you are most comfortable with as well as how much time you have to spend on the question will help you find the best strategy when tackling matching heading questions. This will also become more apparent through practice.