IELTS Reading Test

There are various challenges facing candidates who sit the IELTS reading test, including the time limit and identifying very subtle ideas. But the biggest difficulty is that it requires a quite extensive vocabulary and – more specifically – the ability to use synonyms.

In this article, I am going to explain why you need to know lots of synonyms, how to use them in the IELTS reading test, and how you can go about learning them.

Why are synonyms so important for IELTS reading?

First of all, knowing synonyms is quite useful for all aspects of the English language. If someone asked you, “How’s your mum doing?” it would be helpful to know that “mum” means the same as “mother.” If you know both words, you can readily connect them in your head and understand the question.

The same is true for IELTS reading, although of course it is more complicated here. You need a wide range of vocabulary so that you can understand the texts you are given to read, but more specifically you need to know what words are considered synonyms in order to answer the questions.

The reason for this is simply because the words given in the questions will not be the same as the words given in the text. Let’s say you are given a passage that is about boating. One short paragraph says:

  • In the nineteenth century, with the increasing value of goods being shipped around the world, governments began to take action against pirates. These criminals of the seas predated upon merchant marine vessels in order to steal their valuable cargo, and this became a very lucrative trade.

There are a lot of difficult words here that you probably would not need to know. After all, for IELTS reading, you only really need to understand the words that lead to the answers to questions. However, to do that, you need to understand the questions. Here is one example:

  • In the 1800s, there was a lot of money to be made robbing ships. True or false?

Here, we would need to have a good grasp of synonyms in order to find the right answer. Firstly, we would look for the date. Numbers can often guide us to the right part of a text, but we don’t always find them listed exactly as they are in the question. In this case, “1800s” is a synonym of “the nineteenth century,” so that directs us to this short paragraph. Next, we can see “robbing ships” is a synonym of “steal” and “vessels” and specifically the people who steal from ships are called “pirates.” Finally, “a lot of money” has the same meaning as “lucrative.”

By putting all of these ideas together, we can see that the answer is true. This would not be possible without the knowledge of synonyms because the question basically says the same thing as the text, except in different words.

How to use synonyms effectively in IELTS reading?

We have already seen an example of how to use synonyms to find an answer in IELTS reading. The process is a little more complicated, but it is something you can learn with a little practice.

First of all, when you read the questions, you should underline “keywords” or “content words.” These are words that give clues to an answer. They might involve names, numbers, or big ideas.

Here are some more TRUE/FALSE questions from that passage on sailing:

  • People figured out how to make boats only in specific places.
  • Boats have had little impact on the human world.
  • Humans no longer have an interest in new developments at sea.

In these sentences, I have underlined the keywords. As you can see, there are arguably many words. Some are easy, so for example I will only underline the first “people” because most of you know that it means “humans” already. Now we can look to the following paragraph, where the answers to these three questions are found:

  • Around the globe, sailing evolved on the seas and on lakes, on rivers and swamps. Humans from all regions quickly learned how to create objects that were waterproof and could stay afloat, could hold people and even cargo, and then learned to navigate them in extraordinarily clever ways. This astounding series of discoveries has shaped our world immensely, and new innovations continue to emerge as we put our minds to mastering the aquatic world.

We can begin to match up the keywords in the questions with phrases from the passage:

People Humans
Figured out Learned how to
Make boats Create objects that were waterproof and could stay afloat
Specific places From all regions*
Little impact Shaped our world immensely*
Human world Our world
No longer Continue to*
An interest Put our minds to
New developments New innovations
Sea Aquatic world

*Note that some of these are essentially antonyms, which means the opposite of synonym. However, these function in the same way. When you see “little impact” you can find “shaped our world immensely” and know that it is the exact opposite meaning, thereby finding that the answer is FALSE instead of TRUE. Likewise, if someone “no longer” does something, then they do not “continue to” do it.

Doing this is useful for scanning and close reading. These are two skills that can help you locate the correct answer within the reading passage, without wasting time studying every single word.

How can I learn synonyms?

Learning synonyms is not hugely difficult. There are different ways of doing it, with their own benefits and drawbacks. Perhaps the best way is to organically include it in your regular vocabulary studies. This means just learn vocabulary as normal but make an effort to draw connections between words with the same or a similar meaning.

Another way is to explicitly search for synonyms when you are learning vocabulary. For example, if you learned the word “cargo” (mentioned twice above), then you could find words like:

  • Consignment
  • Freight
  • Goods
  • Load
  • Shipment
  • Merchandise
  • Payload
  • Wares

This might work for some people, but you need to be aware that it is a potentially problematic way of studying because not all synonyms are interchangeable. In fact, most of them aren’t. They may require different grammar to use them or they may have very subtle differences in meaning. Thus, you still need to learn the individual use cases of each new word.

Still, it can be a good way of building up your vocabulary quite quickly and it could help you to locate words quickly and effectively for IELTS reading. Other methods include visually connecting the vocabulary on a chart or piece of paper or grouping them similarly in your notebook. Some apps may also help you to learn synonyms easily. As I mentioned, it is a personal choice and some things will work well for some but not for others.

The important thing is that, over time, you are able to connect words with the same or a similar meaning so that you can sit down to the IELTS exam and practice the techniques listed above, searching out words that are related to the ones in the question. This will give you the best possible chance of success in IELTS reading.

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