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Why you need to read more than exam texts

If you are preparing for an exam, it can be very tempting to only read practice materials. In fact, I have met many students who never read anything except IELTS reading tasks! To me, this is a very sad situation. True, I am a massive bookworm and use reading as my primary source of information, but I genuinely feel it is a huge loss to language learners if they do not read for pleasure. While exam preparation can feel a million miles away from pleasure, reading brings many advantages to your language development that definitely help with your exam preparation overall. In this post, I'm going to explain why I believe exam candidates should read more than just practice materials and share some ideas of reading material that will be beneficial to you. First, let's clarify some of the differences between exam reading and 'real' reading (i.e. any reading that isn't for an exam!).

Exam reading

Exam reading tests particular skills and is a very different experience to reading for pleasure. Things that you might be tested on in an exam include vocabulary (recognising synonyms and paraphrases) and reading subskills such as locating information, interpreting opinion and understanding text cohesion

'Real' reading

Most reading is not done in a silent exam room under strict time conditions! If this is your only experience of reading in English, you definitely need to read this blog post! Generally, we read for fun or pleasure and to obtain information. Real reading ranges from checking the football results to reading War and Peace or a Jane Austen novel.

Why exam candidates should read as much as possible

Extensive reading (reading a lot at a level that is easy for you) is one of the best ways to expand your language. You can learn many things from this kind of reading:

  • You can learn new words and phrases

  • You can observe grammar in authentic use (oh, that's how you use a mixed conditional!)

  • You can gain greater understanding of text layout and cohesion

  • You get access to other people's opinions which is great for discussing topics you have no personal experience with, a common problem in speaking and writing exams!

  • You can extend your real world knowledge and get information about topics you know little about. This is absolutely vital for the higher IELTS bands as well as FCE, CAE and CPE.

What to read

  • If you have enough time, I'd encourage you to try short, simple novels. There are novels on this list which are appropriate for learners at B1 and above.

  • If you don't feel confident in trying an authentic novel, graded readers make a great alternative. Available up to C1 level, graded readers are simplified versions of well-known stories and there are also readers that are factual rather than fiction. The wonderful thing about these is that they are written with the level in mind so you will be exposed to the right vocabulary and grammar for your level.

  • Blogs like this one are a fantastic way to learn about new or different topics. They are generally shorter and simpler than news articles and there are countless topics to choose from! They're a great way to extend your knowledge about subjects you are not familiar with.

  • News articles are a great source of reading material for more confident and advanced learners. They will expose you to different opinions and ways of thinking which is necessary for the higher exams. By all means read English language papers from different countries! I've had fun with students comparing a story about the same topic in Al-Jazeera, The Guardian and The China Daily!

How often should you read?

It would be great to read every day but if that's not possible, perhaps aim for three or four reading sessions per week. Make sure you will not be disturbed during this time. If reading feels like a chore or you have serious resistance to doing it, set a timer and read for a short while only. You can gradually increase the length as you become more confident.

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