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IELTS reading - Matching Headings and Evil Tricks!


Why do students find this difficult?

Well, let’s face it. The main reason is that these questions may involve more reading and analyzing than some of the other IELTS question types. This can be a problem for students who are struggling with vocabulary.

Are IELTS reading and listening questions truly EVIL???

Yes and No. It depends how you look it. Some people might call the questions tough but fair. Other people might call them tricky, devious, misleading, and therefore: YES! EVIL

Now, imagine that they ARE Evil.

What can you do - give up?

No. That’s not an option, so: What’s the BEST way to fight Evil?

Any superhero will tell you that the best way to fight Evil is by getting to know Evil. If you know how your enemy works and thinks, you can keep one step ahead of them, know when, where and how to take action, and how to avoid their deadly traps.



Before we look at how MATCHING HEADINGS questions can be evil, let’s review the basics:

In a MATCHING HEADINGS question, you have to choose the best HEADING for a paragraph, or in other words, the heading which is closest to the MAIN IDEA of the PARAGRAPH.

Most books or typical curses will give you the following strategy, which is pretty good:

  1. Look very briefly at the headings (I personally think it is better NOT to look at the headings first)

  2. Skim the paragraph quickly (focus on the first and last sentences)

  3. Try to identify the main idea

  4. Choose the proper heading

However, this is not enough to really help people with these types of questions.

Why? Because of the following EVIL TRICKS



Imagine that the IELTS test maker is your enemy and MATCHING HEADINGS questions are one of his or her weapons to use against you.

Now, let’s get inside the head of the IELTS question maker. This person knows it is necessary to make sure that the questions on his or her exam are difficult and tricky enough to fool a lot of students.


EVIL TRICK # 1 (well, this one is not so evil)

The IELTS test makers like to mix it up. They will mix easy questions with more difficult ones. In fact, out of the 40 questions on a full reading exam, there are usually 10 easy questions, and 10 really difficult questions. Sometimes one whole section may be either quite easy or really tough. In a matching headings section, there may be 1 or 2 easy questions.

EASY Matching Heading Questions

An easy matching headings question is one where the main idea can be easily seen in the first sentence of the paragraph and is very similar to one of the headings as in this example:

Antarctic penguins have a number of survival adaptations allow them to swim through water as cold as -2 degrees Celsius. In order to stay warm in these temperatures, penguins have to keep moving. Though penguins don't fly in the air, they are often said to fly through water. Instead of stopping each time they come up for air, they use a technique called "porpoising," in which they leap up for a quick breath while swiftly moving forward: Unlike most birds that have hollow bones for flight, penguins have evolved hard solid bones that keep them low in the water. Antarctic penguins also have unique feathers that work similarly to a waterproof diving suit.

LIST of HEADINGS. Choose the best one.

  1. Antarctic Penguins have adapted to be able to swim in very cold water.

  2. Antarctic Penguins enjoy swimming in cold water

  3. Antarctic Penguins are said to fly through the water

In this case, it is quite easy to see that the answer must be a). In this case, the main idea of the paragraph is stated clearly at the beginning of the paragraph. Notice that the word ADAPTATIONS is used in the paragraph, while the verb HAVE ADAPTED is used in the question. This is a kind of paraphrase, but in fact, quite easy.

How to deal with it:

Try to get good at spotting easy questions. Know what kind of questions you are good at and do those ones first. If you get stuck on a difficult question, move on to the next one. Remember that the easy questions are worth 1 mark, just like the difficult ones.

In Matching heading questions, try to figure out if the first sentence gives the main idea of the paragraph or not. Then try to find a heading that matches as closely as possible.

Study Skill

When doing practice exams or questions at home, try to be aware of which questions are more difficult than others for you. Try to use this knowledge when doing the real exam.


EVIL TRICK #2 - Hidden Answers

Ielts test makers will HIDE the main idea. Ielts test makers know that most students will look at the first sentence and may not continue reading. Therefore, they may put the main idea in the second, the third the last or ANY sentence.

Here is a simple example:

Along with technical details and musical ability, stage fright is one of the most common problems for musicians who play live concerts. Avoiding stage fright is a not an easy task. Many musicians do their best to find ways to avoid stage fright. However, a series of experiments that has just finished in Colorado could eliminate some of the guesswork, by enabling musicians to pick up signs of the most common kind of stage fright, and deal with it effectively.

LIST of HEADINGS. Choose the best one.

  1. Stage fright is a common problem for musicians

  2. How to avoid stage fright

  3. Research may provide the answer

Here, the correct answer is 3).

  1. looks ok at first but the heading is the topic of the paragraph, not the main idea.

  2. looks better than a) but the paragraph does not outline the ways to avoid stage fright.

  3. is correct because the main point of this paragraph is the research (experiments) which are helping musicians to deal with stage fright.

How to fight it

  1. Before choosing any answer, make sure that the meaning of that heading deals with the MAIN IDEA of the paragraph

  2. Remember that the answer could be in ANY sentence (scanning), so don't stop after the first sentence.

  3. Remember also that none of the key words of the Heading may appear in the paragraph. In this case, you need to get a general overview of the main idea of the paragraph (skimming)

Study Skill

After you do a Matching Headings exercise for practice, make sure to go back and review all the answers you got wrong. Try to identify the reason you did not get the right answers. This will help you to get used to the IELTS test makers evil tricks and to recognize them the day you do the real exam.


EVIL TRICK # 3 - Synonyms and Paraphrase.

As you know, synonyms are words that have the same or similar meanings.

For example, the verbs start, begin, commence and initialize are all synonyms. In different contexts, there are even more: such as inaugurate, launch, pioneer and establish

Paraphrases are two phrases or sentences with similar meanings. For example, the following sentences are all paraphrases:

  • The main cause of death in the USA in 1997 was heart disease.

  • In 1997, more people in the USA died of cardiovascular disease than anything else.

  • Heart disease topped the list as the number one cause of fatalities in the USA in 1997

Now, IELTS exam makers try to test your knowledge of vocabulary by using synonyms or paraphrase to make you choose the wrong answer. This is very common in all kinds of IELTS reading questions.

Let’s see how this can work in MATCHING HEADING questions:

Read this paragraph and choose the correct heading:

The volcano plays an important role in the social lives of the tribe too, being an basic foundation of traditions and rituals. Most of the tribe’s folklore revolves around the mountains and the volcano. There is hardly any tale or song which does not mention the traditional climbers, the journeys of enterprising ‘heroes’, the adventures of mountain climbing and encounters with mythical creatures such as the Yeti. Songs that women sing describe the mountains, and request the winds to be gentler and the volcano not to erupt. There are stories of a benevolent mountain spirit whose coming to the valley is considered a harbinger of prosperity for that year, bringing more harvest and game from the hunt.

LIST of HEADINGS. Choose the best one.

  1. The social nature of mountain people

  2. The heroes of the mountain people

  3. Tribe legends

  4. The importance of the danger of the volcano

OK, this time I am going to leave YOU with the question. What do you think the answer is?

I will tell you one thing. The answer is NOT 4. IELTS test makers will make one of the answers look very attractive by placing many similar words in it to the first sentence in the paragraph. This is how they will try trick you.

How to fight it

Avoid questions which look too similar to the first sentence of the paragraph. However, also remember that it might be an easy question. You never know with these tricky test makers!

Study skill

Get to know and recognize synonyms and paraphrase. The best place to do this is by reviewing IELTS reading exams that you have already competed or to do it every time you complete a practice test.

So, ok, which is the correct answer: 1, 2 or 3??

Put your idea in the comment box below:

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