How to answer diagram label completion questions for the IELTS Reading Test

Dung Beetle Sculpture

e_monk via Compfight

One type of question that you might get on the IELTS Reading test is completing labels for a diagram. This tests how well you can follow a detailed description of a process or features/traits of something. You have to use words and phrases directly from the text to fill in the blanks of the diagram.

Some technical rules to remember:

  • You are given specific instructions on how  many words are allowed to use (ie. “No more than two words”). If you write more than the specified number of words, it will be marked wrong.
  • You may be given a set of possible words to choose from. Remember to write the words you choose exactly as they are given.
  • Spelling counts
  • Hyphenated words count as one word

Here’s your strategy:

  1. Make sure you’re clear about how many words are allowed or if there is a selection of words you can choose from.
  2. Look over the diagram and try to get the main idea of what it is showing. Underline/circle key words or labels that you will scan for in the passage.
  3. Scan for those words to locate where in the passage you will find the description for this diagram.
  4. Once you find the paragraph/area in the passage, you will read more intensely and carefully making sure you have found the exact words/phrases. You can try to do it in order, but you can also choose to do the easiest label – that is, the one with a key word you’ve scanned and can easily find in the passage.
  5. If you aren’t given possible answers to choose from, also think of the type of words that would fill in the blank, ie. verbs, nouns, proper nouns, etc. as you read carefully and search for the answers.

Here’s a sample passage and diagram questions from the Sample Reading Test from I’ll explain how I approach these diagram completion questions.

dung beetle diagram - 1


As you can see, the pink circles show the key words that I target for scanning. Straight away I start with the numbers on the left side because numbers are the easiest and quickest to scan for. And straight away, I find numbers in the second paragraph, which I’ll underline in yellow. This is where I’ll start to read more intensely to find the missing labels:

dung beetle diagram-2


Since I saw “30 cm below the dung pat” first when I scanned the text, I’ll read that more intensely since it correlates to question #7 on the diagram (the lowest tunnel that’s closest to the 30 mark on the diagram). As I also know from skimming the question that my possible answers in the box are names of country origin for these dung beetles, I keep that in mind too as I read. See what I’ve underlined here:

dung beetle diagram-3

I’ve circled “France” and then look at the box of choices given under the diagram and I see “French” is a choice. Therefore, my answer for Question 7 is “FRENCH”.

Now I move to where I scanned “20 cm”, which correlates to Question 6, and has the tunnels closest to the 20 mark. Reading intensely, here is what I find:

dung beetle diagram-4


I can see that South African is an option. I also notice that South African ball roller is also a choice, so I read the next sentence just to be sure. This sentence that follows talks about species that are shaped into balls, but they are attached to the bases of plants, so I’m confident the answer for Question 6 is “SOUTH AFRICAN“.

And finally, I look for an answer to Question 8. I don’t see “10 cm” mentioned anywhere in that paragraph, but I can guess it is one that is the shortest or shallowest or closest to the surface or something similar to that. I read carefully and here is what I find:

dung beetle diagram- 5

As you can see here, “the shallowest” is used, so vocabulary is important here – you need to know or be able to guess (based in context) that “shallow” means not very deep and therefore closest to the surface, which is a safe guess for tunnels of 10 cm below the surface. If I wasn’t sure of  the meaning for “shallowest”, I would look at the choices I have left in the answer box. There is no mention of Mediterranean or Australian Native . We’ve already seen where South African ball rollers are, so therefore I can confidently choose” SPANISH” for Question 8.

NOTE – To read and answer as efficiently as possible:

  • As you can see I didn’t answer the questions in order. I attacked the easiest one first, which was Question 7 which was straightforward in stating dung beetles from France burrow tunnels to 30 cm. Then I worked my way to the hardest.
  • For this set of questions, I didn’t read the other paragraphs in the passage – I only focused on the 3 – 4 sentences that had the key words I needed from the diagram.

I'm an English teacher specializing in IELTS preparation - especially writing and reading. If you have any questions, please ask! You can also sign up for weekly tips and lessons for IELTS and English!

Posted in IELTS Reading, Reading, Resources Tagged with: , , ,
One comment on “How to answer diagram label completion questions for the IELTS Reading Test
  1. shain says:

    wow lovely strategy.

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