How to answer multiple choice questions in the IELTS Reading exam


Alberto G. via Compfight

Make sure you’ve read the general strategies for answering the reading section. For multiple choice questions, the strategy is very similar: you preview your text, skim the passage and questions, then analyze the questions by identifying your key words to scan for in the passage that will lead you to your answer.

For multiple choice questions, it’s important to be aware of distractors. These are answers that look good and look like the right answer because they may have the right key words, but if you read carefully you’ll find that they are wrong.

Let’s look at an example. Here is the multiple choice reading test sample given by Try to answer the 3 questions in this reading sample. When you’re done, come back here  to my post and see how you did.  It’s a bit tricky, so read how I thought through my answers.

Here’s my approach:

1. Skim the passage – first sentences & last sentence

2. Skim the questions

3. Identify (underline) key words to target for scanning

4. Scan for the target words

5. Once you locate the target words, read carefully around the target word to find your answer.

6. Be wary (cautious) of distractors. Check that the meaning carefully.

Let’s look at the questions from this sample. Below I copied the questions & identified key words to search for, which I put in BOLD.

Question 10: Research completed in 1982 found that in the United States soil erosion

A reduced the productivity of farmland by 20 per cent.
B was almost as severe as in India and China.
C was causing significant damage to 20 per cent of farmland.
D could be reduced by converting cultivated land to meadow or forest.

Straight away I take note of 1982, which is easy to scan for since it’s a number and the United States,which is also easy to scan for since it’s a country name. So I scan for 1982 and find in the passage (1st paragraph):

The United States, where the most careful measurements have been done, discovered in 1982 that about one-fifth of its farmland was losing topsoil at a rate likely to diminish the soil’s productivity. The country subsequently embarked upon a program to convert 11 per cent of its cropped land to meadow or forest. Topsoil in India and China is vanishing much faster than in America.

Now we read carefully in choosing the right answer. I look closely at the sentence with 1982 and the United States. It says that “about one-fifth of its farm was losing topsoil at a rate likely to diminish the soil’s productivity.” I notice:

  •  “one-fifth” (1/5) is another way of expressing 20%. (You should be aware of how data is expressed differently, for example, one-fourth, 1/4, a quarter, 25% are all the same.)
  • diminish” is another word for “reduce“, which means to make smaller or less. “Reduce” is in answer A
  • productivity is a key word for answer A
  • **BUT – we need to be careful! Read answer A carefully – it states that productivity will be reduced by 20%. This is a percentage about reducing productivity. This is NOT THE SAME as 20% of its farmland was losing topsoil at a rate likely to diminish soil’s productivity. This percentage refers to the amount of land.
  • So we look at another answer with 20%, which would be C. Here, C states that soil erosion (which is another expression for “losing topsoil”) is causing significant damage to 20% of  farmland.
  • Therefore, the correct answer is C.


Question 11: By the mid-1980s, farmers in Denmark 

A used 50 per cent less fertiliser than Dutch farmers.
B used twice as much fertiliser as they had in 1960.
C applied fertiliser much more frequently than in 1960.
D more than doubled the amount of pesticide they used in just 3 years.

Straight away I scan for mid-1980s and Denmark. I find the following sentence in the 2nd paragraph:

Fertiliser use doubled in Denmark in the period 1960-1985 and increased in The Netherlands by 150 per cent. The quantity of pesticides applied has risen too: by 69 per cent in 1975-1984 in Denmark, for example, with a rise of 115 per cent in the frequency of application in the three years from 1981.

Now we read carefully in choosing the right answer. The sentence states that fertiliser  use  “doubled” , which also means  ” twice as much“. And the period was 1960 – 1985, or “from 1960 to 1985″. This means that fertiliser used in 1985 is twice as much as the amount used in 1960. Therefore, I look at my answers and choose B.

If you’re unsure and want to check over the others – here is why I didn’t choose them:

  • I didn’t choose A because fertiliser use doubled (which means increased 100%) in Denmark and 150% in The Netherlands (the Dutch). It only states how much they increased their use of fertilizer within that 25 year period, and doesn’t talk about a direct comparison of amounts the Danes and Dutch use.
  • I didn’t choose C because frequency is not addressed for fertilizer, only for pesticides. Frequency is how often something is used, and is different from the actual amount of something that is used.
  • I didn’t choose D because frequency is different from amount used.


Question 12: Which one of the following increased in New Zealand after 1984?

A farm incomes
B use of fertiliser
C over-stocking
D farm diversification

After quickly scanning for New Zealand and 1984, I find the following in the 3rd paragraph:

In the late 1980s and early 1990s some efforts were made to reduce farm subsidies. The most dramatic example was that of New Zealand, which scrapped most farm support in 1984. A study of the environmental effects, conducted in 1993, found that the end of fertiliser subsidies had been followed by a fall in fertiliser use (a fall compounded by the decline in world commodity prices, which cut farm incomes). The removal of subsidies also stopped land-clearing and over-stocking, which in the past had been the principal causes of erosion. Farms began to diversify.

We’re looking for something that increased, so reading through the following sentences, we can knock out:

  • answer B (“fall in fertiliser use”)
  • answer A (“decline in world commodity prices, which cut farm incomes”)
  • answer C (“…also stopped land-clearing and over-stocking”)

We see that “Farms began to diversify,” which indicates that it started and therefore increased. So, the answer is D.

Vocabulary Note: Diversify means to become diverse and varied. If you didn’t know the meaning, you could still answer this question if you know your suffixes. “Diversification” (from answer D) is the noun form of the verb “diversify”.


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!

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One comment on “How to answer multiple choice questions in the IELTS Reading exam
  1. love dhaliwal says:

    its really helpful

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