Black and grey lines to denote a paragraph sit on a red background. A row of question marks stand above to show how most students find it difficult to complete IELTS Heading Match Questions. Two small gremlins sit either side of the paragraph to symbolise the difficulty of the task

Hey. In this week’s blog, we are taking a detailed look at Headings Match Questions, and it’s a long one! In the first half, I’ll play detective 🕵️‍♀️ to prove why the common “method” people follow to answer these questions is the reason they are failing. Then, in the second half, I’ll put on my teacher’s hat 👩‍🏫to show you a way that DOES work, and TWO techniques that you can use to improve your performance. But first, let’s look at 

THE FACTS 🗂

  • you are given a list of possible heading for the paragraphs in the text – your job is to match one heading to each paragraph
  • you are always given EXTRA HEADINGS that you will NOT be able to use
  • the headings you are given DO NOT appear in the same order as the text (obviously!)
  • Headings Match questions are given BEFORE a text in the exam
  • you CANNOT SCAN to find the answers for Headings Match questions
  • Headings match questions test your ability to SUMMARISE INFORMATION
  • Headings match questions test your ability to LOCATE MAIN ARGUMENTS 

A COMMON MYTH BUSTED 💥

Many students find Headings Match Questions the most difficult task in the IELTS reading exam. And, I agree, they ARE difficult. However, one bad piece of advice is making it IMPOSSIBLE for test-takers to find the correct answers. MOST IELTS books and IELTS teachers tell students that the “way” to answer these questions is to

read the first and last lines of the paragraph, and then read the headings to find the answer

WRONG 👎

While it is true that SOME paragraphs will state the main topic in the first line, MANY WILL NOT. And, in some IELTS tests, almost NO headings can be matched by reading the first lines and last lines on their own. Now, let me be clear, looking in the first sentence for a heading IS a good exam skill. But ONLY looking in the first line and then moving directly to the last line IS NOT. In fact, I think the last line should be the LAST PLACE you look for an answer. Let me show you my proof for why I think this. 🕵️‍♀️

Evidence #1 🔍 In Cambridge IELTS 8, Test 1, Task 2 (Air Traffic Control in the USA), you are asked to match 7 paragraphs to headings. The information you need to successfully match the headings can be found in the following lines:

  1. Paragraph A: Line 1
  2. Paragraph B: Line 1 and last line
  3. Paragraph C: Lines 1 AND 2 (= the whole paragraph)
  4. Paragraph D: Lines 1 and 2
  5. Paragraph E: Line 3
  6. Paragraph F: Lines 2, 3, and 4 (NOT the last line)
  7. Paragraph G: Line 1

As you can see, in this test, using the “first and last line” rule would be fairly successful. However, clearly the FIRST line is the best place to look – five of the answers can be found here. Only ONE answer can be found in the last line, but as it was also mentioned in the first line, reading the last line wasn’t useful at all! 

Evidence #2 🔍 However, now let’s turn to the 2nd test in the same book. An analysis of Cambridge IELTS 8, Test 2, Passage 2 – The Little Ice Age shows us something very different. Here, there are 6 paragraphs:

  1. Paragraph A: Line 3
  2. Paragraph B: Line 4
  3. Paragraph C: Line 3
  4. Paragraph D: Line 1
  5. Paragraph E: Line 8 (NOT the last line!)
  6. Paragraph F: Line 4

As you can see, in this text, only ONE of the answers can be found in the first line, and NONE can be found in the last. If you only read the first and the last lines of these paragraphs, you would have NO CHANCE of finding the all correct answers. 😲

So, what does this tell us? Well, clearly the first line of a paragraph is a GREAT place to start searching for a heading. However, you should understand that you won’t always find the answer here. And, if you don’t, KEEP READING! Don’t jump to the last line – it is very likely you will be jumping over the correct answer. More “headings” are found in the beginning and middle of paragraphs than at the end.

Oh, and hands up who thinks that you can scan for a heading? ✋Wrong. (Sorry) Headings Match Questions test your ability to summarise a paragraph OR find the main idea inside of one. There is no way that you can “scan” for a main idea. You will need to read quickly but carefully.


A BETTER WAY 🌿

So, if we can now agree that the method given in most text books doesn’t help us find the answers, how can we solve Headings Match questions? Well, I suggest this method:

  1. Quickly skim the headings to get a general idea of what you are going to read. See if you can recognise any common heading summary words (we will study these in a moment) to help you predict the contents of the paragraphs
  2. Check to see if any of headings have been used in an example. If so, you should cross this answer out (you would be surprised by many test-takers forget to do this!).
  3. Read the first line of Paragraph A, and see if the idea inside it matches a heading. If it does. GREAT! 🚀You can stop reading, write the number of the heading next to the paragraph (e.g. iv) and move to Paragraph B.  (If the heading for paragraph A has been given as an example, still read through it quickly so that you have some context for the rest of the passage)
  4. However, if the first sentence does NOT match a heading, KEEP READING! 👓As you read, ask keep asking yourself “What is the main idea of this paragraph?” The answer to this question will help you find the heading. Every 2 or 3 sentences, look back at the headings to see if any “fit” the text. Focus on the summary words in the headings i.e. reasons / consequences / reaction (we will study these in a moment)
  5. If you finish reading the paragraph and CANNOT find the heading, then make a note of POSSIBLE answers.🗒 I personally find that it can be difficult to identify the heading of the first paragraph. However, once you have finished the whole text and have eliminated other options, it can be much easier to find when you come back later. Making a note of possible answers now will save you time in the future.
  6. Continue moving through the paragraphs. Remember to keep looking at the headings after the first sentence, and then every 2 or 3 sentences to help you focus on finding the answer.  Keep asking yourself: “Is this the most important detail in this paragraph?”
  7. Once you have matched all of the headings, it can be useful to quickly look at the headings YOU DIDN’T USE. These should be ideas that are NOT mentioned in the text, or ideas that are contained in the text but are NOT the main focus of a paragraph.
  8. Breathe out, smile, and move to the next set of questions! 🤩

HOW TO TRAIN 🏋️‍♀️

So, now we know how to answer Headings Match Questions, we should all be able to find the correct answers in every text, right? Wrong! Even if you use the correct technique, you will still need to train to be able to identify the headings quickly. And, by training I DON’T mean doing hundreds of past papers! I mean learning and practicing how to summarise & find main ideas.

To improve in Headings Match Questions, I recommend two practice activities. Note, these are NOT things that you should do on exam day –  they are activities that you should do while you prepare for the exam. Think of them as exercises to build your heading-skills muscles!

1. Predict what you expect to read

One great way of practicing for Headings Match questions is answering them backwards. Instead of reading a paragraph and then finding its heading, why don’t you read the headings and predict what the paragraph will contain.

For example, let’s imagine that you are going to read an IELTS passage with the title Understanding Human Personality. The first heading you are given is this:

i     different types of personality

What would you expect to read in this paragraph? Can you imagine the type of information that would be in a paragraph with this heading………?

Well, a paragraph with this heading might contain a list of personality types (extrovert or introvert, sensitive or intuitive). Or, it might compare two different people to show how they react differently in the same situation.” What about the next heading ………?

ii    how our life can reinforce our personalities

Mmmm. Reinforce, that’s an interesting word. It means make stronger. Maybe I will read about how our choices can make our personalities more fixed. So, if I am an extrovert, I am likely to go to parties and meet people, and this will make me even more of an extrovert.” And the third heading……….?

iii   potentially harmful effects of personality tests

OK. Harmful means damaging. Maybe personalities tests can be wrong and make people think the wrong things about themselves. Or, what if an employer uses these tests and somehow misses the right candidate. Or maybe they can be used to over-generalise about people.”

If you do this for every heading BEFORE you start reading, you will be surprised how many times your predictions are confirmed. Try doing this with 2 or 3 texts.  The aim of the practice is to help you see that headings really do summarise main ideas. Plus, if you can quickly predict the likely content of a paragraph, it will be easier to find matching information in the passage. 👏

2. Summarise Paragraphs Yourself (YOU are the examiner! 👨‍🏫 )

As I said earlier, Headings Match Questions test your ability to summarise information. So, when the IELTS test-writer created your exam, they sat down with a cup of tea, read each paragraph and thought “How can I summarise this in one short heading?”Now, test creation is much more complicated than this(trust me, I’ve been doing it for over a decade and I still find it hard), BUT in general, this is what examiners do – they read paragraphs and think: 
How can I summarise this into one short phrase? What is the main idea here?

If you want to find headings, then you should try asking yourself the same questions!

To practice, I recommend that you:

  1. Find an IELTS reading exam that contains a passage with a Headings Match question
  2. DO NOT look at the headings
  3. Read each paragraph carefully and ask yourself ‘How would I summarise this in ONE phrase?Think carefully about what the most important idea in the paragraph is. Is it in the first line? Is it somewhere in the middle? Does the WHOLE paragraph discuss one main point? Use the answers to these questions to help you write YOUR heading
  4. Write down your summary, continue to the next paragraph and repeat until you finish the passage
  5. When you have finished, compare your headings to the IELTS headings:

Are they the same? Great! 👍 You just found the answer!

Are they different? Great! 👍 Now you can use this to learn where you are going wrong! WHY are they different? What information did you miss? Did you focus on the supporting information and not the main ideas? Was the vocabulary in the passage too difficult for you to summarise? Understanding why your summary is different can help you understand how the questions work.

Do you DIASGREE with the IELTS heading? Great! 👍 This means you are thinking deeply and can now see the difference between your logic and the examiner’s logic. This will help you think more like an examiner.

The great thing about this exercise is that you can start to build an understanding of where you are going wrong. Reading is a deeply personal skill, and often the only way to improve is to locate the reading skills you lack and improve them. 


So, those are IELTS Headings Match Questions. In this short lesson, we learned that:

  • you find answer by locating the main idea or summary of a paragraph
  • answers are more likely to be found at the beginning or middle of a text than the end
  • never scan to find the answers
  • you need to be able to recognise common heading summary words
  • train by trying to locate the main idea in every paragraph of every passage you read

And, like anything, the key to improving is practise. So, start learning how to summarise today. Good luck! 🚀


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