A black background is covered with question marks and red false, yellow Not Given and blue True words. The picture symbolise the difficulty of T/F/NG questions and the necessity for high-level reading skills

We learned A LOT ​in my first post about True / False / Not Give questions. We learned how to identify keywords (even in difficult passages); what the difference between true, false, and not given REALLY is; and how important it is to go back to the beginning of a sentence (or even a paragraph) when you are reading in detail for the answer. ​But, here’s the thing, even after learning these skills and practicing them for hours, many students still find that they have problems answering T/F/NG questions, and they don’t know WHY. And so, they reach a road block and get stuck 🚧🚧🚧. I mean, if you don’t know the REASON for your problem, how are you ever going to fix it? 🛠 So, in today’s blog, I want to look at 6 different reading skills that True / False / Not Given questions test (Yes, SIX!), so you can find out which ones you might have problems with.


​Reading Skill 1: ability to identify controlling words

Every newly-qualified teacher LOVES telling their students about controlling words. Seriously, I remember standing at the front of my first EAP class, and proudly explaining that these are words you HAVE TO check for in T/F/NG sentences. I think I even remember saying:

Controlling words are the magic words that will help you answer every T/F/NG question! 🧙‍♂️

👉 ​Now, this is NOT true, but I was young and inexperienced, so I can be forgiven! 👈

So, what are controlling words and why do so many teachers like them? Well, they are words that qualify the statement some way and are easy to check (or as I say “test”) For example, if you had a T/F/NG sentence that said:

 All students find True /False / Not Given questions difficult.

The word you would read carefully to check would be All. That’s because it is very easy to verify or disprove a statement that says ALL – you simply need to find ONE example of a student who finds them True /False /Not Given easy and you can say FALSE! So, if the text said:

The majority of IELTS test-takers find True / False / Not Given items hard to answer.

Well, the answer would clearly be false because the majority is definitely not ALL! Other examples of controlling words that are simple to verify are:

Controlling WordExample
Adverbs of quantityall / every / none / some / a few / many
Adverbs of frequencyalways / never / sometimes / occasionally
Adverbs that mean “one and no more”purely / solely / only / unique
Ordinal numbersfirst / last / second / third / etc
Time-order adjectivesnewest / latest / most recent

​But, the problem with this type of question is that all test-writers know how simple these items are to answer! Therefore, it is very unlikely that you will have a question that contains a controlling word in the exam. Now, I’m not saying that this type of question NEVER appear:

👉 ​IELTS never uses controlling idea questions in the exam = FALSE! 👈

I’m saying that they RARELY appear, so if you get a question that centres on one of these words in the exam, then be thankful! It is like a gift from heaven because these answers are EASY TO VERIFY. 🎁


​Reading Skill 2: knowledge of specific vocabulary items

Another way that test-writers T/F/NG questions is to test your knowledge of A SPECIFIC WORD in the text. Do you remember this question from my first True / False / Not Given post?

  1. The effects of genetic and environmental factors can be distinguished with ease

……..because genes and environment are not independent. The influence each other greatly, and their effects can almost never be disentangled

Clearly here, the test-writer wanted to target the word disentangled to see if it was part of the test- taker’s vocabulary. I always feel that questions like this are a lottery for students – if you know the meaning of the word, then the item is simple. But if you DON’T know it, then finding the answer can be almost impossible

(Hands up if you know what the meaning of disentangled? ✋ It means to easily separate two or more items that have become mixed together – like when your headphones have been in your pocket all day and end up in a knot)

In my experience, there are often only one or two questions like this in each IELTS test, and they are used to separate the 8.0 students from the 9.0. If you are a student who is scoring 37 or 38 each test, but can’t seem to go higher – see if this is the type of question that you are getting wrong (at you level, you should be keeping a diary of the questions you get wrong to try to find a pattern).

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If you don’t know a word in the exam that is a key part of the answer, you need to learn how to guess the meaning of unfamiliar words from context (it’s quicker than memorising the whole dictionary! 📕) To do this, you should

  1. identify which part of speech it is (a noun, or verb, or adjective, etc)
  2. look at how the word is formed (does it have a prefix you recognise like un-)
  3. look at the context the word is in (read the words around unknown word to help guess its meaning)

​Reading Skill 3: understanding paraphrasing

Recognising paraphrasing is a key skill for True /False / Not Given questions. Think about it! How does the test-writer make the item difficult to answer – they try to “hide” keywords in the passage by using synonyms or paraphrasing. Again, we saw an example of the last True / False / Not Given blog. Remember this test item?

3. A desire to identify causes as either genetic or environmental may make it difficult to solve certain problems. = TRUE

In summary, the nature/nurture debate is outdated. We now realise that the either/or choice is too simple, and continuing to think in that way will restrict our understanding of humans and limit our ability to address the complex issues we face today.

Look at the underlines phrases that led us to the answer! This is a clear example of a question uses almost WORD FOR WORD PARAPHRASING. To answer correctly, you have to know that 1) make it difficult = limit our ability​, 2) solve = address, and 3) problems = issues we face.

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One trick to finding paraphrasing is to focus on the MEANING OF THE WHOLE STATEMENT rather than on individual words. English is a rich language that is full of synonyms. Try not to verify a statement ONE word at a time, focus instead on checking the ENTIRE meaning of the sentence. This can be a great time saver!


Reading Skill 4: following an argument / description

Being able to follow an argument is a key reading skill that often gets ignored by IELTS test-books (but NOT the examiners!). If you have ever started reading an IELTS text and after a few sentences thought “I’m lost”, well this could be the problem area you are struggling with!

One common mistake a lot of students make is wrongly believing that True /False /Not Given answers will be found inside ONE sentence. This is not always the case. In fact, as the texts become longer, it is common for the answer to be “spread” over a number of sentences. As a result, finding the answer requires you to follow an argument or detailed description throughout the passage.

Again, a question in the Nature/Nurture: An Artificial Division text targets this skill (can you see now why I chose it!) Look how each sentence builds on the one before to give you the correct answer.

4. The claim that human beings need to live in groups is supported by the behaviour of newborn babies. = TRUE

Humans are also social creatures. We seek people to live with, and, in general, do not like to be alone for long periods. Newborn babies respond favourably with lower heart rate and respiration rates to having people nearby.

This is a relatively simple example of following an argument, but I hope that you can see that not all T/F/NG questions can be answered using one sentence from the text. This is one big danger of scanning – it’s easy to fly past part of the answer in the hunt for keywords, which is why GOING TO THE BEGINNING OF A SENTENCE OR PARAGRAPH IS IMPORTANT!

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If you are struggling to find an answer, go back two or three sentences and start reading from there. It might be that a key piece of information came a long way BEFORE the key word in the passage – especially if you are reading a description or explanation.


​Reading Skill 5: understanding referencing

Another reason why test-takers can find following an argument difficult is that the argument might not only be spread over a number of paragraphs, but it might also contain REFERENCING! Being able to understand and use referencing words is a key IELTS skill. It is one of the main criteria for Coherence and Cohesion in the writing exam, and is used a lot in the reading paper to help “hide” answers in a passage.

If you don’t know what referencing it, very simply it is using replacing nouns in a sentence with pronouns or determiners. We do this to AVOID REPEATING WORDS. You probably referenced as Elementary-level students when you wrote sentences like this:

My sister is 6. She is funny.


Here ‘She’ is a referencing word because it replaces ‘My sister’. Obviously, this is a simple example, but most referencing is once you are aware of it. In IELTS reading, the referencing words you want to look out for are:

 👉 THIS (singular) and THESE (plural) 👈

​These two words are very powerful because they can be used to refer back to WHOLE SENTENCES / IDEAS / PARAGRAPHS. If the test-writers had wanted to make the newborn baby question even more difficult, they could have rewritten the passage like this:

4. The claim that human beings need to live in groups is supported by the behaviour of newborn babies. = TRUE

New born babies respond favourably to having people nearby, with lower heart and respiration rated. In fact, many studies have shown that extended periods of isolation can damage the development of a child. This shows that man is a social creature.

​Now, you have to understand that ‘This’ refers back to an ENTIRE SENTENCE. Plus, to make matters even more difficult, it isn’t even the previous sentence, but the ONE BEFORE LAST! For many test-takers, understanding referencing across sentences (or even paragraphs) can be very difficult.

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If you struggle with referencing, then you have to practise! I have a whole video about THIS in my Essay Writing course! (Lesson 22) 😁


​Reading Skill 6: identifying opinions and attitudes

So far in this lesson, I have focussed on True /False / Not Given questions. However, don’t forget that not every set of questions will ask you to check facts, some will ask you to check opinions. Here, we have to see if the statement MATCHES THE AUTHOR’S ATTITUDE. A very simple way to understand the difference between True / False / Not Given, and Yes / No /NG is to think of these sentences:

  • Paris is the capital of France 🇫🇷 = Fact = would be checked in True /False / Not Given
  • I love Paris ❤ = Opinion = would be checked in Yes / No / Not GivenThe major difference is that NOBODY CAN DISAGREE with the first statement (it’s a fact), but some people might have a totally different opinion about Paris (maybe they went for a holiday and it rained every day so you HATE it! ☔)

🗝 The key thing to remember in Yes/No/NG is that were are NOT being asked if WE agree with the writer’s opinions – we are being asked if the statement matches the WRITER’s opinions! 🗝

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I think of Yes / No / NG questions as a way of checking that you have understood a person correctly. Imagine that you and your friend listen to a lecture, and then afterwards sit down and discuss what the lecturer believed about a topic. You could ask your friend the following questions:

  • Does the lecturer have this attitude towards X? Yes! Don’t you remember, he said that he thinks ….
  • Does the lecturer have this opinion about Y? No! Don’t you remember, he believes that ….
  • Does the lecturer believe Z? I don’t know, he didn’t tell us what he thinks! NG!

So, as you can see, there are many reasons why students find T/F/NG questions difficult, but very rarely is it because of poor technique. It’s much more likely that they are missing one of the six skills that described above. Which one of the skills I described about do YOU find the most difficult? Tell me in the comments below 👇👇👇👇👇. I find that True / False / Not Give questions definitely become easier with practice, so keep studying hard! Good luck 🚀

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