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IELTS Reading: Matching Headings Questions

Updated: May 3

We’re going to look at ‘matching headings’ questions. They can be some of the most challenging of the IELTS Reading test.

The aim of this type of question is,

to test if you are able to understand the main idea of each paragraph.

There are two possible strategies for answering matching heading questions:

1) Read the text first, then headings.

2) Read headings first, then text.


Some teachers will tell you to always read the text before you look at the headings while others say you should definitely read the headings first.

Personally, I think the first strategy is the easiest. However, my advice is to try both when you’re practicing to see which one works best for you. Different people process information in different ways so one method may suit you better than the other.

Either way, if a matching headings question does come up for one of the texts in your test, do it first. By doing so, you’ll already understand the main ideas of the text by the time you get to the other questions. This will save you a lot of time.

Before we look at the two strategies in detail, I want to quickly highlight the main problems students encounter with these types of questions and also give you some key tips.

Key problems:

  • There are more headings than paragraphs – this makes it harder to narrow down the correct ones.

  • Some headings will be very similar in meaning.

  • It’s easy to confuse specific details in a paragraph with the main idea – they may be different.

  • Synonyms and paraphrasing will often be used.

  • It’s easy to spend too much time on this type of question.

Key tips:

  • Cross out each heading in the test booklet as you match it to a paragraph. This will eliminate it from further consideration as you move on to other paragraphs.

  • Work through the paragraphs in order but move on if you’re struggling to find the heading match. Come back to it once you've eliminated more headings and have fewer to choose between.

So, let’s look at the two strategies in detail.


Strategy 1 – Read Text First, Then Headings

Follow these steps.


1) Read the instructions

You must understand what you have to do. Here’s an example of how the instructions will be set out. It’s taken from a real IELTS Reading paper.

In the middle of the instructions are the headings but remember, for this first strategy don’t read them yet.

There will sometimes be a sample answer for illustration. In this case, it’s the answer to Section E. Knowing this answer means that you can immediately cross out ‘heading vi’ in the list of headings and eliminate it from further consideration.



2) Read the first paragraph

Your aim is to identify the main idea. Focus on the first one or two sentences and the last sentence as these will usually introduce and summarise this main idea. Skim read the rest of the text. You do not need to know the detail for this type of question.

Note that occasionally a section will contain more than one paragraph. In this case, you’ll need to find the main idea in each paragraph.

3) Summarise the main idea

Briefly sum up the main idea of the paragraph in your own words as if you were writing your own heading. Do it in just a few words or a short phrase at the most. Write this beside it.

4) Read the headings

Now it’s time to read the list of headings. As you do so, try to match your summary of the first paragraph to one of the headings. Make sure that you read them all carefully and don’t just select the first one that seems to match as there maybe two that are very similar in meaning.

Look out for key words as clues but also synonyms as these are very likely to be used.

Let’s practice the steps so far.

Here’s the first Section (paragraph) of our sample text. If you haven’t already read the instructions, scroll back up and do so, but don’t read the headings yet.

Then work through steps 2-4 and see if you can identify the correct heading. I’ve underlined the first and last sentences to highlight them for you.



This heading is quite easy to match as the main idea is made clear in the very first sentence, often called the topic sentence.

The answer is:

v. Governments and management of the environment


5) Repeat for all sections

Repeat these steps for each section of the text.

If you get stuck on a particular paragraph, move on and come back to it when you’ve matched more heading and crossed them off the list. It will be easier to find the one you’re struggling with when there are fewer headings to choose from

6) Similar headings

Where you have two very similar headings and can’t decide which is the right one, write them out one under the other to help you focus on the difference between them.

7) Eliminate used headings

Once you have matched a heading, cross through it in pencil to eliminate it from further consideration.


Strategy 2 – Read Headings First, Then Text

Follow these steps.

1) Read the headings

First, read the full instructions, including the headings, then focus on the headings.

Read each carefully and try to understand what it means. Remember, each will summarise the main idea of the paragraph it matches.

Also, remember that there will be more headings than paragraphs so you won’t need them all.

2) Underline key words

If a heading contains names, numbers, dates or place names, underline these to identify them as key words that should be easy to spot in the text. Or there may be a key noun that stands out. It could occur in more than one heading.

Doing this will help you to match the information in the text and headings as you read each paragraph.

Here are the instructions of our sample text for Strategy 2. Again, it’s taken from a real IELTS Reading paper.

Have a go at these first two steps.




3) Identify similar titles

There will often be two headings with a similar meaning which can make it difficult to decide which one is the correct match.

If you do spot two similar headings, make a note of this. It will remind you to look at them both closely when you think one of them is the match.


4) Read the first paragraph

Your aim is to identify the main idea. Focus on the first one or two sentences and the last sentence as these will probably introduce and summarise this main idea. Skim read the rest of the text. You do not need to know the detail for this type of question.

Look out for any keywords you underlined in the heading. Be aware that synonyms could be used instead.

Note that occasionally a section will contain more than one paragraph. In this case, you’ll need to find the main idea in each paragraph.

5) Choose the matching heading

Now that you understand the main idea of the first paragraph, go back to the headings and select the best match. Where you have two possible headings, write them out one under the other to help you focus on the difference between them.

Once you have made your decision and filled in your answer, cross through the heading in pencil to eliminate it from further consideration.

6) Move on

As I mentioned in the tips above, if you’re struggling to find the correct heading, move on and come back to it once you’ve eliminated more headings and have fewer to choose between.


7) Repeat for all sections

Repeat these steps for each section of the text.

Now have a practice with one of the paragraphs (Section B) from the sample test paper. I’ve added the headings again beneath to make it easier.

I suggest that you focus on the first two sentences and the last one (I’ve underlined them), then skim read the rest of the paragraph.





The correct answer is,

viii The possibility of attracting the wrong kind of student


Give these two strategies a try and see which one works for you and good luck with your IELTS studying!

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