Matching headings question is one of the most challenging questions in IELTS readings. Not just that, this question type always appears first in a reading section. Hence, if you don’t know how to answer it, you may jump right on it, spend a lot of time on it, and lose points from other easy questions.

Don’t worry. In this article, I will share with you a complete guide on how to deal with matching headings question. My sharing includes:

  • What a Matching Headings Question looks like
  • How to deal with IELTS Reading Matching Headings Question
  • Traps in the exams
  • Skills needed for the exams
  • A detailed guide through a Matching Headings sample question

What is a Matching Headings question (MHQ)?

A Heading is a short phrase that describes the main content of a paragraph.  

Basically, in an IELTS reading test, you will be given a list of headings for a passage with several paragraphs. Your job is to match each paragraph with its correct heading. One heading is for one paragraph only.  

For all the time, there are more headings than needed. You may get confused to find the right one among two or three headings that sound reasonable as a good match for one paragraph. That is why many test takers find it hard to finish this question.

Look on the bright side: doing this question helps you improve your skill of identifying main ideas. This is one of the top important skill not only in your student’s life, but also in your daily work.

Matching Heading Question sample
Matching Heading Question sample

How to deal with IELTS Reading Matching Headings?

If you search “how to do the IELTS Reading Matching Headings”, you may find many tactics for this. Some even are opposite to each other. For example, one blog may suggest you to do this question first, but others tell you to save it for the last.

The truth is that all of them may prove to be correct. However, it doesn’t mean that you should apply all the tactics when attacking this question. Some work, some do not work for you. Your duty is to find the ones that support you most. By practicing as many as you can, you will find out your answer.

Below are my two options that you can consider trying while studying for IELTS Reading Matching Headings question.

Option 1 – Do the Matching Headings FIRST

1. What is that?

You attack this question right when you start a reading passage, before reading any other questions of the same passage.

2. How to do it?

  1. Skim through the heading list and the title of the passage to get its general idea. What is it about? What’s its topic? This should take you about half a minute.
  2. Skim through the whole passage to understand its structure. What are the key points that the author discusses in the passage? It may take you about 2-3 minutes for a 700-800 word passage.
  3. Then it’s time to understand the subject of each section. Start with the first paragraph and then the shortest one. Quickly skim through the first and last sentence of the text to check if one of those two is the topic sentence. If not, try to look through some middle sentences to find it.
  4. When you get the main idea of a section, go back to the heading list and find the one that matches your opinion.
  5. Work it through the last and also the longest section. When you deal with the last section, there are only a few titles left to pick. Therefore, you won’t be confused too much with so many options.

3. Pros of this option:

  • Since you get the gist of the passage right at the beginning, it will be much easier for you to answer the next questions. You know where to find the information. 
  • When you finish such a tough question, you will gain much more confidence to work through the rest of the Reading sections.

4. What you need to be careful about

Be aware of the remaining time. Know when to stop and move to the next questions.

The Matching Headings question may take you a lot of time to solve it, especially when you have to deal with a new topic. If you pick it first and you can not solve it in your allotted time, you will lose your points from easier questions.

Eg, you have 20 minutes for a reading part with 14 questions. The Matching Headings count for 6 questions and you have already worked on it for 10 minutes. Obviously, you’d better skip to the next questions.

Option 2 – Do the Matching Headings LAST

1. What is that?

When the reading section starts with questions rather than with a passage, you know that it’s the Matching Headings type. Yes, it’s the only question type that comes before the passage in IELTS Reading.

In that case, you just skip those questions and jump to the next set of questions. Read through the next questions, highlight the keywords and use appropriate strategies to finish them.

Eventually, you come back to the top of the reading sections to do the Matching Headings questions.

2. How to do it?

  1. At this time, you already understand the main content of the passage: what it’s about, what the key messages are.
  2. You read through the questions, underline the keywords. Hopefully, some paragraphs may jump into your mind while studying the questions.
  3. If you can guess the answers, note it down beside the headings. Afterward, move to the passage, read the sections to check your answers.
  4. For unmatched sections and headings: Skim through the sections. Read the first and last sentences to find the topic sentence. Be prepared to read the middle sentences as well because sometimes the topic sentence does not come at the beginning or the end of a paragraph.

3. What you need to be careful about

  • When you choose to do the Matching Headings last, you may have either plenty of time to work on it or just a few minutes to wrap it up.
  • If you are lucky, you will have time to follow through the steps above to complete the Matching Headings challenge.
  • If you have only 2-3 minutes left for the Matching Headings, start right away matching the easiest section. What is an easy section? It’s the one you know for sure what it’s all about. Or it can be the shortest one. Then move to the next section. Read the first and last sentence to get its topic. 
  • In the worst case, you have no time to read the sections for gist. Make your best guess and fill in your answers.

Watch out – Traps in IELTS Reading Matching Headings

While telling you the 2 options above, I have not mentioned the fact that there are some tricky details or traps in the Matching Headings question.

  • Some headings sound similar. Some may contain similar language. These often cause you to be confused which best matches the section.
  • Sometimes the examiners deliberately use the same keywords in the headings and the sections. If you just scan for the keywords, you will fall into the traps. Just because the headings and sections contain the same keywords, doesn’t mean they match each other. They may use synonyms for the matching pairs (the section & heading).
  • Usually test takers expect that the first and last sentences are topic sentences; meanwhile, the examiners put them in the middle of the sections. That’s why you should be prepared for that scenario as well.

How to improve your skills to perform well on Matching Headings Question

Now you have known the strategies to deal with Matching Headings. Nevertheless, you may be still anxious about this question type due to several traps presented in the exams.

Well, IELTS is not like a math test. There is no ultimate formula that guarantees you 100% correct answer.

The testers want to test your reading comprehension skills. Therefore, the only way to break through this challenge is to improve your reading skills.

It’s worth it to re-mention the purpose of the reading test here, according to British Council website.

Purpose of the IELTS test
Purpose of the IELTS test

Practice skimming or reading for gist

Skimming is a technique of speed reading. Skimming is also known as reading for gist or reading for general meaning of a text. You do not read through all the words in order to understand what it’s talking about.

You can read more about skimming from our blog about Skimming for IELTS.

Talking about skimming for Matching Headings Question specifically, I have some suggestions for you to follow as below:

1. Read the title and all the headings in the list

Why? This information will help you get some ideas about the topic, the key points, and the structure of the text. This understanding will tell you which content is important, and which is not.

2. Spend more time on the first paragraph

While you can skim through other sections just by reading the first and the last sentences, you should consider putting more weight on the first section.

Why? The introductory paragraph normally is the one which tells you the overview of the whole essay, the concern or subject that the author wants to discuss. As a result, when you skim the rest of the text (after you understand the first text), you can grab the main idea of each section faster.

3. Read the content words

When you skim, you don’t read all the text. You want to focus on the content words only. Content words are words with meaning. They are normally nouns, adjectives, verbs, and adverbs. On the other hand, some words do not contain meaning. These are grammatical words, such as auxiliary verbs (is, had, would, did, does), pronouns (these, that, someone), articles (a, an, the), and prepositions (on, in, at). So read the content words, skip the grammatical words.

Let’s do a small exercise here. Look at this sentence and guess which words you should focus on.

sample sentence for content words exercise
Sample sentence from

Here is the answer
The annual economic risk is up to 0.3% of house replacement value.

4. Skip examples or proofs

Sometimes, the author will list out some examples or evidence to prove his arguments. Reading the examples and proofs does not give you the general idea of the text. It contains too many details which may distract you from the focal points. Therefore, you’d better skip them while working on Matching Headings question.

Expanding your vocabulary

There are two main reasons why you find it hard to skim an IELTS passage.

  • You have not heard of the topic before, such as civilization, global warming, and quantum theory. That’s why when you read the topic for the first time, you will easily get confused with its content.
  • The text contains so many new words. Some can be synonyms but you are not aware of that. Some are uncommon words which you have rarely read or used before.

1. Topic vocabulary

You are not required to have knowledge of all topics. However, getting familiar with several topics beforehand does give you lots of confidence while doing the test.

You can start to learn key terms of commonly asked topics in IELTS. For instances, with topic Climate Change, you should be familiar with “global warming, carbon dioxide, emission, fossil fuels, sea-level rise, renewable energy”.

How to learn all those terms?

You may search for an article about Climate Change. Read through it.

Use eJOY extension to look up key terms. Save them to your word book and practice with those words as scheduled by eJOY every day until you master them. At the “mastered” level, you are now confident that you can skim a text of global warming really fast. 

Look up new word in just 1 click with eJOY
Look up new word in just 1 click with eJOY
Mastered word
Practice with eJOY every day to reach to “Fluency” level.

2. Learning Root Word

“Root word is the most basic part of a word.” – according to For instances, “friend” is a root word. From this root, you can guess what “friendly”, “befriend” relate to.

By strengthening your root knowledge, you will feel much more familiar with an academic text even when you have not read about its topic before.

While learning your vocabulary on eJOY extension, do not ignore each word’s detail about its root. When you find out that your new word has a root, you may consider adding its root to eJOY word book to study it.

Find root word on eJOY
Find root word on eJOY

Managing your time wisely

You have 60 minutes in total to complete all 3 Reading sections with 40 questions. Hence, 1.5 minutes should be allotted for each question. If you find yourself spending 2-3 minutes for a question, you know that you should skip to the next one.

However, it’s easier said than done. While you are totally immersed in a tough question, you may forget about the timing. In order to stay alert on an exam, you should get yourself familiar with the timing pressure.

Practice – practice – practice. Do a lot of reading at home and answer the comprehension questions under a fixed time. You may start with a longer time limit than the real exams does. Over time, you can gradually decrease your time limit until you can finish all the tasks in less than 60 minutes.

How to avoid mistakes that cost you easy points in MHQ

These mistakes are not supposed to happen. Nonetheless, under the exams pressure, you might be absent-minded. Or maybe you are not even aware of those during your practice time. You are so focused on finding the answers and completely ignore the exams’ rules.

Henceforth, stay with me for a while. This section is simple but extremely important.

In order to not make you dazed, I write them down as a “To Do list”, instead of a list of mistakes.

1. Write your answers in number (i – x)

Many test takers lose points even when they find the correct answers. It’s because they write down the heading titles in the answer sheet, instead of the number (i-x).

Please stay calm!

How to answer on IELTS answer sheet for Matching Headings question
Key in the numbers (i-x) not the headings

2. Use one heading for one section only

Remember that one heading is used once only. Therefore, two sections can’t have the same heading. If you find that mistake in your answers, check back carefully. And don’t forget the time limit.  

3. Don’t leave any answer blank

Your score won’t be deducted if your answers are incorrect. But you will definitely lose points for blank answers.

What should you do if you can’t find the correct answers? When you run out of time, you can try your luck. From the rest of the heading list (the ones that have not been used), pick ones that sound most reasonable to you. Then fill in the answer sheet.

Examples of MHQ and answers

Now it’s time for us to have a first-hand experience on the Matching Heading questions.  

Here is a snippet of a sample passage from

Matching Headings Sample Questions
Matching Headings Sample Questions

Since the passage is quite long and I don’t want to make you panic, we spend some times attacking the first section only. If you want to try the complete Matching Headings question, you can download the full page.

Section A of a sample Matching Headings question
Section A of a sample Matching Headings question

Here is how I deal with this exercise.

  1. Skim through the 9 headings. I find out that this passage would be about “government” and “environment”
  2. Skim the passage to understand its structure. Focus on the first paragraph
  3. For the first paragraph, I spot out the first sentence as a topic sentence. The bold words are the ones I focus on:

    Keywords highlighted in an ielts reading section
    Highlight keywords in section A to identify the overall message.
  4. Go back to the heading list, find the one that is about governments act relating to the environment. Among the 9 headings, only the fifth (v) contains both “government” and “environment”. The iv, vi and viii mention “government” but no “environment”. The ii mentions “environment” but no “government”.That’s why my final answer for section A is v.
  5. Key in my answer in the answer sheet: 1. v
Luck is great, but most of life is hard work
Famous quote by Iain Duncan Smith

Thank you for going this far with me. I hope now you have been much clearer about what a matching headings question looks like, how to deal with it. And most importantly, I bet that you have known what you should practice every day to get prepared for MHQ. That is:

  • Read – read – read
  • Learn new words by using eJOY extension
  • Learn new root words
  • Do mock exams under a time limit

Let’s practice now. And don’t forget to share your learning experiences with me and other learners. Leave them in the comment down below. I’m more than happy to read them.

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