Question Type Strategy: Heading Matching
This lesson is an important one: it’s about Heading Matching questions. Most people find this question type difficult, and they can be really hard if you don’t know how to find the main idea of a paragraph, or if you spend too much time answering them.
This lesson will focus on how to find the main idea quickly, and some advice for avoiding other common problems with this challenging question type.
At the end of the lesson, I'll show you a video on how to do this properly.
What is Heading Matching?
Heading Matching questions are easy to recognize, because they always come first, before the article. You should definitely do them first!
This question type asks us to match a list of headings (like titles) with sections or paragraphs in the text. We are supposed to match the header that does the best job of summarizing the main idea of each section or paragraph.
Heading Matching example question:
A few common problems on Heading Matching questions:
- Being unsure how to recognize the main idea of a paragraph, and matching details instead.
- Deciding on a heading for a particular paragraph, crossing it off, then never looking at it again. If we do this and choose the wrong heading, we are losing two marks for one mistake!
- Taking a long time to complete them.
Three Tips for Heading Matching Questions
Tip #1: Focus on the Main Idea – not details!
The purpose of a heading is to summarize the main idea of a paragraph or section. That means that when you read, you need to focus on the overall point of a paragraph. Don’t get distracted by details!
Remember: an English paragraph only has one overall main idea. Everything else is support for that overall idea. You should never match a heading with information that is only mentioned as an example or supporting idea.
Let’s Get Some Practice with Tip #1:
Take a look at this section of a text from The Official Cambridge Guide to IELTS.
Which of the two headings do you think is right?
List of Headings
iv A building like no other
viii From factory to building site
B So far, Broad has built 16 structures in China, plus another in Cancun. They are fabricated at two factories in Hunan, roughly an hour's drive from Broad Town, the sprawling headquarters. The floors and ceilings of the skyscrapers are built in sections, each measuring 15.6 by 3.9 meters with a depth of 45 centimeters. Pipes and ducts for electricity, water and waste are threaded through each floor module while it is still in the factory. The client's choice of flooring is also pre-installed on top. Standardized truckloads carry two modules each to the site with the necessary columns, bolts and tools to connect them stacked on top of each other Once they arrive at the location, each section is lifted by crane directly to the top of the building, which is assembled like toy Lego bricks. Workers use the materials on the module to quickly connect the pipes and wires. The unique column design has diagonal bracing at each end and tabs that bolt into the floors above and below, in the final step, heavily insulated exterior walls and windows are slotted in by crane. The result is far from pretty but the method is surprisingly safe - and phenomenally fast.
Click to show answer
The answer here is viii. This paragraph actually contains many examples of how the “Broad” buildings are unique – “assembled like toy Lego bricks”, and “unique column design” – so it can seem like heading iv is correct: “A building like no other”… but these examples are just details, intended to support the overall point of the paragraph. The overall point of the paragraph is to explain how the buildings are created.
This is a pretty simple example of this, but please realize the IELTS test does this a lot! There are often details within paragraphs that match up to the incorrect heading for a Heading Match question.
Tip #2: The Main Idea is usually at the START of a paragraph.
FACT: 80% of English paragraphs contain the main idea in the first one or two sentences! Everything after that is support (explanations, examples, and other details).
So you should focus your attention on the beginning of each section or paragraph.
*NOTE that the opposite is true for introductions, which almost always summarize their main idea near the end.
Let’s Get Some Practice with Tip #2:
Here is another example paragraph from the same text as above, from The Official Cambridge Guide to IELTS (which I recommend purchasing or borrowing from a local library!)
Which of the headings do you think is right?
List of Headings
iii Examining the overall benefits
v Some benefits of traditional methods
vi A change of direction
D For two decades, Zhang's AC business boomed. But a couple of events conspired to change his course. The first was that Zhang became an environmentalist. The second was the earthquake that hit China's Sichuan Province in 2008, causing the collapse of poorly constructed buildings. Initially, he says, he tried to convince developers to refit existing buildings to make them both more stable and more sustainable, but he had little success. So Zhang drafted his own engineers and started researching how to build cheap, environmentally friendly structures that could also withstand an earthquake. Within six months of starting his research, Zhang had given up on traditional methods. He was frustrated by the cost of hiring designers and specialists for each new structure. The best way to cut costs, he decided, was to take building to the factory. But to create a factory-built skyscraper. Broad had to abandon the principles by which skyscrapers are typically designed. The whole load-bearing structure had to be different. To reduce the overall weight of the building, it used less concrete in the floors; that in turn enabled it to cut down on structural steel.
Click to show answer
The answer here is vi. I want you to notice two things here:
-The paragraph does talk about traditional methods of construction (leading us toward heading v), but this is not the focus on the paragraph! It’s only a detail.
-The correct answer can be matched after only having read two sentences of the paragraph. Actually, reading the rest of this paragraph doesn’t help us very much, and it might even lead us to the wrong heading if we are distracted by a detail.
Note that not every paragraph can be matched using only the first two or three sentences, but many can! For some paragraphs, you will have to read the whole thing carefully. But… if you are able to match a few paragraphs on your test using only their beginnings, then you will save yourself a lot of time.
Tip #3: Don’t Commit to Answers too early!
A common mistake on Heading Matching questions is to read a paragraph, then decide on a heading for that paragraph and cross the heading out… before you have had a chance to read the rest of the article.
This is bad because you might come to a paragraph later that is a better match for that heading, but if you crossed it off you may not realize it.
Instead, while you read, just make notes next to the headings that are possible candidates for your answers, and then only commit after you have read through all the sections/paragraphs.
The List of Headings should look something like this when you’re done:
Final Heading Matching Strategy and Video:
Here is the strategy that my students use to do well on Heading Matching. It is a strategy that is designed to save you time on the test!
- Firstly, note that this is an advanced strategy, and you must practice it to learn to use it well.
- Secondly, that you must use your judgment here; sometimes you may have to change the strategy a little bit, since everyone’s reading level is different!
HEADING MATCHING STRATEGY:
- As usual, first you need to spend a minute skimming the article to learn the overall topic and structure.
- Read through the headings, and circle/underline keywords or important details.
- Begin reading the article, but focus on the main idea and the first 1-2 sentences of the first paragraph you need. Do this until you feel you have some understanding of the main idea. Don’t worry about details!
- Do not read the full paragraph. Instead, go back to the headings and mark the headings that are possible answers for that paragraph.
- Repeat Steps 3 and 4 with the next paragraph, and the next, etc… until you have done so for the entire article.
- Repeat this until you have gone through the beginning of each paragraph in the article. After that, you will probably have half or more of the headings marked with good answers. Now it’s time to go back and carefully read through the full paragraphs of the answers that are missing.
Again, matching the beginning of the paragraph to a heading will not work for every paragraph, but it will work sometimes, and when it works it will save you a lot of time.