This post is about IELTS listening practice and how you can improve your listening skills at home. First, let me tell you a story…
I was teaching a student recently who needed 7.5 in order to move to Canada and become a nurse. She was very good at writing, speaking and reading, but always failed to get the score she needed in listening. I was really surprised because she was one of the most focused and hard working students I have ever met. I was determined to find out what her problem was and fix it. After talking about the problem for only a minute, it was obvious what she was doing wrong.
She told me ‘I don’t think I can do any more IELTS listening practice, I have listened to every practice test so many times. I’m thinking of giving up’. Can you tell what she was doing wrong?
The only listening practice she did was IELTS listening past papers over and over again. You should listen to these before your test, but you should absolutely NOT listen to them all the time. It will take you a very long time to improve this way and more importantly it is really boring!
I tell my students to follow the 90/10 rule- 10% IELTS past papers, 90% real authentic listening practice. If you listen to just 20 or 30 minutes of English every day the right way, it is far more effective than listening to lots of pasts papers. It will not only improve your listening skills, but your overall level of English.
This post will focus on:
- identifying the skills needed in the listening test
- how to listen actively, not passively
- resources and activities we can use at home to improve
IELTS Listening Skills
Looking at the format of the IELTS listening test, we can break it down into several core skills. They are:
When we look at the questions we should try to predict the answer before we hear it because this makes it easier to get the correct answer. For example, if the possible answer had a $ sign in front of it, we would automatically know that we need to be listening for an amount of money.
You probably use prediction all the time in your native language, but you just don’t think about it. For instance, when listening to the news and you hear “Volcano in South Pacific’’ your brain automatically starts to predict what you are going to hear and that it will probably be something to do with a volcano erupting in one of the islands in that region. If it was about something else, it would be difficult or confusing to listen to, because you were not expecting it.
We call this ‘context’ and it is important that you not only predict specific things like the $ amount above, but also predict the general context of the thing you are going to listen to.
2. Synonyms and Paraphrasing
In many ways the listening test is not only a test of your listening skills, but also a vocabulary test. More often than not the answer will not be a direct match to the keywords in the question, but a synonym (words with the same or very similar meanings) or a paraphrase of those words. You therefore need to practice thinking about how words you see in the question might be represented by different words that have the same meaning.
For example, the question could ask ‘How did the education system improve from 1990-1999?’, but the recording may describe how ‘Schools got better in the ‘90s’.
3. Connected Speech
Lots of English teachers speak clearly and slowly to their students and this actually harms their progress sometimes. When you hear how native speakers actually talk, it is often very difficult to hear what is being said. This is mainly to do with connected speech. Connected Speech is the linking of words and sounds together in a sentence. For example, ‘I have to go to the doctor, I have an ear ache.’, might sound more like ‘Ivtegote the doctor, Ivenearake.’
Other sounds may appear ‘weak’ or change when put into a sentence. For instance ‘Do you want to go?’ might sound more like ‘De ye want te go?’
4. Recognising Sign Posting Language
In two of the four parts of the IELTS listening test you will have to listen to someone speaking by themselves, one in a social context and one in a lecture style. When someone talks in this way they often use what is referred to as ‘sign posting’. For example, when you give a lecture you might say ‘This lecture is divided into three parts’ and then you will say things like ‘First of all…’, ‘Secondly…’, ‘After that…’ and ‘Finally…’. These phrases tell the listener what stage of the talk they are listening to and what they are going to say next. If we know how to interpret these signals we are more likely to understand and follow the whole thing.
5. Listening to Two People Talking
Listening to two people talking at the same time is a very difficult skill to master even in your native language. In two of the four parts of the listening test you be listening to two people having a discussion. The people might have different accents, different styles of speaking and they might agree or disagree with each other. It makes up 50% of the IELTS listening test so it’s one you have to master.
6. Note Taking
Most people who take the IELTS test do so because they hope to go to an English speaking university. One of the main things you will have to do there is to take notes in a lecture and IELTS therefore tests this skill. When you take notes, the lecturer will not slow down for you or care that English is not your first language, so you must learn how to take short notes and then transcribe them into more comprehensive notes after the lecture is over (with correct spelling).
For example, a chemistry lecturer might say ‘Mix with 20 milliliters of hydrochloric acid.’ You won’t have time to write all of this so you could just write ‘Mx w 20ml of HCl’.
Are you an active or passive listener?
IELTS listening practice should always be active and never passive. Passive listening is when you listen and do just that. You don’t think about what you are listening to and you might ‘tune out’ for large periods of time. Lots of students I have taught tell me they listen to English all the time and they are frustrated that they are not improving. This is because they are not actually doing anything to improve their skills when they are listening.
Active listening involves setting yourself small tasks when you are listening and actually doing something when you are listening, just like you will be in the IELTS listening exam. This might sound like hard work, but it actually saves you lots of time because 20 minutes of active listening is much more effective listening practice than many hours of passive listening.
Practicing Skills and Resources
Below I will take each of the skills discussed above and suggest some tasks you could set yourself to help improve these skills and some free online resources you can use for IELTS listening practice at home.
Practicing this skill is quite easy. You simply read the title and any other information you can find on the talk or conversation you are going to listen to and predict some of the things you might hear. Write them down and then listen to check if your answers were correct.
An even better way to practice this skill is to predict the answer to specific questions before you listen to the recording.
A good site to do this on is the TED Ed site. Here you will find thousands of videos, all with questions.
The British Council’s ‘Listen and Watch’ series of videos also have questions you can use to predict the answers and then listen to check.
Synonyms and Paraphrasing
Practicing this skill allows you to improve your listening and vocabulary at the same time.
A good listening resource to help you improve your vocabulary whilst listening is FluentU. This website has a huge range of English videos and bilingual subtitles for most of them. It also has a ‘hover-over’ dictionary for any words you don’t know. Finally, it has a ‘’learning centre’’ where you can study and review the vocabulary that came up in the video.
My suggestion for FluentU would be to listen to any videos you like and note down any words you don’t know. Try to guess the meaning from the context of the listening first because this is a useful skill to develop for the IELTS test and then use the ‘hover-over’ tool to confirm the meaning. Even if you just watch one video a day, your vocabulary will expand quickly.
A good way to practice synonyms and paraphrasing is to listen to a short video and think about how each sentence or phrase could be paraphrased. If you do this regularly, over time you will get used to common synonyms and this will really help you in all parts of the IELTS test.
We can practice this by doing something called ‘micro-listening’. It involves pausing a sentence you don’t understand and replaying it until you have understood all the words. Don’t worry about how many times you have to do this, focus on hearing every word and breaking connected speech down into individual words.
Over time you will get used to how words link together and listening to native speakers will become much easier.
Podcasts are perfect for this because you can easily pause them and replay them. Podcasts are like individual radio shows that you can download and listen to whenever you like. I personally listen to them every day because there are literally millions of them on every topic you can think of. Whatever your interest; there will be a podcast about it.
Recognising Sign Posting
To practice this you can listen to a lecture and simply listen for any signposting language. When you hear some, pause and think about the meaning of the language and predict what you are going to hear next. Continue this until you get to the end of the recording.
The IELTS listening test is very long and it is impossible, even for native speakers, to concentrate fully 100% of the time. Recognising sign posting allows you to prioritise and focus on the important parts of the listening that contain the answers.
There are several great sources that have thousands of online lectures including:
Listening to Two People
When people are talking together they will agree and disagree with each other. The task I set my students when they are listening to two people is simply: when do they agree and when do they disagree? They listen actively to what is being said and when someone agrees and disagrees they should pause and think about what has been agreed or disagreed. For further practice they can then try to paraphrase this.
Often in the IELTS listening test, one person will be giving another a set of instructions, making an order or telling a story. When you are listening to two people talking and this happens, try to take on the role of the person listening and try to note down the important details of the story or instructions.
To find conversations between two people check out the podcast resources above. Some podcasts are just one person talking, but most are two or more people having a conversation in either a social or academic context.
To practice this skill you should go to one of the websites I recommended above that contain lectures. Watch them and pretend you are actually in the lecture and take notes on what is being said. Everyone has a very personal style of note taking, so it is up to you how you do this, but it should be a system that allows you to quickly note the important points, but not so short that you can’t understand it after the lecture.
Finally, you should look at your notes and see if you can spell the important points you shortened. Spelling is also an important skill because it is exactly the same thing you will do at the end of the IELTS listening test.
I hope you have found this article useful and if you have any questions or suggestions please let me know below in the comments section. Next time you are doing IELTS listening practice try using the techniques in this article and you will see much better results than simply using past IELTS papers.
Finally I should say, when you are doing listening practice try to listen to something you are interested in. The internet has provided us with limitless resources to listen to, so why not listen to something you are passionate about?
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