IELTS Listening Overview and Tips
The IELTS listening test is the same for both those taking the Academic and General Training papers.
It consists of 40 questions (10 per section) and lasts around 30 minutes. You will have 10 minutes at the end to transfer your answers from the question paper to the answer sheet.
The listening test consists of four separate sections, each more difficult than the last. In other words part one is the easiest and part four is the most difficult. Each part has a different theme or focus.
- In section 1 you will hear a conversation between two people and it is almost always someone making an appointment or making a booking of some kind (e.g. making a hotel reservation or hiring a car). The questions are normally gap-fill questions in which you have to listen to the information and complete a form or sentence.
- In section 2 you will hear someone talking by themselves about a non-academic subject (e.g. TV or radio presenter).
- Section 3 switches to an academic context and it will always be more than one person discussing something (e.g. an academic paper or assignment).
- Section 4 is normally an academic lecture and you will hear one person (normally the lecturer or professor) talking for an extended period of time.
You will be given a short amount of time (approximately 30 seconds) between each section and you should use this time to look at the questions coming up.
You will hear the recordings only once.
There are several different types of question and each requires a different strategy so you should familarise yourself with all of them. They include:
- Form/note/table completion
- Labeling a diagram or map
- Sentence Completion
- Short Answers
- Multiple Choice
IELTS Listening Tips
- You will have to practice listening to both one person speaking (a monologue) and more than one person speaking at the same time. Listening to monologues is challenging because the person doesn’t often stop speaking for very long so students can feel like they are being overwhelmed. Listening to more than one person can be difficult because there may be different accents or styles of speaking and it is tricky to ‘tune-in’ to what is being said. For lots of free practice activities for both monologues and more than one person talking, please check out our guide on IELTS listening practice.
- Be careful with your spelling. Lots of easy marks are thrown away because of poor spelling. My advice is to keep a notebook of words you find difficult to spell. Even native speakers have a hard time with some English words, so the only way is to record and learn. Both US and UK spelling are allowed in the listening test.
- You will be given a short break (normally around 30-40 seconds) before each section and in the middle of sections 1, 2 and 3. You should NOT use this time to check your answers from the previous section. You should look at the questions in the next section and try to understand the questions and predict the answers coming next. When you predict try to think about the context of the question. Can you guess the answer? For example, if there is a ‘$’ in front of the answer, you will probably be listening for an amount of money. Also, establish what type of word (adjective, noun, verb etc.) the answer will be.
- At the end you will be given 10 minutes to transfer your answers to the answer sheet. When you are doing this make sure you are very careful with spelling and make sure your answers are correct grammatically. For example, if the question was ‘The man wanted to ______ a ______ car.’ the answers are likely to be a verb and then an adjective. If your answers are not grammatically correct or spelled incorrectly, then they will be marked as wrong.
- Be careful with capital letters. If your word is someone’s name or a place, then it must have a capital letter to be correct.
- Make sure you follow the instructions carefully especially when it comes to word limit. If the question states ‘No more than three words’ you can’t write any more than this. If your answer is four words for this answer it will be incorrect.
- A range of accents are used to reflect the international nature of English. These could be from anywhere in the English-speaking world, including the US, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand, Ireland or Australia. You could also hear one of many regional accents from the UK. You should therefore try to get used to all of these different accents. Instead of just listening to the BBC News, you could try listening to the news, or anything else for that matter, from a range of different countries. A quick search on Google is all you need to find these.
- It is important to familiarise yourself with the different types of test questions and practice IELTS past papers. When you practice these tests it should be under exam conditions, but then it is important to find out why you got certain questions wrong. Focusing on your mistakes is very important. You should listen again and again until you find out why you got the question wrong, don’t just look at the answers and forget about them. If you do this you will not improve very quickly. You can also look at the transcripts and find out where you went wrong by reading.
- I did just say that you should practice past papers, however you should also remember that this is a test of your general level of English , so you should listen to not only IELTS, but everything you can in English. In general, those who do the best on the listening test are those who have practiced listening in English the most. The best candidates listen to English a little every day. Please check out our article on 25 online language learning tools for lots of ways you can listen at home for free.
- Focus on getting the easy questions correct first before worrying about the more difficult questions. Anyone hoping to do well on the IELTS listening test should be getting 10 out of 10 on the first part of the test. Make sure you can do this consistently in the first part before worrying about the other parts, especially part four.
- Make sure you don’t get tricked. IELTS listening tests will often try to fool you by giving you something that seems like the correct answer first and then changing this to something else later in the recording. For example, your questions might be ‘The man would like a ______ car.’ At the start of the recording the person might say they want a ‘big family car’, but then change their minds and say they want a ‘small sports car’. If you wrote down the first option you would be wrong.
- You have to get used to listening to things only once. Lots of teachers allow their students to listen to a recording three or four times. You can of course listen again and again when analysing your mistakes, but when practicing the exam you should do it under exam conditions and that means listening just once.
- Do you have messy handwriting? Lots of people do, don’t worry. In the listening test you should write your answers in all capital letters if your writing is messy.
- Remember to bring an eraser. You will have to write your answers in pencil, so make sure you can change any notes or answers using an eraser.
- It’s not just a listening test; it’s an understanding, reading, writing, vocabulary and spelling test. Make sure you practice all of these skills under exam conditions.
- Write your answers on the question paper as you do the test. I know lots of students who don’t do this and try to remember all of the answers and then use their memory to fill out the answer sheet. You are under enough pressure without making it a memory test on top of everything else. Keep it simple and note down the answers as you go.
- Practice your short hand. Short hand is when you write a shortened version of a word. For example, you might write aprox. for approximately or Ensh. for English. This will help you save time in the exam. Often two answers will come in a very short space of time, if you are busy writing a long word instead of listening, you might miss it. Shorthand is a very personal thing, so do whatever suits you.
- Concentration is key in the listening test. It is totally normally to lose concentration and most people find it difficult to concentrate for the complete 30 minutes. To improve your concentration you need to practice active listening. Active listening involves setting yourself small tasks when you are practicing and actually doing something when you are listening, just like you will be in the IELTS listening exam. See our article on IELTS listening practice for ways you can listen actively.
- Don’t leave any blank spaces. This might seem very obvious, but you wouldn’t believe how many students do this. You are not penalized for wrong answers so you should always have a guess.
- Before each section you will be given information about the speaker and what they will be talking about. You won’t be tested on this, but it will help you answer the questions that follow by understanding the context.
I hope you found these IELTS listening tips useful and if you have any questions please let us know in the comments below. Now it is time to find a few online resources that will help you practice listening every day.
For more information on the IELTS listening test please check out our listening page.
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