IELTS Listening: 5 important tips to help you prepare

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John Joseph Wong

John Joseph Wong

ILAC IELTS Teacher

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Scared of the IELTS Listening test?  You’re not alone.  Although many students find the IELTS Listening section challenging, you’ll be able to achieve a top score if you learn how to practice IELTS Listening effectively.  Here are 5 important things for you to know so you can ace the IELTS Listening on test day.

Know the format of IELTS Listening

The IELTS Listening format is the same for both the IELTS Academic and IELTS General Training tests. You have 30 minutes to listen to 4 audio recordings.  Each audio recording has 10 questions. 

It’s important to write down your answers on your question booklet (for paper tests) or rough paper provided (for computer tests) while you are listening, because you will only hear each recording once.  The recordings are easy in the beginning and increase in difficulty as the test goes on. 

  1. The first recording is an everyday social conversation (like two friends talking about a music festival). 
  2. The second recording is a monologue about a social context (perhaps a tour guide at a museum). 
  3. The third recording is a conversation within an educational or work context (such as students collaborating on a group project). 
  4. Finally, the fourth recording is a monologue on an academic subject (a university lecture, for example). 

If doing the paper-based test, you will have an extra 10 minutes at the end to transfer your answers to the answer sheet.  If doing the computer-delivered test, you will not receive this extra time.  Instead, you have only 2 minutes to check that you answered all the questions.

While the Listening test may seem fast and challenging the first time, you will get better with more practice.  

Know how to listen for details

Hearing for details is one skill that the Listening section will test you for.  Therefore, knowing and practicing how to do this is key to getting a high IELTS Listening score.  

Many test takers make the mistake of focusing too hard on specific words, like the exact words written in the questions.  However, the Listening test and its audio recordings will often use synonyms (a different word or phrase that has the same or similar meaning).  The purpose is to make the test more challenging and reflective of real-world conversations.  This means that if you are listening for specific words, you might miss the answer!

Instead, try to first understand the key message and be aware of other words that a speaker might use to give the same meaning.  For example, the question sheet might say “you can hear clearer if you sit at the back”.  However, the audio recording might say “you can hear better if you sit at the back”.  Even though ‘clearer’ and ‘better’ are different words, the meaning in this sentence is the same.  If you are listening only for the word ‘clearer’, you will miss the answer to the question.  Remember, you only hear each recording once.

More tips on how to listen for details:

  • Think of synonyms for words as soon as you see them on the question sheet.  For example, if the question talks about the “countryside”, you might prepare your brain to listen to synonyms such as ‘rural area’, ‘farmland’, ‘grassland’, or ‘remote area’.
  • Keep listening even when you are finished writing down your answer.  Many test takers get too confident when writing down an answer and miss the following ‘but’ or ‘however’ in the IELTS Listening audio.  Instead, keep asking yourself questions about whether your answers match the key ideas in the recording.  This way, you will not fall victim to ‘misinformation’, and you will be able to hear the correct details in the audio so that you can write your answer with confidence.
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Know how to listen for context and content

Use the time before each recording to think about the content and context of the questions.  When you practice IELTS Listening, read the questions and try to predict the answer before the audio begins.  This will make you more focused and the audio will be easier to understand. 

For example, if the question asks for the time that a bus will leave, you can tell your brain to listen for any mention of time during the recording.  Think about what words you could hear in this context, such as ‘schedule’ or ‘departure’.

 More tips on how to listen for context/content:

  • If you miss an answer, it’s okay.  Just keep following along with the question sheet and try to catch the next answer.  Worrying about a missed answer will only waste time and make you more nervous. Instead, focus on the next question so that you can give yourself the highest change of success.  It’s always better to miss one answer than to miss an entire section!  Furthermore, you might even hear the answer to a previous question again, or be able to give a reliable guess based on context, after finishing the whole recording.
  • Pretend that you are part of the recording.  Rather than focusing all your energy on the IELTS Listening answers, try to immerse yourself in the audio and understand the content as if you were there.  For example, if the audio is a university lecture about dinosaurs, imagine you are a university student studying dinosaurs.  What kinds of notes and ideas would you listen for?  By focusing on understanding the audio rather than “getting all of the correct answers”, you will be more relaxed and the audio will be easier to understand.  When you understand the process of IELTS Listening, the results will follow. 

Know how each IELTS test is different (or not!)

Many IELTS Listening test takers wonder which Listening section is more difficult: IELTS General Training or Academic.  The answer? They’re the same! 

Whether you take the General Training or Academic test, you will still take the same IELTS Listening.  It is also the same Listening test whether you choose to take computer or paper IELTS.

While the questions and marking criteria are the same for everyone, there are a few minor differences depending on which delivery method you choose:

  • Computer-delivered tests do not have extra transfer time for answers.  Extra transfer time is not needed for computer tests, so this does not affect your performance.
  • Computer-delivered IELTS uses headphones.  A common myth is that using headphones makes the test easier.  At ILAC Toronto, this is not true.  For paper tests, ILAC uses small classrooms with good quality speakers rather than large test halls.  This means you will be able to hear the IELTS Listening clearly, loudly and without echo. 

Know the best way to prepare for IELTS Listening

Even though the real IELTS Listening test will never feel the same as your practice tests, it is still important to prepare and plan so that you can get the best result.  Rather than focusing on small things like whether to use headphones, you should instead try and do practice IELTS Listening tests using sample questions (with audio) before the test.  

Tips for practicing IELTS Listening:

  • Practice at least one IELTS Listening test from start to finish, without taking a break.  Since many IELTS Listening test takers struggle to listen with intense focus for such a long time, one of the best ways to practice is to do entire practice IELTS tests (all 4 sections) and pretend that the practice tests are the real thing.  If you have taken the IELTS Listening test before, you might realize that you perform well in some sections, but struggle in other sections (such as section 3 and 4, because they are more difficult).  If that’s you, spend more time practicing the sections that you have difficulty with, rather than the sections that you are already confident in.  
  • Listen to podcasts and watch TV shows and videos in your free time. Try to watch content in English and without subtitles (as it will encourage you to listen, not read).  More importantly, there are no subtitles when you are doing the IELTS Listening test!  
  • Practice listening to different accents.  IELTS Listening test often includes audios with other accents (and dialects), like various UK accents (British English) or Australian accents (Australia English).  Practice by watching British/Australian TV shows and movies so that your ear becomes used to different accents.

Now that you know the format, strategies, and how to prepare for the IELTS Listening test, you are ready to get your best score.  Remember that the IELTS Listening test is the same content and difficulty no matter what module or delivery method (computer or paper-based) you choose. 

For some test takers, taking an IELTS Preparation class might be helpful as you can receive expert IELTS guidance by the professional teachers at ILAC IELTS Toronto.  No matter what you choose, remember to practice effectively, use the listening strategies explained above, take a deep breath, and best wishes on your IELTS Listening test. 

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