IELTS Listening Tips

IELTS Listening Tips

Success in the IELTS Listening Test requires good preparation. You need to fully understand the format of the test, how to answer the questions and you need to develop some skills which are specific to the test.

On this page you will learn some essential IELTS Listening Tips, along with all the essential information about the IELTS Listening Test. I will also suggest some ways you can prepare for the IELTS Listening Test. And to help you practise, I’ve included three IELTS Listening Practice Tests.

So let’s start with the key information:

IELTS Listening Test: Essential Information

1. The IELTS Listening Test is the same for both Academic and General Training IELTS.

2. The Listening Test is the first part of the IELTS exam. You sit it before the Reading and Writing tests.

3. The IELTS Listening Test consists of 4 parts (prior to January 2020 these were called sections):

  • In Part 1, two people have a discussion set in a social context (e.g. talking about travel arrangements or renting a house).
  • In Part 2, one person talks about a non-academic topic (e.g. the benefits of exercise).
  • In Part 3, up to four people have a discussion in an educational or training context (e.g. a study group of students discussing a presentation, or two students discussing a project with their tutor).
  • In Part 4, one person gives a talk about a topic of general academic interest.

4. Each part of the test is more difficult than the previous one, so Part 1 is the easiest and Part 4 is the most difficult.

5. The test lasts for approximately 30 minutes.

6. At the end of the test, you have 10 minutes to transfer your answers to the official answer sheet.

7. The IELTS Listening Test contains 40 questions.

8. There are approximately 10 questions in each part.

9. The questions are written in the order that the answers are heard: so the answer to question 6, will appear earlier in the recording than the answer to question 7.

10. Typical questions include:

  • multiple choice questions
  • short answer questions
  • sentence completion
  • note completion
  • summary completion
  • form completion
  • table completion
  • diagram labelling
  • map labelling
  • classification
  • matching

There are no True / False / Not Given or Yes / No / Not Given questions in the listening test.

11. The audio recording is played only ONCE.

12. Before each of the 4 parts, you have around 30 seconds to read the instructions and the questions.

13. The speakers in the recordings have a range of accents, including British, Australian, New Zealand, Canadian and American. The British accent could include Scottish, Irish, English or Welsh accents.

14. Your band score for listening is calculated from your raw score (the number of correct answers). Your band score is reported in half bands as well as whole bands, so it’s possible to get an IELTS listening score of 8.5 or 7.5.

Here is an example of how your raw score is converted into a band score. Note that these are approximate; they may change according to the difficulty of the test:

  • Band 9.0: 39-40 marks
  • Band 8.5: 37-38 marks
  • Band 8.0: 35-36 marks
  • Band 7.5: 32-34 marks
  • Band 7.0: 30-31 marks
  • Band 6.5: 26-29 marks
  • Band 6.0: 23-25 marks
  • Band 5.5: 18-22 marks
  • Band 5.0: 16-17 marks
  • Band 4.5: 13-15 marks
  • Band 4.0: 11-12 marks

Note: half marks are NOT given when marking individual answers. An answer is either right (1 mark) or wrong (0 marks).

IELTS Listening Tips

1. Read the questions and identify keywords.

At the start of each part of the test, you have time to read the instructions and questions. There are 2 things you should do in this time: firstly, read the instructions so that you are clear what to do. Secondly, look at each of the 10 questions and underline one or two keywords for each question (keywords are important content words). This will help you to identify what to listen for when answering each question.

Knowing the questions before you listen is like having a map of the audio recording: you will know what’s coming up, and you will be better able to predict the content of each part.

2. Listen to the description of the situation

Listen carefully to the description of the situation / context at the start of each part.

e.g. “You will hear a woman ordering some clothes from a mail order company by telephone.” or “You will hear a talk about the history of the Mediterranean Sea.”

Understanding the context will help you to predict and understand the content of the recording.

3. Write your answers on the question paper

The audio recording in the listening test lasts for around 30 minutes. During this time, write your answers down on the question paper.

Don’t worry about the spelling of words while you are listening to the recordings – you already have too much to think about – UNLESS the word is spelled out in the recording (e.g. someone’s name).

Write your answers clearly. If you write too quickly, you may not be able to read your answers when you transfer them to the answer sheet.

When the audio recording is finished, you have 10 minutes to transfer your answers to the answer sheet.

4. Listen for answers in the plural

If the answer to a question is in the plural (e.g. “goals”) but you write the answer in the singular (e.g. “goal”), it will be marked as incorrect. So listen carefully for plural words. Many students have difficulties with this.

5. Learn to write while listening

You must constantly listen to the test, or you risk missing information that will help you to answer a question. This means that you need to be able to write AND listen AT THE SAME TIME. For example, if you hear the answer to question 8, you must write this down while listening for the answer to question 9.

Many IELTS test takers find this skill very difficult, so it’s something you should practise.

6. Some answers come quickly, some slowly

The answers to questions in the IELTS Listening Test do not come at a steady, regular pace.

Sometimes 2 or 3 answers will come close together. This is quite common in completion tasks, such as note completion or form completion tasks. (This is another reason why you need to be able to write while listening!)

On the other hand, don’t panic if there is a long gap between answers. This often happens in Part 4 of the test.

7. If you don’t know the answer, guess

If you don’t know an answer, just take a guess. You won’t lose any marks if your answer is wrong.

8. Check the number of words to write

Many questions will tell you how many words to write in your answers (e.g.“Write ONE word only” or “Write TWO words and / or a number”). Read this instruction carefully, and check the number of words in your answer. If the instruction says “write ONE word only” and you write two words, it will be marked as incorrect. Many test takers lose marks because they write too many words.

Note: hyphenated words (e.g. “word-of-mouth” are one word).

9. Write the letter if asked, not text

Many questions ask you to write a letter (e.g. “Choose the correct letter, A, B or C.” Make sure you write the letter, NOT the text next to the letter.

10. Don’t worry if you don’t understand everything in the recording

Remember that you don’t need to understand everything in the IELTS listening test. Your task is simply to find the answers to those 40 questions. Most of what you hear in the recording will simply be extra information.

11. If you miss the answer, don’t panic

If you miss the answer to a question, don’t panic. It’s gone. Forget it. Just get ready for the next question.

12. Beware of distractors

Distractors are pieces of information that make you think you have the answer to a question…but it is not.

For example, one speaker might say something that you think is the answer to a question, but the question is actually about a different speaker.

For example, let’s say the question is “Which football team does Bob support?” The dialogue might go like this:

Caroline: I support Bayern Munich.
Bob: I really like Hertha Berlin.

In this dialogue, you hear the word “support”. Some people might assume the answer ios coming next, so they write “Bayern Munich”. But this is Caroline speaking, not Bob. Also when Bob speaks, he uses the words “really like” rather than “support”. These mean the same thing, but might confuse you.

13. Beware of changed information

A similar difficulty is when information changes. This is quite common in form completion tasks.

For example, the question might ask you to write down the street number in an address. The dialogue might go like this:

Speaker 1: “Your address is 30 Acacia Avenue, isn’t it?”
Speaker 2: “No. It’s 13 Acacia Avenue, one – three.”

The problem here is that many test takers will write down “30” because they hear it first. But Speaker 2 then corrects Speaker 1, so the answer is “13”.

Another example is when speakers are making plans, but then change their plans.

For example, the question might ask you to write down a meeeting time. The dialogue might go like this:

Speaker 1: “Let’s have lunch on Thursday at 3pm.”
Speaker 2: “Oh, no I can’t do that. I’m at the dentist’s then.”
Speaker 1: “Ok, let do Thursday at 10am then.”

So here, the answer to the question was changed, but many test takers will write “3pm” and ignore the change to “10am”.

So be ready for “answers” that are not the correct answer.

14. Transfer your answers carefully

At the end of the test, you have ten minutes to transfer your answers to the answer sheet. Do this carefully! If you make a mistake when transferring the answers, it will be marked as wrong.

  • Make sure you write the answer against the correct question number – this is easy to get wrong.
  • Make sure your writing is clear  – if the examiner can’t read your answer clearly, it will be marked as wrong.
  • And remember, check your spelling.

15. Check your spelling

When you transfer your answers to the answer sheet, make sure you check your spelling. An incorrect spelling will be marked as incorrect.

You can use either British or American spellings for words, but be consistent.

16. Write in capital letters

Write your answers in CAPITAL LETTERS. These are often easier to read. Also, you don’t risk losing marks for writing the names of proper nouns (e.g. Edinburgh, Russia) incorrectly.

How To Prepare For The IELTS Listening Test

It’s really important to practise the listening test before you do it. I vividly remember the first time I tried to do an IELTS Listening Test. It was many years ago, in a classroom in Budapest, and I’d just started teaching IELTS. I thought I’d do a complete test along with my students, So I sat down with them, paper and pencil ready. As a native English speaker, I thought this would be easy. How wrong I was…especially when we got to Part 4!!!

The reason I found the test difficult had nothing to do with my language skills. It’s because I had never actually practised doing the test. But after just a couple of practice tests, I knew what to expect, and my scores increased significantly.

1. Practise the test

You should practise a complete listening test before you sit your actual test. In fact, you should do this several times. This is important for several reasons:

1. The audio recording will be played only once. In the English language classroom, students are used to listening to an audio recording two or more times. This is not the case in the IELTS test, so you have to practise getting your answers from only one listening. This is difficult, so you need to practise this.

2. You need to practise writing an answer for one question while listening for the answer to the next question. This is a multitasking skill that we don’t normally need to use, but it’s a vital skill for success in the IELTS Listening Test. Doing practice tests will help you develop this skill.

3. The IELTS Listening Test requires you to concentrate at a very high level for 30 minutes. This is a difficult skill and many students find they lose concentration at times during the test, so they miss answers or make mistakes. Practising tests will help you build up your concentration skills.

Use authentic tests

IT IS ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL that you use authentic IELTS papers when you practise the test, such as those published by Cambridge English (Collins and MacMillan are also reputable publishers). Authentic tests are very carefully worded; but many tests found online are badly written. Badly written tests can be very confusing to answer, and sometimes impossible to answer.

Scroll down for some authentic practice tests.

Use the official answer sheet

At the end of the listening test, you have to transfer your answers to the answer sheet. You should practise doing this before you do your actual test, and it’s a good idea to use the official IELTS listening answer sheet. You can download it here. (The design of this sheet in yopur actual test may be a little different to this.)

2. Improve Your Micro-Skills

If you find that your listening scores aren’t improving, despite doing lots of practice tests, you may need to work on improving your micro-skills.

Listening requires a number of small skills, or micro-skills, to do well, and IELTS tests a range of these, including:

  • your ability to distinguish between different speakers
  • your ability to identify distractors (see above)
  • your ability to recognise paraphrase
  • your ability to categorise
  • your ability to predict answers
  • and many more.

The best way to develop your micro-skills is to buy an IELTS coursebook which includes exercises to help you improve these skills. Excellent coursebooks include IELTS Express, Collins Listening for IELTS, and The Official Cambridge Guide To IELTS.

I hope these facts and tips help you prepare for the IELTS Listening Test effectively. And if you think others will find this page useful, please share it.

Thanks for reading, and good luck with the IELTS Test.

About the author

Charlie is a former IELTS Examiner with 25 years' teaching experience all over the world. His courses, for both English language learners and teachers, have been taken by over 100,000 students in over 160 countries around the world.