How to score band 9 in IELTS listening

Is a band 9 in IELTS listening possible?

To achieve a band score of 9 in IELTS listening you need to be practically perfect.

As you know, the listening test involves answering 40 questions, 10 each on 4 listening sections.

The test lasts around 30 minutes. You then have 10 minutes, in the end, to transfer all your answers to your answer sheet. You hear each listening extract just once. It's no surprise to learn that very few IELTS candidates score 9 in listening or in any part of the test.

In fact, the average score in listening is around 6.5, a score which identifies the test taker as a "competent user" of the language but nowhere near the "expert" level of a band score 9. A 6.5 means getting between 26 and 29 correct answers out of 40. A band score of 9 means 39 or a perfect 40 out of 40. Are you ready for that challenge?

Know the test

Open up any of the official IELTS websites and you will find out all about each section of the exam. Try this one, for example: https://ielts.idp.com/prepare/article-question-types-listening.

There is all is exam length, features of the four listening test sections and the types of questions associated with each of them. Take some time to read through this so that the connections between what they are testing in each part and the ways they do this becomes clear.

The first thing to notice is increasing complexity.

The first listening is always a two-way conversation where information of some kind is asked for and given. Check through the many practice tests to see what contexts are involved. Test 1, listening 1 (at https://takeielts.britishcouncil.org/take-ielts/prepare/free-ielts-practice-tests/listening), for example, involves an enquiry clerk at a travel company talking to a man asking about travel arrangements.

The first 5 questions ask you to complete a simple set of notes using no more than 2 words and/or a number for each answer. The information to listen out for is straightforward: the time a train arrives, the number of a bus to take. In the next 5 questions, you complete a table that is partially filled with the costs of several travel fares.

Using just one word or a number, the task is to fill in the blanks. This is testing your ability to understand factual information in an everyday social context.

Section 2 is always a monologue. It's a kind of semi-formal informative talk given in a work, educational or recreational context. Test 2, listening 2 of the same British Council free tests asks 5 multiple choice questions followed by another table completion task.

Section 3 for some is the trickiest part. It involves 3 or maybe 4 speakers talking about something related to their studies. Test 1, Listening 3 involves a teacher and two students discussing an upcoming test and the task is to complete the notes you are given using no more than 3 words for each answer.

The final part of the listening test is a monologue consisting of a talk given on a topic similar to a class or lecture was given in college or university. Test 2 Listening 4 is a lecture on climate change and the task is to complete notes.

For more detailed information on question types and the best strategies to deal with them, check out the article on IELTS Listening Question Types at www.ieltspodcast.com.

Do practice tests

Knowing how the test is structured leads us to try it out to see how we stand. Access to the many IELTS resources whether online or not, couldn't be easier. If you want to take practice tests, you won't have to look far.

The problem is of course is that everyone else will probably do the same. Not only that, doing test after test will no doubt help most test-takers become very familiar with the test format and if you mirror test conditions, provide valuable experience in how to focus and use the time profitably.

On the downside, however, there's always the risk of exam fatigue: you just feel tired of doing the same type of exercise over and over again. Not only that, preparing for any part of the IELTS test must involve learning where your strengths and weaknesses lie and learning from those weaknesses.

Work towards a band 9

There is no magic formula, a set of guaranteed tips to success in IELTS listening or, indeed, in any other part of the test. What there is, however, is good advice, recommendations to think over and try out. Take a look at these. They may not guarantee you a band 9 but if you are willing to put the effort in, you will improve your IELTS score.

Weaknesses

  • Let's start off with the most fundamental of all. Know yourself. Know what you're good at and know where you need to improve. One way to do this of course is by doing one or two of the practice tests and check your score. Look over your incorrect answers and work out why and how you went wrong. This may be something apparently easy, such as spelling correctly (no points for misspelled words) or spelling out the name of someone or something according to the question instructions. The correspondence between English spelling and pronunciation can be surprisingly tricky and this is exactly what the examiners are testing you on. So, if you stumble over sound-letter correspondences (the vowels, especially i and e, some consonants like g, j, k, w) work on them. You cannot afford to lose easy points. Take this example:

OK; I didn't quite catch his surname ...was it M-O-R-N?

No - it's a bit more complicated - it's M-A-U-G-H-A-N

(from the Official Cambridge Cambridge Guide to IELTS)

Grammar and vocabulary

  • IELTS is a test of English. That goes without saying but no matter if we're looking at the speaking, writing, reading or listening part of the test, only those with a native like knowledge and use of grammar and vocabulary will obtain the highest scores possible. That means understanding not only the meaning of words in context but also how they are pronounced, common synonyms and antonyms associated with them and their frequent collocations. When we look in more detail at specific types of ielts listening test questions it becomes clear that the test is as much a test of vocabulary as it relates to meaning than anything else. So, whatever you're doing, be it reading or listening, keep a notebook handy to note down words and their uses and the contexts to which they often belong. (give simple example)

Listening: what, when and how

  • The vocabulary notebook idea is nothing new of course and forms part of how you, as learner to become test taker, is actively learning the language. When it comes to listening this means several things. The first is to listen to a wide range of sources, on a variety of topics. We're lucky these days to have so much listening material open to us, on the whole free of charge to listen to on our desktops, laptops, tablets, smartphones, TVs and radios. There are podcasts and closed -captioned videos beyond our physical capacity take in more than a very small percentage. All this wealth of listening material must come with a few golden rules. Rule number one: listen with a purpose in mind. At first, this might simply be to think of and note down before you listen what you know about the topic and what you predict or expect the listening will be about. Then, while and after you listen, write a summary of what you heard) Rule number two: take advantage of your time. You can listen when you're driving, listen during work breaks, listen while you're doing routine tasks like cleaning, washing clothes or even cooking. Make listening to English part of your daily routine.
  • If you need help looking for podcasts or other audio-video sources, there are always the TED talks (www.ted.com) as well as those available at www.bbc.co.uk or at www.theguardian.com and www.independent.co.uk for British English. Variety of accents, as we will discuss below, is important, so you should also look at leading newspapers from the USA such as www.nytimes.com or just go to https://www.podcastinsights.com/top-us-podcasts/ for a list of over 100 US podcast sites. Let's not forget Australia. Start out with https://www.theaustralian.com.au/podcasts. In the end, there is so much out there. You are sure to find something you like.

Accents

  • IELTS more than other international exams also offers a wide range of accents. Don't be put off by that. You will hear a mix of British, Australaian (mainly Australian but also New Zealand) and American accents in the listening section. It makes sense then to listen to a variety of accents while preparing. Practice tests will give you that variety but if you are not so familiar with or feel less comfortable with one or more of these, spend more time familiarising yourself with them. Remember that the voices you hear in ielts listening tests will all be speaking clearly with intelligible regional accents that should not be at all difficult to understand. It's not as if you´ll be listening to marked local accents that we often hear in films and TV shows.

Focus: control and concentration

  • The listening test is 30 minutes of intense concentration. The recording is not repeated so you must be 100 per cent. If you switch off even for a second or two, you could miss a couple of questions and say goodbye to your perfect score of 9.0.
  • Remember that in the reading and writing sections of ielts, time is extremely important but you control it. You know how much time you have and, consequently, can adopt tactics such as answering questions in the order you think fit, the easier ones first, for example. In the listening section, you have no control over time. You listen, you answer in sequence. On the other hand, you do have those precious moments, 30 seconds in fact, before the listening starts to look through the questions to be asked. This time you must use to the maximum.
  • How to use those 30 seconds. On your desk, the sheet with the questions. Your hear the following:
  • Section 4. You will hear a lecture on climate change. First you have some time to look at questions 31 to 40 (https://takeielts.britishcouncil.org/take-ielts/prepare/free-ielts-practice-tests/listening-2/section-4)

Switch on immediately to the topic of climate change. Skim through the questions: In a few seconds I can see it's a note completion exercise divided into 3 main sections (Human Factors, Known Effects and Future Effects) and there are other keywords that stand out such as Cutting down trees for ..... (some purpose?) The instructions tell me a maximum of 2 words and/or a number for each answer, so I'm thinking maybe "building houses" or something like that. In the Future Effects part, there are 2 columns and the one on the right is titled Number of people at risk so I'd better listen out for specific numbers.

I can underline a few keywords, think of the grammar of the words to fill in, as with cutting down trees for...the next word is very likely to be a noun (homes), a gerund (construction) or an adjective-noun combination (urban development). I can't be absolutely sure of course the exact words but I have a general idea.

  • As soon as those precious seconds are up, attention switches to listening. You'll read a lot of comments on multi-tasking when discussing the ielts listening test and, yes, you listen, read and write . So, listening attentively also means with an eye on those questions. We know they come in the same order that we hear them on the tape. We also know that, apart from getting a number perfectly right, a dictated word perfectly spelt, with other options (marking a letter from A to D in multiple choice, for example), there is no need to worry too much about writing before those final 10 minutes of transferring my answers to the answer sheet.

Distractors

  • The high score you want means little or no room for error. Ielts preparation including exam listening practice teaches us to look out for distractors, when we hear what seems like the answer to a question but then the speaker corrects him or herself, backtracks and gives another answer, the one we're looking for. Most IELTS practice materials come accompanied by the tapescripts. After you do a practice test, look carefully through the script and take note as to how these distractors are used. The correct answers are usually underlined to make your follow up task even simpler.

Beyond 30 minutes

  • Those fond of giving listening tips to test takers often tell you not to panic. Don't panic if you miss an answer. It can happen to anyone I know: a momentary lapse of concentration. We can recover and even use those last 10 minutes to find the time to fill in the one or two questions we missed, using what we know to make a reasonable guess at the correct answer. Why we lose concentration is another matter. Could it be lack of practice in listening attentively to English for 30 minutes? After all, in many real-life contexts it is not normal to be so highly concentrated on one skill for such a length of time. If you're in a classroom for example, there'll be a lot going on simultanteously most of the time. You are very rarely required to listen without intervention for 30 minutes. Even watching a film or TV programme, there will be visual input and it's very unlikely we will be asked specific comprehension questions about what we are watching. So, it is important to build up and beyond these 30 minutes during ielts preparation. Returning briefly to the variety of listening sources we can access, try listening or watching/listening for increasing time period. Choosing source materials that you are interested in and will enjoy listening to is the key: exam preparation does not have to be stressful.