IELTS listening tips

These tips are divided into IELTS listening exam specific skills / tips and then general English language listening skills.

A lot of students over focus on the IELTS exam skills and forget that language skills will always come before exam skills.

14 Listening tips for your IELTS exam

  1. Attempt all questions – there are no penalties for incorrect answers. Be careful to not waste time on a question that you don’t know though - guess and move on.
  2. Watch out for plurals in answers. If the question requires a plural answer, a singular answer is incorrect.
  3. Answers appear in the order they are heard in the audio. They come quickly or with large gaps between them.
  4. Prepare to hear a potential answer that is not the actual answer. This is common when two people are making plans. They first agree on meeting at a certain time, but then one remembers that they cannot so they decide on a new time.
  5. Take care when you transfer your answers and pay attention to the word limit for your answers on your answer sheet!
  6. Multiple choice answers will ask for a letter (a, b, c, d). Write the letter and not the corresponding answer.
  7. When asked to complete a sentence using no more than two words, and the correct answer is “leather coat,” then “a coat made of leather” is incorrect. Same goes for numbers.
  8. Hyphenated words (like “part-time”) are considered as one word.
  9. A date (1990) is considered one number.
  10. Focus on what the speaker is saying not how they say it.
  11. Don’t take notes in complete sentences – jot down the key points and abbreviate. You only need to write down enough to help your memory later.
  12. Get the habit of distinguishing between essential and non-essential information. If two people are talking about making plans for a dinner date, the important information is the date/time they finally agree upon. Other dates/times they considered become irrelevant.
  13. Try to guess what the speaker is going to say. Speakers, will often drop clue words or outline what they will to talk about beforehand. This gives you the ability to start your own outline to then fill in.
  14. Listen to IELTS podcast, take notes and improve your note-taking skills.

IELTS listening tips to predict answers in the listening exam

  • You have the opportunity to read the questions before listening to the recording. Take advantage of this!
  • The questions can help you determine what type of answer you’re looking for. For example, if you have the following question:
  • “He would like to meet in ____________.”
  • The preposition “in” clues you into the type of answer you should be looking for.
  • The answer in this case has to be either a period of time (2 days), a month (April), a year (2018), or a season (Winter).

Different prepositions will dictate different answers.

Here are some examples:

Preposition: AT

Possible answer: Time, Part of Day, Place

Examples: 9pm, dawn, the restaurant

Preposition: IN

Possible answer: Period of Time, Month, Year, Season

Examples: 2 days/hour/minutes, April, 2018, Winter

Preposition: ON

Possible answer: Day, Date

Examples: Monday, January 15th (or 15th of January)

Preposition: no preposition

Possible answer: Person other

Examples: Emily now, at once, tomorrow, next year, this afternoon, person

What happens on the listening test?

The IELTS listening test is designed to assess how well you can:

  1. Understand both main ideas and detailed information
  2. Recognise the opinions and attitudes of a speaker
  3. Follow the development of an idea or argument

IELTS listening test structure

  • The listening test is the same for IELTS academic and IELTS general training and they are scored in the same way.
  • You will listen to four different recordings and then answer 10 written questions for each (40 in total)
  • You will only hear each recording once.
  • You have 40 minutes for all four sections.  30 minutes to listen to the recordings and write your answers on the question paper. Then 10 minutes to transfer these to the answer sheet.

- The recordings and questions get more difficult as the test progresses:

Section 1 is two speakers having an everyday conversation. They might be making plans for the weekend or discussing where to get dinner that evening.

Section 2 is a monologue (one person talking) about an everyday situation. It may be a speech or a talk about making plans for something.

Section 3 is an academic conversation between up to 4 people.

Section 4 is a monologue on an academic topic.

- The recordings include a range of accents, probably British and Australian, so try to get familiar with these. In this recording we can hear an examiner for the speaking section, but with a Scottish accent. 

You can find more info about the the listening test on the IELTS website.

Sound overwhelming? Don’t stress. We’re going to breakdown the main skills needed to score well on this section exam and outline some tips for you.

Keep track of your results and improvement

For the reading and listening, take practice tests to see where you're losing points.

Practice tests are great because they will show what areas of English are giving you trouble and where to focus your attention in order to improve.

Focus on your weak spots at first before branching out in a new direction!

IELTS writing and listening simultaneously (a key skill!)

Writing while listening is hard if you aim to capture everything.

The key here is that it's not always possible throughout the entire exam so don't let this tactic take up too much time.

This will require you to develop your concentration skills and limit distractions even more so than before because you are now using both of these skills simultaneously.

Concentration skills can be improved through meditation, and practice.

Reverse engineer the reading and listening tests

We also mention this tip in the IELTS Preparation guide.

Find official IELTS exams. Cambridge are the best because they are usually slightly harder than the real test. Make sure you have the answer key. Some people sell it separately.

The Cambridge practice tests are also written by the same professionals who write the official exams.

Sit down with an exam paper and look at the answers first, and then look at the questions.

Work out how the questions are asked, what they ask and how.

This strategy for the IELTS listening test makes it far easier to find answers when you do the real test.

Our IELTS Reading online preparation course is for people who want to score high on the test first time. It has video lessons on how to answer each specific question style. LINK

This is just one of the courses that we offer to help you improve and prepare.

How is the IELTS listening score calculated?

The IELTS listening exam tests English comprehension skills. The examiner looks to see whether you can listen to a piece of information and successfully answer questions.

The listening scores are out of 40 and are calculated based on the number of correct answers. Points are not taken away for incorrect answers.

Once you have completed the listening test you will be graded according to the following bandwidth ranging from a score of 4 to 9.

Five step method for improving your listening skills for IELTS

Improving your listening skills requires active (not passive) listening practice. Focusing on understanding what you are listening to is important when you practice listening. 

The best method to develop this skill is through combining listening and reading. Find audio examples with a text transcript to check your comprehension after listening.  

Step 1: Listen to the audio clip (no reading)

See how much you can understand the general gist and start to pick out keywords.

Step 2: Repeat and repeat again (still no reading!)

Listen to the clip again. Based on what you understood the first time, is there now more that you can pick out?

Continue to listen to the clip several times through to see if you can comprehend a little bit more each time.

Only move to step 3 when you’re not comprehending anything more from the audio. Your goal should be to understand as much as possible from the audio!

Step 3: Read the text

Check your understanding and identify any new vocabulary. See if you can guess the meaning of any new words based on the context before looking them up.

Step 4: Listen with the text

Listen to the pronunciation of phrases and groups of words.

Step 5: Listen a few more times without the text

At this point, you should be able to understand the majority of the clip. Repetition makes it easier to understand the words and phrases when you hear them again.

As Ben W says: REPETITION IS THE MOTHER OF ALL LEARNING.

These steps were adapted from Benny's great blog: FluentIn3Months.

Where can I find IELTS listening exercises?

Listening Resources (authentic native English speaker material)

Below are different resources to help you prepare for the IELTS Listening exam.

  • Leverage Edu - Take a look at this list of movies that can help you improve your listening for the IELTS exam.
  • VOA Learning English – A wide variety of news, science, and general interest audio clips and videos, along with written transcripts (perfect for practicing the 5 steps above!). Transcripts include definitions of key vocabulary words. The site also offers one minute lessons on common English idioms. It also groups News Stories by difficulty.
  • English Test Store –ETS offers listening comprehension exercises like those in IELTS.
  • Exam English REMOVE LINK – Exam English provides test prep resources including practice tests and exercises. You’ll find IELTS specific exercises. Try the listening exercises for other exams. Start at a lower level and progress as your skills improve.
  • Lyrics Gaps – This is a fun one. This site turns music videos into game-like listening exercises. The music video plays side-by-side with a gap fill.
  • Audible – I have been addicted to their audiobooks since starting. I find them high quality and informative. Because they are interesting I listen right to the end -unlike practice tests which can send me to sleep! Use this link to get a free 30 day trial. 
  • The British Council has a selection of recordings for students. LINK
  • Six Minutes English by the BBC is another fantastic free resource. Here they share every day English, often in a real life situation. There is a free pdf vocabulary resource available too. LINK

How to improve your listening skills

The IELTS listening test requires you to exhibit your comprehension skills. Listening is a skill and the best way to improve your listening, is immersion in the language.

The IELTS exam tests your active listening skills, i.e your ability to extract meaning from conversations or speeches. You also need to improve your focus levels in order to improve your listening skills.

An ability to visualise the words you heard is another skill worth developing. The ability to hold information and construct answers in your mind are two other skills.

On IELTSPodcast, Ben often tells his listeners to grab a pen and take notes, this is another form of active listening.

Stronger Vocabulary

Another first step for improving your listening score is by building a stronger vocabulary.

Flashcards

When using flashcards make sure that the word is on the front and how to pronounce it is on the back. If you are a visual learner, try making your own flashcards instead of using ones that have already been made. You can upload our vocabulary lists into Quizlet and start practising today. LINK

Passive Vocabulary

Constantly build your passive vocabulary by reading and listening.

Then move these words into your active vocabulary by regularly using them when speaking or writing , so as to develop fluency faster!

When you have a little more time, add context to the new words that you come across - it will help with understanding them for next time too!

Reading

Another strategy to improve your listening score is by reading more. Reading improves vocabulary and also helps you understand sentence structures better.

Personally, I find addictive turn pager novels boost my reading time. Native speakers will read books with a higher vocabulary too, so it is worth the effort.

Listening to the news in English

It may seem like an obvious step given that you are listening for your IELTS test but this can be very useful and helpful. The news is always being broadcast in English and often includes topic specific vocabulary or phrases. The BBC has a wide range of band score improving podcasts available here: LINKS

How to understand native English speakers

Understanding a native English speaker can be a challenge (especially with all the northern accents!).

Recordings and podcasts can definitely help but English pronunciation is complex. 

There are over 20 different vowel sounds and they can difficult to tell apart.

It gets harder with fast speech.

Two words may differ by a single sound but have a very different meaning (minimal pairs). The words van and fan are minimal pairs.

Training your ear to distinguish between the sounds is an important foundational skill.

You can find lots of minimal pairs listening exercises online. English Club has a good one.

Why do native speakers sound like a block of sound!

Native speakers have speech patterns that sounds unique to learners. It's different from textbook or written English.

If you learn what these patterns are, it will be easier to understand them.

Pattern 1: Contractions

Using contractions is the normal method of speech.

Example: “I am” becomes “I’m,” ”did not” becomes “didn’t” etc.

Pattern 2: Weak forms

Structural words in sentences are often pronounced as their “weak form.”

Example: “to” and “you” on their own are pronounced with a long u: sounds. As a part of sentences though, they are usually pronounced in their weak form with short uh sounds. For more on weak forms and their pronunciation, check out the video below.

Pattern 3: Phonetic links

Any word that starts with a vowel gets linked to a previous word which makes it hard to hear each word distinctly.

Example: “She is interested in it” all runs together and sounds like one word “shezinterestedinit”.

Audio Tutorial - How to Improve for the IELTS Listening Exam

In this IELTS Podcast we give out a few IELTS listening tips on how to perform better on your IELTS listening exam.

We talk about:

  • How to write and listen simultaneously – a vital skill.
  • How to predict answers in the IELTS listening exam.
  • Understanding the proper native use of collocations.
  • Recognising the points of your IELTS listening exam where should you be paying more attention to your examiner speak.

IELTS listening test audio and answer sheet downloads

Listening practice test 1 - questions (PDF)
Listening practice test 1 - answers (PDF)

Now take the IELTS listening sample test online from the British Council, click here.

Here are some tutorials to help you with your IELTS listening preparation