In this week’s tutorial, we take a look at some advice for the IELTS Listening test.
In this tutorial we will:
- Look at the marking criteria for the test
- Look at some listening strategies you can apply
- Talk about how to prepare and practice for the exam
IELTS listening: what’s the score?
You probably won’t be surprised to learn that many well prepared IELTS candidates whose scores in Reading, Speaking and even Writing average at least 7.0 and above, are disappointed with their result in Listening. “I got 6.0. A 6.0 in Listening! After so many years studying English. And I needed to get a 7.0 in all four areas.”
Yes, it happens. Not to everyone. . But it does and let’s be honest, it really shouldn’t. Now then, I know that there are lots of IELTS practice materials and of course it is very important to practice as much as possible, to do tests and check your score regularly. But, apart from practice, what else can we do to make sure we get the score we deserve? Let’s start from the beginning: the test itself.
1. Know the test
You know this but it’s a good idea to go over it again.
- The test lasts 30 minutes
- You answer 40 questions
- There are 4 sections
- The 4 sections are different
- There is a variety of question types
What does this information tell me?
Well, apart from anything else, that there’s no time to waste in this test. No time to work out what to do. In other words, you need to have your plan in mind before the test begins. Luckily, in (d) and (e), we know what to expect. The 4 sections always follow the same pattern. The types of questions are varied but we can also see repeated patterns. Let’s look at these two aspects in a little more detail.
2. Know the sections
Two important things to keep in mind: what general purpose does each section have and how many people speak in each. When I say “purpose”, I mean not just the aim of the spoken communication but what listening skill or skills the exam is testing. It is a good idea to keep this in mind so if, for example, you find it hard to understand everything when 2 or more people are speaking or you find it difficult to follow an academic type talk, then concentrate on improving in those particular areas. Know your strengths. But recognise and work on your weaknesses.
So, in brief each section aims to:
Section 1 (questions 1-10): Tests your ability to understand English in everyday situations such as making inquiries. Always 2 speakers.
Section 2 (questions 11-20): Work or study related talk providing information. You listen for specific details. Just 1 speaker.
Section 3 (questions 21-30): A small group discussion about studies. At least 2, possibly more speakers.
Section 4 (questions 31-40): A talk in the style of an academic lecture. Always 1 speaker.
3. Apply listening strategies from the start
We are already applying strategies. Knowing what to expect is a strategy. Also, the knowledge that the listening exercises are easier at first but become progressively more difficult. Generally speaking, listening to 3 people talking is more difficult than listening to 1. A university style talk is more difficult than making a hotel reservation. In other words, if Section 1 is the easiest part, then we must get off to a good start. Now, before we look at the types of questions asked and how they relate to each section, take a look at these other general tips.
4. Use time to read the questions
You are given time to look at the questions before you answer each section. This is very valuable time that you must use well for several reasons. First, it tells you what the listening is about. If Section 1 is titled “Cookery Classes” and a quick look at the page gives me “small classes”, “discount”, “includes recipes” and “a special course in skills”, I am prepared for what will undoubtedly be an inquiry about these classes and the provision of information.
Second, I use the time to see exactly what I have to do. What type of listening exercise is it? Now then, staying with our Section 1 for a while longer, the type of exercise most common here is that which requires you to fill in a table with just ONE WORD AND/OR A NUMBER in each of 10 spaces. If I am using these precious seconds before I listen to see what the topic is, I am also using this time to work out what kind of word I need in each space, For example, gap 1 is “how to ..(1) .. and cook with seasonal products”. The missing word must be a verb. The grammar tells me that. Question 7, on the other hand, is “The …(7) .. Centre. It has to be the name of the centre.
So, I am using grammatical knowledge and probably topic knowledge along with my familiarity of the typical IELTS questions, to help me even before the listening as such has begun. And I have to do this for each section. I am not saying that is so easy. It needs real effort and concentration but by the time you present the exam, you will have practised this on numerous occasions, so don’t worry.
5. Speed and patience
The listening has begun and the questions are coming fast but, wait, not all the time. Especially in Sections 2 to 4, you find that they give you a short time to become accustomed if you like to the topic before the questions come flying. You need to keep a balance between working on the question and listening at the the same time.
One piece of advice. Almost everyone will “miss” a question. Maybe you just didn’t catch it, it was too fast. Do not worry. You should try to look at more than one question at the same time. Let’s say at a minimum of two questions. In that way, if the first escapes you, you will be ready for the second.
Also, of course, you will have a short time at the end to fill out your answer sheet and there is no problem if you fill any unanswered question with a reasoned guess. You may be lucky at getting it right!
6. Clues and questions
We already know that we have this vital time before each section begins to look over the question and make important decisions as to the topic and aspects such as grammatical category. But it goes much further than that. We have to be so familiar with the question types that in an instant we know what we have to do.
Generally speaking, there are 3 basic question types.
- FILL IN/COMPLETION
- MULTIPLE CHOICE
In practice, these 3 basic types have their variations, however. I would like to repeat again the importance of knowing your own strengths and weaknesses well through practice and then to work on turning any weakness into a strength. Let’s look for example at possible “weaknesses” we might face with each type.
FILL IN & COMPLETION
Typical tasks are to fill with a one word and/or a number, a Table or a set of notes or summary.
That doesn’t appear so difficult BUT often in Section 1 you are asked to spell something ( a name, an address). You have to get it right. If one letter is wrong, you will receive no credit.
The same will happen if you don’t spell a word correctly in any gap.
So, if spelling is a weakness, work on it. If hearing letters read out is your problem, work on it. Some tips here are universal: make sure you can distinguish the vowel sounds (a, e, i, o, u). Be certain too of some consonants that can be tricky, such as g, j, b, v. One simple way is to classify the sounds into groups:
A, H,J, K,
B, C, D, E, G, P, T, V, Z
F, L, M, N,S, X
Q, U, W
A very familiar comprehension testing technique and in IELTS listening always with 3 choices (Choose the letter, A, B, or C). Good, where’s the problem, if any? Look out for those small differences between options and listen very carefully! The differences might be a question of difference in verb meaning: may do v. wants to do v. will do, for example.
And sometimes you think you have the answer, but the speaker goes on to correct themselves or give slightly different information for example:
“So we’ll send the draft version to our tutor then.
“Yes, alright. But shouldn’t we read them over ourselves again first?”
“I don’t know. Let’s ask Emily what she thinks.”
A matching exercise can ask you to match a series of answers each identified by a letter to a set of corresponding questions. In principle, that is not so difficult but it is a good idea to be as familiar as you can with this type of exercise though practice.
Be aware also that for this and all the different question types, the key information is sometimes repeated.
7. Prepare and Practice
There are a multitude of IELTS listening tests sources for anyone to practice. Do these tests on a regular basis. Check your score. See where and why you got an answer wrong. To obtain a 7.0¨or higher, you should aim for 34 or more on the listening test.
At the same time, the more you actively listen to all kind of sources, the better your listening comprehension will be. By “actively”, I mean listen with a purpose in mind. Find topics that interest you first, things that you know something about. Listen in to a podcast, a TED talk or whatever and write down a short summary after of what you hear. What new things did you learn? Listen again to parts you found difficult and try to work out why you found those parts hard to understand.
We all have personal preferences: I would recommend podcasts from sites such as www.theguardian.com/uk, www.bbc.com, or other UK sources such as The Independent or the Economist. But that’s because I’m British. You must feel free yourself to make your own choices and remember that the range of different varieties of English in terms of accents in IELTS is fairly wide. Accents from the UK, Ireland, Australia, the USA BUT all will be clear and intelligible.
If you need more help with your IELTS LIstening, take a look at some of our tutorials to help you prepare for the exam:
You can download or listen to the audio version here: