How to prepare for IELTS Listening

To improve your grade in the IELTS Listening Test, you need to work on several skills:

a) Developing a wider vocabulary

b) Recognising words and ideas quickly when you hear them

c) Connecting language you hear on the audio recording to language you see on the question paper.

If you can improve these skills, you can improve your overall grade.

a) Developing a wider vocabulary

It is true that the language you hear on the audio recording will be at a lower level than language you see in the IELTS Reading Test. However, if you do not recognise 5-10% of the words and phrases you hear, you will struggle to answer the questions.

The language you hear in the IELTS Listening Test is quite different in style from language you normally read. Spoken language tends to be quite different from written language and you need to get used to it. It would be a good idea to read transcripts of IELTS Listening Tests (transcripts are written versions of what you hear during the test) and notice the type of words and phrases used.

Obviously, anything else you can do to widen your vocabulary can help. When you listen to or read something, record new words and phrases. Note down pronunciation, note down the new language in a sentence and make sure you know related words.

b) Recognising words and ideas quickly when you hear them

Many IELTS candidates know nearly all of the words in the Listening Test but cannot recognise them and process them quickly when they hear them. This can be because the words are spoken quickly, because it is difficult for the listener to work out where one word ends and the next word begins, or because the speaker has an unusual or strong accent.

Probably the best way to improve this skill is to listen to very short extracts from IELTS Listening Tests or from other material where the speech can be quite fast but where there are few very difficult words. It is probably a good idea to start with a single sentence or just a few seconds of audio. Listen to it again and again until you understand every word. You can increase the length of the audio recording you listen to when you feel more confident. You will probably find that your ability to recognise and process words you already know increases.

Another skill which you need to develop is predicting. Native-speakers do not listen to every word. They use their knowledge of the language to predict. For example, when native-speakers hear ‘As I…’ they expect the next word to be ‘said’ or ‘mentioned’. Of course they are sometimes wrong but predicting and checking is quicker than listening without predicting. Native-speakers can do this because they have heard so much English and they know which words often go together. If you listen to a lot of English, and especially if you try hard to notice groups of words which go together, you will slowly develop this skill.

c) Connecting language you hear on the audio recording to language you see on the question paper

Even if you understand all the language on the audio recording, you will not be able to answer questions successfully if you cannot connect the language you hear to the language on the question paper. If you hear ‘Driverless cars will appear on our roads in the foreseeable future’ and read ‘We will soon see ________ on the streets’ you will need to know that ‘We will … see’ has a similar meaning to ‘…will appear’, ‘soon’ and ‘…in the foreseeable future’ mean the same in this context and ‘…on our roads’ and ‘…on the streets’ have the same meaning. If you know these three things, you can work out that ‘driverless cars’ is the answer.

To develop this skill you obviously need to widen your vocabulary but you also need to be able to express ideas in two or more different ways. You can develop this skill in two ways: Firstly, you can read texts which do not contain much complex language and try to say each sentence or idea using different words. If you read ‘The level of participation in sport has dropped’, you could re-state this as ‘Fewer people play sport than in the past’ or ‘The number of people playing sport used to be higher than it is now’. Secondly, you could listen to part of an IELTS Listening Test (one sentence at a time and probably starting with Section 2) and think of other ways to say what you hear. For example, if you hear ‘Statistics indicate that life expectancy is continuing to rise’, you could re-state this as ‘People live longer than they used to’. As with other skills, you will improve with practice. This skill will help you to answer questions in the IELTS Listening Test because it will help you connect what you hear with what you read.

Practice makes Perfect

It is a good idea to practise using real IELTS Listening Tests. Most IELTS candidates do a test, check the score and forget about it. This approach will not help much. There are better things you can do:

1. Do a Listening Test as a Reading Test:

Read the transcript (the written version of the audio recording) and answer the questions. This will help you to understand how language you usually hear on the audio recording is connected to language you usually read on the question paper. It will also let you see how different question types work.

2. Do some predicting:

Before you listen to the audio recording for a section, look at the questions for that section. Spend five minutes deciding what information will be on the audio recording. Decide what is the most likely answer for each question. When you have finished, listen to the audio recording and find out if you were right. You will find that if you do this activity quite often, your ability to predict answers before you actually hear them will improve. You can then use this skill in the real IELTS Listening Test.

3. Slow it down and speed it up:

If possible (for example, if you are doing a Listening Test on YouTube) slow down the audio recording a little bit. This should help you to recognise language which you hear. If you have listened to a test at a slower speed, do the test again a few days later at normal speed or even slightly above normal speed. This will allow you to practise recognising words and phrases quickly.

What about specific question types?

You might be surprised that we haven’t concentrated on specific question types such as multiple choice. It is true that you need to develop some specific skills or strategies for each question type and you should certainly practise each question type and analyse the mistakes you make. However, nearly all questions in the IELTS Listening Test focus on two basic skills:

1. The ability to understand words and phrases you hear

2. The ability to connect language you hear with language you see.

If you can develop these skills, your grade for IELTS Listening should improve.