IELTS Listening Tips: Master What You Hear

listening skillsIELTS.  If you’re reading this post, you should know what these letters stand for: International English Language Testing System.  This is an international standard and assesses the English language proficiency of people who want to study or work in areas where English is the primary language of communication.  IELTS test for speaking, writing, reading and listening, and the last of these, listening, is the focus of this article.  While speaking is arguably the hardest section, you don’t want to miss points on listening, which can help balance out your test scores.  Following is a list of tips to help you make the most of the listening section of the test.  As I stress repeatedly below, you will greatly benefit from boosting your proficiency in English pronunciation.

Bloody British

The test is largely formatted around British English.  Studying American English will only take you so far.  You need to become accustomed to the nuances of British accents (try listening to British radio or watching British TV and movies for free practice), you need to understand the slight differences in pronunciation (this will help you avoid misspelling words and numbers), and, of course, you need to learn British expressions.  Again, if you have been studying American English, you might not recognize, or recognize quickly enough, the fact that a British advertisement is called an “advert,” or that a cracker is really a “biscuit.”

To help you with your studies, here is an intermediate English course for non-native speakers focusing on British and American English.  Literally, perfect.


This cannot be stressed enough.  Yes, the IELTS require you to be able to spell words correctly.  If you can’t spell, you’re going to fail the listening section of the test, not to mention the writing section.  At least be prepared to spell common words in English.  And don’t miss easy points by forgetting to capitalize proper nouns and names.

Listening for Answers

Focus all of your concentration on the recordings from the second they begin.  All—I repeat, all—of the answers can be found in the recordings.  Even the introductory clauses are important; it will be vital to distinguish between, “You will hear a conversation…” and “You will hear a lecture…”  The topic is often as important as the language it contains.  The test will not specify these things, so listen up.

While I highly recommend taking as many practice tests as you can, this will not teach you enough about listening.  Practice tests will inevitably improve your score and make you more comfortable with the format of the test, but there are so many free ways to improve listening that it would be foolish to pass on these opportunities.  As I already mentioned, British TV and radio are great, but the internet is invaluable.  YouTube alone will have more material than you go cover in a lifetime.

Two more things to be aware of: 1) Instructions.  It’s one of the oldest sayings in the book, but follow instructions carefully.  They differ from test to test.  If the instructions say, “Write your answer in one sentence,” then adhere to these limits.  It doesn’t matter if you something wonderful to say in sentence #2, it’s mere existence will cause you to lose points.  2) The questions more with the oral test.  In other words, question number one will correspond to something earlier in what you hear, while the answer to question five will be found much later.

For more listening practice, check out this listening-troubleshooting for people learning English as a second language.

By Section

Section 3:  Historically, this section concerns education.  Going back to what I said earlier, make sure you’re familiar with appertaining vocabulary, and an overview of university education probably isn’t a bad idea, either.

Section 4:  Expect a lecture here and a considerable amount of reading to go along with it.  You’ll be facing multiple-choice questions, but don’t be fooled into thinking that makes this section easier.  The options will be oral, as well, which will make this section all the more difficult.  You can spend precious time debating between choices, so keep diligent track of time.

In General

Here are just a few things that will help you throughout the test:

  • If you don’t know the answer to a question, don’t get hung up on it.  Move on and come back to it later.
  • If there are words you don’t understand, don’t panic.  Just keep listening and you might be able to figure it out through context clues.  There’s even the possibility that the word you don’t know is irrelevant, in which case worrying about it is a colossal waste of time.  If you’re struggling with the entire section, there’s only one thing to do: relax and try to paint the bigger picture.
  • If the speaker is talking a mile-a-minute, or if the subject matter is daunting, again, just try to relax.  They are likely trying to intimidate you, and most of the time just keeping your cool will allow you to understand the information you are intended to hear.
  • If at all possible, try to anticipate what the speaker is going to say next and where the topic is headed.  This won’t be easy, but it’s great practice and will pay enormous dividends.
  • You will have 30 seconds after each section to check and/or modify your answers, as well as ten minutes at the end of the test to transfer answers onto the answering sheet.  Nothing hurts worse than writing the right answer in the wrong place; while you should use this time wisely, consider it wise not to rush.


Don’t let an opportunity pass you by.  If you don’t know an answer, guess.  Don’t leave any questions blank.  You won’t lose points for a wrong answer, so you might as well try your luck.  If you’re just embarking down the long road of IELTS studying, the best place to start is with an overview of English grammar.  Keep your ears open, and good luck!