100 IELTS Listening tips

Summary: 100 tips on IELTS Listening exam tactics, preparation, dos and don'ts, and materials to get a better score

This article gives 100 hints on how to practise, prepare for and take the IELTS Listening test, including specific tips on each kind of task, in approximate order in how useful the tips are. There are also similar articles on this site with 100 tips on teaching IELTS Listening, and on taking and teaching IELTS Speaking and Writing. For photocopiable copies of some of the tasks described here, see our ebook Teaching IELTS Speaking: Interactive Classroom Activities.

25 taking the IELTS Listening test tips

  • When you have time to read through the questions before the recording starts, you should always underline what seem to be the key words
  • Especially with multiple-choice questions, the key words which you underline should be related to how they will probably try to trick you, e.g. “had his hair cut” if the recording might say “cut his own hair”
  • There’s no point reading too far ahead, because you will forget half of what you have underlined by the time the recording starts. Instead, you should read just up to where the next part of the recording will take you, then spend any extra time guessing what can go in the gaps, thinking about how words in the question might be rephrased in the recording, etc.
  • Listen carefully for which questions you need to answer with the next section of the listening, particularly listening for whether one kind of task or more than one kind of task is included in that part. Then prepare to listen to that section without any pauses.
  • Instead of staring into space while you wait to open the exam booklet, listen carefully to the instructions as a way of warming your brain up to listening to English.
  • There are often phrases which let you know that the real answer is going to follow like “So, finally, we picked…” and that let you know that what was just said was the right answer like “… and everyone agreed”, so listen out for these and then underline them in the recording transcript
  • There are often phrases that show that the last thing mentioned was not the right answer like “… but it was sold out so we had to…”, and that the next thing to be mentioned won’t be the right answer like “Initially, we thought about…”, so you can use these to cross of wrong options
  • Ten minutes is more than enough time to copy all your answers onto the answer sheet, so you definitely shouldn’t try to do this as you are listening
  • Double check that you copied each answer into the right square on the separate answer sheet, as you will get no marks for a correct answer that is written in the wrong box
  • Make sure that you keep in mind the question or two after the one that you need to answer next, to make sure that you aren’t thrown into a panic if you miss the answer to the next question
  • You don’t lose additional marks for wrong guesses, so it’s never a good idea to leave blanks on your answer sheet
  • Remember that all IELTS candidates take the same listening test, so if you need anything below 9.0, there will always be questions which are almost impossible for which you just need to quickly guess the answer before the next question comes
  • Although you have to wait to open the listening paper, after that you are free to turn over the next page and start writing on the answer sheet whenever you are ready (including before the recording tells you to)
  • If you are sure that you have the right answer to the last question of that section of the listening, check that you haven’t left any gaps, then turn the page and quickly start reading through the next part of the test
  • It’s a bad idea to take notes while you are listening, as it will make you concentrate on some parts which you didn’t understand to answer the questions
  • Particularly if the recording has some difficult vocabulary that not everyone will know, the recordings often have additional information that something is or isn’t correct (mostly commonly with multiple choice and matching tasks), so don’t stop listening as soon as you think you hear the answer
  • If you think you know exactly what the answer is before listening, you are probably wrong, because the questions are carefully designed to make that impossible
  • To warm up for IELTS Listening on the day of the exam, try listening to something easy and/ or familiar such as a radio station with an English-speaking DJ or a read through of a favourite English children’s book
  • Don’t do any IELTS practice such as IELTS Listening tests on the morning before the exam (and probably not the night before either), as it’s too late to have much effect, and it will make you stressed and tired
  • It’s very common for there to be a change in task (e.g. from multiple choice to gapfill) in the same listening extract, and this sometimes happens without a pause, so make sure that you listen for which questions are coming up next, and look ahead if you have answered the last of one kind of question but the recording continues
  • You should quickly guess any answers you are not sure about as you listen (perhaps with a question mark to show that it’s a guess), as you will have forgotten everything about it by the time the test ends
  • It’s worth listening for how speakers use intonation, pausing and phrases like “So, moving onto…” to change topic, as that is probably a hint that the next answer is coming (and perhaps that you have missed the previous answer)
  • All answers must be written with pencil (to be marked by computers)
  • The questions are always in the same order as the listening, so you only need to listen out for the next question and the one or two that come after it
  • The examiner will never see your question sheet, so you can write anything on there that you like


34 IELTS Listening gapfill task tips

  • In gapfill tasks, the gaps can always be filled by exactly the words in the recording (with no changes necessary)
  • Although changes from what is said in the recording are not necessary, it’s worth checking that what you write fits the gap (in terms of grammar and sense), as you might have misheard the word(s)
  • The words before and after the gap are usually different from what you hear, so you need to listen out for how those bits are rephrased
  • Things that you can predict about what goes in a gap before and during listening include what kind of words should be there (a noun, a place, an adverb, etc), what range of different answers are possible (e.g. two to four days if it is a short trip), and if a positive word or negative word is likely
  • You will usually have to write numbers in at least one gap, so make sure that you know how to recognise times (including the longer “quarter past seven in the morning” way), small numbers, big numbers, dates, telephone numbers, room numbers, prices/ money, etc
  • There is almost always something that is spelt out in Listening Part 1, so make sure you don’t get confused between similar letters like B and V, the British and American pronunciations of R, and UU and W
  • The words that are spelt out in Listening Part 1 are almost always names which are not usual English words such as “Marlborough”, so get ready for such words to be spelt out for you
  • In the rare case that the names of people, places, etc in Part 1 are also normal words such as “Mr Green” and “High Street”, don’t expect these to be spelt
  • The other person asking for info in Part 1 will often confirm what was said (reading the telephone number back, etc), so it’s worth continuing to listen to check you got the right answer
  • Make sure that you don’t get confused between the different gapfill instructions “… words or a number”, “… words or numbers”, “… words and/ or a number” and “… words and/ or numbers”
  • A spelling mistake means no mark, so check all your spellings
  • A grammar mistake means no mark, so make sure that you write the correct tense, include or avoid -s, etc
  • To check if you have written down the correct letters for something that is spelt out for you, also listen out for how the speakers pronounce the word(s) and check that the letters you have written down could be pronounced that way
  • Remember that IELTS Listening marks come from answering the questions, not from how well you understand the listening overall, so just try to catch the important information to do the tasks, ignoring everything else.
  • Numbers can be written as words or figures, but the latter is almost always easier.
  • In gapfill tasks, the gaps can always be filled by words just taken from the recording (with no grammatical changes etc being needed), but other words which have exactly the same meaning are okay if you caught the meaning but not the exact words
  • Common mistakes in IELTS Listening gapfill tasks include missing final -s in plurals, writing too many words to match the instructions, and choosing options which have the same key words as you hear without thinking about what the whole sentence means
  • If you have extra time after writing all your answers (including guesses) on the separate answer sheet, you should double check that you followed the instructions on how many words and/ or numbers, as you will get no mark if you break the rules
  • If you have extra time after writing all your answers on the separate answer sheet and guessing any you missed, you can double check that the words you wrote in the gaps fit grammatically, e.g. that you wrote a plural where one is needed
  • Although the answers tend to be quite well spaced out in the listening, they can occasionally be close together, so don’t stop listening as you write down answers
  • As well as synonyms, rephrasing in the recording could include opposites and examples of the words in the tasks
  • There are no half marks in the Listening, so make sure everything is completely correct
  • You can change your answers on your answer sheet with an eraser and pencil, but make sure that the previous answer is completely erased so the computer can’t get confused
  • Students who change their mind later are as likely to change it from right to wrong as from wrong to right, so only make changes if you are absolutely sure that your first guess was wrong
  • You can leave most checking of spelling until you transfer your answers to the answer sheet, but make sure that you can remember what word you wrote
  • There is usually quite a lot of speaking before the answer to the first question of each section, so don’t be caught out when that info finally comes
  • There is usually some speaking after the answer to the last question of each section, at which time you should check you have answered every question and then turn to the next section as quickly as you can
  • Listening to people’s intonation can sometimes help confirm if they agree or disagree, feel positive or negative, etc
  • Perhaps the most important bad habit to break is still thinking about the last question when the answer to the next question is said
  • Be careful about writing too little information, especially writing answers that lack vital information such as “men” instead of “young men” or “several men”
  • Be careful about writing too much, especially adding unnecessary and wrong detail and going over the word limit for that gap
  • It’s worth learning symbols and abbreviations for units such as $, km, kg and cm, as that will save time and avoid spelling mistakes
  • Be careful with correctly writing compound nouns as one word, two words, or two words joined by a hyphen
  • The official information says that capital letters are not important in the IELTS Listening test, but you may as well write them correctly just in case


IELTS Listening multiple choice task tips

  • There is never enough time to read through multiple choice questions and all the options before the recording starts, so read through all the questions first before you start to look at the options, then underlining more as you listen.
  • If you hear the word you have underlined in one of the options, you should listen carefully to check if the whole sentence means the same as the answer, as it’s usually (but not always) a trick
  • Sometimes one of the multiple-choice options is not mentioned at all, so make sure you don’t continue listening for it when the recording has moved onto the next question
  • With multiple-choice questions, the two wrong options are usually mentioned and shown to be the different from what is written, so can be crossed off to leave just the right option (or to confirm that you found it)
  • Although the numbered questions are always in the same order as the listening, the multiple-choice options may be mixed up
  • If you have eliminated one option and have no idea which of the other two is correct, choose quickly (perhaps with a question mark) while the listening is still in your memory
  • Even if you got the right multiple-choice or matching answer, it’s worth reading through the transcript to see why the other options weren’t correct (even when it is simply that they weren’t mentioned)
  • The correct answers in multiple-choice and matching tasks are the only correct choices (not just the best of the available options). If more than one option seems to be correct, then you have misunderstood the question or the recording


IELTS Listening labelling maps and diagrams task tips

  • There is about a 50% chance of there being a map task in your listening test, so make sure you know many ways in which to explain location (“just behind…”, etc) and directions (“follow the river until you get to…”, etc)
  • Although labelling tasks like writing the names of parts of a machine look tricky, they are actually usually quite straightforward as long as you remember that the questions are in the same order as the recording and are ready to listen for any words which are spelt
  • Studying the language of describing processes and other diagrams is useful for both Listening and Writing Task 1 flowchart tasks


30 self-study for IELTS Listening tips

  • You need to learn to concentrate for the whole Listening test, so you should usually do the whole paper (Part 1 to Part 4) non-stop
  • Almost all of the language in IELTS Listening is worth learning, so make sure you read through the transcripts for useful words, expressions and phrases which you can copy onto your list of things to learn
  • When you are doing practice exams at home, it’s always a good idea to read the transcript to start checking your answers before you look at the answer key, as you will be less motivated to read carefully once you know which answers are correct
  • If there was one part of a listening practice test where you couldn’t catch the right words, you could shadow read that part (listen, read and speak at the same time, to match the speed and rhythm of the speaker) to get used to how it was pronounced. However, avoid too much shadow reading, as it can get you too used to understanding every word.
  • Types of common listening practice which doesn’t particularly help with IELTS include listening to news, non-academic presentations like TED.com, and songs (although all are better than no listening at all)
  • You should generally avoid listening exercises where you have to listen for every word such as dictation tasks, as they include words never needed in IELTS answers like “been”
  • If you find one speaker in a Listening practice test is particularly difficult to understand, try to find out what accent they have, then spend some time watching and listening to things with the same accent (e.g. Australian films if that person was Aussie)
  • If you are only used to American pronunciation, make sure that you do plenty of listening to British and Australian speakers, as they are more common in the test
  • If you are only used to American English, it can be worth studying some basic British and American differences, especially in education vocabulary and pronouncing numbers such as dates
  • If you are practising Listening papers at home, it’s sometimes worth listening again (and even again and again) to try to catch every answer before you check with the transcript and key, as this will improve your listening for detail skills. However, you shouldn’t do this more than once or twice, as it could train you to not listen carefully the first time
  • After doing a practice exam, it’s worth listening and reading at the same time to hear how the words are said in natural speech. However, you shouldn’t do this more than a couple of times, as there is a danger that you get too used to understanding every word and so lose the habit of just picking out the important bits
  • IELTS Listening preparation materials often have problems like the questions being out of order, debateable multiple-choice options, speakers who are too fast or too slow, and too many or too few trick questions/ distractors. You should therefore mainly use official tests.
  • Studying language of agreement and disagreement can be useful for Listening Part 3, Speaking Part Three, and Writing Task Two
  • If not understanding unimportant parts of the listening makes you stressed, it can help to think IELTS Listening as a puzzle rather than as something to try to understand.
  • When you check your answers, don’t forget to check the transcript for why any lucky guesses were actually correct
  • Many IELTS Listening recordings are in academic settings, so it’s worth studying lists of education vocabulary such as “lecturer” and “tutorial”
  • Studying checking/ clarifying language can be useful for IELTS Listening (especially Part 1) and speaking
  • If a word is explained in the recording, it’s probably something that even many native speakers don’t know and is therefore not worth learning
  • Although pronunciation practice is not very useful for the Speaking test, it can help with listening. The most useful pron for IELTS Listening is related to catching words in normal speed speech, such as work on contractions, weak forms of words, and how words merge together.
  • When you are practising IELTS Listening, it’s worth sometimes giving yourself extra preparation time to think more carefully about what the key words in the question are, what words might go in the gaps, how the words in the question might be rephrased in the recording, etc, as these skills can then be used both when you are preparing and while you are listening
  • Listening to an IELTS exam recording again can be a good way of remembering the vocabulary, pronunciations, etc that you learnt when you first went through it, but shouldn’t be done too often, as there is a danger that you get too used to being able to understand almost every word
  • To make for really realistic exam Listening practice, sometimes do it on the same day as Reading and Writing
  • If there is too much new language in a practice test for you to be able to learn it all, first learn the things that stopped you getting questions right, then learn anything else related to the actual questions, then you could learn any other useful language in the transcripts
  • Examiners avoid listening questions that are difficult even when reading the transcript, so if you are still not sure after reading, you have probably misunderstood the question
  • If you also want to do some non-IELTS listening practice (which is a good idea), it’s best if this listening material is without visuals, is not too easy but not too difficult, has reasonably short recordings, and has tasks to look at and listen out for while you are listening
  • The IELTS Listening test has hardly changed, so old official IELTS materials are also useful if you have used all of the newer ones
  • To make for really realistic exam Listening practice, try to do a whole Listening paper at the same time of day as your next test will be
  • It’s a bad idea to have IELTS Listening recordings on in the background as you commute etc, as you could subconsciously learn that they can be ignored
  • If you are using TV, movies, etc to improve your listening for IELTS, always watch without subtitles, and take a break after 30 minutes
  • If you listen to university lectures to help with IELTS Listening, make sure that they are for people with no specialist knowledge (often called “101”), and that they are quite short or can be listened to in short extracts

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