The listening component of the IELTS test is divided into four sections. The time allowed is roughly 30 minutes, followed by 10 minutes to transfer your answers to a machine readable sheet. It is worth knowing that questions and answers follow the same order as the listening. You will only hear the recording ONCE.
Questions may be any of the following formats. Multiple choice, matching, labelling a plan, map or diagram, completing forms, notes, tables of information, flow charts, and summaries. Other question types include sentence completion, where you are allowed only a certain number of words and/or a number. Always read the ‘rules’ of the question carefully sometimes the number of words varies. It can be one, two, three or four words, though usually it is three.
The speakers can be from any of the countries which use English as a major official language, this includes The UK, USA, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa. All the speakers talk clearly and do not have strong accents, however, it would be a good idea to make yourself familiar with a variety of accents. You can practise listening by watching or listening to the BBC or CNN news. Movies are not normally as good as the language tends to be less formal, but some are useful to practise listening skills.
From time to time throughout the recording you will hear phrases like “You now have 30 seconds to check your answers.” It is probably better use of the time to read the questions more thoroughly and try and predict what type of word the answer will require.
This section, along with part 2, deals with every day or social situations. There will be two speakers in part 1, there will be a conversation, perhaps about arranging a party or similar. It will be fairly basic and not too fast, a good place to get easy marks. Always remember that the questions are asked in the same order as you hear the conversation. If you hear the answer to a later question, move on, you have missed the information.
There is only one speaker in this part. The person will give information connected to an everyday or social occasion. This could be a short talk about a subject like facilities at a library, or on how to buy a monthly rail ticket. This part is also fairly easy as you do not have to distinguish multiple speakers. If you lose the flow of the conversation you should look ahead in the questions to find a question you can listen for the answer to. Sometimes you will need to do some simple maths to properly answer a question. For example, you might hear:
“About 1,000,000 cars are stolen annually in the UK. Only about 25% of these vehicles are ever re-united with their owners.”
The question might ask: How many cars are returned to their owners each year after being stolen in the UK?” _____________
If you wrote 25% that would be marked as incorrect, the right response is 250,000. The question asks for a number not a percentage.
This part is set against an academic or training background and is between multiple speakers. Usually something like two students guided by a tutor or supervisor. It can be quite difficult to recognise who is speaking if all the speakers are male or all female. Sometimes the question asks you to say who agrees with a particular suggestion or similar. If you are having problems deciding who is speaking listen for clues at the hand over times. This is when one speaker is passing the turn to speak to another. You will hear phrases like. “What do you think John?” Obviously, John will speak next.
Or, “I don’t know what it’s like; Mary’s been there, tell us what you thought Mary?” Again, the next voice should be Mary. Sometimes the clue is in the next speaker’s first phrase. For example, a new speaker might thank or otherwise acknowledge the person who has just finished talking. “Oh, that’s useful Peter, good to know, thank you.” In this case the previous speaker’s name was Peter. The conversations tend to be orderly and polite so are not very difficult to keep track of.
As spoken English is much less formal than written English you may hear contractions, such as “I’ll be there, but Bob won’t be able to get there on time.” Make sure you are familiar with the sounds of these common contractions.
The final section is, by far, the longest listening and is usually a university lecturer or other formal speaker talking about an academic subject. It is important to remember that, even if you know the topic very well, you should not bring in any outside information to inform your answer. Base your answer only on the material you hear.
Prediction is a very useful skill for this section, look at gaps and choices and think about what class of word is needed from a grammatical and logical point of view.
As an example look at the following summary which needs to be completed from a listening. Predict what type of information needs to be given.
You can see that question 1 requires a number, question 2 needs a place name, most likely in Europe. Number 3 would be a number. The final question requires a noun or noun phrase.
Tips and advice
From time to time a speaker ‘changes’ information you have been given. You may be listening for the nationality of someone who has been mentioned and the speaker says “She’s from America.” Just as you are writing down “the USA” or “American”, the speaker realises he has made a mistake and corrects himself. “Oh! I’m wrong, she’s actually from Canada.”
As the answers are written on a machine readable form be especially sure you are writing the answers next to the appropriate box number. Be VERY careful when doing this as the machine will only mark what you write in a certain box, it cannot notice that you have missed a line. Therefore, if you make a mistake in the first few lines then everything after that line will be incorrect.