How can you improve your IELTS Listening score? There are lots of tips on my website to help you with your test day strategies.
But these won’t help unless you develop your listening skills.
Listening skills can be roughly divided into two types:
- Macro skills (also known as ‘top down’ because they relate to general listening skills such as guessing meaning from context).
- Micro skills (also known as ‘bottom up’ because they start with the smallest features, such as recognising single sounds)
In this lesson, we’ll start from the bottom up.
I’ll be referring to a Section 2 Listening from Book 15 (Test 1) called ‘Matthews Island Holidays’.
See the video and podcast below.
1. Pronunciation Skills
Pronunciation is THE MOST NEGLECTED area of IELTS test preparation.
In the Speaking Test, pronunciation is worth 25% of the marks, yet most of the students and teachers that I know pay very little attention to it.
In the Listening Test, a knowledge and awareness of the features of pronunciation is absolutely essential. Working on pronunciation will improve both your Speaking and your Listening scores.
Below are some examples taken from the test.
Learn more about pronunciation for listening.
Pronunciation features you need to work on:
- single sounds
- connected sounds*
- weak sounds
- dropped sounds
- reduced forms
- intrusive sounds
- similar sounds
- word boundaries*
- word stress
- sentence stress
- intonation patterns*
*see examples below
‘Meet you’ sounds like ‘me chew’ in fast connected speech, when the /t/ is followed by the /j/ sound of ‘you’.
Q12 Where can customers meet the tour manager before travelling to the Isle of Man?
The speaker says:
[ANSWER]: “Our holiday starts in Heysham, where your tour manager will meet you”.
In fast speech, word boundaries move. Listen to the audio below. You need to pick up the phrasal verb (looks out), and recognise it as a synonym of ‘has a view of’ in order to get that correct.
Q15 The hotel dining room has view of the ________________
[ANSWER] ‘The hotel “look sout” (= ‘looks out’) at the RIVER.’
Notice also the STRESS on the answer – use this to help you fill gaps.
The answer is often right at the end of the sentence. Get used to recognising this when you do practice tests (see the “1422” gapfill answer in Q16 and the ‘top’ answer in Q17 below).
The speaker in this Listening Test has a British accent from the NORTH of England. So she pronounces the /ʌ/ sound in the key words ‘lunch’ and ‘covers‘ like the ‘oo’ /ʊ/ in ‘book’.
Q13 How many lunches are included in the price of the holiday?
[Answer] “You have five nights in the hotel, and the price covers five breakfasts and dinners, and lunch on the three days when there are organised trips.”
The speaker uses intonation to signal the important information.
Q11: According to the speaker, the company
A has been in business for longer than most of its competitors.
B arranges holidays to more destinations than its competitors.
C has more customers than its competitors.
[ANSWER] “What we do is build on our many years’ experience – more than almost any other rail holiday company.”
2. Vocabulary and Grammar
It goes without saying that you need a good vocabulary to understand what’s going on in the Listening Test.
Keep a vocabulary notebook to develop your knowledge of synonyms and an awareness of paraphrasing (saying the same thing in a different way).
Q11 ‘has been in business for a long time’ = ‘we have many years’ experience’
Q12 ‘the hotel looks out on’ = ‘has a view of’
Q13 ‘are included’ = ‘the price covers’
Q14 ‘for a small administrative fee’ = ‘you have to pay extra’
Q14 ‘to change the start date’ = ‘for transferring to another date’
Q16 ‘it may have been’ = ‘it is claimed that’
Q16: ‘founded’ = ‘it dates back to’
This also requires a good knowledge of grammar and how language works, because in order to paraphrase, you need to restructure the sentences, perhaps by changing the verb from active to passive.
Q13: ‘are included’ (Passive) = ‘the price covers’ (Active)
Sometimes, an awareness of style and register is needed, because the test translates spoken dialogues and monologues into written form (tables, notes etc).
Here’s a good example of that:
Q18: ‘The company provides a pass’ (Formal, written English) = ‘using the pass which we’ll give you‘ (Informal, spoken English).
In the example below, you need to know that the grammatical structure of ‘used to’ means ‘in the past but not now’, which is a different way of saying ‘former’.
Q20: former capital = used to be the capital
Ability to recognise cohesive devices
Q16: Tynwald may have been founded in _______________, not 979.
[Answer] “It’s claimed that this is the world’s oldest parliament that’s still functioning, and that it dates back to 979. However, the earliest surviving reference to it is from 1422″.
You often have to understand errors and corrections in Listening Part 1.
Here, the speaker tells us that a fact may be wrong “It is claimed that…”.
And you need to recognise that “may have been founded” tells us that they are not sure about the facts.
So we can expect the “However” signal to tell us the correct date.
As in Listening Part 1, you need to understand numbers and dates to get this answer right.
3. ‘Real-life’ listening skills
I’m not sure that ‘real-life’ skills is the best way of describing these ‘macro’ skills, but they are related to ‘overall meaning’ rather than small features of the language.
The background knowledge (‘schema’) that you bring to the test about how things work in real life will help you answer the questions.
Here, for example, if you understand how a Tour Company works, you’ve got a better chance of answering Q14 and Q15 (the fact that some things are included, and that there may be additional costs).
The Listening test is not a memory test, but you need to be able to retain ‘chunks’ of information. Look at this question.
Q18: Company provides a ___________ for local transport and heritage sites.
[Answer] “Day four is free for you to explore, using the pass, which we’ll give you. So you won’t have to pay for travel on local transport, or for entrance to the island’s heritage sites.”
By the time you get to the key words in the table (local transport and heritage sites), the answer has already been given.
The test often uses reference words (it, this, them) which refer back to the previous sentence, so for this reason you need to develop your ability to retain information and know what the reference words refer back to.
We saw another example of this in Q12:
Q12: Our holiday starts in Heysham, where your tour manager will meet you.
And also in Q16:
Q16: “It’s claimed that this is the world’s oldest parliament that’s still functioning, and that it dates back to 979. However, the earliest surviving reference to it is from 1422″.
Recognising meaning and extracting key ideas
This sounds obvious too, but it’s important to be able to distinguish between the ‘filler’ language.
IELTS test writers give you time to write the answer while they carry on talking about something which is not important.
If you look at the tapescript, you’ll notice that the answers are evenly spaced throughout the text, so you can safely ‘ignore’ the unimportant parts and train your ear to listen for key information.
Look at the long introduction to Q17. Most of it is unimportant, so follow the key words until you get to the gap:
Q17: Travel along promenade in a tram; train to Laxey; train to the __________ of Snaefell.
[Answer] “Day three we have a trip to the mountain Snaefell. This begins with a leisurely ride along the promenade in Douglas in a horse-drawn tram. Then you board an electric train which takes you to the fishing village of Laxey. From there it’s an eight-kilometre ride in the Snaefell Mountain Railway to the top. Lunch will be in the café, giving you spectacular views of the island.”
Your general knowledge about mountain railways might help you guess/predict that it will take you to the top, and your knowledge of grammar might help you predict what comes after ‘the’ and before ‘of’.
4. Test day skills and strategies
The exam skills and strategies that I list below are a summary of a number of lessons that you can find on my website and in my courses.
Your background knowledge and your understanding of word forms and sentence structure will help you guess answers and then confirm them as you listen.
Use your time wisely to read and underline key words, and make predictions about what might come in the gaps.
Sadly, the Listening test also tests your spelling. This is something you have to consider in your preparation, and there are specific lists available for you to study.
A typical example of how they test spelling patterns is in Q19.
Q19: Take the ____________ railway train from Douglas to Port Erin
[ANSWER] The last full day, day five, is for some people the highlight of the holiday, with a ride on the steam railway, from Douglas to Port Erin.
Again, you will need to separate the key information (steam railway) from the background information (last day, day 5, highlight, Douglas to Port Erin).
But ‘steam’ is a ‘long e’ word, which is often tested because of different sound-spelling associations (compare words like ‘weather’ with a different pronunciation /e/, and words like ‘theme’ ‘piece’ ‘key’ and ‘caffeine’ with different spellings but the same /i:/ sound)
This involves not only checking how many words you’re allowed in the gapfill but also transferring answers to the question paper.
Remember some simple guidelines
- don’t leave any gaps on your Answer Sheet.
- don’t forget to add the ‘s’ on any plurals
- write in CAPITAL LETTERS if you want to (it doesn’t matter)
- practise spelling names, and writing numbers and dates
The listening test lasts about 30 minutes, so it’s essential that you can maintain your focus, especially as the texts get more difficult when you progress to Sections 3 and 4.
Spending time listening to longer texts and doing practice tests in your preparation will help you cope with this aspect of the test.
Becoming more familiar with the language of signals and signposts will help you keep your place.
You can train yourself to identify distractors (wrong answers) when you do practice tests.
Go through the audio script every time you do a practice test. You will soon become familiar with the way that distractors are written.
You can see many examples in this listening. For example, many numbers are mentioned in the section relating to Question 13, so underline the key words (lunches) and just listen for the number attached to it:
Q13 How many lunches are included in the price of the holiday?
[Answer] You have five nights in the hotel, and the price covers five breakfasts and dinners, and lunch on the three days when there are organised trips: day four is free, and most people have lunch in a café or restaurant in Douglas.
I hope that this has given you an insight into the skills you need to work on to increase your IELTS Listening score.
I look at each of these skills in all of the Listening lessons on my free website and free podcasts.
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Hi Paola. Many thanks for your question. Definitely the skills I’m referring to would apply to any Listening Comprehension Test, though there may be one or two that are less relevant for the Cambridge exams. For example, the fact that you only hear the IELTS Listening test once means it’s important to be able to retain chunks of information and to make the most of signalling and cohesive devices. Is there anything from this list of skills that you think would be more important for the Cambridge exams?