IELTS Listening Tips and Strategies

Student listening to headphones

Taking the IELTS Listening section can feel a lot like trying to drink water from a fire hydrant. But with the right IELTS Listening tips and strategies, it can make the section much more manageable. This post will give you tips for better study and practice, plus IELTS Listening strategies to structure your approach on test day.

The flipside of all this is knowing what not to do. To that end, Eliot’s 5 Mistakes to Avoid in the IELTS Listening Section video is an excellent resource, so check it out!

Top 5 IELTS Listening Tips for Study and Practice

Here are some very useful IELTS Listening tips as you study for the test. These are all tips that will become increasingly effective and useful as you use them — so consciously include them in your studies!

  1. Read & follow the instructions
    1. This might seem obvious, but many test-takers often don’t take this tip to heart and end up needlessly losing marks — keeping them from the higher bands.
  2. Use the questions to guide your listening
    1. Questions are your greatest source of clues: Use the words and phrases to direct your focus to the relevant sections of the recordings.
  3. Focus on the essential details
    1. Here’s a quick and helpful rule: Every grammatically sound English sentence will include an actor (noun) doing something (verb). Adjectives modify the actor(s), thing(s), and subjects; adverbs modify the action(s).
    2. Knowing this basic structure will help you quickly focus on what’s important and index the barrage of information coming your way.
  4. Think about related words and phrases
    1. There’s a tendency to be overly narrow about the words and phrases we consider when it comes to answering the Listening questions. And this is the intuition that the test-makers exploit to confuse test-takers.
    2. For each question, think about all the related synonyms and phrases that would best answer what the question asks you.
  5. Anticipate what’s going to be said
    1. Whether you’re listening to a recording, reading through a question, or taking notes, think ahead. In the Listening section, you’ll be receiving a lot of information. Passively waiting for what the speaker might say will mean you’re always one step behind, requiring you to work even harder than you need to.
    2. Based on the topic of discussion, anticipate what the speaker will say. This practice will keep you one step ahead!

For more in-depth discussions about tips and advice for the IELTS Listening section, check these excellent articles out:

IELTS Listening Strategies to Improve Your Score

A general sense of tips — the do’s and don’ts — for the test is important. But tips alone aren’t sufficient for getting the highest band you can achieve — particularly if you want to receive a band higher than 7.5. For that, you’ll need to learn and practice Listening strategies.

Although each Listening question type has unique features, the basic approach to each one is the same. There are three things you must do for each set of questions you encounter:

  1. Analyze the questions
  2. Predict the answers
  3. Track questions and the speaker

Let’s go over what it means to analyze, predict, and track.

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Strategy 1: Analyzing

Strategies 1 and 2 require practice because you’ll need to do both quickly during the IELTS Listening section. Before each recording, the exam gives you some time — between 30-40 seconds — to look at the questions in the next section. Don’t check your answers from the previous section — it’s crucial that you use this time to study the upcoming questions instead.

Remember: the best approach to IELTS Listening is to answer questions in your Question Booklet while you’re listening to the speaker. If you try to answer questions without looking at them first, there is a very good chance you’ll get lost and miss the information you need.

First, you should analyze the question. Quickly determine:

  • What type of question is this?
  • How should you answer?
    • Look at the directions, which will tell you whether your answer should be letters, numbers, words, etc.
  • What are the keywords in the questions?
    • Quickly underline words and phrases that seem most important in each question, keeping in mind that correct answers are almost always going to be paraphrases of these words.
    • Underlining them helps you to focus your attention on what’s most important as you listen.

For example, you might encounter a Sentence Completion question that looks like this:

After the exam, Alix scheduled a meeting with ________________ .”

These keywords are the concepts you’ll listen for in the passage. As an example, you might hear something like this from the speaker to answer this question:

Alix: “I feel so disappointed about the test yesterday. I met regularly with a study group to help me prepare and I thought I was ready. But I’ve decided to make an appointment with a tutor since I got such a poor grade. I guess I need more help.”

In the example above, the underlined keywords would help you remember that you need to find 1) who Alix scheduled a meeting with 2) after the exam. They met with a study group before the exam, but they met with a tutor after they got their disappointing results. Underlining the keywords helps you to keep these concepts in place as you listen to the speaker.

Strategy 2: Predicting

This leads to the second goal during the 30-40 second period you have to examine the questions. This may seem like a lot to accomplish in such a short time, but the second goal is closely related to the first: make predictions.

Very often, when you are underlining key words as you analyze the question, you’ll come across useful information that will help you make predictions about answers. For example, let’s take a look at the sentence completion question we just looked at above:

After the exam, Alix scheduled a meeting with (noun/person).”

You could easily predict, based on the sentence alone, that you will need to listen for a noun because the sentence ends with the preposition “with.” Indeed, nouns typically follow prepositions. In fact, it would also be very reasonable to predict that you need to listen for a specific person’s name or a type of person. Since we know, simply based on the information in the sentence, that Alix just finished an exam and they’re now scheduling a meeting, it would be a very good guess that they might schedule a meeting with someone who is going to offer help.

All of these things are predictions. You won’t know the answers until you actually listen to the passage. However, if you have a good sense of what to listen for based on your predictions, it is much easier to catch the answers while the speakers are talking.

Let’s try some more predictions, this time with a slightly more difficult example. Here are two IELTS Listening Multiple Choice questions. Without listening to the text, what do you think the answers will probably be?

  1. If Americans had an extra day per week, they would spend it
    1. working harder
    2. building relationships
    3. sharing family meals
  2. Understanding how people think about time can help us
    1. become more virtuous
    2. work together better
    3. identify careless or ambitious people

You won’t be able to guess the correct answer without listening to the passage. However, there is some very useful information in the questions that you can use to make predictions. For instance, a few of the answer choices relate to the topic of “relationships.” “Building relationships, sharing family meals, and working together better” all fall into this general category.

You could predict that if the speaker focuses the discussion on the connection between “time” and personal “relationships,” the correct answers are likely to be one of these answer choices. These kinds of predictions can really help you make decisions when you’re listening closely for answers during the exam.

Strategy 3: Track Questions and the Speaker

The final IELTS Listening strategy is called Tracking. Tracking is something you do while you listen to the recording, and it requires great focus and attention. Basically, your goal is to keep track of where the speaker is in the passage, and which question you should be answering in the Question Booklet at the same time.

Tracking works because IELTS Listening questions always provide contextual clues to help you know where you should be in the passage. Importantly, IELTS Listening questions also come in order. In other words, the speaker(s) will provide the answer to question 1 before you will hear the answer to question 2, and so on. Therefore, imagine you are filling in a set of notes based on a professor’s lecture for Section 4 of the Listening exam. In your Question Booklet, you will see the notes with blanks for the information you need to fill in. Tracking successfully in this task means that you will use the information in the notes to determine where the professor is in the lecture.

As you listen, you should focus on the question you’re trying to answer and you should keep your eye on the next question as well. If you miss an answer to a question, you’ll know because the professor will be discussing something related to the next question, not the one you’re on. In this case, it is very likely that you missed an answer. While that can be frustrating, it’s way worse to get completely lost as the speaker is talking. You’ll have to guess the question you missed in this case. It’s more important to continue tracking the speaker and the current question so you don’t get completely lost.

These IELTS Listening tips and strategies are a great starting point for your studies. Try consciously incorporating them into your studies, so that you can unconsciously benefit from them during the exam. And be sure to read our Complete Guide to IELTS Listening for even more Listening prep help. Best of luck, and happy studying!

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  • David Recine

    David is a Test Prep Expert for Magoosh TOEFL and IELTS. Additionally, he's helped students with TOEIC, PET, FCE, BULATS, Eiken, SAT, ACT, GRE, and GMAT. David has a BS from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and an MA from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. His work at Magoosh has been cited in many scholarly articles, his Master's Thesis is featured on the Reading with Pictures website, and he's presented at the WITESOL (link to PDF) and NAFSA conferences. David has taught K-12 ESL in South Korea as well as undergraduate English and MBA-level business English at American universities. He has also trained English teachers in America, Italy, and Peru. Come join David and the Magoosh team on Youtube, Facebook, and Instagram, or connect with him via LinkedIn!