Complete Guide to IELTS Listening

The IELTS listening exam causes many students problems. If you’ve taken the IELTS exam, or completed some IELTS Listening practice questions already and you’ve struggled, this is very normal. The test is challenging for a variety of reasons:

  1. You only hear each recording only one time.
  2. The Listening passages get more difficult as you progress through the exam.
  3. There are a variety of questions types with which you must be familiar.
  4. You must stay very focused in order to answer questions well.
  5. You must also develop your skills at predicting answers by analyzing the questions.
  6. There are a range of English accents represented on the exam.

This Guide to IELTS Listening will address all of these issues and provide you with the key strategies you need to improve your Listening scores. It should go without saying that the more English you know, and the better you understand native English speakers, the easier IELTS Listening will be for you. However, most people who take the IELTS need strategies to earn the extra points that will boost their Band scores. Each extra point can really make a difference. Keep reading to learn about the basics of IELTS Listening, the question types on the test, and the IELTS Listening practice that can help you to achieve your IELTS goals. (Note that this guide is a great supplement to any of our IELTS study schedules‘; in fact, we specifically recommend it in the one week IELTS study plan!)


IELTS Listening test

IELTS Listening: The Basics

Before we get to strategies, let’s take a look at some basic information you should know about the IELTS Listening paper.

General Training vs. Academic


There is no difference between the General Training and Academic IELTS Listening papers. IELTS Reading and Writing are the only sections that differ between the two IELTS exams. Therefore, everything in this post is relevant to Academic and General Training IELTS preparation.

Timing for IELTS Listening

IELTS Listening will take about 40 minutes total. Approximately 30 minutes of this time is devoted to actually listening to recordings and attempting to answer questions in your Question Booklet. The Question Booklet is the place where you will see the instructions and the questions you need to answer. The Question Booklet is separate from your Answer Sheet. The Answer Sheet, which looks like this, is where you will write your final answers for grading. ONLY the answers you write on your Answer Sheet will be marked. After you listen to the final passage, you will have 10 minutes to transfer answers from your Question Booklet to your Answer Sheet.

You should use this “transfer time” to your advantage. There is no reason to mark final answers on your answer sheet until the 10-minute “transfer time” at the end. Use this time to write carefully and neatly. The grader needs to be able to read what you’ve written! Misspellings are marked incorrect, so you should also use this time to check (and double check) your spellings.

The Four Sections of IELTS Listening

You will hear four different listening passages on the Listening exam. You will answer 10 questions in each section (40 total). The passages get tougher as you progress through the exam.

Passage 1: This is usually a conversation between two people. Typically, the conversation will involve a basic exchange of information. For example, someone might be placing an order over the phone, or confirming details for a reservation. The topic will be a daily-life situation.

Passage 2: This is usually a monologue (one person speaking). Passage two will also come from a common daily situation. For example, you might hear someone providing directions, or presenting basic information about a place or an event.

Passage 3: The topics become noticeably more challenging in Passage 3. This will be a conversation, often among several people, about an academic topic. You might hear a few students discussing something from class, or a professor providing feedback about an assignment, for example. Passage 3 is tougher because the vocabulary is more difficult, the topics are more complicated, and there are more speakers involved in the discussion.

Passage 4: This will be a lecture from a professor. It could cover any topic from a typical college course. You are not required to have specialized knowledge about the subject matter. However, the language will be difficult and the lecture will be complex. This is the toughest passage on the Listening exam for most students.

Scoring for IELTS Listening

Scoring is fairly straightforward for the Listening paper. Each question is worth 1 point, so you can achieve a “raw” score up to 40 points. From there, IELTS converts your “raw” score into your Band Score. You can find a basic conversion table on this page of the official IELTS website. However, keep in mind that each version of the IELTS is slightly different. Therefore, getting 24 out of 40 correct on one version of the IELTS may earn you a Band Score of 6.5, while on another version of the IELTS you may only get a 6. Nevertheless, the tables can give you a general idea about how Listening is scored.

As noted above, the passages get tougher and tougher as you progress through the Listening paper. However, question 1 is worth the same number of points as question 40 (one point each). Therefore, you must treat the questions from Section 1 the same as you do for the questions from Section 4. Read the directions carefully, make sure you spell words correctly, etc. You don’t want to miss easy points in the first sections due to silly mistakes.

Additionally, since all points are worth the same, you don’t want to lose points because you’re focusing too much attention on a particular question. Sometimes, despite your best effort and close attention, you might not hear the answer to a question or you may not understand a large section of the listening passage. If this happens, just make your best guesses and move on. Don’t miss points on upcoming questions because you can’t figure out the answer to the question you’re currently working on.

The Directions for IELTS Listening Questions

Attention to detail is very important on the IELTS Listening exam. Unfortunately, too many people lose points unnecessarily because they don’t pay close attention to the directions. Here are some general guidelines to follow:

  • Make sure you write the correct type of answer on your final Answer Sheet. For example, on Multiple Choice questions, the correct answer will be a letter (A, B, or C). Sometimes, students mistakenly write the words or numbers that come after the letter on their answer sheet and therefore answer incorrectly.
  • Various types of short answer questions are common on the Listening paper. You may need to fill in a summary, a map, some notes, or just listen for some specific words that you must fill in on your answer sheet. The IELTS will always tell you how many words and/or numbers you are allowed to use in your answers. YOU MUST read the directions for each set of questions because the requirements change. One set of questions may allow a short answer of three words, but the next may only allow two. If the directions tell you that you may not use “MORE THAN TWO WORDS and/or A NUMBER,” then your answer will be marked incorrect if you write down three words, or more than one number.

Note that one number can be more than one digit. For example, the number 14 [fourteen] is one number. 1 and 4, written separately, would be two numbers.

Go back to the top of our Complete Guide to IELTS Listening.

IELTS Listening Practice Tests and Resources

As you prepare for the IELTS Listening exam, it is obviously very important to take as many practice exams as you can. When you do, try your hardest to recreate the same conditions you will face on the real Listening test. That means you should not start and stop the recordings, or listen to the recording more than once before you answer. Answer questions the first time through. This will give you a realistic sense of how well you’re doing.

Then, as you review your answers, go back to the listening passages and study them closely. Most textbooks and practice exams provide a transcript of the Listening materials. Study them. Make sure to understand each mistake you make, and keep track of new vocabulary.

Don’t limit yourself to practice tests, however. You should listen to a wide variety of material in your IELTS preparation. Here is a good list of listening materials you can use:

Go back to the top of our Complete Guide to IELTS Listening.

IELTS Listening: Strategy

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

IELTS Listening Strategies 1 and 2: Analyzing and Predicting

The first two steps require practice because you must be able to do both quickly during the actual exam. Before each recording, the IELTS gives you some time (30-40 seconds) to look at the questions in the next section. Some students use this time to check their answers from the previous section, but this is a big mistake. It is very important to study the upcoming questions. 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.

The best approach is to use your 30-40 seconds strategically. First, you should analyze the question. Quickly determine:

  • What type of question is this? (Question types are discussed below)
  • How should you answer? Look at the directions, which will tell you whether your answer should be a 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, Marcus 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:

Marcus: “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 Marcus scheduled a meeting with 2) after the exam. He met with a study group before the exam, but he met with a tutor after he got his disappointing results. Underlining the keywords helps you to keep these concepts straight as you listen to the speaker.

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 will come across very 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, Marcus 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 Marcus just finished an exam and he’s now scheduling a meeting, it would be a very good guess that he 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 prediction, 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?

39. If Americans had an extra day per week, they would spend it
A    working harder
B    building relationships
C    sharing family meals

40. Understanding how people think about time can help us

A    become more virtuous
B    work together better
C    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.

IELTS Listening 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 is much worse to get completely lost as the speaker is talking. You will have to make a guess about the question you missed in this case. It is more important to continue tracking the speaker and the current question so you don’t get completely lost.

Go back to the top of our Complete Guide to IELTS Listening.

IELTS Listening: Question Types

Question TypeOfficial SampleNotes
Short AnswerSample task

Remember to read the directions! You must follow the word/number requirements for short answer questions.

Very often, you will have to find detailed information related to some category. For example, you might get a question like this:

“What TWO types of tree cannot survive in a desert environment?”

In this case, you should underline “type of tree cannot survive” as you analyze the questions before listening.
Sentence CompletionSample task

Sentence Completion questions are a form of Short Answer question. Therefore, it’s crucial to look to the directions for word and number counts.

As the name suggests, this question type requires you to complete a sentence with a short answer at the end. The sentence will almost always be a paraphrase of something you’ll hear in the passage. In other words, don’t expect to hear a speaker say the exact sentence as it’s written in the question.

The sentences will provide a lot of information to make predictions about the answers. In particular, it is often possible to gather information about the grammatical form of the answer (noun, verb, adjective, etc).
Plan, Map, and Diagram completionSample task

These questions involve a visual of some kind, with missing labels that you will have to fill in based on what the speakers say.

You can get a lot of clues by looking at the visual for these questions. For instance, if you are answering a Map Question, look at the location of the first question, and then look at the map to see where the following questions are located. This will give you clues about the order in which the visual will be described by the speaker. Study the Map further, and you will become familiar with the location of other items. For example, perhaps the map includes a statue, a restaurant, or some other landmark. Getting familiar with the Map, Plan, or Diagram before you listen to the speaker will help you get oriented.
MatchingSample task

Matching Questions usually involve listening for detailed information in the discussion. It is very important to look at the category of information that you will match to the answer choices. These will be lettered options that look like the example below:

Within which timeframe will each event occur?

Event Starting Times

A 9:00 to 12:00

B 12:01 to 16:00

C 16:01 to 23:59

These choices may be presented inside a box, or as a list of items like the example above. In this example, you know that you will need to listen for the time certain events will occur. You will then have a list of times to “match” to the appropriate event.

1 Ceremony _____________

2 Orientation ____________

3 Registration ___________

When you analyze these questions before listening to the passage, make sure you understand the category of the lettered answer choices, and pay close attention to the order of the items you need to match in the questions. It is the questions (not the lettered answer choices) that will be presented in order within the passage. You will listen for each of these question items as you “track” answers in the passage.
Multiple ChoiceSample task

IELTS Multiple Choice questions only have 3 possible answers. Sometimes (but not frequently), there will be more than three answer choices. In this case, you will usually be instructed to choose more than one answer.

You must remember to answer with LETTERS (A, B, or C) on your Answer Sheet. Don’t write the answer choice word(s)!

Sometimes, you will only have 2-3 Multiple Choice questions in a section. Other times, there could be more (5 to 8). Treat Multiple Choice questions exactly like other question types. In the time provided before you listen to the passage, skim all of the questions and the answer choices to find keywords. Answers will come in order in the passage, so you need Track answers across all of the questions in the task you’re working on.
Flow Chart




Form Completion
Note Completion example

Note Completion Recording

Form Completion example

Form Completion Recording
These question types look different, but they share a lot in common. They are often Short Answer questions, but you may also be presented with a list or a box with answer choices. Basically, you will need to fill in missing information based on the Listening passage.

It is very important to look at each question number. Notice where it is located on the visual or summary and what the keywords are that surround it. You will need to “track” these keywords as you listen to the speaker.

Question Descriptions:

A Flow Chart is a kind of visual that shows steps or stages in a process. You can expect that you will need to listen for the different stages of the process.

A Table could be many things. Often, a table is used to categorize several things, so you will need to fill in missing information on the table.

Notes Questions are a common question type for Passage 4, in which you will hear a lecture. You will have incomplete lecture notes that you need to fill in based on what the professor says.

For Summary Questions, you will be presented with a paragraph of several sentences which summarize the listening passage. Like the other questions in this category, you need to fill in words that complete the summary based on what you hear.

Form Completion Questions are a common question type for Section 1 of the Listening exam (although they can come up in other sections too!).

Go back to the top of our Complete Guide to IELTS Listening.

More Resources for IELTS Preparation

Studying for the IELTS Listening exam is just one part of a good study plan. Make sure you have all the resources you need to achieve your target band score! Magoosh offers IELTS Prep lessons to help you on the Listening section, but the lessons cover the other IELTS sections as well.

Many students who need guidance with Listening also need some assistance with IELTS writing. Here are some Guides to IELTS Writing Task 1 and Task 2 to help you prepare for this difficult portion of the exam.

Finally, depending on how much time you have before you take the IELTS, this one-month study schedule can help you stay organized. If your time is more limited, get to work with this one-week schedule!

Good luck with your IELTS preparation, and happy studying!

To view all of our our Magoosh IELTS Listening posts, take a look at the list below:

IELTS Listening: Academic & General Training

By the way, improve your IELTS score with Magoosh!

Most Popular Resources