The IELTS Academic exam measures the language proficiency of non-English speakers who are looking to work in an English speaking country. The test is divided into four sections; listening, reading, writing and speaking.
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.
IELTS listening - question types
Questions may be in any of the following formats:
- Multiple choice
- Labelling a plan
- Map or diagram
- Completing forms
- Tables of information
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 can vary. 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. These include the UK, USA, Australia, New Zealand and 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 your 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 a better use of the time to read the questions more thoroughly and try to predict what type of word the answer will require.
IELTS listening – part one
This section of IELTS listening, along with part two, deals with everyday or social situations. In part one, there will be two speakers having a conversation. This may be about arranging a party or a similar event.
It will be fairly basic and not too fast. This is 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.
IELTS listening - part two
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 and 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 per cent of these vehicles are ever reunited 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 per cent', that would be marked as incorrect. The correct response is '250,000'. The question asks for a number, not a percentage.
IELTS listening – part three
This part is set against an academic or training background and is between multiple speakers. It usually includes 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 handover 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, as such, they are not very difficult to keep track of.
As spoken English is much less formal than written English, you may hear shortened forms of words 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.
IELTS listening - part four
The final section is the longest part of the IELTS listening test 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 help you 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. Predict what type of information needs to be given.
Europe Goes Grey – Projections
By 2030 approximately (1) ______________ % of the UK population will be over retirement age.
About 23% of the population of (2) ___________ will be 65 or over by 2020.
The number of people over 100 in the UK will increase by (3) ___________ per cent per year in the 21st century.
Massive resources need investing into the (4) _____________________ by the government.
You can see that question one requires a number, question two needs a place name, most likely in Europe. Number three would be a number. The final question requires a noun or noun phrase.
Top tips for IELTS listening
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.
Find out more
Need help in other areas of your IELTS exam? Find out how to improve your score:
- IELTS reading, writing, speaking and listening skills
- Get your IELTS writing score to 6.5 or higher
- Get your IELTS speaking score to 7.0 or higher
- Get your IELTS reading score to 7.0 or higher
- How NMC rule changes to IELTS writing are good news for international nurses
*This post was originally published on 25/07/2016 and has since been updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.