Intro to the IELTS Listening Paper

The IELTS listening paper is split into four sections, with each section progressively more difficulty than the last.  Sections one and two are set in an everyday context that a visitor to an English-speaking country might encounter, and sections three and four are set in an academic context.  There are 40 questions and the test itself takes 30 minutes.  You write your answers directly on the question paper and at the end you have ten minutes to transfer your answer to an answer sheet.  You will have to answer a variety of question types, including short answers, multiple choice, labelling a diagram, completing a table or summary, and sentence completion.

There are a few general things to bear in mind with IELTS listening paper.

  • Unlike many listening exercises that you do in your English classes, you can only listen to the recording once, so you only get one chance to get your answers.
  • You have time before you listen to read the questions and prepare. Using this preparation time properly is absolutely critical to getting a good score.  In the first three parts the recording is divided in two, so you read half the questions, listen and answer, read the second half of the questions, listen and answer.  The fourth part however is one long recording, so you really need to sustain your concentration.
  • For questions that ask you to write down words (rather than multiple choice for example), you need to write down exactly what you hear on the recording. You won’t get any points if you write down something similar or synonymous.  Also, make sure you follow the instructions – if it says to write no more than three words then don’t write four words!
  • The test will try to trick you! For example, in a multiple-choice question, you might hear all three of the possible answers, but only one is the correct one.  This means that you have to really understand the recording, rather than just choosing the words you hear.
  • Finally, and most annoyingly for many students, spelling matters! If you misspell a word in your answer, you got no marks at all for that question.

Section one: Transactional dialogue

Section one is a dialogue between two people, on the phone or face to face, and is always transactional.  That means that the speakers are asking for and providing information.  The setting is the kind of situation you might experience when you first move to a new place, like opening a bank account, renting a flat, jointing a gym, etc.  Some of the information is usually personal details, like the person’s name, address, phone number and date of birth.  To answer the questions, you’ll need to anticipate what kind of information is being asked for by reading the questions, then listen and write down that information on your question paper.

Section one is definitely the easiest section of the listening paper, and you should aim to get all of the questions correct in order to get a good overall mark on this part of the IELTS exam.

Section two: General Monologue

This section is a monologue (one person talking) in an everyday or social context.  It might be an extract from a radio programme, someone giving a speech or a talk on a topic of general interest, or a recorded guide to a museum or tourist exhibition.  Occasionally you there may be a second person interjecting or asking a question, but the most of information is going to be provided by the main speaker.

Section two will be slightly more difficult than section one.  Rather than just recording information that you hear in a transactional format, you will need to read the question paper to decide which of the information you hear is relevant to answering the questions.  To do this you will identify key words or signpost words in the questions which tell you that the answer is about to come up on the recording.  You’ll also use the question paper to navigate the text, giving you clues on what the speaker is going to talk about on the recording.  For an overall score of 6.5 or above, you still need to aim high in this section, getting seven or eight out of the ten questions correct.

Section Three: Interactive Conversation

Section three is a conversation between three or four speakers and is set in an academic context.  Common settings are a group of classmates talking about an assignment together, or students discussing course material with their tutor.  The content of the recording itself is not highly academic, but the language and the nature of the task is intended to what you would find in day to day interactions as a university student.

The sections of the test get progressively more difficult, and this means that section three is more challenging the previous sections.  The language used in the recording will me more complex and academic, and there will be more information to process.  When listening for keywords, you’ll have to bear in mind that the speakers will use synonyms and parallel phrases rather than the exact words you see in the question.  You should be aiming for at least six out of ten in this section.

Section four: Academic Monologue 

The final section is a monologue in a academic context, such as a university lecture.  Although you should not need any prior specialist knowledge to understand the recording, the language will be very advanced, and the topic may be quite technical and complex.  Unlike the other sections, the recording is not split into two parts, so you will need to follow it closely, using the question paper as a guide, and maintain your concentration throughout.

Section four is tough, and many students get lost or fail to keep track of the recording and end up not answering most of the questions.  Although there are exam tips and strategies that can help you, ultimately you need to have excellent listening skills and an advanced knowledge of vocabulary to do well on this section.   You will need lots of practice in listening to long, authentic texts in English and to train yourself to listen in a sustained and active manner.  Even for an advanced student, anything more than five out of ten is a good score on this section.

Follow our blog for specific tips and strategies on the IELTS listening and other papers.

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