IELTS Listening – Tips and common mistakes to avoid

How do you ‘teach’ listening techniques? Is it really possible to instruct students on how to improve their auditory processing skills? Surely they are going to either understand what they hear, or not, right?

However, the Listening section of the IELTS exam does not require candidates to understand the entirety of the conversation or subject matter. Similarly to the Reading section of the exam, 95% of the content is irrelevant – only specific information needs to be listened out for. Moreover, there are many ways to make well informed predictions concerning the type of missing word or words required, by considering, from the context, if they are adjectives, nouns, conjunctions, associated phrases, etc. If candidates take the time to do plenty of practice exercises in advance, the ability to listen for specific information can be nurtured.

In many cases, it is more a case of logical thinking rather than fluency that will help those taking the exam to write the correct answer. Let’s consider a typical question from the exam:

‘The number of young people becoming interested in politics has been steadily rising in ____ as well as throughout other European countries’.


The sentence above gives us several excellent clues about the potential answer; firstly, we can see immediately that the conjunction ‘as well as’ indicates that we need to enter something similar to ‘other European countries’ on the answer sheet. In this case the answer is ‘Britain’, which is both a country and in Europe. Even if much of what is said is difficult to comprehend, logic dictates that we simply need to listen out for the name of another country, and we will have the right answer. But it is rarely that easy, as the speaker is likely to be discussing other countries too, so therefore we need to consider further clues from the sentence written on the answer sheet. It is advisable to speculate on the possible synonyms of the words printed on the answer sheet, as the speaker will probably be paraphrasing what is written. In this case, ‘as well as’ could be expressed as ‘in addition to’, ‘along with’, ‘also’ or ‘and’.

All sections of the IELTS Listening test will begin with 30 seconds in which candidates can skim through the information on their answer sheet and look for keywords that will provide clues to the specific information that they should be listening out for. This time is undoubtedly the most vital part which candidates can use to prepare for the upcoming question.

Candidates can often be overwhelmed by the idea of listening and writing simultaneously, as we naturally want to do these things independently of each other, although this is another skill that can be sharpened through practice. The process of synchronising the clutch, accelerator, gear stick and steering wheel concurrently feels like a herculean task for most new drivers, but this soon becomes second nature through practice, and the same can be the case with the different parts of the brain needed to listen and write at the same time.

Lastly, as easy as it is to say this, do try to encourage students not to dwell on the answers that they miss, otherwise they will not be focussed on listening for the subsequent necessary information – after all, very few institutions require applicants to obtain 100%.


Martin Wilson has been working as a teacher of English to non-native speakers for over 13 years, since qualifying from St. Giles International College, London, in 2004. His Trinity Tesol Certificate was followed shortly after with a Masters Degree in Linguistics and Philosophy from The University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Martin’s experience within the various fields of ELT has been plentiful, and has involved teaching children and teenagers in Thailand, as well as asylum seekers and refugees throughout Europe, and university students and business professionals in London, UK. In this series of blogs, Martin aims to share his insights into the world of ELT, including tips and tricks for students and teachers alike, in addition to observations and reviews regarding current available material and resources. Martin can be contacted at martinwilson@mwlc.co.uk.

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