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Complete guide to the IELTS Listening test


If you're looking to study abroad, you've likely come across the term “IELTS” as a requirement for your university application. IELTS is a task-based test covering the four language skills (listening, reading, writing and speaking). From casual phone chats to deep academic lectures, the listening test assesses your understanding of diverse scenarios over the course of 30 minutes. And as the test progresses, questions become more complex, and the diverse English accents introduced may further increase its difficulty.

To perform at your best on the test day, it's vital to begin your exam preparations early and strategically to improve your chances of attaining your desired score. But how should you get started? It starts with first understanding the question format and exam structure.

How many listening questions are there in IELTS?

During the IELTS Listening test, you will be evaluated on whether you can grasp information conveyed in English in real time via four different recordings. These include a mix of individuals talking by themselves and conversations between English speakers with different accents. The recordings are only played once. Each has a set of 10 questions that you need to tackle, and these can be broken down into the following question types:

  • Multiple Choice: 

    Depending on the instruction, you might need to select one or multiple answers from the options provided. These questions test a wide range of listening

  • Matching: 

    This involves matching items from the listening audio to options on the test paper. It tests listening for detail and understanding of conversations on regular topics.

  • Plan, Map, Diagram Labelling: 

    This question type tests your understanding of language describing spatial relationships and following directional cues.

  • Form, Note, Table, Flow-Chart, Summary Completion:

     This section requires filling out missing information in a document, and it is important to carefully follow word limit instructions.

  • Sentence Completion: 

    This focuses on identifying key details and understanding functional relationships, such as cause and effect.

  • Short-Answer Questions: 

    These questions test your ability to catch concrete data, like places or prices, from the listening

The IELTS Listening test contains 40 questions. Each correct answer is awarded one mark. Scores out of 40 are converted to the IELTS nine-band scale. Scores are reported in whole and half bands. Band 9 shows mastery over the English language, while Band 1 indicates minimal proficiency, limited to a few isolated words. Based on results in 2022, the average IELTS Listening score for test-takers aiming for university admission is 6.51 for females and 6.52 for males. However, a score of 7.0, which is achieved when you answer at least 30 questions correctly, will certainly give you a leg up, as it indicates a strong grasp of the language.

Nonetheless, the ideal score depends on the specific prerequisites of the institution you wish to apply to. For instance, if a renowned economics course in London mandates a score of 7.0, aiming for a 7.5 provides a safe margin. Remember, the ultimate goal isn't necessarily a 9.0 but achieving the score that best aligns with your aspirations.

How to improve your listening score for IELTS

Now that you understand what the IELTS Listening test entails, the next step is to learn to avoid potential mistakes effectively.

1. Follow the instructions diligently

Before the audio plays, you'll have a moment to look through the questions for your IELTS Listening test. During this period, be sure to read and follow the given instructions to prevent making avoidable errors. For instance, if you are instructed to circle multiple answers but only select one, your response can be deemed incomplete and thus incorrect. Likewise, if you're directed to answer in 'NO MORE THAN TWO WORDS' and pen down three words or more, you may be marked down.

2. Avoid lingering too long on one question

Besides paying attention to the instructions, highlighting keywords in your IELTS test questions is a good practice, as these will guide your listening. Recognising these words can also clarify the audio's subject and maintain your concentration, especially during long speeches.

If maintaining focus for long periods is not your strength, consider tuning into words or phrases speakers use to indicate their talk's progression. These include phrases like 'On the one hand/the other hand' and 'Another point to consider is'. Transitional terms such as 'However', 'Finally', or 'To summarise' can also signal a change in the topic or the conclusion of a thought. Recognising these ensures you don't miss out on vital details.

3. Always review your answers

Revisiting and reviewing your answers can make the difference between a good IELTS Listening score and a great one. This practice not only helps in identifying small mistakes you may have overlooked but can also shield you from potentially costly errors.

For instance, misspelt answers are treated as incorrect, regardless of accuracy. Thus, ensure you're familiar with commonly misspelt words like ‘occasion’ and ‘accessory’, commonly used terms, and standard place names and addresses.

Additionally, ensuring grammatical accuracy is key. Pay close attention to aspects like singular versus plural nouns and verb forms, and always ensure your answers fit seamlessly within given sentences. For instance, "The company posted a recruitment listing online to hire university graduates" is correct, while “The company posted a recruitment listing online to hire university graduate" isn't.

Above all, never leave an answer space empty. Unlike certain exams where wrong answers may penalise you, the IELTS Listening test only counts correct answers. Therefore, if in doubt, always make a smart guess.

4. Practice makes perfect

As with any exam, engaging in consistent, targeted practice is your most reliable approach to help you secure that score you desire and here's how you can make the most of your preparation time:

5. Become familiar with diverse accents

To acquaint yourself with variations in English accents, consider listening to online podcasts and YouTube videos that feature speakers from different English-speaking countries. This daily habit for continued improvement helps to keep you attuned to the different variations to improve your proficiency and comprehension skills.

6. Use professional resources

Besides training your listening skills, there are diverse online resources to help you scope your training. For instance, IDP offers a wide range of curated IELTS Listening practice questions that mirror the actual test format, enabling you to understand what to expect and hone your answering technique. By practising regularly using these resources and reviewing your responses, you can also close the gaps in your understanding, driving improvement in your language abilities.

Break barriers in IELTS preparation with IDP’s courses

Nonetheless, even with many resources at your fingertips, you may still find yourself making persistent mistakes, unable to break the barriers to achieve your desired IELTS scores. The underlying issue often isn't the lack of effort but rather the absence of a focused strategy. Without a clear overview and a structured approach to address weaknesses, making significant improvements can be challenging. This is where IDP steps in to fill the gap.

At IDP, we offer free online IELTS tests and a comprehensive IELTS preparation course that provides practice tests and personalised feedback to address your weaknesses in a targeted manner. Through this, we empower students to strengthen their foundations in English while paving the way for a more efficient and effective learning journey.

As a proud co-owner of the IELTS test, which is recognised by over 11,500 esteemed organisations worldwide, IDP offers comprehensive resources to help you reach your final goal. From initial preparation to the final steps of booking your exam, we are with you every step of the way. Ready to schedule your test? Register for your IELTS by IDP test with us today and let us help you take strides towards your dream school or career abroad.