How is listening tested in IELTS?
Notice the following key features:
• Sections 1 and 2 are set in everyday social contexts (i.e. they are not academic)
• The accents you hear will include British, Australian, New Zealand, American, and Canadian (i.e. all native speakers of English)
• The recording will be heard once only
• The questions are designed so that the answers appear in the order they are heard in the recording (i.e. the questions are written carefully to ensure you can answer the questions after listening to the information only once.)
We can divide the types of questions used in the listening test into two categories: objective (where you choose the correct letter from a list) and productive (where you need to write down words or numbers that you hear.) Examples of productive tasks are any of the completion tasks, such as notes-completion or table-completion. The official IELTS website also tells us that these types of tasks will focus on ‘the main points which a listener would naturally record in this situation,’ (NB. in this context, the word ‘record’ means ‘to note down’.) If the resources you are using do not reflect all of this information, then you are using materials that do not reflect the real test.
Can watching movies and TV help develop IELTS listening skills?
People often ask me if they should watch movies and television shows to improve their listening. The first problem is that these rely on visual information to get across their message. But there is a further problem in that the vast majority of these programmes do not reflect the type of language used in the test. In IELTS, you will hear people having serious conversations, or giving a talk on a serious topic. So, it is difficult to see how popular films, featuring very informal language, can help with this. Not only will this language not appear in the test, but you may also lose marks if you use it inappropriately.
What about Ted talks?
TED talks can be a useful resource, but they should be used with discretion. Firstly, some of these talks rely on visual information, such as slides or an animation. Secondly, in my experience, these talks vary considerably in terms of their suitability and the extent to which they can help non-native speakers learn English. When giving a talk like this, a speaker must always consider their audience. Naturally, the TED speakers address their talk specifically to the people sitting in the auditorium in front of them. If that audience consists of native speakers who are experts in the same field, then the speaker will talk rapidly and confidently about their subject. This means that many of these talks are difficult to follow for non-native speakers and non-experts, both in terms of the speed of delivery and the technical language used. So, do not be concerned if you struggle to follow talks like this.
Listening test materials
It is worth repeating that any test materials you use to help prepare for the listening test must reflect all of the key features of the real test. These are the characteristics that help to create a listening test that is valid, fair and reliable, and where there is one clear answer to each question. Practising with materials where the questions cannot be answered when listening only once means that people become frustrated and confused about how to improve their listening ability and their score.
The main listening problem people tell me about is listening and answering at the same time, particularly in section 3 and 4 multiple choice, and notes-completion tasks. As we will see, there are ways to help with these problems, but they rely on the use of listening materials and questions that are as fair, valid, and reliable as the real test. If you are using materials that appear much more difficult than those in the Cambridge test practice books, and where you often feel lost, you should not conclude that the test has changed and become more difficult. Instead, you should take this as a clear sign that the materials you are using do not reflect the real test, which is increasingly likely. In the resources chapter, you will find more information about this.
When reading in everyday life, we generally pay close attention to the words and ideas on the page. As we have seen, to improve your IELTS reading score, you need to learn how to scan and skim read; in other words, to read without focusing on every word. Almost the opposite occurs in listening. In normal situations, we learn to tune out music and conversations around us when we are studying or working. However, in the test, you need to always listen with close attention, so this is something you need to train yourself to do.
Learning to listen
As we saw in earlier chapters, it helps to break each skill down into smaller, micro skills and then deliberately practise these. Below are some exercises to help you do this with listening. The exercises will work best with listening materials that reflect the real test: materials that are fair, valid, and reliable, and they are a good way of exploiting the excellent resources you already have. The exercises build up gradually, and you can use them to develop your skills, or simply as a warm-up activity before doing test practice. Begin working with section 1 and 2 listening passages until you are comfortably scoring almost 100% in these parts of the test.
1. Listen and say
When we listen for any length of time, we tend to gradually stop paying attention. Knowing that you will need to repeat the information you hear trains you to stay focused and actively listen. This exercise also helps to develop your ability to recall what you have heard.
Listen to a very short extract and repeat what you hear. Listen several times if necessary, then check with the tapescript to make sure you got it right. As your skills develop, do the same with longer extracts (complete sentences if possible) and gradually move on to section 3 and 4 recordings. You will find this more difficult with the higher-level recordings, where both the information and the language are more complex.
If you struggle to do this, it may be because your brain is not ‘decoding’ what you hear. In other words, your brain hears a chunk of language and cannot separate this into the individual words being used. You will understand this problem better when we look at chunking in the speaking chapter. If you find this exercise too difficult, go back and work with passages from sections 1 and 2 again, and build up your skills more gradually, or you can experiment with slowing down the recording. However, this may also be a sign that you need to focus on building your vocabulary and grammar skills first.
2. Listen and explain
Listen to a slightly longer extract and then try to give the same information in your own words. This helps to test how much you understand. If you do not have a study partner to work with, record yourself and listen again later to see how accurately you were able to explain the information. Gradually increase the length of the extracts you use to see how much of the information you are able to recall and summarise in this way.
3. Listen and read
Rather than just using the tape-script and questions to check answers, you can also use them to train yourself to concentrate for longer periods, such as when following a discussion or talk. In authentic listening recordings, the speakers will naturally use signposting words to help you keep track, and to show how ideas are connected. Read through the tape-script while listening to a recording and try to notice the language features which help you to recognise the following:
• a change in topic
• when speakers are agreeing or disagreeing with each other
• an attitude or opinion.
4. Listen and write
Listen to a short extract and try to write down what you hear. Do this with section 2 and section 4 talks to practise keeping track. Pause the recording or repeat it as often as necessary.
You can do this in two ways:
1) To test your ability to decode the words you are hearing, write down exactly what you hear, word for word. The benefit of this form of dictation is that it can help you to identify gaps in your own language: the words or phrases you miss and do not hear.
2) To test your understanding, as you listen, write notes in your own words. As this is what the test questions do, it is good practice for recognising paraphrase, and will also help train you to keep track in the test. Compare your notes with the information in the test
questions – did you manage to note the same key points?
How to improve your listening test score
As we saw in earlier chapters, you need a balance between building language skills and doing test practice. Reviewing your scores will help ensure that you continue to learn and improve at every stage. Remember, if you are making mistakes, it is important to learn from them. So begin by getting an idea of your current score. If you have not taken the test recently, give yourself a mock listening test using one of the most recent Cambridge test books. Books 9 onwards are the most up-to-date and most accurately reflect the level of the real test.
How to assess your listening level
To assess your level as accurately as possible, mimic the same conditions as the exam by following these guidelines:
• do not use headphones (unless your test centre uses these)
• play the recording only once
• write the answers on the question paper as you listen
• give yourself only 10 minutes to transfer your answers on to a separate answer sheet at the end
NB: You can use lower case or uppercase letters (capital letters) to write your answers.
Marking your answers
When you mark your answers, follow the answer key exactly. There are no half marks in the test; an answer is either right or wrong. If a word is written in brackets in the key, this tells you that you may include it in your answer, but you do not need to write it to get the mark. There is not enough space in a printed book to provide an answer key that is as comprehensive as the real test. So, although you should take the answers given in the key as the only possible answer, for numbers and dates, there are often more variations that are equally acceptable.
• Prepare to listen – pay close attention to the information on the question paper. Use the questions to help predict the topics you will hear, to work out what information you need to listen for, and to stay focused during the test.
• Don’t look ahead or back – focus on the questions and on the section that you are currently listening to. Aim to get the best score you can on every section. If you are not sure of an answer, write down your best guess then move on to the next one – always keep pace with the recording.
• Be as accurate as possible – in the earlier example of ‘2 ½ kilos of flour’, if you write ‘some’ instead of ‘2 ½,’ your answer is incorrect because they decide on a precise amount.
• Always write numbers as a numeral to avoid making a spelling mistake.
• Check the spelling and numbering of your answers carefully at the end. : check your spelling and that your answer matches the correct number on the answer sheet.
• Use authentic IELTS test practice materials to develop the skills you need for the real test.