How To Get A High Score In IELTS Listening

Every IELTS article and every IELTS book seems to parrot the same old advice: take IELTS practice tests! Whilst this is, of course, essential, there is a whole lot more you can do to get a high score on your IELTS test. In his How To Get A High Score In IELTS… series, The IELTS Teacher offers his top five tips for IELTS success.

1. Anticipate answers
Anticipation is one of the most useful skills you can own when it comes to the Listening component of the IELTS test. If you can predict the answer before you’ve even heard it, you are prepared for when it comes.

So how do we anticipate correct answers? You don’t need a crystal ball, or time travel powers (although these would help). You just need to look at the questions a bit more closely.

You don’t need a crystal ball to be ready for answers in the Listening test. Just anticipation.

For example, if the task asks for note or sentence completion, which Task 1 and 3 often do, then check out the words around the note. Are they asking for numbers (like a phone number or date) or words (like an address or room preference)?

Look closer still: what is the word form of the word preceding and/or following the gap? If the sentence reads ‘the driver can …….. and transport the food’, we know that the word in the gap is a verb, as it follows a modal verb. We know what to listen out for.

Many candidates worry about the Listening test because they worry that they won’t be able to understand it all. But you don’t need to; you only need to understand the answers. And if you can predict what the answers are before the tape begins, then your brain is ready to receive that information.

As always, keywords are very important. You have some time to read the questions before the tape begins, so use this time to highlight any keywords. What you are doing is telling your mind to be alert when it hears these words. The answer will be nearby; be ready to catch it.

2. Familiarise yourself with accents
Canadian, Australian, Scottish, South African, American, Irish, Welsh, New Zealand, Indian. Oh, and English. These are the accents that could appear in the Listening tasks, so it’s important that you familiarise yourself with all of them. The countries themselves (besides USA) are members of the commonwealth – all with English as their first or second language – and many of these countries’ institutions and visa applications will ask for a good score in the IELTS test.

If the above list has scared you a little, here are some words of comfort: accents are easy. You just need to spend a little time with them.

Whenever I get a new student who has previously been taught by an American or Australian teacher, he or she tells me that they struggle to understand English accents. And yet, after a few minor misunderstandings in the first half hour or so of our lesson, they understand everything I say.

Admittedly, some accents are ‘stronger’ than others. Scottish, for example. But this only means a few more minutes of practice with them. You’ll be surprised at how quickly you come to understand the accent. It’s often just a matter of slightly modified vowels.

Of course, you’re unlikely to have any Scottish speakers near you. So how do you practice listening to their accents? That’s easy: YouTube. Just stick ‘Scottish accent’ or ‘Indian accent’ or ‘Canadian accent’ in the search bar and watch the videos. The search results often show videos of actual voice coaches, so you can practice your speaking at the same time. Champion.

3. Use your time efficiently
Most people think this advice only applies to the Reading and Writing components, but it actually applies to Listening too.

Why? Because there is time in the Listening test which you can use to read, instead of just listen. It’s not all audio. There are gaps between the tasks, and it is these moments that can boost your score up to a perfect 9.0. If they’re used wisely, that is.

High IELTS Listening Score

Don’t fear the clock; use it.

Don’t use the time between tasks to zone out, stare at the clock, or think of what you’re going to have for dinner. And don’t worry about any answer you missed on the last question. Fill something in at the end as a guess, but don’t rack your brain trying to remember the audio. You’re much better off closely reading the next question so you can anticipate its answers.

When you’re reading over the next question, do all the things mentioned in Tip 1, but also check out the instruction for the question itself. For example, be careful whether you need to write ONE WORD ONLY or NO MORE THAN THREE WORDS. Don’t end up kicking yourself over a simple instruction error.

Also use the time to think about words that will appear around the answers. For example, if a multiple choice question asks What change has taken place in the school? then you can prepare yourself to listen out not only for the word ‘school’, but also for anything to do with schools; education, students, lessons, teachers.

Don’t fear the clock; use it.

4. Immerse yourself in English
This is of course useful for all your English language skills, but it probably has most prominence for Listening. Think about it; when you’re in an English speaking country, what do you spend most of your time doing? Reading, writing, speaking or listening? Unless you have a real ego problem and can talk people into a coma, it’s surely going to be listening.

But you don’t need to live in an English-speaking country to immerse yourself in English. You can hire a tutor of IELTS (such as myself) to give you IELTS lessons over Skype. This is easily the best way to improve all four of your language skills. But sometimes a tutor isn’t possible either; in that case, there is an alternative: videos.

I’ve spoken about the benefits of movies and videos in a previous article, and I’ll repeat it here: English videos are one of the best tools you can use to improve your speaking and listening skills. Not only because they offer the chance for real, active practice, but also because they are enjoyable. 

A neat activity that can improve your listening, speaking, reading and writing skills at the same time is recitation

How it works is like this: pick a movie you think you’ll like, but haven’t yet seen. At some point when you’re watching the movie, when either one or two characters are talking, hit the pause button. Get out a pen and paper. Turn off the subtitles. Now you’re going to listen to the dialogue very closely and write down what you hear. These can just be notes. Do this for two minutes.

Now, pause the movie again. Bring up the recorder function on your phone, or use a Dictaphone. You are now going to practice your speaking skills by trying to recite (repeat) everything that the character/s just said. Try to make it as perfect as possible on the first go. Finally, you will check how accurate you were with reading skills. Put the movie on mute (no volume) and play it with subtitles. Play your voice on the recording at the same time. Read the subtitles as you listen to check how accurate you were.

This is a great activity because it practises all four skills, as well as testing memory recall, accuracy and note-taking; all useful sub-skills in the IELTS test. It can also be a lot of fun to pick a movie you know and love, choose a famous scene, and test how much of a fan you are by reciting it without listening in the first place.

Some of my female students love going through this scene from the Notebook. Personally, I’m more of a Bradley Cooper kind of guy.

5. The Little Things
Here’s a tip for you: five tips are better than one. And having already offered you the wisdom of four tips, the fifth and final tip in these How To Get A High Score In IELTS… series is dedicated to offering you five more tips. They’re as useful as all the others, but a bit smaller, so I call them ‘The little things’.

Little thing #1: If you’ve written down what you think is the answer to a question, and then you hear something else that could have been the answer, don’t ignore it, write it down in the margin. Don’t worry about it again until the audio is over, after which you can decide which answer is the correct one.  Furthermore, one of the answers might be the answer to a different question, which will rule it out for the previous question.

Little thing #2: Leave no answer blank. You will not lose marks for a wrong answer; an estimated guess may just get you a mark, whilst a blank answer never can. Don’t worry about blanks until the end of the task though. Concentrate on the audio until it is over.

A blank picture is a sad picture, and a blank answer is a sad answer. Answer every question; keep the answers happy.

Little thing #3: For a lot of the tasks, like the Diagram Labelling task for example, the answers to the questions run in order. Figure out which tasks run in order with a quick Google search; once you know what they are, you know that you can move through the questions in order. You’ll know you’ve missed an answer if the answer to the next question comes up. See Little thing #2 for what to do in this situation.

Little thing #4: Find conversation in English. Sometimes this is difficult because you live in an area with no English speakers, but there are great sites out there that offer free unstructured speaking practice with English natives over Skype, such as iTalki. These conversations aren’t as useful as structured IELTS speaking practice lessons with a tutor, but they helpful if tutors aren’t an option.

Little thing #5: Play a bit of music whilst you study. This tip is controversial; some people argue that music is not helpful when studying. If you feel this way, by all means practice in sweet silence. But if you think of yourself as a musical person, a good band with easy-to-understand English lyrics (The Beatles, for example) will make the study session more enjoyable, get your creative juices flowing, and give you great listening practice. 

Thanks for reading my top 5 tips for achieving a high IELTS Listening score. I hope they have been helpful. If you have any more tips for improving your listening, I’d love to hear them! Use the comments section below to share your ideas with me and my students. Thanks, and good luck with your exam!