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Helping students improve on the IELTS Listening Test: Develop listening skills for the IELTS





Date Published

27 April 2022

As an IELTS teacher I often struggled to find ways of improving my students’ listening comprehension skills beyond just doing listening practice in the classroom. I soon found that explicitly practising four listening skills that students use naturally in their first language led to an improvement in both their overall listening comprehension skills and specifically their IELTS Listening test skills. In this post, we will look at some simple activities to help our students develop these 4 skills explicitly, each time relating them to the IELTS Listening Test.

What are the four listening skills?

The first listening skill is anticipation. In real life we usually know what we’re listening to and why. It is essential to transfer the same ability to IELTS listening. Secondly, there is active targeted listening. For example, contexts like airport departure lounges where listeners have to screen out all unnecessary information to hear a flight call. Next, there is thinking/preparing. This skill relates to meetings or seminars. We know in advance who is going to speak and what they will speak about. Thus, we know ahead of the talk what notes may be relevant or irrelevant. Lastly, there is ‘noticing’, another innate skill. In casual conversation, if a friend says ‘Oh, by the way . . .’, we know they are about to add new or different information. Similarly, in a lecture, if the speaker says, ‘Now, let’s turn to . . .’, we know this signals a change of focus.

We need to help our students transfer their use of these skills into answering questions in the test.

Listening Skill 1: Anticipation

In the IELTS Listening test, test takers have 30 seconds before the 4 parts of the test to look at the questions before the audio starts. They also have a further 20-30 seconds in the middle of parts 1, 2 and 3. Teachers should encourage students to use this time to anticipate/predict topics that might arise and the type of information they need to answer the question.

Anticipating the topics. To help students develop this skill, provide them with a list of ‘typical’ Listening part 1 scenarios and get them to list possible topics for each. Students then work in pairs to combine their lists before getting the whole class to provide feedback to produce a ‘master’ list.


Scenario: A job interview.

Possible topics: Pay, hours, breaks, leave, responsibilities, pension, qualifications etc.

Play a relevant Part 1 audio and students tick or number the topics that occur.

To create your own list of scenarios, I suggest looking through the Official IELTS Practice Materials.

Anticipating the information. Use the same practice test(s) that you used to anticipate the topic. Give out the Part 1 questions. Put students in pairs to anticipate the actual answer as near as they can. Tell them to think about the ‘grammar’ of the missing information. Is it a noun/verb? Then, get them to use their knowledge of this scenario to predict possible answers.


Scenario: A job interview

Topic: Holidays

Question. Complete the following using no more than ONE word and/or a number

“And of course, you get ………………… weeks of paid annual leave in your first year.”

With your students’ knowledge of the world, they can anticipate an answer such as ‘2 weeks.’

Listening Skill 2: Active, targeted listening

Many of the questions in Parts 1 and 2 require information in the form of numbers, times, dates, prices, phones, zip codes etc. There are different rhythms for reading out numbers in different languages. Targeting and practising noting numbers in different, though typically Anglophone, rhythms is essential.

Get your students to listen to number-rich audio clips and write down all the numbers (and what they refer to) using the following sites:

Otherwise, simple number dictation games can be used in class. Vary the ‘types’ of numbers to include all the possible categories.

Listening Skill 3: Thinking/preparing

Part 3 includes a conversation between 2 and 4 people in an educational context, e.g., 2 students discussing a project or research or a student and a tutor discussing the student’s work. In such scenarios, different people will have different questions to ask and different information to give depending on their role. Asking students to actively think about an individual’s role while looking at the questions will help them prepare for which speaker to listen to for different questions.


Scenario – a student and tutor.

Students read the questions and decide who they need to listen to attentively to get the answer, the student or the tutor.

  • Q21: How are you getting along with the project? (tutor)
  • Q22: What do you suggest I look at next? (student)

Use practice tests and have your students look at Part 3, read the description of the scenario that is given, and then work through the questions thinking about who the information giver is likely to be so your students are more prepared prior to listening and able to focus in a targeted fashion.

Listening Skill 4: Noticing

Part 4 involves listening to an academic monologue like a lecture. Whilst these require no specialist knowledge, they are dense and information rich. It is therefore essential that students practice picking out as many ‘clues’ to the direction and flow of the talk as possible.

Photocopy test transcripts for students to analyse the cohesive devices that signpost the organisation of the lecture. They can categorise the different functions:

  • Do they:
    • negate, contradict or correct? - on the other hand, whereas, actually
    • change the topic/move on? - let’s turn to, now looking at …,

Play a different Part 4 audio and ask each student to write down the signpost words and phrases they hear. Working in pairs students should compare lists, making notes about the functions. Hand out copies of the 10 questions asking them if they can see where there is a change of topic/focus, negation etc. Finally, play the audio and students answer the questions using the signposts to guide them.

Explicit practice of these innate listening skills can change classroom listening into active development of listening comprehension ability.

  • How do you prepare ESL or EFL students for the IELTS Listening test? We’d love to hear about it on the IELTS LinkedIn Page.

About the author

Sarah Philpot (MA Lon., RSA Dip. TEFL) has been an English language teacher and teacher trainer for over 30 years. She has lived and taught in various countries around the world including the UK, Sri Lanka, France, and Palestine. She has published a number of English language grammar and study skills books both for young learners and adults, including Headway Academic Skills (OUP). She has also co-writes and presents webinars for IELTS test takers and teachers.

  • The views and opinions expressed in this blog post are solely those of the guest contributing writer. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of IELTS.