Answering the IELTS Listening Test

In this post we will be discussing one of the most common pitfalls in answering the IELTS listening test. Very often, people who achieve a good band score in other areas of the IELTS exam fail to obtain their desired band score for listening. This often comes down to the importance of taking note of context when answering the IELTS listening test. Under the pressure of test day, it can be easy to either miss or misinterpret the requirements of the question. We’ve chosen to focus on this aspect because it applies to the whole listening test and can come up in any of the question types. This post will be useful to you if you are a new test-taker, or if you have tried the test and didn’t get the score you needed for listening.

What is Context?

Context is the environment that a word or phrase appears in. The IELTS test will ask you to insert information into a template. This could be anything from a single sentence, to a table or a map. To achieve a good listening score, it’s not enough to extract the right information from the recording; you have to pay close attention to what is around the information. This might mean that you have to add something to your answer, such as changing the form of the word, or removing a unit of measurement.

Context Cues: Units of Measurement in the IELTS Listening Test

Consider the following simple example. If I ask you the question: “How far is your house from here?” you will give me an answer that includes a number and a unit of measurement: “two kilometers”. If I ask you the question in a slightly modified way, your answer will change. If I ask “How many kilometers is it from here to your house?” you will answer with just a number: “two”. It’s unnecessary for you to include “kilometers” because I gave that to you in the question.

Question: How far is your house?
Answer: two kilometers

Question: How many kilometers away do you live?
Answer: two kilometers

In the IELTS listening test, if you don’t take note of the question in this way, you might give more information than needed. If you do this you will not get the mark, even if you have given the correct answer. The same applies to other units, such as time units like a.m. and p.m. Look carefully at the question and make sure you have really answered it. Also pay attention to what surrounds the gap for your answer. If the gap is followed by “km”, your answer on the answer sheet should not include “km”.

Context Cues: Sentence completion in the IELTS Listening Test

Sometimes, the test question paper will supply a sentence with a gap. You must listen to the recording and select the correct item to complete the gap. The first challenge with this question type is that the recording will not be a word-for-word transcription of the sentence on the page. It will be a paraphrase, meaning it will be a sentence with the same meaning but different words. You have to listen carefully to find the answer. Once you’ve got your answer, pay attention to context. Consider this example and see if you can spot the danger.

Recording: Doctor Wheeler sees patients before one o’clock, so you will need to book a consultation in the morning.

Question paper: The patient will only be able to get an appointment if he book before one pm.

Do you see the problem? We were so focused on getting the right answer that we forgot the context. We have to add “s” to “book”, so that the sentence will be grammatically correct. Bear in mind that this is a highly simplified example designed to make a point. The IELTS listening test will be more challenging. When you’re under pressure it’s easy to overlook details like this and end up falling short in answering the IELTS listening test.

Reading Instructions When Answering the IELTS Listening Test

When the test gives you specific instructions about how to answer a question, use this to your advantage. You will maximize your score if you pay careful attention to the instructions and sometimes their specificity can even help you home in on the right answer.

Word Counts

Many of the questions in the IELTS listening test will tell you how many words you are allowed to use. This could be “no more than three words”, or “one word and one number” or even “one word only”. If you stray from the instructions, you won’t get the marks. If the task specifies “one word only” and you give two, you will be marked wrong, even you include the correct word in your two-word answer.

Multiple Choice

Some questions, especially multiple-choice questions, will ask you to select correct answers out of a range. Often, the question will specify that you should “write only the correct letter”. As before, if you don’t follow this instruction, you will not obtain the mark. Usually, this instruction will be written in bold font on the question paper. If you are prone to overlooking detail, take a pencil and circle it to emphasize it even more.

Capital Letters

Spelling counts when answering the IELTS listening test. You must make an effort to spell as accurately as you can throughout the listening test. If the answer is a proper noun (the name of a person or place), or comes at the beginning of the sentence, make sure you use a capital letter. Failure to do so will sabotage all the hard work you put into getting the right answer.

Strategies for Answering the IELTS Listening Test

Here are three tips to bear in mind when answering your IELTS listening test. If you remember to do these three things, you will maximize your chances of achieving the band score you need:

Use your Preparation Time

You have time before listening to read the questions. Use this time to predict what kind of answer each gap requires (adjective, verb, proper noun, etc)

Use the Question Paper

Answer on the question paper as you listen. You are free to write on the sheet and this will create a record you can go back to later. You will get time to transfer to the answer sheet later, so don’t divide your attention between the question paper and the answer sheet,

Checking at the End

You will get ten minutes at the end to transfer your answers from the question paper to the answer sheet. Use your ten-minute period to check for the issues we have discussed. Pay careful attention to the context of your answers. Ask yourself:

  • Do any of my answers need a capital letter?
  • Do my completed sentences sound right?
  • Have I stuck to word limits?
  • If the question asked for a letter or number, have I done so?

Thankfully, all of the pitfalls outlined in this post can be avoided with some guided practice in answering the IELTS listening test. Whether you are a first-time test-taker, or someone who has not managed to secure a high enough band score for listening, the Highway IELTS Listening Practice and Assessment will help you to target your particular needs.

Highway IELTS has developed tools that save you time by identifying your particular needs first. That is the only sound basis on which to make recommendations and chart the way forward. Attend our Discover IELTS Workshop in Durban or Johannesburg or check out some of our self-study development courses designed to help you achieve your goals.

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