IELTS Listening: A Road-Map

IELTS Listening

In this post we will delve into the structure of the IELTS Listening exam. This article will give you a comprehensive road-map of the test so that you know what to expect. This test is no walk in the park, so it’s well worth your time to get familiar with what it requires before you attempt it. This post will be especially useful for second language speakers of English.

IELTS listening, like every other aspect of the exam, has very stringent design specifications. This means that, while no two tests can be exactly the same, for obvious reasons, the standard remains constant. The IELTS listening test gauges some key competencies that relate to your ability to live and work in an English-speaking context. We will discuss some of these competencies below.

IELTS Listening: Identifying Each Speaker’s Purpose

Think about a time when you received a call from a call center trying to sell you something. It’s an experience most of us have had. It tends to be an unwelcome one, because very often these are not services or products that we have expressed any interest in. If you’re like most people, you probably didn’t hang up right away. You may have even feigned poor cellphone reception or told a fib in order to get out of the call. I confess that I myself have used at least one of these.

Now, the call center agent or salesperson is a person, too – believe it or not – and knows all of this beforehand. There is a wall to overcome, and companies invest a lot of money and time in training their employees to be able to overcome this. This is where language comes in. Within the first few seconds of the call, you are aware that this is a sales call. The person calling you could use one of a number of strategies. There’s the cold entry: “I’m calling you from Company X about a special offer”. Alternatively, there’s a slightly more subtle question approach: “I was wondering if you might be interested in our latest offer”. This question can be audacious for greater effect: “Are you happy with your current insurance premium?”.

How Does it Work?

In all of these cases, the speaker will use sentences with a very deliberate structure. The tone of voice, too, will reflect this. An effective salesperson has decided which persona to wear before calling you: confident, authoritative, friendly, caring or cute. As the call proceeds, persuasion will begin to emerge. This can take the form of innuendo: “I don’t know about, but I think that’s an excellent offer”, or an assumption of consensus: “I’m sure you’ll agree, this is great value for money”. Our sensitivity to these cues enables us to avoid losing money, so they tend to be quite refined.

However, depending on our habits, personality or occupation, some of us are better at understanding our interlocutors than others. An interlocutor is the person with whom you are speaking. For IELTS listening, it’s important that you recognize each speaker’s purpose, or function, in order to deal with the test questions. You need to grasp whether a speaker is agreeing, making a suggestion, accusing someone, asking for clarification, or trying to change the subject. All of these behaviors are functions and it’s essential that you follow this through every recording in the IELTS Listening test.

Signposting in IELTS Listening

One of the most important linguistic devices that we use in order to show the function of our speech is signposting. In another context, we called this phenomenon coherence and cohesion. In essence, we are talking about words or phrases that we use to help our listener or reader to follow what we are saying. Here are some common signposting words and phrases, in categories. All of this material is also applicable to IELTS writing:

Signposts: adding to a previous point

It’s important that you recognize when the speaker is adding to a previous point, as opposed to contrasting or changing the subject.

  • furthermore
  • in addition
  • also
  • another factor is…
  • besides which,
  • moreover
  • this implies…
  • this leads to…

Signposts: contrasting

When the speakers uses words that indicate contrast, you should pay attention, because this will make a meaningful difference to how you interpret questions, particularly multiple choice and sentence completion:

  • instead
  • in contrast
  • nevertheless
  • rather
  • on the other hand
  • that’s not to say

Signposts: refining

This category is the most subtle, but also one of the most meaningful. If a speaker is making a point of revisiting a topic and bringing into sharper focus, pay attention:

  • more specifically
  • more specifically
  • to clarify
  • essentially
  • to put it plainly

Red Herrings

Going into the IELTS listening test, it’s important that you know about the way the test asks questions. There are roughly 6 types of questions in IELTS listening. The one that we are going to focus on here is arguably the most challenging one: multiple choice. In this question type, there will be a set of questions, usually around 5, with three or four options under each one. For each question, you must choose the correct answer.

What makes this question type dangerous is that the audio, whether it is a monologue or a dialogue, will include items that distract you from the correct answer. The most common form that this takes is this:

Question: What is South Africa’s second biggest export currently?

  • A: coal
  • B: diamonds
  • C: platinum

Audio Recording: Gold continues to constitute the lion’s share of South Africa’s exports at around sixteen billion. Up until 2016, platinum was the next in line at nine point eight billion. An unexpected downturn in the market in 2017 put diamonds ahead of platinum, which is where things have stood since then.

In the recording, two of the options featured. Platinum appears first and the speaker makes an association between platinum and the focus of the question: the second biggest export. It is easy to fall into the trap at this point. The correct answer is B (diamonds), but you would have to listen intently to the second part of the paragraph in order to get that. There are two linguistic cues that can frame a “distractor” like this. The first is signposting vocabulary, which we discussed above. The second is intonation. This refers to the ways in which we raise and lower the pitch of our voice. In the excerpt above, the speaker would probably use a raised pitch on “an unexpected downturn” to indicate that this is important new information.

In IELTS Listening, Context is Everything

We touched on the importance of context here but it bears repeating because it is so important. One of the most common reasons that people fall short in IELTS listening is that they fail to register the context in which they are giving an answer. Look out for units of measurement or time, especially for short gap-fill questions. For example, where the question paper looks like this:

Appointment time: 1) ……….. p.m

Here, the figure one is merely the number of the question. It is not a part of the answer itself. But the fact that there is a “p.m” at the end means that you cannot enter an answer in 24-hour format. If the speaker says “3 o’clock”, your answer must be “3” or “three” depending on the instructions you are given (read these carefully). The answer can not be 15:00, because “15:00 p.m” is redundant.