How to improve your listening skills for the IELTS Listening test

Published: September 13, 2022

In this post, we will look at some simple activities to help you develop four listening skills, each crucial to doing well in the IELTS Listening test.

The good thing is that you already use these skills every day in real life in your own language(s).

Four crucial listening skills for success

The 4 skills are ‘anticipation’, ‘active, targeted listening’, ‘thinking/preparing’ and ‘noticing’.

Anticipation: In real life we usually know what we’re listening to and why, so we have some expectations about what we will hear.

Active targeted listening: For example, in contexts like airport departure lounges you naturally screen out all unnecessary information to hear your own flight call.

Thinking/preparing: This skill relates particularly to meetings at work or seminars at college or university. You know in advance who is going to speak and what they will speak about. So, you know ahead of the talk what notes you need to make that are relevant to you.

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.

You need to transfer the same abilities to the IELTS Listening test. Here are some things you can practise to help you transfer these skills to answering questions in the IELTS Listening test.

1) Anticipation

In the IELTS Listening test, you have 30 seconds before each of the four Parts of the test to look at the questions before the audio starts. You also have a further 20-30 seconds in the middle of Parts 1, 2 and 3. You should use this time to anticipate/predict topics that might arise, and the type of information you need to answer the question.

Anticipating the topics

There are some ‘typical’ scenarios that occur in Part 1 in one form or another. Here are some examples:

  • A job interview = Looking for a part-time job
  • Opening a bank account = Arranging accommodation
  • Attending a conference = Arranging a holiday

Look through IELTS test practice books for more scenarios

Think about the sort of things that may be discussed in each of these scenarios. Make a list. Then for each scenario make a note of the sort of vocabulary you might hear. You may like to do this with a friend or classmate as two heads are always better than one!

Example Scenario: A job interview

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


hoursfull-time / part-time / zero hours
breakscoffee breaks / lunch break
leaveholidays / vacations
pensionemployer/employee contributions
qualificationsdegree / experience / languages/ driving licence

Tip: In the 30 seconds you have before the audio starts, look through the questions and work out what the topics are, and start thinking about the vocabulary you may hear.

Download IELTS Listening Part 1 questions

Download IELTS Listening Part 1 recording

Anticipating the information

Use practice papers and look at the Part 1 questions. Think about the ‘grammar’ of the missing information. Is it a noun/verb? Then, use your knowledge of this scenario to predict possible answers.

Example 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 three ………………. of paid annual leave in your first year.”

From the context you can see that the missing word is a noun. With your knowledge of the world, you can anticipate the answer of ‘weeks’. It is unlikely that new employees will be offered only 3 days of holiday a year!

Tip: Use the time before the audio starts and in the break in the middle of Parts 1, 2 and 3 to think about the type of word that is missing, and use your knowledge of the world to anticipate a possible answer.

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 are essential.

Listen to number-rich audio clips and write down all the numbers (and what they refer to). Try these 5-minute BBC News broadcast, which is very good for this.

Tip: Regularly listen to a radio news broadcast (usually on the hour or half hour). The short news bulletin is usually followed by the weather forecast.

Download IELTS Listening Part 2 questions

Download IELTS Listening Part 2 recording

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. Actively think about an individual’s role while looking at the questions, as this will help you prepare for which speaker to listen to for different questions.

Example Scenario: A student and tutor

Read the questions and decide who you need to listen to attentively to get the answer, the student or the tutor. (see the end of the post for the answers)

Q21. How are you getting along with the project?

Q22. What do you suggest I look at next?

Q23. When do I need to complete the assignment?

Tip: Use practice tests and look at Part 3 questions, 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 that you are more prepared prior to listening and able to focus in a targeted fashion. Check the audio script and see if you were right.

Download IELTS Listening Part 3 questions

Download IELTS Listening Part 3 recording

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 you practise picking out as many ‘clues’ to the direction and flow of the talk as possible.

Tip: Use test transcripts to look for the cohesive devices that signpost the organisation of the lecture. Then try categorising the different functions.

Download an IELTS test transcript

Do they: 

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

Download IELTS Listening Part 4 questions

Download IELTS Listening Part 4 recording


You already have excellent listening skills in your own language. Now actively engage those skills to improve your listening comprehension for the IELTS Listening test. Good luck!

Visit the IELTS preparation page

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