In the following guide, I want to show you some of the best strategies to teach listening skills for the IELTS test.
All four skills are tested — speaking, reading, writing and listening. Many students concentrate much of their time on the first three skills, but you must familiarise your students with the listening part too. And the skills required.
There is more to teaching listening than just pressing play on an MP3 and sitting back as the students come to grips with what they can hear.
But first I think it is a good idea to make sure we all know what is expected of the students in the listening test.
What it is and what takes place.
The Format of the Listening Part of the IELTS Test
One of the biggest errors any IELTS student can make is not knowing the test format.
There is simply no excuse for this as the details of the test format for all the four parts are clearly outlined on the British Council website.
But students being who they are, they enter the test on a wing and a prayer and think that somehow everything will magically be all right on the big day.
For the sake of convenience, I have outlined the main rules of the listening test format below. You would be wise to make sure your students are aware of them.
- The listening test lasts for 30 minutes.
- There is an extra period of 10 minutes at the end for the student to transfer all their answers to the answer sheet.
- The listening test comprises four parts:
- A conversation between two people in an everyday social situation. For example, in an accommodation agency. The student answers the questions based on their listening comprehension.
- A monologue set in an everyday situation. For example, this could be a speech about local facilities.
- A conversation between up to four people. This is set in an educational or training context. The conversation could be a lecture or a professor giving advice to some students.
- A monologue based on an academic subject. This could take place as a university lecture.
- In each of the sections above, there is an increase in difficulty at each stage.
- The student is given time to read through all the questions beforehand.
- The student can only listen to each recording one time only. It would be wise for you to make sure students understand this point well as many seem to think they can listen to each recording two or three times. This is not the same as doing a listening class where the teacher may play the same recording over and over.
- As the recording plays, the student writes the answers on the question form. Then at the end, they write the answers on the answer form.
- The students must remember to do this. Any answers not written on the answer form will be excluded.
- There are 10 questions for each part of the listening test.
- The questions come in order that they are heard on the audio.
- The questions could be in a variety of forms — multiple choice, sentence completion or matching. They could also be in the form of the labelling of diagrams or maps also the form of completing of a summary, a table or a flow-chart.
- All answers must be written in pencil.
- Answers can be written in upper or lower case.
- The student must write only ONE word or ONE number. No sentences. Any answers written in sentence form will be excluded.
- There is a range of accents — British, Australian, New Zealand or Canadian.
It is essential that the students know what takes place in the test and are aware of all the formats of the questions.
The more they understand what is involved in the test the less stress they will have in the actual test itself.
It is stressful enough dealing with the test itself without being mind-blown by different question formats and any other details of the test.
The only things the student should think about on the day of the test are the questions and the audio recording.
Everything else should be a matter of their General English ability. And if that is not up to speed, they are not ready for the test.
The Purpose of the Listening Test
There is a main purpose to the test.
It is there to make sure that the student can understand and have a reasonable comprehension of English and can follow any lines of argument put forward in a conversation or talk in English.
Most candidates of the IELTS test are going abroad to attend school or university. They will need to have decent levels of English to follow what is being said in the class and in any group discussions with their classmates.
The IELTS guidelines about the purpose of the test are:
The IELTS listening test is designed to gauge and assess a broad range of different listening skills.
It is to check that the student can understand the main ideas in the recording and to make sure that any factual information is clearly understood.
It is also to check that the student can determine and recognise all the different opinions, attitude and the purpose of all the individual speakers.
And that they can understand and follow the development of an argument.
Guidelines for the Test from the British Council
Look here and you can see all the guidelines.
I would like to go through some of these for clarity.
Unable to hear the recording
This may be obvious but if the student cannot hear the audio of the recording, then they can — and must! — tell a member of staff immediately.
There is no point in doing the listening test unless you can hear the recording.
Follow the Instructions on the Test Paper
This is something that students need to think about, not just for the listening part of the test, but all parts.
A common error is for students to answer the wrong question or simply not following the instructions laid out before them. They need to learn to read instructions and questions clearly and follow those closely.
Listen for Specifics
Help your students to listen out for specific information. Things like numbers, names, dates, city names and so on.
For certain kinds of students — Chinese or Korean for example — they may not need reminding of this or any help in it.
But it is worth paying some attention to these details to listen out for.
Anticipate what the speakers might say next
This is not easy but it can definitely assist the student in saving time. The students need to think about the context of the conversation or monologue.
Don’t worry about words you cannot understand
Students often mishear words or they don’t understand a word at all. This comes down to listening comprehension and if it is a common problem, then they need to do more work on their listening skills.
But if it is just one or two words, then don’t get too stressed about it.
The student should concentrate on the bigger picture of the test and try to get a more general understanding without worrying about one isolated word here or there.
If you can’t answer a question clearly, try your best and move on
Sometimes a student might encounter a question that just stumps them.
If they meet a question like this they should just try to answer it as best they can and move on.
Do not waste time on a question like this.
Spelling and Grammar
The student must pay attention to these two skills. It is an English test after all.
Don’t panic if the recording is too fast or too difficult to understand
This is a common problem for students taking the IELTS test. The key thing here is to relax. Practice in test-situations can help.
Follow the Rules
The rules of the test are clear with how many words to use and the time limit and so on.
Abide by rules and do not deviate from them.
How to Teach IELTS Listening
Online Listening Exercises
There are so many free listening exercises online that there really is no need to buy anything. (I shall add links to online exercises in each practice section).
The British Council have their own listening practice exercises. You can find them here.
Ensure that your Students Understand the Format Well
It is well worth running your students through as many of these tests as they can handle. It helps them prepare for the IELTS listening test format. They really need to come to terms with what happens in the test, rather than just showing up and assuming it is just a listening test like they have in school.
Drill them on this and make sure they understand exactly what they need to do in the test.
Preparation is, indeed, everything.
Activities to Do in All the IELTS Listening Test Sections
A good place to start is the British Council. They designed the IELTS test so let’s start there.
The British Council have their own practice sessions available here. These are well worth a look and it would serve you well to go over these and practice with the students in class.
Another great source for IELTS listening is IELTS Liz. You can find a lot of advice and listening for listening on this site.
Then there is YouTube. In the search bar just type IELTS listening section one/1. And you will find many practice sessions to show your students.
YouTube is great for finding practice sessions for all of the listening test. Have a look and you will find many to choose from.
Another great source is IELTS-Up. They have 14 IELTS practice tests for you to try.
Then there is Exam English. They have listening tests for all the sections.
Part One of the IELTS Listening Test
This is the easiest part of the test.
There are only two people talking in the audio recording and so it should be relatively simple for the student to distinguish who is talking and saying what in each line.
That said, some preparation hurts no one….
Go through the British Council practice sessions and the YouTube sessions. These are a great start.
But ideally, you should encourage your students to improve their English listening skills outside of the IELTS test format. If you test their listening skills in a more holistic way this will benefit them come the day of the test.
So, what to do?
I have outlined some exercises you can try below:
One thing you can try with students, especially if they are younger and inclined to get bored quickly, is to use movies in your class.
I write in greater detail here about using movies in an English class.
You just need to take a scene where two people are talking and play this in the class. The students should try to extract as much information from the scene as they can.
In the class, you can play the same scene two or three times, as it is just to practice. But make sure the students are aware that in the real test then only get to hear the recording once.
Watching the news can be a great way to practice for IELTS listening.
It might be a bit of a stretch for some students, but that is a good thing. They need to push themselves outside of their comfort zone and come to terms with different ways of listening for information.
The news is good in that the students quite often need to listen for names, city or country names, dates and numbers.
You can find news extracts on YouTube easily.
I think Breakfast TV news is a good option because it is often light-hearted and the English they use may be more accessible than other news sources.
There are literally hundreds of podcasts that feature two people in conversation with each other.
Many podcasts that have one central host and a guest. They then talk about things central to the general theme of the podcast.
A little harder than watching movies or the news on TV because with a podcast all you can hear are the people’s voices. There is no body language to rely on.
Another exercise you can try is to get your students to work in pairs and create a conversation that they then show to the class as a kind of role play.
They act out the conversation and the rest of the class have to dig out all the necessary information.
As the teacher, you need to ensure that there are enough names, street names, city names, numbers and dates included in each conversation.
This is a fun way for students to practice listening for information rather than dealing with the same boring old recordings time after time.
Part Two of the IELTS Listening Test
This is where things get a little more difficult.
But still the students are only listening to one voice and the subject matter is pretty straightforward.
Do all the practice sessions I linked to above. But there are other options for you to try.
I have used TED Talks many times in class.
There are so many kinds of talks on TED that you do not need to worry if there is anything suitable for your own students.
All of the talks have a transcript available so the students can read along the first time they listen. You can access the transcripts here.
TED Talks also have lessons for you to try. The students listen to a talk, then answer some questions, then have a discussion on the topic. This is great for combining a listening and speaking class. You can find the lessons here.
ISL Collective also have worksheets based on TED Talk ideas.
I mean the speeches by Obama, Martin Luther King and others.
These are also easy to find online – try YouTube and History website – and great for listening to monologue practice.
Student Reading Aloud
Get your students to read passages out in front of the class.
These passages could be reading material you have done before. It doesn’t matter. It’s unlikely that the students will remember and even if they do, they are absorbing the information via a different skill set.
Each student reads aloud and the rest of the class have to listen for the right information.
Part Three of the IELTS Listening Test
Now things are getting tricky.
In this part, there are up to four people speaking. Plus, they are talking about an academic subject so the topic is a little more difficult to follow.
What to do?
Get your students to listen to podcasts where there is a group discussion.
Many podcasts have an ensemble group where four people discuss all manner of topics.
Watching scenes from movies with three or four people talking is a good way to practice.
Just the same as in part one, find a suitable scene and play it two or three times.
Class Group Conversations
Get students into groups of three or four and make them speak out scripted conversations in front of the other students.
There are many scripts to find online. Try here and here.
Part Four of the IELTS Listening Test
This is the hardest part of the listening test.
It is only one person talking, but it is in the form of a university lecture. The subject matter may be a little difficult for some.
I found a source of college lectures here. It is pretty advanced so make sure it is for advanced students. It is great practice for a real English-speaking college environment in the West.
Some of the more advanced TED talks are ideal for practising this part of the listening test.
Listen to Practice Tests Faster
If you use a media player like VLC, then you will be aware that you can play back any recording at a faster speed.
You can try this with your students.
I am sure they will love you for it!
In VLC go to Playback at the top of the screen, click and go down to Speed.
There are two settings to increase the speed of the playback. Keep adjusting the speed until your students scream for mercy.
You can use this method throughout all the practice sessions from listening test one to four.
Anything which stretches the student’s ability and pushes them out of their comfort zone is good.
I think a vital part of preparing for the test is for the student to understand the format of the test.
It is just incredible how many students go into the IELTS test with absolutely zero knowledge of what to expect in the test. Then they get completely flustered and perform poorly.
A valuable part of your time could be spent showing the students exactly what to expect and what they have to do in the test.
Do not assume they will find this information out for themselves. And do not just hand over the link to the British Council website because they will just not bother to look.
Go through all the four parts of the test and show them what they have to do in each part. If they can understand this, then that is half the battle.
The rest is down to their ability in General English. And if they can’t do that, then they are simply not ready to take the test.
Good luck and please leave comments below.