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Resources: Listen out for success

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Rod Smith explains how to ensure students aren’t overwhelmed by the unfamiliar in the Ielts listening test.

It is all too easy for Ielts test-takers to feel overwhelmed when faced with listening passages featuring speakers using a variety of accents they may be unfamiliar with.

This often makes them respond passively – and they can fail to engage actively with the language, instead relying on what they can identify from previous exposure.

This reluctance to use strategies that actively engage with the unfamiliar can lead to poor performance in the listening test, so here are five tips to promote a more positive approach:

»1 Before listening to any passage, read the questions carefully first.
It is essential to read the questions preceding a listening passage carefully. After doing so, test-takers should ask themselves two things:

a) What type of task am I faced with? For example, is the question multiple choice, labelling, short answer, a matching question or a classifying task, etc? Each question type demands a particular response, so it is important to have plenty of practice with them all.

b) What exactly is the question asking me to do? Fully understanding what is required will provoke a more active approach to the passage.

»2 Narrow down possible answers by predicting what is most likely to come up.

Sections 1 and 2 of the Ielts listening test feature familiar situations that students will have encountered many times.

Section 1, though, is a conversation, usually between two people who are trying to negotiate a task such as booking a hotel or planning an event.

Section 2 is a monologue where a speaker is explaining a particular facility, feature or practice, such as camping in a national park or how to use a particular library or activity centre. In such instances, it is not difficult to predict what kind of information is being delivered or exchanged. This awareness promotes active involvement in the task by focusing the mind on what is expected, rather than listening in a general sense with no predictive markers in mind.

»3 Expose yourself to as many different accents in English as possible.
Only by acclimatising oneself to a wide variety of spoken English delivered by speakers from all parts of the English-speaking world can one develop the ability to understand irrespective of accent.

Remember: different accents do not involve lack of clarity, and clarity is a constant feature of all Ielts listening passages, irrespective of accent.

Good sources in this area are BBC Radio World Service programmes, as these are generally of no more than fifteen minutes in length, which is manageable rather than daunting.

There is, of course, a wealth of material on social media such as YouTube, but it is important to ensure that what is being listened to approximates to the type of listening passages in the Ielts listening test.

Test-takers should focus initially on short one-minute dialogues, building up to longer periods. Once confidence has been gained, they should listen to short instructional monologues and seminar-type interactions typical of

Section 3 of the Listening test.

Finally, they need to listen to lecture-type monologues, where the listening task involves being able to follow the main thread of an argument over an extended period of time.

»4 Familiarise yourself with listening test conditions by practising mock exams.

Plenty of mock test practice is essential in alleviating nerves and developing confidence. However, make sure that Cambridge practice tests are used, as these will be closest to the character, questions and format of the Ielts listening test.

»5 Develop an awareness of correct grammar and spelling.
Remember that grammar and spelling mistakes are penalised in the listening test, so it is important to develop accuracy in both these areas.
You can use British or American spelling conventions as long as you are consistent.
Both grammar and spelling can be improved by keeping a ‘personal mistakes profile’ and by looking at common errors in these two areas as a class under the guidance of an experienced Ielts teacher.

My final tip applies to all the suggestions outlined above: practice, practice, practice!


Rod Smith is an ELT author and Ielts teacher trainer, editor, and materials developer with the British Council