A Beginner’s Guide to IELTS Listening

The Test Format

It takes the makers of IELTS (Cambridge) an average of 2 years to make every test. Each question has to go through dozens of people before it is finally approved – let’s study the test with the same attention to detail! If you want to learn more about IELTS from former examiners you can our facebook group.

IELTS Listening is a 30 minute test of your English listening ability and there are 4 parts.

There are 40 total questions and each part has 10 questions.

You will conduct the test in a room full of other candidates and will be provided with your own personal pair of headphones (that you can’t keep!).

You cannot leave the room to go to the toilet during the test because it would disturb other test takers.

Write your answers on the test itself. At the end of the 30 minute test, you will have 10 minutes to transfer your answers from the test paper to the answer sheet.


IELTS Listening Part 1

In part 1, you will hear an informal conversation typically asking for information or making a purchase.

Some examples of conversations that you might hear in part 1 listening include:

  • Someone asking about a job vacancy over the telephone (at a restaurant, office, The White House, etc.)
  • Someone book a service (a hall for a party, a hotel room, a bus ticket, a plane ticket, a holiday trip, etc.)
  • Someone asking for information about a service or place (a guided tour, an amusement park, a school, etc.)

This is the easiest part of the listening exam because it is only testing one thing: your ability to write what you hear.

You just have to be able to write down names, numbers, spellings, and simple vocabulary.

Here is what part 1 typically looks like (it is almost always a gap-fill):

Pay close attention to the instructions because it will tell you how many words/numbers you can write for this question: ONE WORD AND/OR A NUMBER.

This will not always be the same so make sure you carefully read and circle the instructions.

To do better on these types of questions you can check out the 6 basic tips here.

IELTS Listening Part 2

In part 2, you will hear one person typically talking about a public event or attraction.

Some examples of conversations that you might hear in part 2 listening include:

  • Someone giving information about an event (a museum opening, a concert, a fundraising event, etc.)
  • Someone explaining something (how to get around campus for new students, the details of a guided tour, a project they are involved in, etc.)

In this section the exam begins to become more difficult.

The vocabulary is a little more difficult and there will be more distractors and paraphrases/synonyms.

Here are 2 examples of a listening part 2:

The synonyms and distractors make part 2 really challenging. All the keywords might be paraphrased. The listening might mention options A, B, and C but only 1 of them is coffect.

For example, take a look at this question:


Here are some paraphrases from the tapescript:

‘Most rapidly growing’ changes to ‘has seen the largest increase in population’

‘Group of residents’ changes to ‘demographic’

‘Sheepmarket area’ changes to ‘Sheepmarket and its surrounding community’

‘Young professional people’ changes to ‘young professionals’

‘Students from the university’ changes to ‘young people who are still studying’

‘Employees in the local market’ changes to ‘the local workforce’

The listening will also probably mention all 3 options: A, B, and C.

Maybe the speaker talks about how there are tons of new young professionals first, then about how that has helped the local workforce expand then back to mention how many young professional people there are now before finally saying that this is overshadowed by the number of new university students. Good luck with that!

They could talk about the options in any order so be really careful before circling your final answer!

IELTS Listening Part 3

In part 3, you will hear a discussion usually involving 2 people, but which could be as many as 4 people.

Some examples of conversations that you might hear in part 3 listening include:

  • A discussion of an academic project or research (a teacher discussing the results of a project with a student, a teacher giving a student advice or an overview of a subject area, two students planning to do a project together, etc.)

The difficulty usually also increases in this section because there will be even more distractors, paraphrases and because the vocabulary is more academic and challenging.

Here are 3 examples of listening part 3:


Just like in part 2, a lot of the keywords will be paraphrased or changed.

There will also be distractors – answers that are mentioned and could be correct, but are not.

The main difference between part 2 and 3 is that in part 3 the vocabulary will be more academic and you might have a harder time understanding everything you hear.

IELTS Listening Part 4

In part 4, you will hear part of a lecture on an academic subject.

Some examples of the subjects talked about in the lectures include:

  • Astronomy, history, political science, biology, marine biology, geology, neuroscience, psychology, art history, literature, physiology, etc.

You can see from the list above that many of the topics are related to science.

A lot of my students think this is the most difficult listening passage.

The biggest challenge in part 4 is the difficult vocabulary related to an academic field. It is a professor’s lecture – even native English speakers have to listen very carefully to understand it well!

For example, in this question:

Here is some difficult vocabulary that you might hear related to noise in cities: urban noise pollution, rising decibel levels, neurological effects of noise, personal sensitivity levels to noise, increasingly pertinent problem, abnormal sleep patterns, more acute stress levels, subjective perception of a sound, research methodology, and much more!

If you are interested in reading a lot of academic vocabulary related to noise you can check out this article.


The Question Types

There are 10 different questions types on the listening test.

  • Multiple Choice
  • Matching
  • Labeling a Plan/Map/Diagram
  • Completing a Form
  • Completing a Table
  • Completing Notes
  • Completing a Sentence
  • Completing a Summary
  • Completing a Flowchart
  • Short Answer Questions

In order to do well on the test, you should be familiar with all the types of question so that you feel comfortable during the test. This is one reason to do lots of practice tests.

To do really well on the test, you need to put in a lot of work practicing specific types of questions repeatedly in order to improve your listening skills.

How to Score the IELTS Listening Test

The listening test has 40 questions and each one counts for 1 point. You can get half-bands, for example a 6.5 or 8.5.

Here is a chart provided by the official IELTS page on how the scores are marked:


However, the scores vary slightly based on the difficulty of the test that week.

In general those numbers give you a rough idea of what your score will be.

Do a few practice tests and if the results are similar you should expect to get a similar score on your actual test.

If you are not close to the score you want, don’t waste your money – spend some more time improving your listening first!

How to Improve your Listening Skills

There is a difference between testing and improving your IELTS listening skills.

To test your IELTS listening, do a practice test and add up your points. Use the chart above to figure out what your score is. Now you know how much you have to improve.

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