IELTS Listening: Maximising your time before the audio starts

If you’ve taken the IELTS test before or practised with official materials at home, you’ll be familiar with snippets like this played before every new section on the listening paper:

You’re then given between 20 and 60 seconds to read through the relevant questions before the audio begins.


But how well do you use this time?


Do you normally find yourself drifting off and thinking what you’re going to have for lunch when the test finishes or whether you can afford to buy that new pair of trainers you spotted online last week?


The point is, it’s imperative that you use this precious time wisely and really prepare yourself for what is to come. Losing focus is definitely NOT going to help you!


So, how can you do this?


The strategies I always share with my students are as follows:


STEP 1: Have you found the right questions?


Make sure you have located the questions you need to answer when the next audio clip begins.

So, if on the paper it says this:









Have you found questions 1-8 on the paper? They might not all be together on the same page.


STEP 2: Check and double check the instructions


Secondly, it’s really important that you read the instructions. Yes, you may have done countless practice papers at home but the instructions for each set of questions on the listening paper varies.


If it’s a gap fill question, how many words or numbers can you write in each gap? If the instructions say ‘no more than two words and/or a number’ and you write something like ‘25 South Asian elephants’ or ‘extreme weather conditions’ you’ll automatically get the answer to that question wrong.


If the question provides you with a list of answer options like this:

make sure that, on your answer sheet, you write a letter as an answer (i.e. A, B or C) and not as one of the given phrases (At present, In the near future OR In the long-term future).


STEP 3: Read the heading and predict


A lot of the questions on the paper will be accompanied by a heading. Don’t simply ignore it. It will help you to activate the vocabulary you already know on the topic which, in turn, will allow you to focus better on the audio when it starts.


Take a heading like this one from a Section 1 part of the paper:


600 words max

From this I can see that the audio will be related to the shipping industry and a customer asking about a price.


Then, you should go one step further and use the heading to think about:


· How many speakers there will be – in this case probably 2.

· Who they will be – in this audio, I would imagine it’s a conversation between a staff member and a customer.

· Where they will be at the time of speaking – this conversation is most likely to take place on the phone or in the company’s office or shop.


STEP 4: Underline keywords


The next step is to get your pen out and start underlining keywords. This is particularly useful for multiple choice or summary completion questions when you have a lot of text to read.


For multiple choice questions, I would focus on the question stems themselves as you’re unlikely to have enough time to underline keywords in all the answer options too. You can look at these while the audio is playing. For summary completion exercises, underlining keywords before and after gaps will be most useful to you.


See what I’ve done with this Section 3 question:

I can then use my knowledge of grammar and vocabulary – or perhaps even the topic – to predict the answers before the audio starts.


Your predictions might be very different to the correct answers but that doesn’t matter so much. Think of it as a ‘warm up’ likes the ones athletes do before they run a race - getting your brain ‘in gear’ to think about the topic and the relevant vocabulary.


Next steps

If you found this blog post useful, why not check out our IDP Masterclass in Listening; a one-hour video where my colleague Jane Hammerton and myself provide you with a thorough grounding in this part of the test.

Copyright 2019 IELTS Europe

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IELTS is jointly owned by IDP:IELTS Australia, the British Council, and Cambridge Assessment English.

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