IELTS TEST DAY – observations and exam technique of students doing the paper based test.

I love teaching students preparing for their IELTS test and have been doing this for many years, but I also enjoy supervising test day sessions, because they give me the opportunity to see first hand what candidates do in the pressure of an ‘exam’ type situation.

IELTS is a test of your English level, but poor exam technique could lose you vital marks and be the difference between attaining the score you need and deserve, or having to take the exam again!

So, with exam season upon us, I thought it would be timely to share with you some of my observations of poor exam technique and the common mistakes candidates make on test day. It always amazes me, to see how many candidates have either forgotten their teacher’s tips and advice, or haven’t done any real preparation at all.



My first post from a series of three focuses on the things that I frequently see candidates do wrong in the Listening paper.

Although, this Blog is about candidates taking the paper based test, most of the do’s and don’ts will also apply if you choose to do CD IELTS.

No 1. Predict the answers – Predicting the answers is a key skill in listening, so maximise your time for this. Remember, you have 30 seconds at the beginning of each section to read the instructions, the questions, plus underline the key words to get your ‘brain into gear’, activating the topic vocabulary and predicting the answers, BUT don’t forget you also have some more time at the end of each section, when the recording says ‘you now have half a minute to check your answers’. If you’re confident that you have got the answers correct and not missed any, why waste time by looking at the questions you’ve just answered? You have 10 minutes at the end to do this, so by looking forward at the next set of questions, you will double the amount of time you have to predict the answers. You also don’t need to wait, until the recording tells you to turn to the next section. I often see candidates doing nothing in the pauses, sitting and daydreaming, whilst others are ‘on the ball’ busy underlining the key words in the next few questions.


No 2. Read the questions – If the question says write no more than one word and/or a number that’s what you must do. Some candidates appear to write/type more than this, just to be on the safe side! And when counting words remember ‘a’ or ‘the’ still count as one word. I often see answer sheets where the candidate has heard the correct answer but written too many words.

No 3. Record your answer whilst listening – Don’t wait to hear a whole section before writing/typing your answer, it’s okay to fill in an answer and then cross it out/delete it when you hear the right one. It’s almost impossible to remember what you heard in the previous sentence[s], so don’t try!


No 4. Double Check Your Grammar – if your answer doesn’t make sense grammatically, it can’t be the right one. For example, you might have heard the right word but not written it in the past tense or as a ‘plural’. So when writing your answer, always read the whole sentence in ‘gap fill’ or ‘sentence completion’ questions, to make sure it makes sense. Also, remember to write the article ‘a’ or ‘the’ if it’s needed grammatically. For example, if the question says ‘The performance will take place in……’ and the answer is ‘The Rose Theatre’ and you write simply ‘Rose Theatre’, then your answer will be wrong.

No 5. Stay positive and Don’t Give Up – The worst thing to do is lose track of where you are and panic when you have missed an answer. I often see students visibly give up on a whole section, their heads go down or they sit back in the chair. I want to go up to them and say ‘Don’t panic, admit that you’ve missed an answer, re–focus and move on.’ If this happens to you whilst practising, try using your pencil to mark which question you are listening for in the recording and, at the same time, keep looking 1 or 2 questions ahead, listening out for the key words you underlined. This is important as answers can come very quickly, one after the other, or sometimes there is a long gap between them. Something else to consider is that the correct answer might be said more loudly and clearly, than words that sound like they were said too quickly or quietly Also, listen out for clarifying phrases, such as ‘that is’ or ‘by that I mean’ or ‘in other words’, as they could be a clue that the answer is coming up.

No 6. Answer all the Questions – I encourage my students to write notes or possible answers like facts and figures on their answer sheet and in their own language if it’s quicker. So, if you don’t hear the answer whilst listening, check your notes during the 10-minute pause at the end - you never know you might have written the right answer somewhere on the answer sheet. And if you have a multiple-choice question, cross out the obvious wrong options as you listen and then choose the most likely answer. Remember the test day instructions say ‘you don’t lose marks for wrong answers so try to answer all the questions’

No 7. Spelling and Handwriting - The instructions you are given at the beginning of the paper based test state ‘spelling is important, clear handwriting is important’. Often candidates complete their answer sheet very quickly at the end, they sit back, relax and don’t check their spellings, whilst other students go back and read their answers. Also, I often see answer sheets where the candidate has used ‘joined up’ writing, which can be difficult to decipher. Remember, the clerical markers aren’t going to spend hours trying to figure out what you have written, so don’t leave things to chance and use capital letters on your answer sheet. Don’t be complacent, use the 10 minute transfer time at the end of the listening properly to write your answers but all also to double check them!

Does any of this sound familiar to you? If so, eliminate these errors, practise your technique, so you can look forward to your test day and getting a great IELTS score!

Watch out for part 2 on my test day observations of candidates sitting the Reading paper.



Jane Prescott is an experienced English language teacher [CELTA qualified] specialising in teaching IELTS. Having taught for many years in language schools in London, she now runs Kingscote English, a private language school based in South West London providing personal, flexible and affordable lessons for Adults and Au pairs.


She also worked for many years as a Supervisor for the IELTS exam, which has given her an insight and unique perspective on the exam, experiencing it from a candidate’s point of view, seeing first hand common errors, and also the effectiveness of the different exam strategies, commonly taught to students.

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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