"Help! How can I improve my listening score?"

I hear this from students every week, and it is a tough area to work on.

What should you do?

Listen more? Listen to BBC programmes? Watch TV? Do lots of IELTS practice tests?​

The answer is YES....and No. Sorry! I'll explain.

What am I doing wrong?​

Most students listen to long pieces of listening texts and try to understand in general what the person is saying. ​This is what you do when you watch a film or listen to something online or on the radio (does anyone listen to the radio anymore?)

This is global listening and is useful when you just want to get the basic idea. You don't need to hear every word as long as you get the gist (general meaning) ​of that is being said. And this is fine if that is all you need to do. 

But then you try to answer IELTS ​listening questions and you can't. WHY?

Because IELTS is testing your knowledge of WORDS, not general understanding. ​So all your practice that you did watching The Discovery Channel and listening to the BBC was not really helping you.

IELTS is a test of VOCABULARY!

Yeah, you need grammar too and you have to be able to organise your thoughts and ideas. But ultimately it is ​how well you know English words and phrases that will get you the top band scores. 

So when you do listening and you want to understand ​as much as possible, you need to know all the words they say.

What do I need to do?

We need to break up your IELTS listening preparation into 2 parts.

Part 1 - Test familiarisation

​You need to know and understand the different kinds of questions that the IELTS will have. Luckily there is a limited list:

  • ​completing notes in a table/diagram/summary
  • multiple choice
  • short answers
  • sentence completion
  • classification (classifying information in the question according to different criteria)
  • labelling a diagram, map or plan
  • matching statements to possible answers in a box

​Next, you need to be prepared for the how many people you will hear speaking and the kind of dialogue or monologue it is. Again, it is limited to:

  • ​Section 1 - a conversation between two people in a transactional situation on a general topic. This means one is trying to find out something (e.g. how to get to X, or enquiring about a job) and the other one is answering the questions.
  • Section 2 - a monologue on a general topic in a transactional situation, e.g. giving information on a radio programme about an event.
  • Section 3 - a dialogue between 2 or 3 people in an academic context.
  • Section 4 - A monologue in an academic context (e.g. a lecture)

You need to practise all these different kinds of questions and sections so that you become familiar with the format.​ 

But doing lots of practice tests will not improve your listening in an efficient or effective way.​

Part 2 - Learning to listen

This is the hard part. How do you improve your listening?

Here are my suggestions.​

1. Words words and more words​

​I've already told you that you need to know lots of words. If you have read my post on vocabulary, you will know that I suggest that you learn words in groups or chunks of language. Words do not exist by themselves. They are connected to all the words around them. So when you meet a new word, check out what other words it collocates with or what other words it needs (e.g. a preposition).​

2. Listen to the words in context

Now you need to hear the words. It is not enough to listen your smart phone dictionary​ saying the words. You need to hear these words with all the co-text (the other words around the new word) that goes with them. This means hearing them in short sentences. Ideally you need to listen to different sentences with the same words so that you can hear how the sounds of other words affect the sound of the word you are learning. Also, you NEED to have the written text of what you are listening to.

Take this example:

"I felt quite confident."​ In natural speech, it would sound like this - /i fel qui confiden/. You can see that the /t/ sound kind of disappears (I am not using the standard phonemic symbols here because not everyone can read them). 

Compare it to this:

"I felt quite confident about it." /I fel qui confiden tabou ti/. WOAH!! What has happened? The /t/ of "confident" and "about" have jumped onto the next word! ​

Words in connected speech change and this is why you have problems hearing them.

Practise listening to short pieces like this and try to write down EXACTLY what you hear​. Compare it to the written text. 

Now record yourself saying the sentences. Compare yourself to the original. Repeat until you sound like good!

Trying to say the sentences correctly like this is important because it will help you to hear these sounds correctly the next time, and also, obviously, your own speaking will improve.​

3. Listen in chunks

Listen to short sections of a text (sentences) and​ write down what you hear. Then listen again and mark how the speaker 'chunks' the sentence. 

E.g. "First of all, can you tell me where you live?"​

Chunk 1 = First of all    (/firs to vall/)​

Chunk 2 = can you tell me

Chunk 3 = where you live

Now practise saying it in these chunks. Re​cord yourself. Listen and record again.

4. Stress!!!

Not the kind of stress that makes you stay awake at night! Sentence stress. Which words are stressed - have a longer, slightly louder sound? Usually it is the key word in a sentence but what is the difference in meaning between these sentences if different words are stressed?

  1. ​The lectures at university really helped me.
  2. The lectures at university really helped me.
  3. The lectures at university really helped me.
  1. It was the lectures, not something else, that helped.
  2. It was the lectures at university, not the lectures I heard elsewhere, that helped.
  3. They helped me, but not you/someone else.

So subtle differences in meaning can be conveyed by stressing different words.

The words which are unstressed are also worth listening to carefully. How do they sound? Do they sound different from the way you would say them on their own?

Compare the sound of ​"were" in these:

'were' /wer/

'If I were you' /wu/

Unstressed words sound different!

5. Predict what's coming next.

As native speakers in any language, we are constantly predicting what someone is going to say; how they will finish their sentences. Has anyone ever been speaking to you and they pause to find the right word or phrase, and you try to help them by making suggestions? This is possible because from the context (what they have already said) only a few endings to the sentence are possible.

Try this:

​"Could you tell me....?"

If you hear this out of context, there are quite a few possibilities. It could be ... where the bus leaves from​?, what the time is? your name? or almost anything!

But if we are listening to a dialogue between a patient making an appointment at the doctor's and the receptionist, then the most likely endings are limited. It could be .... your name/phone number/address/what the problem is?

And depending on what questions you have on your IELTS question paper, you can probably predict the ending pretty well. AND you are now expecting and can predict the answer to the question, i.e. his name/address/problem.

Listen to very short chunks of a text. Stop the recording and try to predict what comes next. Play it and check. 

6. Dictation

This technique is not very fashionable nowadays but teachers are starting to learn that it is very useful for students. And you don't even need a teacher; just a piece of audio text and the written text of it.

Play short sections and write! It is that simple. Listen again and again to the sections if necessary. ​Then compare what you wrote to the written version. If you made mistakes listen to that part again and read at the same time. Ask yourself why you didn't understand.It might be:

  • ​a new word
  • the sound of the word changed because of the other words around it
  • it was unstressed and so not clearly spoken
  • the speaker just spoke too fast
  • you think the word is pronounced in a certain way, but you're wrong! 

Final thoughts

Summing up, I hope that I have shown you the value of doing some different kind of listening practice. Yes, you need to do practice tests but they have limited value when you are trying to improve your listening skills overall.

You need to work on building your vocabulary, hearing those new words in speech many times, trying to write down what you hear and noticing how the sounds of words change. ​

Try some or all of the ideas above and let me know how you get on. ​

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