Getting Serious about (and having fun with) IELTS Listening

April 29, 2016 by Lauren McKenzie Lauren McKenzie

If English is not your first language, then the sooner you begin preparing for the IELTS Listening exam, the better!  Most test takers describe the listening tracks as being fast and that goes for those who speak English as a first language too!  The IELTS Listening exam is 30 minutes long, and you are given 10 minutes to transfer your answers to the official test record sheet.  The Listening exam is played only once.  Answers must be spelled correctly, no exceptions, and numerical answers must be precise as even one number out of place will result in an incorrect answer. 

English is the official language, or one of several official languages, of 60 countries including counties in the Caribbean, Africa and Asia.  English sounds a little different wherever you hear it, and the accent of a particular region can even challenge those who speak English as a first language.  On the IELTS Listening exam you will hear accents from Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand.

What's in an Accent?

If you are studying English in Canada, the United States, Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand or in your home country you are also learning local expressions and pronunciation.  If your first language is not English, think about your first language and how it sounds different between the city and the countryside.  If your language is spoken throughout the world or over a large geography, the differences in accents and even vocabulary can be dramatic.  A 'truck' to North Americans is a 'lorry' to the Brits.  Another common misnomer is the Canadian 'washroom', American 'restroom' and British 'loo', 'toilet' or 'WC'. 

chinese girl in london checking her phone with a coffee

In particular, the nature of accents can be found and even isolated in vowel sounds.  There is incredible variety in the pronunciation of vowels in the English speaking world.  In just one example, in the British Isles alone, made up of Great Britain, Ireland and nearly 6,000 smaller islands there are approximately 13 different accents. 

A New Approach to IELTS Listening

Please don't be discouraged or overwhelmed by this.  Take a deep breath and know that you can prepare yourself in both passive and active ways for the IETLS listening exam.  Think of passive preparation as listening you can do while you cook dinner, clean the house, or while driving.  It involves taking a little time to find TV shows, radio stations, podcasts or apps that are challenging and enjoyable.  

Resources to Laugh At

A very popular modern British comedy is The Office, written by and starring comedian Ricky Gervais.  The Office may be the most popular Britcom program in recent memory, but we can't talk about Britcom without mentioning Fawlty Towers, voted by the British Film Institute as the best British television show of all time.  Set in a hotel in Southern England, Fawlty Towers blends the best of British wit with the physical comedy of its stars and writers, John Cleese and Connie Booth. 

[caption id="attachment_1925" align="aligncenter" width="700"]Cast of Fawlty Towers - Copyright @BBC Cast of Fawlty Towers - Copyright @BBC[/caption]

Flight of the Concords is a comedy program produced in New Zealand that has gained international popularity.  All programs are available with subtitles on YouTube.

There are radio stations from around the world available online and through applications on smart phones and wireless devices.  Try listening to BBC Radio, or other public broadcasters such as Radio New Zealand, The Australian Broadcasting Corporation as they have a wide variety of high quality content for you to use.

How to Focus your Practice

To see the true results of passive listening practice, test takers should head to "Practice Tests" section of our IDP Canada IELTS website for free downloadable practice materials.  Set up the right environment for your active preparation by having only the materials you will have during the IELTS exam and a timer.  Tuning your ear to the accents of the English speaking world is only the first step.  Equally as important is having the skills to follow instructions carefully, tune out distractions and accurately record answers during the IELTS exam.

Lauren McKenzie

Lauren has been teaching English for close to fifteen years in universities and language schools in Halifax, NS. To meet the needs of her students, she began her own study of the IELTS exam nearly five years ago and has since taught preparation workshops. Lauren lives in Halifax, NS where she enjoys hiking and live music as well as travelling, studying languages and reading nonfiction.