IELT Listening: Strategies for Section 1 – listening to a conversation

Section 1 is a conversation between two people in an everyday social context, for example: booking accommodations or asking questions at an information desk. You only hear the recording once. Each section has 10 questions and may have a variety of  question types.

Here, you will most likely be listening for specific information. You will usually have to fill in gaps in a form or notes (form completion/note completion) .  Here is  a sample question with tapescript & answers and the corresponding Mp3 recording.


1) As I wrote in a previous post on general strategies – read the instructions carefully first – it will tell you how many words or numbers you can use in the gap/blank – one, two or three at the most.

2) You have a short time before the listening to look over the questions. Read each question in the form/note and predict what you’ll be hearing – what kind of information do you have to listen out for? Look at any headings on the form and underline key words before and after that gap that will direct you on what to listen out for.

3) Think about the kind of word that will fit in the gap (a number, a noun, a name, a date, etc.)

4) Be prepared to hear a word or expression that is a synonym or similar to the key words on the form/note rather than the exact same word.

5) Since you are listening to a conversation, a speaker might say something then correct themselves or clarify what they say (as we do in normal conversation) – so make sure you catch the right answer!

6) Questions come in the order of the recording. As you listen, take careful notes as you follow the form/note. Don’t get stuck on one, move on and keep up with the recording as you will only hear it once. It’s better to miss

7) You will have time (10 minutes) at the end of all 4 sections to transfer your notes onto your answer sheet. Be careful when you transfer your answers to the correct question number! And take care with your spelling, as this counts.


  • When spelling out names, we often use the English Phonetic Alphabet to help clarify the sounds of the letters for the listener.  We often use common first names, animals, common words, city names or countries, etc. For example:
– “M” as in “Mary” – a girl’s name or “Mother”
– “F” as in “Fox”
– “T” as in “Tiger”, “Tom”
– “L” as in “London”
  • When there are two of the same letters or numbers, sometimes we say “double”. Example: “Manhattan” is spelled out ” M-A-N-H-A- double T- A-N”. With numbers – example: 633, we can say “6-double 3″. Similarly, sometimes we use “triple” for three of the same letters or numbers. 444 becomes “triple 4″
  • The number “0” can be referred to as “zero” “oh” or “nought”
  • Be familiar with numbers and units of measurements:
–  Dates/time: August 5, 1995 is “August fifth nineteen ninety-five”; 2012 can be “twenty-twelve” or “two thousand twelve”
– Dimensions/Weight/Distances: feet, inches, yards, miles, millimeters, centimeters, meters, kilometers; ounces, pounds, grams, kilograms
Money $2.50 = “two dollars and fifty cents”, “two-fifty”
Ordinal numbers: first, second, third, fourth, fifth, etc.
– Percentages/Fractions: 1/2, 50%, half;  1/4, 25%, a quarter; 3/4, 75%, three-quarters, etc.
Decimals: American English “zero-point-two-five” = 0.25, British English “nought-point-two-five” = 0.25


General Strategy for IELTS Listening

While there are specific tips  in approaching the different types of questions, here is the general approach to the IELTS Listening module.

  1. Before you listen to the recordings and during the very short breaks in between the sections – take advantage of what you can understand visually. Just as you do with the Reading module, orientate yourself to the listening. Look at any pictures/diagrams or introduction to the questions. Predict what you will hear. Quickly identify:
  • Who are the speakers? What is their relationship to each other and to you as the listener?
  • Where are they? If helps you understand the context and maybe the  kind of dialog and vocabulary you can expect.
  • Why are they speaking? Know the context of the conversation, so that you can anticipate what they are going to talk about.

2. Look carefully at the task and make sure you understand the instructions. Know exactly what you’re supposed to do.  For example, if it’s a short answer question, find out how many words you must write (a maximum of one, two or three is stated in the directions).

3. Usually the questions follow the order in which you will hear information. Be prepared to know what you’re listening for. You only get to hear the recording once.

4. When you’re reading the questions, underline key words that you should focus on and listen out for. They may not be the exact words that you hear, but will be similar words. Use sign post words (words that tell the listener what is coming up, ie.  “for instance”, “on the other hand”,  “firstly” – I’ll write more on this later). If there are gaps to fill or labels for a diagram/map/flow chart, predict words that might fit in each space.

5. At the end of the recordings when you have time to transfer your notes onto your answer sheet, be VERY CAREFUL that you put your answers with the correct question number.

6. Pay attention to your spelling! Misspelled words, even if the word is correct, are not counted!

I’ll be writing more strategies for specific types of questions later – stay tuned! :-)


Different types of questions for the IELTS Listening Module

You have 30 minutes (plus an extra 10 minutes to transfer your notes/answers to your answer sheet after listening to all the recordings) to complete 4 sections with a total of 40 questions, testing different listening skills  such as:

  • listening for specific information like dates, numbers and place names, etc.
  • identifying details
  • identifying gist/main ideas
  • interpreting beyond surface meaning of words, such as the speaker attitude or opinion.

Here is the test format:

  1. Section 1:  A conversation between 2 speakers in a social/informal situation
  2. Section 2: One person giving a talk based on a non-academic situation
  3. Section 3: A conversation with 2 -4 people based on academic topics or course-related situations
  4. Section 4: A university-style lecture or talk

While it’s good to continue practicing general listening skills, it’s good preparation to be familiar with the different question types and to practice specific strategies in answering these types of questions (which I’ll go into more detail later). Below are the different types with some links to sample  questions from You can download the corresponding recordings here from

1. Matching tasks (here’s another example)

2. Completion tasks (fill-in-the-blanks/gap exercises)

3. Plan/Map/Diagram labelling

4. Multiple choice

5. Short-answer questions

In later posts, I’ll be addressing each type of question and what’s the best way to approach each one.  Stay tuned!! And check back :-)

4 ways to improve your listening

“Listen” by ky_olsen via Flickr (creative commons)

While targeted practice in IELTS listening tasks is important, you should continue to practice your general listening skills.

If you’re not in an English-speaking country, this can be a bit difficult to do and requires a lot of effort to go out and find English to listen to. Thankfully we’re all connected on the web, with access to all kinds of free media, so it’s not too bad.

Here are 4 ways to practice your input listening – this is listening to others speaking without any involvement or interaction on your part. It will also be useful for the listening tasks in the IELTS.

1) Read the news in the morning, then watch the news on TV or the internet or listen to the radio/podcast on the same news stories of the day. Having read the stories first, you’re able to see key words/new vocabulary that you can look up and become familiar with the key facts of the stories. With a background understanding of the  main ideas and main details, you’ll be able to understand the same news stories (which may be presented in different ways) that you listen to on the TV,  radio or on a podcast. Here are some useful websites:

2) Watch movies and TV shows with English subtitles. Watch with a pencil and notebook!! Take note of new words and expressions. Then watch the movie again without the subtitles. This time you’ll have the familiarity of the story, dialogue and new expressions. Listen to the intonation and how people’s words are connected when they’re in a conversation.

3) Listen to English music. There’s YouTube, Spotify (which I’ve only recently discovered and love), iTunes… find your music. And do a search on the lyrics as well. Make the connections as you read the lyrics and hear them being sung. Then listen without the lyrics.

4) Listen to audio books or a lecture. If you have a Kindle,  iPad, or mP3, you can buy/download audio books easily that aren’t too expensive (there are free ones too – see below). Of course, choose books you like, perhaps ones you may have read already. iTunes university is also at your fingertips and you can listen to brilliant professors from top universities lecture their undergraduate students – for free! Here are some useful websites:

  • (of – audio books you can play on your smart phones and MP3s
  • – Free public domain audiobooks and e-books
  • This site offers a library of audio books performed by multiple actors, which they call ” iSoaps“, like modern-day radio dramas!
  • – free audio books from the public domain and podcasts
  • iTunesU – an application through iTunes to access lectures and classes from prestigious universities such as my alma mater UC Berkeley (where I graduated from), Stanford, Yale, MIT and Oxford.

5) I’m adding this 5th one in case you want to practice listening to a native English speaker in a conversation. Sign up with a native-English speaker tutor, face-to-face if you can, or online.

If you keep your practice up, plus target your test-taking strategies for the IELTS listening test, you’ll be impressed with your results.