Learn about changes to your IELTS test arrangements due to Coronavirus (COVID-19). View details
Results in 5-7 days with computer-delivered IELTS

Common problems in IELTS Listening

Published on September 30, 2019

Unlike the Reading section of the IELTS test, where you have the text in front of you and can refer back to it as many times as you like, in IELTS Listening, you’ll hear the recording only once. Going back to listen to different parts of the recording again is simply not an option. This fact alone often can cause candidates to go into the Listening test feeling stressed and nervous, which can result in them getting easily confused and making mistakes that can affect their score.

This post will identify problems that test takers often face in IELTS Listening and show you how to deal with each one of them, so you can go into your Listening test feeling calm and confident.

Following instructions and understanding the questions

Before you listen to each one of the four parts of the Listening test, you will be provided with some time to help you prepare. It is very difficult to concentrate on making sense of what you hear while also trying to read the questions and understand what you need to do. So before you hear the recording, read through the tasks for each part and make sure you know what sort of answer you have to write (e.g. words, a letter, an option from a box, etc.). Also, use a pencil to underline key words in the instructions and in the question. These key words can help you to make sense of the question.

Understanding specific information

For certain question types such as form-filling, you need to listen in order to find out very specific information such as a name, a date, a time or other details. Sometimes candidates find it difficult to determine exactly which information they should use to answer the question. Once again, it is important that you use the time before you listen to read the instructions (they will tell you the maximum number of words to use) and study the information provided to you to help you work out what type of words are missing. Remember that you’re expected to be able to recognize paraphrases (i.e. words which have a similar meaning to those used in the question) in the Listening test.

Following descriptions

Labelling a map, plan or diagram is a common task in Part 2 of the Listening test. If you have to label a map, plan or diagram, you will need to figure out where things are, what something is made of, or how it works. You may be listening for places, buildings, names of parts or stages in a process, all of which can be difficult to follow. However, there will always be key words included in the listening text to guide you. These may be things like verbs and adjectives (size, shape, quality, etc.), compass points (east, west, north, south), left and right, or expressions of position and place (e.g. behind, next to, in front of, etc.).

Understanding conversations

In Part 3, you have to follow a discussion with up to four speakers talking about a study-related topic, and you’ll be asked to listen for important facts, reasons, ideas, views, or opinions. Because it can be difficult to identify who is talking and what they’re saying, it’s always a good idea to orientate yourself to the text before you hear the recording. Look at the information provided to you and think about what the speakers’ relationship is and why they’re speaking. The language they use will depend on this relationship and situation, and knowing this will help you to anticipate what the speakers are going to talk about.

Following a talk/lecture

Because the level of difficulty increases as the Listening test progresses, Part 4 is often regarded as the most challenging part in the Listening module. In Part 4, you will listen to a talk or a lecture on an academic subject (e.g. a university lecture). Good public speakers and lecturers use signpost words to indicate the stages of their talk. Examples of signpost words include ‘on the other hand’, ‘for example’, ‘lastly’, ‘although’, ‘in addition’, ‘because’, to name a few. These words will direct your listening. In other words, they’ll warn you that more information is coming and will suggest what kind of information this may be. You should also pay attention to stress and intonation used to highlight important information.


Correct spelling is essential in IELTS Listening. Answers must be spelled correctly in order to be marked correct. That means that answers that are not spelled correctly will be marked wrong.

If you’re taking the paper-based version of the IELTS test, you will have ten minutes to transfer your answers onto the answer sheet. Remember to do this carefully, checking your spelling, and making sure you put the right answers in the right place.

As we have seen, there are a number of challenges to completing the Listening module successfully. However, with practice and preparation in advance, you can put yourself in the best possible position to succeed.