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  • Writer's pictureFrank Doogan

Top two tips for best listening exam scores in IELTS, IB, TOEIC, TOEFL, CAE or CPE

Updated: Oct 24, 2023

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Listening is a fascinating skill, and if you practice it right you will improve your IELTS, IB, TOEIC, TOEFL, CAE or CPE scores.

Let's dive into the two key questions to answer the top two tips for best listening exam scores in IELTS, IB, TOEIC, TOEFL, CAE or CPE :

1. How do we know we are identifying words and correct meaning in what we hear?

2. How do we develop awareness of vocabulary across the subject areas that are going to be tested in exams like IELTS, IB, TOEIC, TOEFL, CAE or CPE?

Test people you know. Stop in the middle of a conversation and ask "What did I say?"

Your friends will report your meaning, but they will not be able to report your exact words.

If your friends think this is too weird, ask your MyIT Tutor for a first practice

It is good to remind ourselves that when people listen to one another they do not listen for words. When we listen to each other in conversation or in lectures, or in any exposure to language, what we try to do is generate meaning. We generate the meaning based on the words which we recognise; and we identify what we regard as important meaning from each chunk of language that we hear. This is a very efficient way for people to communicate with one another.

In point of fact our brains are so engaged when we are in conversation, we are capable of replying before our conversational partner has completed what they are trying to say.

If you have achieved complete fluency in a language, your capacity to generate meaning quickly is very high, assuming of course that you know the subject area. If you don’t know the subject area, then it's much more difficult.

Let's get back to those two questions for students of language exams like IELTS, IB, TOEIC, TOEFL, CAE or CPE:

1. How do we know we are identifying words and correct meaning in what we hear?

2. How do we develop awareness of the vocabulary across the subject areas that are going to be tested in an exam like IELTS, IB, TOEIC, TOEFL, CAE or CPE?

Let's look at techniques first that help us remove potential errors in how we generate meaning. The most effective technique and probably least used technique is speedy dictation. The older forms of dictation were not that effective because the dictation rate was too slow; was delivered by a teacher or the same audio voice; and the result was the accent range was too limited, and the speed that's necessary to process language was not adequately practised. So, what can you do to increase the accuracy with which you predict meaning based on what you hear?

Firstly, make sure you have variety in the texts you listen to for IELTS, IB, TOEIC, TOEFL, CAE or CPE. Sure, you can use some old exam papers, but if you want to benefit both your listening and speaking exams broadening the auditory input is very important. Sites like will help with the necessary range.

The remarkably simple answer to increasing accuracy is that you listen to texts in your target language (let's assume that's English but could be any language) and when you have listened to a short piece (keep it short because of the limitations of working memory) ... you pause :)

Then, you write down what you have heard. Do the same for the next 7 or so words and so on, and after you've listened to about one minute of text you can stop.

On the occasions I have done with this as an example with learners, it is not uncommon to find multiple mistakes in a short piece of language.

You may think that one minute of text is not terribly long, but generally speaking a person who is speaking at international and comprehensible standard is probably speaking around 180 words per minute.

If you can listen and transcribe one minute, you will be doing what is a nicely challenging task.

After you have done that go back to the listening text and listen again. Check with your MyIT Tutor to see what they think about the accuracy of your language.

If you're relistening on YouTube or the like, change the speed so that you can be 100% sure that you are hearing the words that the speaker is using. Do try to avoid using subtitles (turn them off) as subtitles can have errors and those errors can disturb what you're trying to do which is develop automatic recognition of word sounds – not written words. Fundamentally, it is the speed with which you recognise and decode individual word sounds that is the most important part of your skill in generating overall meaning.

If you miss the significance of a few words, then the likelihood that you're going to generate accurate meaning is quite low. What you want to do is listen and transcribe in order to check the accuracy of your listening. What you will discover is that those small grammatical words that are unstressed (and therefore hard to hear) will be the words that you don't hear.

It is important to remember that in your listening what you're doing is generating meaning, and the most important part of that is that you have accurate data for generating the meaning.

In short, if you want to address the first fundamental which is ‘hear what you're hearing’ you need to listen, transcribe and check. You will find after you have done this 10 to 20 times that your awareness of the sounds that you were missing increases remarkably. You can also, if you wish, speak into your phone, record what you have said (keep this to one minute on a very familiar topic) and then listen to yourself afterwards and transcribe everything you have said. This is much more difficult than it appears.

You can swap tasks with your MyIT Tutor - he/she can transcribe yours, and you can transcribe theirs - you can have very helpful discussions around the causes of errors.

You may discover that you are using language that you did not think you were using, and you are making mistakes that you did not think you were making. It is very common for students when they do this (on their first or second relistening) to ignore or miss a number of potent grammatical items that they have as errors in their own language use.

Why this is important as an exercise is if your brain is trained into thinking you are saying something, but you're not, then when your brain is listening to other pieces of conversation or lectures it can just as easily ignore all those critical grammatical items such as word endings, conjunctions, auxiliary verbs, modal verbs, prepositions, pronouns, connectives and so on.

So, let's just sum this first part on how you can improve your listening skills for IELTS, IB, TOEIC, TOEFL, CAE or CPE: make sure that you are very accurately decoding what you hear so that you can (with speed with fluency) generate accurate meaning.

The second part in relation to listening skills is exposure to the vocabulary necessary for the subject areas that you are being tested in.

There are really not many ways around doing the hard work on this.

The New General Service List (most common 2801 words)!AlVmO0nA_w0TtkIcLzzzJoRGDBu7?e=BnfqEL and the New Academic Word List are your first ports of call for high frequency – you need to check that you know what they mean.

If you need some advise on how to do this efficiently, ask your MyIT Tutor for our VQL (Vocabulary Question List).

After that, you will want lots of extensive listening to raise your speed of recognition of lexis. Quite simply if you recognise a word, you do not need to spend time thinking about it. If you don't recognise a word, then the time that you need to spend thinking about that will remove your capacity to attend to other words which have important meaning.

For this extensive listening you may be well advised to listen, and then listen again, and follow a transcription of what you've listened to; and or check subtitling if you're very sure that the subtitling is accurate.

In summary, if you wish to improve your listening skills there are two areas that you need to attend to.

1. The accuracy with which you are decoding what you hear.

2. The range of lexis that you can recognise with speed in order to help you generate meaning.

We look forward to seeing you in the next blog on how to process questions in IELTS, IB, TOEIC, TOEFL, CAE or CPE Listening, because if you understand the question…

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