Number one for English language teachers


Activities which focus on developing strategies for the listening tasks.

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These classroom activities focus on developing strategies that IELTS students will find useful in attempting the various listening tasks. Some can also be used with the reading section.

I’ve referred to the activities as pre-listening as their aim is to help train students in ways of approaching different question types before actually listening to the texts. In particular, the activities raise awareness of the value of prediction and grammar in recording accurate answers.This article has been divided into six sections, each looking at one important area of the listening test: 

  • 1: What is the key word?Gives strategies and examples for helping students identify key words.
  • 2. Comparing headings:Gives advice on preparing students for 'headings' questions.
  • 3. Spot the difference:Provides an activity for developing pre-listening prediction skills where the student may need to discriminate between pictures, maps, diagrams, graphs, etc in multiple-choice questions.
  • 4. Form filling:Outlines strategies and activities for helping students deal with forms, letters and numbers.
  • 5. Using layout:Helps with interpreting the layout of a table or diagram.
  • 6. Completing notes and summaries:Has example activities and advice on helping students summarize and rephrase.

1: What is the key word?

I believe many students find the true/false/doesn’t say and yes/no/not given questions in the IELTS academic reading module particularly difficult, especially the difference between no and not given. One approach to help students focus on the task is to get the students to underline ONE keyword from each statement. It’s often advised to underline keywords in questions but it may not be clear to students what kind of keywords to look out for. I’ve illustrated this below with a list of statements from true/false/doesn't say  and yes/no/not given questions found in Sam McCarter’s IELTS Testbuilder.

  • Tell the students to select ONE keyword from each of the following: (suggested answers are in brackets)
  1. Networking is not a modern idea. (not)
  2. People fall into two basic categories. (two)
  3. All teachers are cynics. (all)
  4. The first piece of Hesse’s art has little effect on visitors to the gallery. (little/first)
  5. The New Forest has already been made into a National Park. (already)

The suggested answers I’ve given may not seem that obvious to the students who would possibly consider keywords such as 'modern' or 'New Forest' as more significant. However, the keywords shown have a greater significance in terms of the meaning of the whole statement and illustrate a number of traps in the test. For instance:

  1. 'not' makes the statement negative as opposed to possibly being positive in the text.
  2. 'two' determines a specific number of categories which may differ in the text.
  3. 'all' determines that every teacher is a cynic and not a proportion of.
  4. 'little' has a negative connotation as opposed to 'a little'; another one to watch out for is 'few' and 'a few'.
  5. 'already' shows that the New Forest was made into a National Park in the past and is not a future proposal, i.e. an indication of past, present or future time.

These examples thus illustrate the importance of looking out for: negativity, a specific number, the whole or a proportion of, positive and negative connotation and reference to time. Other ones to watch out for include:

  • Modals, e.g. words like must, should, have to (varying degrees of obligation or certainty)
  • Adverbs of frequency, e.g. sometimes, always
  • Words such as most, some, all

This can be used as a regular activity in class when attempting this question type. The keyword the student selects may not turn out to be the correct one but at least the student is focusing on the task. A useful addition to this activity is to compare what the student perceived to be the keyword before reading the text and what the keyword turned out to be after having read the text.

2: Comparing headings

Again the 'headings' question turns out to be another of the particularly tricky ones for IELTS students. It’s often the case that students are stuck between a choice of two and may select the wrong answer possibly because of the use of distracters in the text. I try to get the students to focus on the headings by first finding similar headings and then finding the difference between those similar headings. I’ve illustrated this with a headings exercise below from IELTS Foundation.

  • Put the following headings into similar groupings:
  1. Launching a new soft drink product.
  2. The main benefits of the single market launch.
  3. Researching cultural differences in the world today.
  4. The lack of cultural differences in the world today.
  5. Examples of launching a product in one market at a time.
  6. The emergence of global marketing and its challenges.
  7. The world as a single market: a successful case.
  8. Specific cultural differences to consider.
  9. Different markets, adapted products.
  10. Success in the global market – key factors.

Suggested answers for examples:

Group A: 3, 4 and 8
Group B: 7 and 10
Group C: 1, 2 and 5

After the student has grouped the headings, get them to focus on specific differences between them. For example, even though in Group A they all talk about cultural differences, 3 talks about researching cultural differences, 4 discusses a lack of cultural differences, and 8 considers specific cultural differences.

This activity can really help to mentally train students to see the difference between the choices and become more aware of distracters.

3: Spot the difference

This is a strategy for developing pre-listening prediction skills where the student may need to discriminate between pictures, maps, diagrams, graphs, etc in multiple-choice questions.

Take a multiple-choice question from your practice test and four similar photographs or pictures that go with the question. Follow the steps below:

  • Photocopy the pictures and give each student a set of the four pictures for the question.
  • Put the students in pairs.
  • One student selects a picture and describes it to the other.
  • The second student listens and selects the picture that their partner was describing. Repeat the process for all four pictures taking it in turn.

This activity is taking an exam exercise but making it into a fun speaking activity and at the same time mentally training the students to focus on the difference between pictures, maps, graphs, etc. By doing activities like this you are in fact improving the students’ pre-listening prediction skills.

4: Form filling

There are a lot of activities you can do in the classroom in order to improve pre-listening prediction skills for this section of the test. Show students an incomplete form, as per the example below:

Identification and security check

Card number:  6992 1............... 1147 8921

Name: Carlos Da Silva

Postcode: 2..................

Address: 3.................

Date of birth: 4................

Mother's maiden name: 5.....................

Ask students what kind of information is required for each gap, i.e.:

  1. a number
  2. letters and numbers
  3. a number
  4. a number
  5. a name

However, the form gives you more information than that: e.g. for 1. the number must be a four-digit number (as can be seen from the format even if the students are not familiar with credit cards). In question 3, the number may also have a letter after it. A useful strategy (as suggested by Sam McCarter in IELTS Testbuilder is that the student mentally forms a question for each gap, e.g. 

  1. What is the credit card number?
  2. What is the postcode?

This kind of task may seem relatively easy but bear in mind in order for the students to get their required grade in IELTS it is essential they don’t throw away any marks in an exercise like this.

I personally believe that form filling listening exercises can throw up a lot of potential pitfalls for students and that there are a lot of possible classroom activities for dealing with them. Below I’ve listed some of the possible pitfalls and given some suggested activities to help work in this area.


What kind of numbers would you expect to come up in an IELTS listening test? The following numbers are very likely to appear, at some stage:

13     30
14     40
15     50
16     60
17     70
18     80
19     90

fiftee n         f ifty

You could raise awareness of this and practise sound discrimination through:

  • Illustrating stress pattern (e.g. visually as above)
  • Drilling pronunciation
  • Number games such as Bingo
  • There are lots of activities for practising numbers in the warmers section

Letters of the alphabet activity

  1. Elicit from the students the first letter of the alphabet – 'A'. Write on board under column '1'.
  2. Elicit second letter – 'B' Write on board under column '2'
  3. Elicit third letter – 'C'. Column 1 or 2?

Go through whole alphabet letter by letter. Each time you have a new vowel sound place under a new column. How many columns will you have by the end of the alphabet?






































If your students are not familiar with phonetic transcription you could use a rhyming word such as in the second table below.






































Be careful which rhyming word you choose as students may not pronounce them correctly!

Discuss with students problem letters they have when filling in forms or speaking on the telephone, e.g. G/J, I/E, P/B, B/V. Make students aware that it is exactly these kinds of sounds that the students will be tested on in the exam.

Address format activity

Give the students an address, written in the following usual format:

  • Number of house/flat, name of street
  • Town / City
  • Postcode

We know this format. Do your students? Familiarize your students with British/Australian address formats. How do other nationalities write addresses, for example the Spanish or Chinese?


Students dictate their names and addresses to each other. Spell all words. Other possible activities include dictating information from business cards, possibly over the phone.

Don’t take it for granted that the students are familiar with address formats. It is important that they are familiar in order to enhance prediction skills.


Make your students aware of the following:

  • Which days of the week might be mentioned in a listening test?
  • Which months of the year?
  • Dates?
  • Don’t forget capital letters for days and months!

Suggested answers:


Tuesday/Thursday (problem even for native speakers)

Wednesday (difficult spelling)

Saturday/Sunday (consonant sound or could be paraphrased as weekend)


June/July (consonant sound)

March/May (consonant sound)


13th/30th (number discrimination)

in a couple of weeks (paraphrases of two weeks)

in a fortnight


5: Using layout

Interpreting the layout of a table or diagram can be particularly important in the listening test and is also a prediction skill.

using layout

In such an activity why might question 7 be difficult? Why might question 11 be difficult?

Look at the layout of the questions and you will notice that in activity 4 numbers 7–9 go from bottom to top. In activity 5 numbers 11–14 follow in an anti-clockwise direction.

Many nationalities naturally read from left to right and top to bottom. Under the pressure of the test it would be very easy to miss out a question by mistake and lose marks easily because you are looking in the wrong place. When my students have such a question where interpreting the layout is extremely important I get them to physically follow the numbers in order with their pen or finger before listening to the text.

With the case of a map or diagram it may be essential to find a starting position as shown in activity 5, a bit like looking at a map when you arrive in a town you haven’t been to before and you want to find tourist information. The first thing you do is look for 'YOU ARE HERE' on the map.

6: Completing notes and summaries

The task shown below is an example of what may be seen in the listening paper and involves filling gaps in a summary from a reading text.

Is it surprising that there is a 1)........ of teachers? Schools do not have enough teachers, but what are the reasons for this? To begin with, fewer students are going into 2)........ courses after finishing schools. But this is not young people's fault. The 3).......... of teaching has been under constant attack over the last ten years. The government's lack of respect for the profession is 4)........... Moreover, administratively, the flow of bureaucracy is 5)..........., even pupils in schools have no respect for those who teach them, as a 6)......... series of assaults on teachers shows. The growing strain and stress means that, as well as fewer applications for teacher-training courses, teachers who have experience and are 7).......... are also being driven out.

Before reading the text get the students to read the summary and decide what grammatical form is needed for each gap and ask them what helped them decide, e.g. 1) a singular noun.

This kind of activity works well and is a useful prediction skill with some students but only those that have a reasonable knowledge of grammar and are able to apply it. Often though, many of my students are not very familiar with grammatical terms regarding 'parts of speech' and find it difficult to work out from sentences the grammatical form needed to fill the spaces in the text. To illustrate some simple grammar I use typical sentences from IELTS writing part 1, e.g.:

Between 1979 and 1983 unemployment increased dramatically.

Between 1979 and 1983 there was a dramatic increase in unemployment.

The words from the above sentences are then put into the table below:

e.g. increased    




This activity helps students who are weak on grammar to learn the different parts of speech, i.e. verb, adverb, adjective, noun, etc. You can then use the terminology to help with summary questions.

Grammar familiarity is also necessary in some types of listening activities, e.g. filling gaps in notes. The example below is taken from IELTS Foundation:

  • Read the following gapped sentences and try to predict the words needed. Use no more than two words in each case.
  1. The_______ help the tutor is able to give is with academic work.
  2. There is_________of appointment times on the tutor’s door.
  3. In the philosophy department all the tutors have made__________to keep registers.
  4. In tutorials, the philosophy lectures will___________________.
  5. With regards to planning for the tutorial discussion, students should rely primarily on their_____________.
  6. Students will be expected to_______________each week for the tutorials.
  7. All graded essays and project work_____________towards continuous assessment.


1. main
2. a list
3. a choice
4. be reviewed
5. lecture notes
6. prepare
7. count

In order for the student to be successful in this task they need to be able to listen to the text and paraphrase it to insert the correct words into the text. In the recorded text the words actually used were:

1. mainly
2. are listed
3. have chosen
4. a review
5. notes of lectures
6. preparation
7. counts

Therefore, the student has not only had to listen but also carry out a grammatical transformation in each case, i.e.:

1. from adverb to adjective (verb phrase to noun phrase)
2. passive phrase to using the noun
3. verb as past participle to noun
4. noun to use of future passive
5. notes of lectures to lecture notes (because of two word limit)
6. noun to verb
7. counts to count (subject-verb agreement)

In summary students need to:

  1. Predict before listening
  2. Listen
  3. Transform
  4. Record answers.

I believe the kind of transformation activity you find in Cambridge ESOL examinations such as First Certificate are useful in helping students practise different kinds of grammatical transformations that are required in such a question. For example:

noun phrase to verb phrase:

Unemployment rose dramatically.

There was_______________________.

active to passive:

The cleaner opened the door.

The door________________________.

This activity could be broken down into separate stages for training purposes. For instance, students firstly practise note taking skills and then practise transforming those notes into a text requiring the need for grammatical transformations.This could be done by giving the students keywords for them to make notes on, e.g.:

  • What kind of help does the tutor give?
  • How do you make an appointment to see your tutor?
  • Registers?
  • What happens in tutorials?
  • What do students have to do before tutorials?
  • What is continuous assessment?

After students have made notes under the headings, hand out the gapped sentences to be filled in.

I think this is a really useful activity because it makes students realise that there is more to listening than simply listening but also raises awareness of the importance of grammar. In addition, it helps the teacher identify problems as you can see whether it is the initial listening the student is having a problem with or carrying out the grammatical transformation. This technique could be used for almost any type of listening exercise in the IELTS paper, i.e. incorporating a note-taking stage using headings before actually carrying out the IELTS task required.

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