5 tips to improve your listening skills for the Cambridge exams

We are proud to publish in the International House Blog a great article written by our International House Madrid teacher Frank C. Zirit, whose experience in teaching English and preparing students for Cambridge exams has enabled him to give the examinees the best advice possible for these tests, but also any listening test you could expect for. We hope you find these tips useful!

Are you preparing for a standardized English exam? Do you find the listening section particularly challenging? Maybe these ideas will help you better your final score. 

5 tips to improve your listening skills for examinations.

FCE, CAE, CPE, IELTS, TOEFL, TOEIC? The world of standardized examinations to assess candidates’ abilities in the English language has grown exponentially, especially in the last 30 years. As the global marketplace of tests continues to include more and more acronyms, students from around the world seem to struggle to find a light at the end of the road. Most of these exams include a listening paper, in which a number of micro-skills are tested, such as listening for gist or details, categorizing information, understanding an author’s attitude and more. Despite the different types of exams out there, and the constraints that each of them have, they all share many things; we can call them “transferrable skills”, as they can be applied with virtually no modification at all.

Playing the “Delphic Sibyl”

You wish you had been gifted with precognition as legend tells us of those soothsayers who lived in Delphi. Although you won't ever have those powers, you still need to exercise your deductive skills to make “educated guesses”. With the exception of the TOEFL iBT® or some parts of the TOEIC®, most standardized tests give you some time to read ahead. You must use this time wisely, as this is crucial to predicting as much as possible a number of things. You should quickly ask yourself:

  • Who are the people?
  • What is their relationship?
  • Where are they?
  • Why are they talking?

By doing this, you will be able to set the situation and expect specific vocabulary. This can be done very quickly, and as you do more practice tests, you will be able to cover a whole section in a heartbeat. If the passage contains gaps that you must fill out, you should try to predict the type of word or expression (noun, adjective, adverb, noun phrase, etc.). Do not try to read everything in detail, only focus on the key words. With practice, you will be able to predict with a certain level of precision. While preparing students for the Cambridge exams, I have sometimes witnessed some who can even tell you the word they will hear. Even if you find this difficult, trying to predict helps you concentrate on the task, thus making it a lot more manageable and understandable.

Am I your secretary? No, thank you!

It is as if the image of the typical secretary taking notes while her boss is rambling about what to do in the next meeting is a thing of the past. Well think again! In exams like the TOEFL iBT®, candidates must rely on their note-taking skills to get through with the tasks. In most exercises, you won't see the question until the listening is over, so you must rely on the notes you have taken. I understand my students’ complaints about this when they say that note-taking is not a listening skill per se. I always try to ease their anxiety by saying that, in the case of the TOEFL iBT®, they will need those skills for college or university, and indeed, you need to understand spoken language if you want to succeed in any area of knowledge. So may it be for any reason, you should start practicing your note-taking skills, whether it is by doing linear (outlining) or non-linear (clustering, mind maps, guided notes, flow charts) notes, to be able to understand and organize trains of thought. Once you have found the right system for you, start practicing in your own language first and then move on to English.

“Listen” between the lines

If you have been studying English for some time, you may have probably noticed that the people you hear in the recordings are almost the same. They are professional voice actors who are guided by experts in speech delivery. When these actors do their job, they always follow some rules regarding pronunciation, intonation and use of discourse markers. Even when they try to sound as natural as possible, they will be following a script. We call this “signposting”; which is the way a speaker has to direct the attention to the most important parts of a listening. See them as the signposts you see on the road while you are traveling, they are there to help you find your way.

These signpost words usually announce your desired answer, especially in gap-filling tasks. Understanding the patterns in inflection and pronunciation takes some time but rest assured that the more you are acquainted with how presenters deliver a speech, the better the chances to be more successful. Additionally, you may also have noticed that you never get the answer to two questions one right after the other. There is always some time for elaboration in which the speaker talks about the question at hand. Therefore, once you have answered a question, relax, pay attention and wait for the next answer to come.

Fine-tuning your ears

Most listening tasks in standardized exams will be played twice, which means that if you did not get an answer a first time, you will still be able to get it during the replay. At least this is true for Cambridge exams. However, if you are preparing to sit the IELTS, then you will require more listening practice as you will hear all recordings once only. One of the best ways of doing this is by reading the tape-scripts and getting familiarized with the accents of the different speakers. Finding podcasts on your favorite topics and taking part in online forums and discussions will also prove to be effective.

For those who want to put their listening skills to the test I strongly recommend signing up for an account with Amazon’s Audible. For a trial membership, you will be allowed to download a free audiobook of your choice and you do not even have to pay if you decide to cancel before the grace period expires. If you download an audiobook of a book you already own, you could even follow the narrator while he or she walks you through the whole story.

Do you remember what I mentioned before about reading ahead? A great thing about understanding spoken English at word level is that — and this applies almost exclusively to Cambridge exams — when you write down the last two answers of any part of a listening paper during the first round, you will have time during the second round to forget about those two last questions and read ahead the following part. You can still do this in the IELTS, but only after you get the answer can you go on to the next section without waiting on the recording to finish.

Now you see me, now you don’t!

We all love a good magic show, especially when we stand in awe at the last part of a trick, or “the prestige”. What many of us do not know is that, for the magician to make us believe in his powers, he has to deceive us by using distractors; a series of gestures and movements that divert our attention from what matters most. A good listener will always discriminate redundant information from a real answer. In a listening, a distractor will be a set of expressions that sound logical but do not fully satisfy the question at hand. Have you ever wondered how multiple choice questions are designed? Excluding the correct alternative, examiners will include an option related to the topic but that does not give relevant information or partially responds the question, another option that directly contradicts it, and a final one that is not mentioned at all.

Special attention must be paid to the “wording” of the options, as these are the real distractors. Choosing an option only because you heard the same word in the listening will most likely lead you to the incorrect answer.

This way of reasoning may also be applied to the reading paper but that is a straw from another haystack.

What's next?

Becoming a successful candidate takes time and a practice. Unless you have had enough exposure in English, you won't probably be able to get your desired score. Keep in mind that most standardized exams are more about skills than knowledge. This may sound a bit odd, but I have seen students get an FCE or CAE by sheer use of educated guesses or logical thinking, raising the question of whether these type of examinations reflect how much English a person knows. However, that question can be discussed in another article.

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