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Listening Exams/Assessments are by far the hardest of the four disciplines (Reading, Writing, Speaking, Listening) as you probably know.

Unlike other disciplines, you cannot go back and look at the source material as many times as you desire.

But do not despair! – there are some techniques that can be of great help to you to prepare beforehand and use during the exam assessment.

A positive attitude goes a long way to being successful  - if you have practiced the skills and suggestions listed below you will feel more confident of doing well. It is all about getting the gist of what the speaker(s) is/are discussing.

Things to do at least a week before the exam/assessment day

You need to develop your own form of shorthand that you can use when you are taking notes – you can use either signs or symbols – whatever works for you is fine, here are a few:

adv - advantage;
avg - average;
aprox - approximately;
b/c - because;
b/4 - before;
btwn - between;
com2 - compared to;
cont - continued;

= equals/ is the same;
# number;
not the same;
w/ with;
> is more than;
w/out - without;
< is less than;
+ and.

Practice these by listening to a short monologue on a topic you are already familiar with – TED Talks is a good place to start (more about them below) so that you are not distracted by new vocabulary and explanations. Start with what you understand, and then gradually listen to more detailed audio material as your level increases.

NEVER try to transcribe the talk/speech – it would be almost impossible for a native speaker to do so, and it only ends in tears of frustration.

Your next step should be to move on to listening topics you know a little about, but not really all that much – something you have heard of, but you only have a limited understanding of. As above, stick to short monologues and then gradually listen to more detailed audio material as your level increases.

Once you feel more confident about your ability to get the gist of a short monologue it is time to move on to a dialogue between two people. I recommend Randall’s ESL Cyber Listening Lab to get you started. The same voice actors are used in all the recordings so you will quickly become accustomed to their pronunciation.

Remember that you are listening for keywords and phrases – most of the rest of what is being said is supporting detail which is equally important, but you need the keywords and phrases to put them into context

Things you should ALWAYS note down

Names – people, places, companies/businesses, government organizations, machines.

Numbers – dates, fractions, decimals, percentages, measurement (both Imperial: e.g. feet & inches and Metric: e.g. centimeters & meters) quantities, distances, temperatures, and words like many, most, the vast majority, almost all, etc.

TED Talks

Have a good look around the site. I suggest you start with the Talks that are 0-6 minutes long and move on to the 7 -12 minute talks when you are ready.

Most of the talks have a transcript and many of them have a wide range of subtitles – recent ones often do not, so keep that in mind.

Randall’s ESL Cyber Listening Lab

You have a choice of Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced to choose from. Most are dialogues, with a few monologues here and there. This website also has a variety of additional Before and After Listening Tasks that you may wish to look at, especially any with new vocabulary.

Things to do just before the exam/assessment

It is all about prediction and preparation. You should have time to read through the questions, so you need to do the following:

Quickly devise a shorthand for new vocabulary specific to the topic. So if the questions are about George Washington and the American War of Independence you could use the following:

GW - George Washington;
AWI - American War of Independence;
BF - British Forces;
btl - battle;
Con - Congress.

You will need to think of these as quickly as you can as your reading time is limited.

Read through the questions carefully and identify keywords/phrases you think are important – see above for Names & Numbers.

Having written many exams/assessments myself I can guarantee you that each question will have at least one synonym to test your vocabulary, possibly two. Quite often these are adjectives, so identify them in the question and expect to hear a synonym in the recording.

There will not be any “trick” questions (“Trick” questions – which are written so that they fool you into giving the wrong answer should only ever be in a quiz – you won’t find them in IELTS, TOEFL, TOEIC, or TOEIC SW exams) so don’t worry about them at all.

Things to do during the exam/assessment

Questions always follow the order of the recording in an assessment – keep this in mind. You won’t hear the answer for Question One halfway through or near the end.

You will miss some information the first time the recording is played. Don’t panic – a native speaker like myself would do the same. Just keep calm and make a mental note of what questions you need to pay more attention to the second time the recording is played

Remember – at this point, you are just taking notes NOT writing the answer. Students are always given time afterward to write full and complete answers, so just focus on note-taking.

Don’t leave any answers blank – if you think you only got half the information you need use it. It may be that your teacher/examiner/invigilator may give you a chance to improve an answer.

Even if this does not happen you might still get some marks for the answer e.g. the answer is worth 4 points and what you have written gets awarded 2 points. It could mean the difference between passing and failing.

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