Teacher Guide: How to Prepare Students for Listening Exams

Written by: TEFL Toolkit



Time to read 4 min

A listening exam assesses your students’ ability to listen to, and to understand, an audio in English. It is an imperative part of many exams and can often seem quite daunting. We’ve prepared a few tips to help you prepare them and send them into the exam feeling more confident.

1. Regular Practice

This may seem obvious, creating some space in your daily timetable to schedule regular practice can make a big difference. Try to spend at least 10 minutes each day listening to something in English with your students. Search out listening material you think they will enjoy, as they are more likely to be motivated when listening to something they find interesting. Why not pick out and subscribe to a few podcasts – check with your students if there are any they particularly like or recommend.

2. Repeated Practice

You will usually want to have students listen to the same text more than once. This way they can practise both extensive and intensive listening skills – they will find they can understand more and more with each repetition, and this will help build their confidence. Shift the focus and have them listen for new ideas each time. Tell them to make a note of new words or phrases that they pick out. This type of targeted, focused practice can increase their ability to understand English spoken in a variety of contexts, and will expose them to a range of vocabulary, grammatical structures, and accents. Classroom activities like complete cloze tasks, text reconstructions, summarising tasks and creative dictations all provide great listening practice.

3. Read Before the Listening Begins

Before any recordings are played, students should be given some time to read the instructions and study any associated materials related to them. Encourage your students to use this time productively – in particular, stress the importance of reading and re-reading the instructions. This will not only ensure they respond correctly but should give them an overview of what to expect during the sections ahead. Have them underline the keywords in the questions so they know what to listen out for. Also, have them look for clues in the questions - can they predict any of the answers?

4. During the Exam

Tell students not to worry if they don’t understand everything at first. If the texts are going to be played more than once, tell them to use the first listening to try to understand the main topic or context. How many speakers are there? What is their relationship? Where are they? Who or what is the main subject of their conversation? If it is one speaker, why is he or she talking about the topic at hand? If the students are permitted, have them take notes as they listen. They may think they will remember everything but taking notes as they go along will help them focus on the task - and they can use any repeated playing of the text to concentrate on any gaps in their understanding – particularly if it is an information-rich text.

5. Paying Attention to Intonation

Attending to the intonation used by the speaker can help students infer the speaker's intent -and this may provide clues to the meaning. Accentuation can provide many hints about the message that is being conveyed.

6. Distractors

During the exam try to separate the redundant and irrelevant information from what is important – focusing on the information required by the questions will help with this. Learners may hear certain expressions that will distract them from the correct response to the questions. Practise with your students recognising ‘distractors’ - they usually take the form of expressions that seem to provide the answers to the tasks, but provide partial, or exaggerated information - or information that is irrelevant to the task at hand.

7. Focus More on What You Understand

Focusing on what they do understand – particularly identifying keywords - will help students get the gist of what is being said and will help them work out the potential meanings of words and expressions with which they are unfamiliar. Reassure students that they shouldn’t expect to understand everything. Try to give them plenty of practice of learning to infer meaning from context. Remind your students that if they stop at each term they don’t know, they will lose time, concentration, and rhythm.

8. Recognise Patterns

When they are preparing for their exam and during their exam, it is important to be aware of any patterns that crop up repeatedly. Listening comprehensions always follow very specific pronunciation and intonation rules, using markers or connectors throughout the audio. This is called signalling and by including these, a speaker focuses the listeners’ attention towards the most relevant part of the message. In exams, these markers can sometimes direct candidates to the correct response. 

9. Use Foresight and Intuition

Once students have grasped what the exercise is about, they will be able to predict some of the words or phrases they need to listen out for. They should also try to predict possible responses and consider the types of phrases and words they will need to use in their answers. Once they have finished their exam, encourage students to check that everything they have completed makes sense. If they are in doubt, have them follow their intuition.

10. Pay Attention

Have students try to remember the end goal for their exam, maintaining focus throughout the listening comprehension. They shouldn’t be put off by any gaps in their understanding, or by slightly unfamiliar phrases. Tell them to complete an answer for every question, even if it is an educated guess. Finally, have them check through everything on their answer sheet one last time before they submit it.