Multiple choice listening – avoiding distractors

This lesson is about the skills you need for multiple choice listening questions in IELTS. While the format of the listening is part 2, the same skills apply to the rest of the listening test too. There is a multiple choice listening practice exercise at the end of the lesson.

Multiple Choice questions – easy or difficult?

In some ways, the multiple choice listening questions look much easier than other types of question. You do not need to write any words down and there is no problem with spelling – all you need to do is circle the correct letter/option and in parts one and two there are only 3 options. Easy peasy? Not always.

The problem with these types of question is that very often there will be two answers that sound as if they could be correct – especially if you use a “key word” strategy where you concentrate on a few words in the question. If you don’t read, understand and concentrate on the whole question, it can be easy to go wrong.

Understanding distractors

To get this type of question right, it may help to understand how the questions work. This means thinking about “distractors”. Put simply, a distractor is the “trick answer” – the one you think that may be right if you don’t read the whole question. Here’s an example:


The Japanese army planted cherry trees:

A as a sign of goodwill  between China and Japan

B to make Wuhan a special site

C to help their soldiers get better


These trees, well over a thousand of them by now, are by no means native to these parts. Wuhan was occupied by the Japanese during the war and the university complex was used by the Japanese army as a centre for convalescent soldiers. To make the wounded feel more at home, the army planted several orchards of cherry trees to remind the soldiers of Japan. In more recent times, the Japanese government gifted more cherry trees to China as a sign of friendship between the two the nations and many of these trees were subsequently planted here in Wuhan.

Understanding the distractor

Answer A looks as it it might be right. It isn’t. It is a distractor. Why?

The Japanese government gave the trees to China as a sign of friendship does not match The Japanese army planted the trees as a sign of goodwill between China and Japan.

The two may look similar but there is a difference between an army and a government and giving and planting.

Getting the skill right

To get this right, the first step is to know the “distractor” problem – don’t focus on single words like “goodwill”. Know that you may hear things that are close, but not close enough. The next step is simply to focus on the whole question – all the words in the question. Until you listen, you can’t tell which the key words are!

A practical note

Another difficulty go these question is that there is quite a lot to read in the thirty seconds before you listen. You have the stem of the question and all the options. My suggestion?

Before you listen, focus on the stem of the question (the “The Japanese army planted cherry trees:” bit) – this tells you where/when the answer is coming.

As you listen, focus on the options – this is tough as it means reading and listening as you go (two skills at once)

Leave your options open as you listen. What I mean by this si that you may hear something that is close to true but you are not sure about. Just mark that option with ?, and keep listening. If yo hear a better answer later, mark it with a tick. If you don’t, go back to your first choice.

Test your skills – multiple choice listening practice

Here is a longish part 2 listening. There are only 4 questions, one of which I have half answered for you already!

Read the whole question

What is the main reason to visit Wuhan University:

  • to visit East Lake
  • to see cherry trees in flower
  • to see the library

What does the guide recommend

  •  to take the shuttle bus
  • to make a detour to see one type of tree
  • to take pictures of the trees

The Japanese army planted cherry trees:

  •  as a sign of goodwill  between China and Japan
  • to make Wuhan a special site
  • to help their soldiers get better

The Cherry festival this year is in

  •  late April
  • early March
  • from March to April


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Wuhan University tour

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Read the tapescript

Cherry blossoms in Wuhan (1691)

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4 Responses to Multiple choice listening – avoiding distractors

  1. Mks March 31, 2013 at 12:06 am #

    Hi where do i get answers of ur most of them, i dont see any plz provide answers.

    • Avatar of Dominic Cole
      Dominic Cole April 1, 2013 at 3:14 pm #

      The answers are there on the page. Click the link.

  2. Dheeraj July 5, 2013 at 10:42 pm #

    I liked the tip even tho i didnt got two answers correct but I was very close to correct ones. Thanks Dominic!!!!


  1. Multiple choice listening – Wuhan University -Dominic Cole’s IELTS and Beyond | David's ESOL Blog - March 23, 2013

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