Top Tips for IELTS

How to listen for key words

This lesson looks at how you can improve your listening score by thinking about how to listen for key words. This is an area where many candidates make a basic mistake. To help you understand this mistake, there is a short interactive listening practice.

Read before you listen

What do you do in the listening exam before you listen? You read the questions. Of course. And as you read the questions you underline the key words. Of course. Well, actually maybe not.

I would like to make you think again about this common strategy. I suggest that it can cause mistakes and needs to be thought about very carefully. I’m not saying “don’t do it”, just think carefully first.

How can you identify key words?

One problem is how can you identify what the key words in the question are.  It may seem obvious what the key words in the question are. Let’s take an example I have adapted from a book:

For the speaker, what is the most impressive aspect of a solar eclipse?

What words would you underline here? My guess would be most people would choose “eclipse”: it’s an unusual word and it’s a noun and that might seem like a a good starting point. If you thought that, however, you might be making a bad mistake. To understand why, try this quick listening exercise. It is quite short and is in the form of a part 4 listening. Do listen carefully.

Solar eclipse

Congratulations - you have completed Solar eclipse. You scored %%SCORE%% out of %%TOTAL%%. Your performance has been rated as %%RATING%%
Your answers are highlighted below.
Shaded items are complete.

How did key word strategy work for you?

See the transcript

If we look through history, the solar eclipse has always had a profound effect on mankind. If we think for a moment what it means to have the sun blotted out: the source of life eradicated. In ancient times, people were unaware of its natural cause and were profoundly impressed and believed it must be supernatural. Today most people know that it is caused by the moon passing between the sun and the earth and are more impressed by its beauty. SPEAKING AS AN ASTRONOMER, I FIND it scientifically fascinating.

The key words here are “For the speaker”. If you underline key words, would you underline those words before you listened. I doubt it. The conclusion is read the whole question.


The advice

Well done if you got it correct. If you didn’t , here is my tip:

Don’t concentrate on key words: read the whole question and listen for the meaning, not words.

Many, many mistakes are made in the listening by not really reading the question. If you only focus on key words, you are likely to word match. You see a word in the question and you hear a word on the cassette and you assume that that must be the right answer. In parts 3 and 4, it is not always that easy: the test is to see if you have understood the meaning, not if you can hear individual words. If you made a mistakes with my exercise, it will be because you did not focus on the meaning of the question, but just looked at words.

Only use key words to let you know when to listen.

Key words in the question can help you of course. I, like many teachers, do talk about key words. But key words mostly help you know where the answer is: they don’t always tell what the answer is. This means that if you hear the word “eclipse” you know that the answer will be coming soon.

Get the next IELTS listening skills lesson



Get more help with IELTS preparation on the main pages of my site

Home page

Speaking Guide

Writing Guide

Essay writing guide

Academic task 1 guide

Letter writing guide

Reading guide

Listening guide

IELTS vocabulary

IELTS grammar

Keep up with me on Facebook - all the updates and even more advice there


Or just get all my free lessons by email

Subscribe to DC IELTS by Email


40 Responses to How to listen for key words

  1. Dominic Cole December 1, 2009 at 9:46 pm #
    • neelima July 7, 2011 at 3:17 pm #

      thank you, it is helping me lot.

    • lasam o August 13, 2011 at 12:35 am #

      Earnestly, I lack words to appreciate you of your tremendious help.

      Best regards.


    • Tu November 11, 2011 at 1:43 pm #

      Your website is my most favorite when preparing for the IELTS test 🙂

      • konika June 16, 2013 at 2:07 am #

        wht about esl 🙁

    • IBRAHEEM August 25, 2014 at 6:41 am #

      with due respect and reverence, i want to take ielts test sir how can i check you my daily work , help me as possible , hopefully for your kind response,

  2. Dominic Cole December 1, 2009 at 9:50 pm #

    Solar eclipses are fascinating for many reasons. There is the scientific point of view that they are undoubtedly important as total eclipses are so rare. Then there is the supernatural or elemental aspect: to have the sun blotted out. But for most people I would say it is the sheer beauty of an eclipse THAT MOST CATCHES THE IMAGINATION

    The key word here in the question is “most”. There are different impressive aspects, but which is the MOST impressive. If you underline key words, would you underline “most” before you listened? I doubt it. The conclusion is: read the whole question.

  3. Dominic Cole December 1, 2009 at 9:56 pm #

    There are different types of eclipse. There is the solar eclipse when the moon passes between the sun and the earth so that the sun is wholly or partially invisible. Then there is the lunar eclipse when the earth passes between the sun and the moon so that no sunlight is reflected from the moon’s surface. What is typically most impressive there is the red ring around the moon. In the SOLAR eclipse, on the other hand, it is the darkness that falls on earth.

    Are you still reading? If so, you will surely now understand that the key word here is solar, not lunar. The point is you cannot tell what the key words are until you listen. READ THE WHOLE QUESTION. I know it’s rude to use capital letters. I don’t want to shout, but if you focus on the whole question and not just a few words, your listening will improve.

  4. Karlo estrada October 11, 2010 at 2:36 am #

    I want to ask about the writing tasks. I mistakenly write my essay in all capital letters. It was an honest mistake and I am sure I will lose marks. I want to know how heavy the consequence for it. I hope you could shed some light on it. Thanks in advance.

  5. Name October 20, 2010 at 10:47 pm #

    Thank you Mr. Dominic. 😀

  6. manglish November 27, 2010 at 2:19 pm #

    It was great! I was instantly tricked by the questions, but I have learned more from the mistakes I have made. Thank you Mr.Dominic! =)

  7. IELTS7 February 21, 2011 at 3:03 pm #

    i really like ur Blog, quite awesome

  8. IELTS7 February 21, 2011 at 3:05 pm #

    i really love ur Blog, quite helpful

  9. pedro March 5, 2011 at 6:34 pm #

    Excellent, this website is helping me a lot


  10. maia April 8, 2011 at 6:36 pm #

    thanks you for such a good advices. I have an exam in a few days. These suggestions will help me.

  11. ibn-issa May 26, 2011 at 1:04 am #

    i want to ask if it is possible to write private data in the letter or essay . For example, number or names of my family members ,or data about my country.

    • Dominic Cole June 18, 2011 at 4:58 pm #

      This will depend on the essay question to some degree. You are asked to use your own experience and so you can certainly use information that you are familiar with. You should also be aware that it is an academic essay and so it would be unwise to get too personal.

  12. chips June 1, 2011 at 8:25 am #

    Mr Dominic, although I haven’t met you before but I honestly say that I so admire you. The tips which you spirited are so amazing. They are EXTREMLY

  13. chips June 1, 2011 at 8:26 am #

    Mr Dominic, although I haven’t met you before but I honestly say that I so admire you. The tips which you spirited are so amazing. They are EXTREMELY useful. Thank you so so so so so much :X:X:X

  14. duyen July 20, 2011 at 12:50 pm #

    thank u so much Mr. Dominic.
    Wish you joy and happiness!

  15. Stella July 31, 2011 at 6:33 am #

    Mr. Dominic thank you for your help. God bless you and your whole family. Thank you for sharing your expertise. You are the best..

  16. nazish November 23, 2011 at 6:49 am #

    i came to know about this blog from the video i got from youtube search. i wished had got it earlier , just two days left for my exam.but , really useful tips . i will go through all the pages.thanks a ton.

  17. zen, April 23, 2012 at 8:54 am #

    its really helpfull.heatfelt nthanks.

  18. soomro June 14, 2012 at 10:55 am #

    Mr. Cole

    Thank you very much for helping for ielts for every one.

    I wonder if you have printed material ( Hard copy ) of all the material on your web site for ielts preparation so I can buy, as I can not read on internet due to my vision problems.

    Thank you and kind regards

    Hoping to hear you soon


    • Dominic Cole July 5, 2012 at 4:32 am #

      Sorry. i may at some time be able to provide that sort of service, but not yet. For the time being you should be able to download or print off almost everything you need.

  19. dipti August 21, 2012 at 8:39 am #

    It is the most useful website for ielts

  20. dipti August 21, 2012 at 8:39 am #

    very useful

  21. Asema September 8, 2012 at 2:19 pm #


    One of the successful candidates (who posted his comments here) suggested to listen to the audio materials to improve listening generally. But he did not mention where to search for them.

    Could you suest any, so they’re pleasant to listen (some narratives about the countries, and/or travel, for instance)…and what is important, it comes with the script, so I could read then what I hear. Otherwise, there is a little use. – the word may be ommitted and you never uess what that was.

    Many thanks for your help.

    P.S.: (I did my writing for 7.5 this Auust, by just following your tips, – I really did not spoil tons of paper preparing – just a couple of practice essays).

  22. Almira November 6, 2012 at 2:18 am #

    Mr. Cole, do you work in China?

  23. Saber May 12, 2013 at 2:11 pm #

    Thanks for these free tips!

  24. Adea May 19, 2013 at 4:10 am #

    Thank you, your website is definitely the best I have ever found on ielts preparation.

  25. ken July 5, 2013 at 2:38 am #

    I am still struggling with listening only i dont know why this skill does not develop despite the fact that i have improved all the rest skills…but listening noway why i dont know???

  26. kalyani donga August 16, 2013 at 5:56 am #

    hello, I am so much worried about the ielts. mostly i am weak in reading . how can i achieve good score in reading.

  27. Marco November 13, 2013 at 2:32 pm #

    It’s really helpful and hitting the point! A great site for IELTS test takers

  28. Majd April 22, 2014 at 2:11 am #

    Great tips as usual! Thank you Dominic.
    BTW, the “Listen” button in the test doesn’t work with me. Check it please.

  29. SANJU September 8, 2014 at 7:35 pm #

    should every one need to answer in capital latter in listening section?

    • Dominic Cole October 23, 2014 at 9:45 pm #

      You don’t need to but it can be a good idea especially if you have poor handwriting.

  30. Ankit Kulshrestha March 9, 2015 at 12:03 pm #

    Thanks , I have made this mistake just now, hopefully I will not make this mistake in my exams.

  31. vinod singh rawat June 28, 2015 at 3:38 pm #

    thank you very much….. it is a good tips you show in your blog

Leave a Reply