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IELTS Listening: The importance of synonyms

IELTS Listening: The importance of synonyms

Pre-test information

At the beginning of the Listening test you are given 30 seconds to look at the questions. You can use this time to predict what you will hear in the recording. First, look at the keywords — the ones that hold the meaning. These will give you an idea of what to listen out for. But beware! It is unlikely you will hear these exact words in the recording. It is much more likely you will hear different words that mean the same thing. These are called ‘synonyms’. Examiners use keyword synonyms to test if you really understand what the text means, rather than just recognising words.

Finding the right words

Try these tips for thinking of and using synonyms:

  1. Quickly look through the questions and make sure you understand the context.
  2. Circle keywords.
  3. For each keyword, think of some synonyms.
  4. Then, as you listen for the word on the paper, keep these other words in your mind and listen for them too.


Try putting these tips into practice. Look at question 9 in this section of an IELTS Listening question paper.

Now listen to the relevant section of the audio.



In the example above, you have 30 seconds to look at questions 5-9. This is how you should use it:

  1. Understanding the context.
    In this example, it is an application form to join a badminton club, so you can expect questions and answers about personal details.
  2. Circle keywords.
    In question 9, for example, you can be reasonably sure that the answer is in the words ‘beginner’, ‘average’, ‘good’ or ‘league’. Circle these words. (Note: You may not be familiar with the term ‘league’, but it is easy to guess as the boxes show badminton skill in an order that gets better. ‘League’ is therefore better than ‘good’.)
  3. Think of synonyms.
    For ‘average’ you might think of: ‘OK’, ‘not bad’, ‘in the middle’, ‘reasonable’, ‘middling’, ‘just play for fun’ and so on.
  4. Listen for keywords and synonyms.
    You will soon notice that you did not hear the word ‘average’. Instead, Abdul used the word ‘middling’, which has the same meaning. If you weren’t listening for the word ‘middling’, or other words that also mean ‘average’, you could easily have missed it.


To practise this, think of some synonyms for the other words in question 9. When you have finished, look below for some suggestions. Note that synonyms are not always one word.

  1. Beginner
  2. Good
  3. League

Suggested answers

  1. Beginner: starting out, never played before, novice, amateur
  2. Good: competent, better than average, experienced, proficient
  3. League: expert, team player, excellent player


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