Home » IELTS Tips Listening: Beware the distractor!

IELTS Tips Listening: Beware the distractor!

The problem

The IELTS Listening test sets out to show which candidates can listen effectively, and which can’t. One of the ways of doing this is to set traps — and see whether you fall into them. You need to know about these traps and how to avoid them. In this post we will look at one of the most common traps: the distractor.

Examples of distractors

Distractors are most often seen in dialogues, where a speaker says something, and is then corrected by the other speaker. That means you hear the same piece of information in two versions. One is correct and one is incorrect, and if you are not listening carefully, it’s easy to write down the wrong one.

Let’s look at three examples. Can you answer the questions?

Example 1

Question: The man ordered _____ T-shirts.


Man: Hi, I’m calling to confirm a delivery of thirty T-shirts to my apartment in Waterloo.

Woman: I see… let me have a look. Oh, we only have one order for Waterloo, sir, and it’s for thirteen shirts, not thirty.

Man: Ah, yes! Did I say thirty? Sorry. I meant thirteen. It is thirteen shirts.

Example 2

Question: What is the correct postcode? _____


Man: Where do you live, Lynda?

Lynda: Unit 15, Maximilian Way.

Man: That’s in Whitfield, right? I have a cousin who lives in that area.

Lynda: Yes, Whitfield.

Man: And the postcode is double seven double five?

Lynda: Not quite — you’ve got it the wrong way around. It’s double five double seven.

Example 3

Question: What is Lynda’s date of birth? 25th _______


Man: Just one more thing — your date of birth — but I can get that from the card. One moment…

Lynda: Look. I’m afraid you haven’t copied it down correctly. I was born on 25th September 1990.

Man: What have I written? Oh yes, I see now. I’ve got the 25th of the eighth month, but that would make it August…

Analysis of the distractors

It’s not difficult to find the answers when the dialogue is written down in front of you. But when you are listening — and remember you only hear the audio once — it is much easier to get confused. Notice that the examiners tried to confuse you in three different ways:

  1. In dialogue one, both words (“thirty” and “thirteen”) are repeated several times. Remember that they sound very similar.
  2. In dialogue two, the wrong answer is given first, followed by the right answer; in dialogue three, the right answer is given first, followed by the wrong answer. This means you can’t predict the order in which the answer and the distractor will come.
  3. In dialogue two, instead of saying “seven-seven-five-five”, the man says “double seven double five”, giving you one more thing to think about — at exactly the moment the examiners are trying to confuse you.

So a distractor often comes with an extra spin: easily confused words, or words said in an unusual way.

The solution

Now you know about distractors, you will at least be expecting them when they come. There is really only one way to deal with them effectively, and that is to do as many practice tests as you can. Probably the best way of doing this is through Road to IELTS, the British Council’s official IELTS preparation product. The Practice Zone section of Road to IELTS includes over 20 listening tests. Click here to find out more.