IELTS Listening: Beware the distractor!

IELTS Listening: Beware the distractor!

IELTS Listening: Beware the distractor!

The problem

The IELTS Listening test wants to find which candidates can listen effectively, and which can’t. In particular, the examiner wants to know if you understand the content, or if you’re just looking out for particular words. One way of doing this is to set traps — and see whether you fall into them. So if you want a higher band score, 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, before being corrected by the other speaker. That means you hear the same information in two versions. One is correct and one is not correct. 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? (Answers below.)

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 more confusing. Notice that the examiners tried to confuse you in three different ways:

  1. Similar sounds
    In Example 1, both words, ‘thirty’ and ‘thirteen’ are repeated several times. Because these two words sound so similar, the examiner wants to see if you can hear the difference and get the right quantity. (The answer is thirteen.)
  2. Corrections
    In Example 2, the wrong answer is given first, followed by the right answer. In Example 3, 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. Here, the examiner is testing whether you understand the content and context, rather than just writing down the first answer you hear. (In Example 2, the answer is 5577. In Example 3, the answer is September.)
  3. Synonyms
    In Example 2, instead of saying ‘seven-seven-five-five’, the man says ‘double seven double five’. Of course, they mean the same thing but this way the examiner can test whether you understand the content while adding another layer of distraction to your test. Understanding synonyms, what they are and how to use them, is really important for both IELTS Listening and IELTS Reading. (In Example 2, the answer is 5577.)

So a distractor often comes as: easily confused words, corrections or words said in an unusual way.

The solution

Now you know a few types of distractors. But will you be able to spot them when you’re doing your test? There is really only one way to deal with this effectively, and that is to do as many practice tests as you can. The best way of doing this is through Road to IELTS, the British Council’s official IELTS preparation course. Check out the program where you can pick a test (Academic or General Training), enter the Practice Zone section and try over 20 listening tests.

Final thought

Distractors are just one thing you need to know about in your IELTS Listening test. You can also take a look at nine frequently asked questions we get from candidates. For general test preparation, why not see how to give yourself the best chance of success in this post.

One comment

  1. Bibin Ealoor says:

    Hello Andrew sir, my main trouble for the IELTS listening section is that I have to listen, read the questions and write down the key points at the same time. Can you provide some advice to do this in an efficient manner?

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