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IELTS Listening: The importance of good note-taking

IELTS Listening: The importance of making good notes


The best listeners are engaged with whatever they are listening to. This could be a lecture at school or a conversation with a friend. Have you ever spoken to a friend and then thought, ‘Oh, what did he just say?’ because you were daydreaming? You weren’t being a good listener! And this can happen in your IELTS Listening test too.

The introduction to the IELTS test goes something like this:

“You will hear a number of different recordings. And you will have to answer questions on what you hear. There will be time for you to read the instructions and the questions, and you will have a chance to check your work. All the recordings will be played once only. The test is in four sections. At the end of the test you will be given a chance to transfer your answers to the answer sheet.” (Note: The transfer time is not applicable to computer-delivered IELTS.)

So the challenge is that you hear the recording once only. If you miss it, it’s gone forever. But the opportunity is that you can read through the questions beforehand and can anticipate the find of information you are listening for. This is why you have to develop your IELTS note-taking skills. 

Before we look at IELTS Listening specifically, let’s pause to consider when and why we take notes in real life. Here are three situations.

  1. If you are in a lecture, you will have to take notes as the lecturer is speaking. You will need these notes later when you write an essay or another assignment.
  2. If you are working, your manager may give you instructions for what you are expected to do that day, or that week. Or these instructions may come in a meeting where you have to listen to several people.  
  3. Finally, imagine you are going shopping and your parent is asking you to buy a number of groceries. You will make notes on this too.

How is this relevant to IELTS Listening? Consider these similarities:

  1. When you are listening to a lecture, you can’t ask the lecturer to stop and repeat what they just said. You have to catch it first time. This is just like IELTS Listening, where you only hear the audio once.

Similarly, when you are taking notes of your manager’s instructions, you need to do it in the most efficient possible way. You are not going to write down everything they say: note-taking is different from dictation.

  1. And the reason you make a shopping list This means writing down only key points and not every word they say.
  2. Finally, the reason you make a shopping list (which is probably the most efficient form of note-taking of all) is that you know you won’t remember what you are hearing. The average human brain, at its most efficient, can focus on six pieces of information at the same time. Your brain is unlikely to be at its most efficient because you will be under the stress of exam conditions. So don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you will remember what you hear without writing it down!

Practise making good notes

So, let’s turn to how we take notes in the IELTS Listening test. As stated, you only listen to the audio once, so the first challenge is to be an attentive listener all the way through. One way to practise this is to listen to audios or watch videos and make good notes.

Take, for example, this TED talk by Sir Ken Robinson. As you watch, make notes on the following questions. The more information you have, the better.

  • What is Sir Ken ‘interested’ in? 
  • What does he believe about children? 
  • And what does he want to talk about in his speech?
  • He tells the story of a little girl. What is she doing?
  • He tells the story of his son. What play was his son in? 

You can find the answers to these five questions in the first five minutes of the video. Before you listen, spend some time looking at the questions. What sort of information are you listening for? Is is a name, a topic, an idea, a belief? What words do you expect to hear — for example, when you are listening for what he “believes” in, you might hear “I think…” or “I’m sure that..”, or “It seems to me that…” or “It’s my belief that…”. (When you have completed this exercise, you can find the answers below.)

The advantages of TED

The great thing about TED talks is that you can watch them as many times as you want, and they have transcripts so you can read what is being said. Try and listen to the talk before you read the transcript, or you risk turning an IELTS Listening exercise into a reading exercise. If your listening skills are limited, you can open the transcript and follow what the speaker is saying. You can also use the transcripts to check the spellings of words you don’t know, so you can look them up in the dictionary.

You can improve your ability as an engaged listener by listening to talks, listening to music and watching movies. What are the people saying? What is the meaning of what they’re saying?

Start practising!

With over 60 million views, Sir Ken Robinson’s talk is one of the most popular TED talks ever. You might also like to take a look at this list of the 20 most popular talks of all time.

Start by watching talks that interest you and make notes. Then go to Road to IELTS and do some more free IELTS Listening activities. Better yet, try a Road to IELTS mock Listening test to see how you’re doing. You can access it here.


  • Q: What is Sir Ken ‘interested’ in?
    A: Education “I have an interest in education.”
  • Q: What does he believe about children?
    A: They have extraordinary capacities for innovation…. All kids have tremendous talent.
  • Q: And what does he want to talk about in his speech?
    A: “I want to talk about education. And I want to talk about creativity.”
  • Q: He tells the story of a little girl. What is she doing?
    A: “The girls said ‘I’m drawing a picture of God.’”
  • Q: He tells the story of his son. What play was his son in?
    A: “He was in the nativity play.”


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