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IELTS Listening: The importance of synonyms

IELTS Listening: The importance of synonyms

The problem

At the beginning of the Listening test you are given 30 seconds to look at the question paper. This enables you to use the words on the paper to predict the words that you will hear in the recording. But that would be too easy! It’s much more likely that you will not hear these words; you will hear different words that mean the same thing. These are called synonyms.


Look at question 9 in this section of an IELTS Listening question paper.

Now listen to the relevant section of the audio.

You will soon notice that you did not hear the word “average”. Abdul used the word “middling”, which means the same thing, instead. If you weren’t listening for the word “middling” you could easily have missed it.

The solution

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

  1. Quickly look through the questions so that you are sure you understand the context. In this case it is an application form to join a badminton club, so you can expect questions and answers about personal details.
  2. Circle key words. What does this mean? Well, 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. Now think of synonyms for them. For “average” you might think of: “reasonable”, “OK”, “not bad”, “in the middle”, “middling”, “just play for fun” and so on.
  4. Then, as you listen for the word on the paper, keep these other words in your mind and listen for them too.


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, first time to play, novice
  2. Good: competent, better than average, experienced, proficient
  3. League: expert, team player, excellent player

What’s next?

This advice comes from a video in Road to IELTS. The same video also includes British Council IELTS experts’ advice on:

  • The importance of the instructions
  • The danger of distracters
  • How to think about the topic and activate your vocabulary for a certain area
  • How to write your answers carefully. For example, if the answer is “30 seconds” and you write “30s”, will your answer be marked correct or wrong?

To watch the video, click into the Listening section of the Test Drive version of Road to IELTS.

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