How to Improve IELTS Reading and Listening Skills — IELTS Advantage

Students often ask me ‘How do I improve my reading and listening skills?’

The short answer is ‘Read and listen more.’ However, this is not a very good answer because you need to know HOW to practice and WHERE to get good sources of reading and listening material.

This article will help you:

  1. Learn HOW to practice
  2. WHERE to find the best sources
  3. HOW often you should be practicing

How to Practice Listening and Reading

There are two kinds of listening and reading practice- passive and active.

One of them is the most common, but least effective, but the other will increase your skills dramatically in a much shorter period of time.

Passive listening is when you simply listen to a song, people talking, the news etc. and don’t do anything else. In other words, you do not actually think about what you are listening to.

Passive reading means you simply read something, but you do not take any steps to think about or learn from what you are reading.

Active Listening and Reading

When you actively listen to something, you listen to less information, but you think about it in a much deeper way. This deeper way of thinking about what you are listening to means you learn in a much more efficient and effective way.

For example, instead of listening to 30 minutes of the news, you might just listen to 3 minutes of the news but think about any new words or phrases you hear, guess what these mean and then note them down in a vocabulary notebook.

Active reading could mean that instead of reading a full chapter for 30 minutes, you simply read one paragraph, but think about the grammar and the function of each sentence. You would then try to use the same grammar and functions in your own writing.

Active listening and reading require you to think and do much more than simply sit back and hope that English will magically be downloaded to your brain, but it will cut your preparation time and also lead to huge improvements.

Examples of Active Listening

The most important things you can think about when active listening are:

  1. Pronunciation
  2. Vocabulary
  3. Grammar
  4. Structure

I don’t recommend doing all four at once. It is just too much to think about. Instead, I would start by focusing on the area that you are weakest in. This is the best use of your time. So, if you really struggle with pronunciation, focus on that.

This will also improve your speaking because you will constantly be thinking about how native speakers talk.

Examples of Active Reading

The most important things you can think about when active reading are:

  1. Vocabulary
  2. Grammar
  3. Structure
  4. Idea development

Again, don’t do all four at once; start with the one you need the most help with.

This will really help you with your writing. Normally, the more someone reads, the better they are at writing.


When reading or listening you should do the following things:

  1. Underline or note any new words or phrases.
  2. Read or listen to that section again and try to guess what that word/phrase means.
  3. Check meaning in dictionary. Don’t skip step 2!
  4. Write new word/phrase in a special vocabulary note book.
  5. Add meaning, pronunciation, collocations, example sentences, synonyms etc. to help you remember the word/phrase.
  6. Review regularly.

Before too long you will have a large number of new words and phrases to use.


When reading or listening you should do the following:

  1. Underline or note any sentences you do not fully understand.
  2. Think about why the writer used that grammar structure.
  3. Identify the grammar structure.
  4. Check structure in book or on website.
  5. Try to use this structure when speaking or in your writing.
  6. Review regularly.


  1. Pick 1 or 2 sentences that have some interesting pronunciation features in them.
  2. Listen to them a few times.
  3. Write down the sentence and mark any features, such as:
  4. Intonation (mark this with arrows up or down)
  5. Linking words (mark this with linking from one word to another)
  6. Weak sounds (use a different colour for these)
  7. Stress (Underline the stressed syllables)
  8. Try to copy the features above by mimicking what the speaker said.


  1. Underline or note down any discourse markers (such as Firstly, however, although, for example etc.)
  2. Note the function of the sentences and how the speaker/writer used these words to structure what they say/write.
  3. Try using these words yourself to structure your writing/speaking.

Idea Development

  1. Underline topic sentences.
  2. Note how the writer develops this main idea with explanations and examples.
  3. Use the same/similar technique when practicing Task 2 essays.

Where to find the best sources

First of all, do NOT spend all of your time listening to and reading IELTS tests. They are boring and you will get sick and tired of them very quickly. You should practice doing IELTS tests, but I think that this should be only around 10–20% of your preparation time for reading and listening.

The other 90–80% should be spent listening or reading to something you find interesting or, even better, enjoy. If you like reading Harry Potter, read that. If you like watching Game of Thrones, listen to that. Prefer cartoons? They’re fine too. Anything in English that you enjoy is fine.

Google will help you out with finding the things you like, but here are a number of things I think are extremely useful for language learning:


Podcasts have taken over from radio and I absolutely love them. You can download them or stream them using lots of apps or websites. My personal favourite app is Stitcher.

There are millions of podcasts out there, you just have to search and find one you love. Once you find some podcasts you like, you can listen to them whenever and wherever you like. They are also perfect for active listening because you can pause and listen to them again and again.

Here are some of my recommended podcasts.


Just like radio has been replaced by podcasts, TV has been replaced by YouTube. Again, there are millions of channels and shows on YouTube, so all you have to do is search for something you like.

Ted Talks

These are short lectures about interesting topics. Luckily, they are often on the kind of topics you will find on the IELTS writing and speaking tests. Very good for idea development and vocabulary.

Here are the Ted Talks I recommend.

Audio Books

There are millions of free audio books available online.

Audible is my favourite app for listening to these.

Amazon Kindle

You don’t have to buy a Kindle device. You can download the Kindle app on any device and then you will have access to millions of free books. There are also millions of books you have to pay for, but they are not very expensive.

Your Local Book Shop

Most books stores in the world have an English section. Check out what’s on offer in your local shop.

How long should I practice for?

The answer to this question is different for every person because we all have different schedules and commitments.

A student with lots of free time and no family or work commitments is going to have much more time to practice than a busy person with a job and family.

The short answer to this is practice as much as possible.

Lots of people say that they have no time to practice, but there are many opportunities throughout the day. For example, you could listen or read when you get up in the morning before you get up, on your way to work, when you are exercising, during your lunch break, on your way home from school, before you go to bed and many many others.

What you should remember is that it is much more effective to practice a little every day than to leave everything to the last week before your test.

Extra Resources

If you need more help with IELTS Reading and Listening, please click the links below for lots more information:



Just starting to learn about IELTS? My IELTS Preparation Guide is what you need.

Here’s also a video summarising the information above:

Originally published at on August 4, 2016.