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The IELTS listening test has a very specific format. There are four sections, and you need to listen to:
- Two people having a conversation on an everyday topic
- A short monologue* on an everyday topic
- Two or more people discussing an academic topic
- A longer monologue on a more complex topic (such as a lecture)
*A monologue is a single person speaking for an extended period.
Podcasts can help you with each of these listening tasks. After all, you can find podcasts with two or more hosts. You can find podcasts with a single host talking about everyday issues. You can find podcasts with a single host discussing more complex issues, delivered in a similar way to a lecture. All your bases are covered!
Podcasts can also help you with the speaking section of the IELTS test. In particular, podcasts can help you prepare for part 2 of the speaking section, where you are given a topic to talk about for one to two minutes.
By listening to podcasts on a range of topics, you can build up the language and ideas that you need to deliver your own short monologue.
How to choose a podcast for IELTS preparation
Before we look at a list of recommended podcasts, let’s look at how to choose a good podcast. What characteristics should we think about?
Does the accent matter?
The most common accent that you will hear in the IELTS test is UK English, and monologues are always delivered in UK English.
However, you might also hear other accents in the IELTS tests. There could be American or Canadian speakers of English, Australian speakers of English or South African speakers of English.
You should also note that there is not just one British accent, but many regional British accents. A person from Scotland sounds very different from someone from London.
Hence, you should try to find podcasts presented by Brits wherever possible, and you should try to listen to podcasts from all over the UK.
There is one more thing to note about accent - in the speaking test of IELTS, you do not need to speak in a British accent yourself. Any accent is fine as long as your speech is clear and accurate.
But, remember that you should not mix pronunciation.
If you choose to speak with British pronunciation, you shouldn’t mix this with American pronunciation.
Should you choose a podcast with one or two speakers?
Some podcasts feature a single host and some feature two or more. Which one is better for your IELTS preparation?
The answer is both!
Remember, some sections require you to listen to a monologue and others feature two or more speakers. You will want to practise both kinds of listening!
What type of podcast is best?
You can find podcasts on any topic under the sun - sports, news, politics, fashion and much more.
But rather than only listen to podcasts about sports, for example, I recommend that you find podcasts on as wide a range of topics as possible.
Podcasts such as English Learning for Curious Minds or This American Life are great because they feature different topics each week.
I recommend that you look for podcasts on subjects that match the common IELTS speaking topics. These are:
- The environment
If you struggle with listening, look for podcasts aimed at English learners. The hosts on these podcasts should speak a little slower than normal.
English Learning for Curious Minds is a great option, once again, because the speech that you will hear is just a little bit slower than usual. It also has a very wide range of genres, so you can be sure that it’ll not only be interesting, but it will be helpful for your IELTS preparation.
Remember also, that most podcast players will allow you to adjust the speed of the podcast. Here’s how it looks in Google Podcasts.
You can also find podcasts that are specifically about preparing for the IELTS test, such as All Ears English's "IELTS Energy" podcast. These are great, because you can kill two birds with one stone - you can practise listening and pick up tips for the test.
How to practise IELTS listening with podcasts
First of all, the IELTS listening test is around 30 minutes in length, so you will want to practise listening for at least 30 minutes at a time. If you only practise for 5 minutes at a time, you may find it difficult to concentrate for the 30 minutes of listening during the actual test.
In the IELTS listening test, you will only be able to listen once.
Generally, I recommend listening two or more times to an audio clip or video, for general listening practice. However, as your test date gets closer, you will want to practise listening only once and understanding as much as possible.
When you do listening activities as part of an English class, your teacher gives you questions to answer. These questions help focus your mind and even help you to understand the content that you hear. As you look through the questions, you get some idea of how the listening will be organised and what you will hear.
When you listen by yourself, you don’t have any questions to answer. But, wait… you CAN write your own questions and answer them.
Based on the title of the podcast and any description of the episode that you can find, try to write around three or four questions to answer. After listening, you can use the transcript to help check your answers.
Writing out your own questions can help you practise listening for the main ideas, but the IELTS test also has questions on the details that you hear. Prepare for this by always taking notes when you listen, especially on numbers, prices, dates and other factual information.
Finally, remember to vary your practice. Listen to as many different podcasts as you can to get the most benefit.
Note: here's our extended guide on 10 Activities to Improve Your English Listening.
A strategy for practising IELTS speaking with podcasts
We want to use podcasts to prepare specifically for the second part of the IELTS speaking test. In this part, you will be given a card with a topic to speak about. You will have one minute to prepare (you can write notes) and you will need to speak for one to two minutes.
Here is an example topic:
Describe a famous person who you admire.
You should talk about:
- Their personality
- How they became famous
- Their impact on the world
Explain why you admire them.
There are many possible topics, but they are always in this format.
Podcasts can help you broaden your knowledge of the world and, more importantly, help you practise the language to communicate that knowledge.
Let’s imagine that you listen to a podcast about Donald Trump. You can turn this topic into an IELTS question and practise answering it!
I recommend the following process:
- After listening, imagine what sort of IELTS theme could be applied to the topic. If you admire Donald Trump, you could use our example above. If you dislike Donald Trump, you could change the topic to “Describe a famous person who you dislike.”
- Think of three supporting questions, and a general question to finish with.
- Record your answer. Try to use language from the podcast.
- Check your recording to see whether it was 1-2 minutes in length.
Regular practice with this technique will have you giving two-minute speeches like a pro!
The Best Podcasts for IELTS Preparation
Here are some great podcasts that you can use to practise the techniques that we have talked about.
The TED Radio Hour
If you have ever watched TED Talks on TED.com, you know that they are always interesting and of great quality.
National Public Radio of the United States has turned TED talks into podcasts. Each week, their host explores various ideas presented in a TED talk.
You will need a fairly advanced level of English to get a full understanding, but you are guaranteed to pick up a lot of useful vocabulary.
Transcript available: no
Length: around 50 minutes
Subscription needed: no
English Learning for Curious Minds
If TED is still a little too difficult, you could try Leonardo English’s own podcast: English Learning for Curious Minds.
Each episode is shorter than TED Radio Hour and the English is slowed down just a little bit for English learners.
The podcast covers a wide range of topics and there are over 300 episodes available. The English used by the host is standard British English.
Transcript available: yes (and it also provides pdf downloads with a vocabulary list)
Length: 20-30 minutes
Subscription needed: You can listen to many episodes for free, but you will need to become a member to access all of the transcripts and learning materials.
The All Ears Podcast
The All Ears English Podcast is presented by two female hosts.
They have three categories of podcast: English fluency, IELTS practice and Business English. Example topics for each are Why Native Conversations Aren’t Linear, Uncountable Nouns and Tips for Confident Business Emails.
I recommend listening to the podcasts on IELTS practice ("IELTS Energy"), so that you can try the “kill two birds with one stone” strategy that I discussed.
Transcript available: yes (with membership)
Length: 17-18 minutes
Subscription needed: You can listen to many episodes for free, but you will need to buy a subscription to access the transcripts
SEND7 is a simplified news service, offered as a podcast.
Its premise is simple. Every day, it offers a seven-minute news podcast in simplified form for English learners.
Although SEND7 is “simplified”, the vocabulary is reasonably advanced and the host, Stephen, speaks medium-to-fast British English.
Nevertheless, if you are a news junkie, like me, you may really enjoy this service. And the more you listen to the news, the more you will be up to date with ‘news vocabulary’, which can be very helpful for IELTS preparation.
The podcast itself is free; but there is a paid membership.
Transcript available: yes, with membership
Length: 7 minutes
Subscription needed: Not for listening
This American Life
This American Life is one of the most popular podcasts in the world and is presented by NPR, like the TED Radio Hour.
Each episode looks at interesting stories that take place in America, such as a man that accidentally becomes a millionaire through his abandoned website.
There are multiple hosts and they often interview people.
The best thing about this podcast is that it’s so interesting that you’ll forget you’re studying. You may even become a lifelong listener!
Transcript available: yes
Length: around one hour
Subscription needed: no
6 Minute English
6 Minute English is designed specifically for English learners at intermediate level.
It’s produced by the BBC and presented in British English, usually by two hosts.
The best thing about this podcast is that, not only does it have a transcript, but it also has a vocabulary list and questions for you to answer.
Transcript available: yes
Length: 6 minutes
Subscription needed: no
Thinking in English
Thinking in English is hosted by a British guy called Tom. He’s an English teacher and researcher, and his podcasts are always very well researched and structured.
He covers a range of topics, with the objective of getting you to “think in English”.
He also hosts a conversation club, so you can practise putting your speaking skills into practice.
Transcript available: yes
Length: 20 minutes
Subscription needed: Yes for the conversation club, no for the podcasts
Various Topical Podcasts
In recent years, Google has made it super easy to find and play podcasts directly from the Google search page.
For example, you can search for SPORTS PODCAST and this is the result:
Then, simply click one and start listening.
I recommend that you go through a list of common IELTS themes (fashion, college life, money, and so on) and listen to a podcast on each one.
Make great use of your time by using podcasts as a study tool
If you have time, you can use podcasts for a full IELTS study routine by writing down useful language and making recordings of yourself.
But podcasts are also great for just listening on the go - in the car, on the bus, at the gym or at your desk at work.
Listening to podcasts is simply a great use of your time.
Not only can they help you improve your English and learn more about the world, but they might also help you get a great score on your IELTS listening and speaking.
Give them a try and you might discover why they are the smart English learner’s “secret weapon”.
Note: If you're serious about using podcasts for self-study, here our guide on How to Use Podcast Like A Boss.