A cartoon image of a man stands under three arrows pointing at the letters A, B and C to represent how students choose answers for IELTS Multiple Choice Questions

IELTS test-takers often find that Multiple Choice Questions (or MCQ’s for short)¬†are the most difficult to answer in the Listening Exam. This is perhaps not surprising as there is a lot for your brain to process while answering them. Unlike the other types of question that require you listen for ONE answer, MCQ’s require you to assess the viability of THREE possible correct answers – all while trying to follow the audio-script and not get lost!


ūüď謆Multiple Choice Questions Facts¬†ūüďč

  • Multiple choice questions offer three possible answers – only one is correct
  • The possible answers A, B and C will NOT ALWAYS be discussed in this order (you may here a discussion about C before you here a discussion about A)
  • All three possible answers will be discussed in the audio script so you CANNOT find the answer by simply listening for keywords – you should focus on the meaning of the dialougue.
  • Multiple choice questions test a student’s ability to identify and understand DETAIL

ūüĎȬ†So, in today’s blog, I want to show you FIVE WAYS to prepare for MCQ’s.¬†ūüĎą

Now, let me make it clear, ¬†these are NOT exam techniques (although some of them might be useful in the exam), but rather methods that I use with my students in class to help them deal with MCQ’s more effectively. Too many students think that by repeating exam practice again and again their scores will magically improve – that is NOT the case!¬†ūüí•

A more effective method ¬†is to pin-point exactly WHY you find Multiple Choice Questions difficult, and then do targeted practice to improve this missing skill. That’s what these techniques are designed to do. So, with that said, let’s get into them!


1. Just listen

You might not know that my day job is actually creating English exams for universities (Yes, I work for the dark side, writing the exams¬†that cause you pain ūüėą!!!!). When we write MCQ’s, we call the false answers DISTRACTORS. That’s because the wrong answers are supposed to catch the attention of the test-taker and look like plausible answers. Or, very simply, they are designed to¬†distract students¬†from finding the correct answer.

However, for some students, the distractors work TOO WELL!¬†These students are so distracted and confused by the possible answers that they can’t focus on the actually listening task properly. In other words, they get the answers wrong not because they can’t understand the listening text, but because the words on the paper confuse them.

Therefore, if you are having problems with MCQ’s, we have to understand if it is because

  1. you can’t understand the audio-script – which means¬†need to work on your language skills (you will never be able to find the right answer if you can’t understand what people are saying!) OR
  2. you are confused by the distractors Рwhich means that you need to improve your MCQ technique 

The way to do this is to close your book and simply LISTEN to the conversation/monologue. Can you understand what the people are saying without the distraction of all of the MCQ’s? Yes? Great! You need to learn how to answer these questions better. No? Thats also OK too – but you need to go away and work on your vocabulary, grammar and general listening skills.


2. Listen and make notes

Multiple Choice Questions are designed to check your understanding of DETAIL. Many students think that they can understand the CD when in fact all they can understand is the general idea of the script (or the gist), and not the details. And remember, it is the¬†smaller pieces of¬†information which are needed to answer MCQ’s¬†correctly – miss them, and you probably won’t be to find the correct answer.

So, how can you check if you understand all of the details, or just the main idea? Close your book, play the CD, and make notes of what you think are the important details while you listen. Then, check your notes with the audio-script at the back of the Cambridge book:

  • Did you make notes of everything important? If not, what did you miss?¬†Were the bits you missed important details needed to find the answers?
  • Can you answer any of the MCQ’s just using your notes? If not, what information was missing?¬†If so, what words came before the missing words that signalled it was important?¬†IELTS exams have signalling words that show you should pay attention to a particular part of a text ‚Äď learn to recognise them.

You might find it interesting to know that when I do the Cambridge exams for the first time, I always make notes during the MCQ parts. That’s because I find the distractors can confuse me (I learned this from trying technique 1!), and so I prefer to write down what I hear and THEN answer the questions. This technique is not for everyone, but if you can understand the audio and make good notes, it might be for you.


3. Listen and THEN READ

If you that found 1 and 2 difficult, then you might not necessarily have problems with grammar and vocabulary. Instead, it might be that your visual vocabulary is better than your audio vocabulary.¬†That’s right! A lot of students learn English primarily through reading. That means that they while they can recognise many words from the shape of their letters, they are not able to identify the SAME words through their sounds.

The way to solve this problem is to listen to a couple of¬†exams while reading the tape-script. This may help you to match the SOUND of words with the LOOK of words. Seriously, this may sound too simple to help, but activity can be a revelation for some students.¬†¬†ūüé߬†ūüĎÄ

Also, when you are listening and reading, you can focus on INTONATION of the speakers when they give the answers (these are always underlined in the audio-script). You should find that many answers are clearly stressed by the speakers. If you learn to recognise word stress and intonation, this can help not just for MCQ’s, but¬†throughout the whole listening exam.

I sometimes play a game with my students in class. I play a part of the test and they have to write down what they think possible answers to questions could be JUST FROM THE WAY THE SPEAKER STRESSES THE WORDS. That’s right – they don’t have any questions, but they still listen to find the “answers” by listening for intonation. ¬†If you are a teacher, this is a really fun classroom activity, and you will be surprised how many right “answers” the students can find just from sentence stress alone.


4. Simplify the Questions

Remember, the two extra incorrect answers in MCQ’s are created to confuse you. If you are one of the students who can understand the tape, but can’t find the correct answer, then you have to learn how to SIMPLIFY the questions. To do this, you can ask yourself these¬†questions:

  • What particular piece of information am I being asked to find?
  • How are the three possible answers different?
  • What key words will help me identify the answer?

You might think that these questions are just adding to the amount of information you have to process, but with practice, you will be able to ask and answer them in seconds. For example, in Cambridge 13 Test 2, there is this multiple choice question:

When doing his experiment, Jim was surprised by
A      how much natural material was needed to make the dye
B      the fact that dyes were available on the Internet
C      the time that he had toleave the fabric in the dye

Now, this is A LOT of information to process in only a short time while you are listening, but you could simplify it very easily using our three questions:

  • What piece of information am I being asked to find? What surprised Jim.
  • How are the three MCQ options different? A = quantity B = availability¬†C = time
  • What key words will help me identify the answer? Let’s underline them:

When doing his experiment, Jim was surprised by
A      how much natural material was needed to make the dye
B      the fact that dyes were available on the Internet
C      the time that he had to leave the fabric in the dye

When you start practicing, it might take you a long time to analyse the questions, but the more you do, the quicker it should become. I find that Question 2 is the most useful – once you know how each of the possible answers differ, you are often able to identify the correct information in the script.¬†At the very least, you should attempt to underline the key words in each of the MCQ options –¬†this will help you a lot once the CD starts.


5. Cross out the WRONG ANSWERS

Many years ago, when I was teaching at an Australian university, I was lucky enough to be sent to attend an exam creation workshop run by Claire Macdowell, who is the author of the Cambridge book New Insight Into IELTS, and who wrote/has written real IELTS exams for many years.

During one seminar, we discussed the difficulty of creating high-quality listening MCQ’s (it is hard to write good distractors that attract weak students but are easily discarded by high level ones), and she told me that, in general, the three possible IELTS “answers” can be categorised like this:

  1. the correct answer
  2. an answer that is discussed in great detail in the text, but a piece of information is FALSE
  3. an answer that is not really discussed, but contains key words that ARE mentioned in the script (or what I call in my class the “word salad” answer – a lot of words that could relevant but if you understand the conversation, you quickly know are rubbish!)

Therefore, locating the answers to IELTS MCQ’s is often less about finding the right answer, and more about finding the WORNG answers!¬†You know that one “answer” will be discussed at length but be factually WRONG. And yo know that one “answer” will match some key words but NOT have the correct meaning. So you should listen for these wrong answers and cross them off as you hear them. In fact,¬†you should always focus as much on eliminating the answers that are NOT correct as listening for the one that is!

Next time you are training for MCQ’s, why don’t you play this game – instead of listening for the CORRECT answer, listen for WRONG answers!

In fact, there are many questions in the Cambridge book that I have answered using this process of elimination that I would NEVER have got correct if I had been listening only for the “answer”. As I had eliminated two options, I knew that the one left had to be correct (even though I didn’t know¬†which¬†part of the text told me why!)


OK, this was a long post, but I hoped you found it useful and now have some more ideas about how to tackle IELTS multiple choice questions. I also hope that you have begun to see that training for IELTS does NOT mean doing endless practice tests, but isolating and training your weak skills.

And, if you find writing difficult – GOOD NEWS. I have isolated and created training exercises for every possible problem you might encounter! You can find all of my writing (and grammar) courses at www.myieltsclassroom.com, or just click¬†here¬†ūüöÄ

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