FCE Listening Introduction
The Cambridge English: First listening test has 4 parts, 30 questions, and takes about 40 minutes. You normally do this after the Reading and Writing tests, so you might be quite tired before the listening test even begins. Every recording is played twice, but you will have to concentrate hard both times.
I'll start this section with some general tips and then discuss each section separately.
1. Before the Exam
- Make sure you know what to expect in each part of the exam.
- Listen to English! There are billions of free videos, presentations, radio shows, podcasts, etc, that you can listen to.
- Accents - you will hear some standard British and American accents in the exam, but you might also hear Australian, South African, Irish, Scottish... Try to listen to a variety of accents to give you a good chance of understanding everyone.
- Ages - the speakers will range from teenagers to the elderly - so again, make sure you're listening to a variety of types of people. Oh, and don't only listen to men, or only women.
- Practice listening and writing at the same time! Many of my students complain that they can't listen AND write. But they can - they just need to practice a few times.
- Learn from your mistakes. If you take some practice tests don't just say 'I got 23 out of 40'. Focus on the ones you got wrong and try to work out WHY you got them wrong. Read the transcripts. Listen again and again until you understand why the answer is the answer and why your answer is the wrong answer. Investing 20 minutes in this activity will have a huge impact!
2. In the Exam
Time management is a way to give yourself an advantage over rival students. I know it's not a competition, but it TOTALLY IS A COMPETITION. Some students who take the exam don't do ANY preparation, if you can believe it. So at the start of every section Cambridge have to tell everybody what to do. So while the other students are listening to that explanation, you can start reading the questions in the next section already.
Don't get cocky - you might be 100% sure that your answer is right and think you don't have to listen when the tape is played the second time. All I have to say about that is that Napoleon was 100% sure it was a good idea to invade Russia in winter. My students are taught to listen twice and check for possible mistakes.
Use whatever time you have to read the questions, underline keywords, and PREDICT possible answers. Guessing the answer before you listen is really helpful - just bear in mind that the answer you chose might be a distractor (see the next section).
3. Distractors, Linkers, and Other Cambridge Favourites
Imagine a listening test where you hear a voice saying 'I have an apple, a banana, and a carrot in my backpack' and your job is to answer the following question:
What does the speaker have in his backpack?
a] sloth, cushion, basket
b] apple, banana, carrot
c] egg, bacon, lettuce
It's quite easy, right? Well I've got some bad news for you. Cambridge will never, ever, give you a question this easy.
Instead, they will mention ALL of the answers.
This morning I ate a bacon and lettuce sandwich with some sliced egg, and then I went to my job at the zoo where it's my job to make sure the sloths have enough cushions and baskets. I'm on my way to the monkey cages now so I've got a few apples and carrots for them. Oh, and a banana, as you can see poking out of my rucksack.
See that ALL the phrases in a, b, and c were mentioned? Let's look at them more closely:
a] It's the speaker's JOB to give cushions and baskets to the sloths. The question is 'what does he have in his backpack?' Meaning right now, and he doesn't say that he has a cushion in his backpack. And he wouldn't carry sloths around in a backpack - he knows sloths prefer to be carried in buckets.
Remember, he didn't SAY that he had those things in his backpack and you can't ASSUME that he does.
b] He mentions that he has some apples and carrot for the monkeys, and that a banana is sticking out of his rucksack, which is a synonym for backpack. So this is clearly the right answer. Let's just check c before we write anything down.
c] He had egg, bacon, and lettuce for breakfast - it's not in his backpack.
So that's a basic introduction to DISTRACTORS. What about LINKERS?
Linkers are another way Cambridge try to distract you. Here I'm thinking of phrases like 'whereas', 'although', 'however' - all those phrases your English teacher tries to get you to use!
What sandwich did the man have for lunch?
a} bacon and lettuce
I normally eat bacon and lettuce sandwiches when I'm working at the zoo. However, today I had a cheese one.
Get it? The answer is b, but many students will stop listening after hearing 'bacon and lettuce'.
FCE Listening Part 1
The first part of the exam is quite easy, as long as you pay attention and don't get fooled by the distractors. You hear 8 texts (monologues or dialogues) and there's no connection between them. Each question is worth one point.
This part of the listening exam tests if you can understand what the speaker's purpose or opinion is. For example, is the man happy, sad, or disappointed? Does the customer want to complain or to give a compliment?
It's also sometimes about understanding the gist of a speech or picking up on details.
Let's look at an official Cambridge exam question:
And what you would hear in the exam:
If you haven't done it already, take a minute to read through the question and answer and decide if you'd pick A, B, or C.
So this question is all about purpose. Why is the guy calling?
A - to confirm some arrangements. Nope - this call is all about making some new arrangements. 'I wondered if you wanted...' uses the past tense to talk about the future. It's a polite construction. But if you weren't sure it was about the future, there are more clues that it's a new invitation. 'Don't feel like you have to come' isn't something I'd normally say to someone who had already accepted an invitation. And 'let me know one way or another' is definitely about a new invitation.
B - to issue an invitation. Yep, this seems to fit. To issue here means 'to give'.
C - to persuade someone to do something. I can imagine some students choosing this one because it seems like the guy is saying 'please come to my party!' But he isn't. How do we know? The sentence 'don't feel you have to come'.
As you can see from this quick example - you have to be able to analyse what you hear - but you also need to know vocabulary such as the difference between confirm and issue, and certainly you'll need to know words like persuade.
The following article contains some key words you should learn:
FCE Listening Part 2
This is a task called sentence completion. On your answer paper is a text with ten gaps. You listen to a monologue for about 3 minutes and you have to put the missing words (or numbers) into the text. It looks like this:
You get a little time (45 seconds) to read through the text before the recording starts to play. The phrase will never be more than 3 words long.
Right, let's take 5 seconds to guess some words that might fit the gap: mother / history / smell / nose / fluffiness.
(The last word is pretty unlikely to be the answer - the answers are all at FCE level.)
Here's the transcript:
So what do you think the answer is?
The important bit is at the end. 'Some people find it appealing because of its size and shape... but for me it was such a great name!' There's our answer right there. Name. That wasn't one of my guesses but that's okay. We don't guess to get the answer - we guess because it HELPS us get the answer.
The answer to the next question comes right after the answer to the first question, so you can't waste time admiring your skills.
Quick predictions - arms / legs / ass - any part of the body really. Just don't write 'eyes' or 'cheeks'. Listen:
It's easy when it's written down, isn't it? But it's a listening exam, not a reading exam...
That's why the best way to practice this part of the exam is to do listening activities similar to the one in First Certificate.
I recommend Ready for First, the best FCE coursebook - it is great preparation for all parts of the exam - but if you don't have 30 euros lying around you could ask a friend to take a short recording with a transcript and remove a few words.
Or if you're taking an English class ask your teacher to prepare some.
You can find good presentations to use, with transcripts, on TED.com. Watch this video in which I explain what I'm talking about.
If you make a good listening test that you think other students might enjoy, please write and let me know! I'd love to get some examples for my readers.
More Tips for Part 2
- Never write more than 3 words.
- If the answer is a number, you can write the number. 300 (or you can write three hundred), 1918, etc.
- Be careful to read the whole sentence to make sure your answer fits grammatically. For example, if I wrote 'name that interested her' as my answer to the bear question, I wouldn't get a point. It says 'interested' later in the sentence. See?
- The second question always comes after the first question. There is normally one 'paragraph' for each question - if you look at some transcripts from past papers you'll see what I mean. The first question is answered in the first paragraph - on the recording the speaker leaves a slight pause - then the next question is answered in the next section.
- The sentences on your paper are different from what you hear on the recording. But the words you write should be exactly the same as what you hear.
- Spelling isn't super-important in this part of the exam, though if you spell something really incorrectly you could miss a point. Basically if it's clear that you heard and understood the word, you should get a point. The only way to be REALLY sure of getting a point is to spell it properly!