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What are listening distractors in IELTS?

If you’ve taken IELTS Listening before you might know that the test writers include answer options that are tempting – they might be right! – but they’re not; they’re wrong. These incorrect answer options are called distractors and may be the difference between you getting a perfect score or a low score.

Test yourself

Let’s play a little game. I’m going to show you an IELTS Listening question and I want you to tell me which of these three answer options you think is the correct one. You won’t get to hear the audio – just take a guess.

Type of delivery chosen:

A. Plane

B. Train

C. Truck

Which one did you choose?

Well, this is a trick question because the answer is – you have no idea and you should never guess an answer because one ‘looks right’. In fact, you should never use your intuition when looking at any question because it is impossible to guess an answer by the way it looks.

And you should never use your own knowledge. Take a look at this question:

What nutrient does Dr Peterson recommend before running a marathon?

A. Fat

B. Protein

C. Carbohydrates

Even if you’re an Olympic marathon runner, you should never use your own background knowledge when answering a question in IELTS. You see, you may know which option is recommended in real life, but that may be completely different to the option recommended in the audio.

There are two ways that humans listen and understand something. The first way is that we piece together the sounds we hear into meaning. We hear the individual phonemes and consonant clusters – the sounds of the language – along with the words, phrases and sentences. This is called bottom-up processing.

And the second way we listen or understand is by applying our knowledge of the world to what is being said. We anticipate what the speaker is talking about and apply it to what we know about the world. This is called top-down processing.

It’s imperative in IELTS Listening that you avoid top-down processing. You should never apply your knowledge of the world to what you hear in the test. The only information you can use is the information given.

Now let’s look at some of the ways the IELTS test writers can mislead you into selecting an incorrect answer option. In other words, how they can distract you from choosing the correct answer.

IELTS Exam Distractor Types

Distractor Type 1: Similar Words

One of the ways that you might get an answer wrong is by mishearing a word because the correct word sounds very similar to an incorrect word.

Take a look at this question:

Complete the notes below.

Total estimated value: $1500

Country destination: ______

Speaker 1: And what do you think the total value is of the contents of the package?

Speaker 2: That’s a good question. Well, I suppose the guitar and lamp are worth about $1200 but with the books as well, I guess about $1500?

Speaker 1: Great… and where will you be sending the package to?

Speaker 2: To Austria.

Speaker 1: Okay, fantastic.

Imagine that you were listening to that – and not reading it. Did you hear Austria or Australia? These are two words – two countries – that sound similar.

Listen carefully!

Distractor Type 2: Already Mentioned Words

This type of distraction is the most common and it appears in almost every IELTS listening question type. This is where, for example, you’ll be doing a multiple choice question and you’re looking at the answer options and then all of a sudden the person in the audio mentions the answer option you’re looking at. That must be it you decide! Well… maybe not. Just because it is mentioned, doesn’t mean it is right. Take a look at this question:

Type of delivery chosen:

A. Plane

B. Train

C. Truck

Speaker 1: Okay, so you have three options for freight.

Speaker 2: Could you please explain that to me?

Speaker 1: Sure, so you can elect to have your goods sent by plane, which is the quickest and safest but also the most expensive. Or you can choose to have them sent by train, which is safe and less expensive. And finally, you can send your things by truck, which is less safe but much cheaper.

Speaker 2: Ah, yes, sending by truck can take far too long. I’m in a bit of a rush, so I’ll go for the fastest option, please…

So, here the speaker says: “Sending by truck can take far too long…”.

So is this the right answer? Well, no… because then he says: “I’ll go with the fastest option.”

And the fastest option is ‘plane’. So here we have an example of an answer option that is mentioned but is incorrect. This is a really common way to lose a point.

Distractor Type 3: Synonyms

So synonyms are words that have the same or almost the exact same meaning. For example, a simple one would be ‘big’ and ‘huge’ or ‘pretty’ and ‘beautiful’ or ‘intelligent’ and ‘smart’. Different words with the same meaning.

In the example above, the man chose to send his goods by plane. But he could have easily said ‘by air’, and written on the page is the word ‘plane’, so the meaning is the same but the words are different.

Let’s take a look at a trickier one:

Speaker: Hi everyone, my name is Tom and today I’m going to talk to you about meditation, which is a great way to decrease your stress and increase your psychological well-being.

Meditation improves your

A. mental health

B. attention

C. intelligence

Here, the answer is A because psychological well-being and mental health mean the same thing. They’re synonyms. It would be way too easy if the speaker said the same words as the answer option.

Sometimes, however, the speaker will use a word or a phrase that is exactly the same as the word or phrase in the answer options except this time the question itself will differ by using synonyms. Take a look at this prompt:

Learning to meditate demands a great deal of _____.

Speaker: In the beginning of your meditation practice, you need to maintain a high level of concentration because the mind will wander from one thought to the next.

So the answer here is the same word as the speaker said, except the synonymous language is in the question itself. Compare:

… demands a great deal of…

… maintain a high level of…

These types of questions are more common with short answer and sentence completion.

Distractor Type 4: Negatives

A negative is where you negate something or say that it isn’t, usually with the word NOT. If I held up an apple, then I could negate it by saying “This is NOT an orange.”

IELTS Listening often uses this style of distractor where you will be tempted to choose an answer because the word is said but there may be a hidden NOT somewhere.

For example:

If meditating for extended periods you should avoid sitting on the ____.

Speaker: The vast majority of people will have no problem sitting on the floor to meditate, but if you plan to meditate for more than a few minutes, then I recommend using a cushion so you can elevate your hips above your knees for greater comfort. Those who are injured or inflexible should use a chair to meditate.

Notice how the word “avoid” means the same thing as NOT. We could think of the question here as saying:

If meditating for extended periods you should NOT sit on the ____.

The answer is ‘floor’ because that is mentioned as being somewhere not to meditate for longer than a few minutes.

IELTS Listening rarely uses an explicit NOT; they don’t just say the word NOT this… that would be too obvious and easy. Instead they might use words like:

… avoid…


… never…

Or sometimes they’ll use prefixes which change a word into a negative form. Here are the negative prefixes in English with a few examples:


PositiveNegative with de-


PositiveNegative with dis-


PositiveNegative with in-


PositiveNegative with ill-


PositiveNegative with irr-


PositiveNegative with mis-


PositiveNegative with un-

Distractor Type 5: Inverse negative

Sometimes you’ll hear the word NOT or BUT, but it will actually be the answer. It’s usually framed in a sentence like this:

What two factors can make meditating difficult?

A. self-deception

B. (physical) discomfort

Speaker: So when you start out learning to meditate you might think ‘wow, this isn’t hard, my mind is completely silent!’ but of course, that’s your mind doing the talking. What I’m trying to say is, many people gradually realise how busy their minds are. And if you do practice enough you will be able to sit for a long time, but this comes with its own problems as well. You see, it’s not just self-deception that makes meditation hard but also the physical discomfort felt in the body.

The answer here is ‘self-deception’ and physical ‘discomfort’ or ‘discomfort’ but notice that these two answers came in a sentence that said:

“…it’s not just self-deception that makes meditation hard but also the physical discomfort felt in the body.”

Just keep an eye out for this one, or should I say an ear out. To practise, go to E2 Test Prep and sign up for free today.

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