Hey dear anglophile, how is it going? In this post I’m going to suggest some strategies to get the highest possible score in the Listening section of the FCE exam, otherwise known as Cambridge English: First or also First Certificate in English.
As you can see, Cambridge English exams have more names than Lord of The Rings’ Aragorn. 💍😂
In short, FCE is the world’s most famous B2 level test, which is – if you’re not familiar with CEFR – an upper intermediate level. It’s when you can start confidently saying: “I speak English”.
But well, if you would use a broader view of the FCE exam, here you are ⬇️
The post you’re reading now, instead, elaborates further on the Listening task.
I do offer private tutoring as part of my services: should you need it, you’re welcome to contact me. 👨🏫 However, by reading the entirety of this post, you are going to have a huge guidance to face the FCE Listening and get the maximum score.
Let’s be honest: FCE is no piece of cake. Achievable, of course, but the failing rate is there to prove that one shouldn’t feel too confident either.
The Listening is a somewhat nasty part.
Why? Because in the rest of the test – apart from the Speaking – you’re given the chance to read, re-read and reflect over written words.
In the Listening, oh boy, there’s no way of stopping the speaker or to ask for further clarifications: you have to understand as much as possible on the go. You have no second chance. 😒
Nevertheless, don’t despair. There are different strategies to make it simpler and win this section big.
WARNING: THIS GUIDE IS NOT FOR THE CHICKEN-HEARTED
This post is more than 5K-word long.
Invest 15 minutes of your time in reading this carefully now; later, feel free to enjoy Instagram’s infinite scroll for as long as you like, would you?
Without further ado, let’s dig into the matter.
FCE Exam: How is the Listening structured
As you can see in the exhaustive guide linked above, Listening comes third:
- Reading and Use of English (1 hr 15 mins)
- Writing (1 hr 20 mins)
- Listening (40 mins)
- Speaking (14 mins)
These are the four parts the Listening is made of:
- Part 1 (8 questions): multiple choice questions
- Part 2 (10 questions): sentence completion exercises
- Part 3 (5 questions): multiple matching track-text
- Part 4 (7 questions): multiple choice again ✅
A few key info:
- You have instructions both written and spoken.
- All audio track is played twice.
- You are going to have pauses to read the assignments, between one assignment and the next and, eventually, to pass the answer to the answer sheet.
It’s actually easier done than read, but at least you have an idea of what to expect.
Let’s dig into each part now.
👂 Part 1
You have 8 questions here. For each of them you first hear a recording, lasting 30 seconds or so, then you hear it again a second time.
I’m going to show you Part 1 (then 2, 3 and 4) through examples I took from a Cambridge English’s sample paper. You can download the whole of it at that link.
Have a look at the fragment of Part 1:
So, this is its audio transcript (the fancy font colours are my own, for educational reasons):
Oh hi, it’s me, John. Sorry to miss you, you must have already left for work. Look, I wondered if you wanted to come away for the weekend. That will be about ten of us, including someone called Sam Brand, who says he was in college with you, and he remembers that you were brilliant in rock and roll. They’ve decided it’ll be on October the 9th, Friday night till Sunday.
Anyway, I’ll put the detail in the post. I know you are busy at the moment, so don’t feel you have to come but… just let me know one way or the other when you can. Talk to you soon, bye.
Which is the correct answer? Let’s see:
# A says: to confirm some arrangements. There should be some previous arrangement hinted, in order to confirm one here. Hmmm, it doesn’t seem the right one.
Look at the sentence in indigo: that introduces a new, previously unstated option. You can’t confirm something the other interlocutor is unaware of.
# B is: to issue an invitation. Quite likely, isn’t it? John is inviting the person to join him and a group of other nine to spend a weekend off. You have plenty of clues, in the sentence in indigo and the following.
# C: to persuade someone to do something. There’s not much of persuasion here: John simply extends an invitation, rather than push to obtain a desired outcome. Read the sentences in orange: John is rather sympathetic with the person he’s leaving a message to. Nah, it can’t be C.
Therefore, the correct answer is B.
This was a rather easy one, don’t you concur? It is, but you have to consider that:
- It’s easy if you’re at a B2 level at least. If not, the meaning of to confirm, to issue and to persuade might blur. 😵
- In an exam, due to stress, we are all 50% more stupid than we normally are.
So well, you get other seven questions and recordings like these, before to hear the balmy voice proclaiming: “This is the end of Part 1”, to proceed to Part 2.
A word of advise (maybe more):
#1 Speed-read questions and options before the start of the recording.
It gives you context and will help you in identifying faster the answer when hearing it.
If you read fairly slow, it’s perhaps time to open up to a whole new discipline: that of speed reading.
There are plenty of books teaching you the nuts and bolts, but… frankly? They more or less all have a good 30% which is useful and a fair 70% made of pseudo-science.
Still, there are some principles you can extract and use from them. The one I liked more in recent times is this:
Speed Reading for Dummies by Richard Sutz and Peter Weverka: the theme is indeed dumbed down here. If only they had chosen a hare rather than a rabbit in the cover, to symbolize speed, it’d have been even better 😹
Why do I recommend this book?
Because a FCE Listening task is a race against time. If you manage to read the whole text before the recording starts, you’re more likely to win.
Reading fluency is a long, broad topic that would require a huge blog post on its own. Be only aware that by mastering a few techniques you can substantially improve your learning and life, beyond the scope of the FCE exam.
#2 Query your mental synonym database
While reading prior to the recording, try to come up with synonyms of the words in front of you, equivalent expressions of the sentences there.
You hear a man talking on the radio about stray dogs.
Think dog: animal, canine, quadruped, pet, companion… 🐕
Think stray: lost, away, homeless, feral…
It’s a great tool to laser-focus on the right answer.
#3 Be as attentive as possible while you listen to the audio track the first time.
Mark the possible answer, or cross out which of the three answer is certainly not correct. Use the second time to confirm or correct your first-time guess.
Don’t leave the whole cognitive effort at the end of the second hearing. 🙇♀️ This is an excellent tool to practice this amazingly precious skill:
Listening B2+ Upper Intermediate, by Ian Badger: A priceless book to train this ability.
#4 Keep it going.
If you haven’t the faintest idea of which is the correct answer, just put something down!
You may think you can come back to it later to think it through and make a more accurate assumption – but you can’t! After a couple of minutes you’ll have most likely forgotten 90% of what the speaker said in that piece of audio.
That leads me to point #5.
#5 Not the end of the world if you don’t know one answer.
Panic is an easy reaction when going through the FCE Listening.
You miss a meaningful part of someone’s speech –> you don’t know what to answer –> you’re still befuddled when the new fragment starts –> you don’t pay attention to the new fragment –> you neither know what to answer here –> the darn panic kicks in. 😨
One, two or three mistakes aren’t the end of the world. You didn’t get that fragment? It doesn’t matter: you have the rest of the Listening to outperform. Focus on the fragment at hand (well, ear).
#6 Don’t leave questions unanswered.
Mistakes do not penalize: you get 0 points either if you leave it blank or if you choose a wrong answer. So, if you write something down, at least you have a chance. ✍
👂 Part 2
You have 10 questions here. Actually, more than questions, these are blank spaces to fill appropriately with what you actually hear.
It’s good to remark that, thanks goodness, all questions follow the orders of the recordings: so, you’re not going to listen the last fifteen seconds at the piece of speech needed for question 10. 😌
Look at this initial fragment of Part 2:
You’re given 45 seconds to read the whole text, from question 9 to question 18 (an A4 page with good line spacing).
Here you are its audio transcript (no fancy colour-coding here, let’s start sweating a bit):
Thanks for inviting me tonight. As you know my main interest is in conservation and I’m lucky enough to work with lots of different organizations looking after animals both in captivity and in the wild.
I’d been fascinated by all kinds of bears for a long time before I started working in this field. But it was the spectacled bear that really attracted me.
Some people find it appealing before of its size and shape, and it’s less well known than other types of bear, but for me I thought it was such a great name! It comes from the patches of yellowish fur around the bear’s eyes which grow in a sort of circle shape like glasses, although these gold markings vary greatly from one bear to another and may not be limited to the eyes, they can extend as far as the bear’s cheeks or even chest.
So, what do you think is the word or short phrase to put here?
The clue is in the sentence: …for me I thought it was such a great name! Angela was first impacted by its name, rather than by his size, shape, colour, diet or anything else. So the answer is: great name.
So well, the audio goes on until Question 18, at which point you first hear the mellow voice announcing: “Now you will hear Part 2 again!“. And after another hearing, the delicate “That is the end of Part 2”.
On average, twenty two minutes have now passed since the beginning of the FCE Listening. ⏰
A word of advise, on top of that given in Part 1 which are still valid here:
#1 Upgrade your personal RAM memory.
Part 2 is more difficult than 1 because here you have to prove better listening abilities and working memory. The border between the speech talking about a specific question and the next is befogged.
The recording is four minutes long or so: if in life you have issues focusing, here you may notice it. 🔬
#2 Fill the blanks before to hear it.
If you manage to read the whole text before the recording is played, that is a great plus. Reading and filling the blanks with the clues you get merely from the text guide your attention when later you hear the audio: thus, you recognize answers better and faster.
It is an immense help because most of the times you have an idea right away if you’re after an adjective, a noun, a number, some dude’s name, etc.
#3 Exam training starts long before you decide to take the exam.
This is what I reply to students telling me: Wow, this is so difficult!
If you think that, up to this point, you’ve studied well, these are the remedial lessons you’re in need of:
Real Listening and Speaking 3 – Cambridge English Skills series, by Miles Craven: the author is a great guy and even better English teacher.
The book provides plenty of appropriate materials for both real life and exam situations. The number 3 means it is about B2, the level required for FCE.
#4 Do not paraphrase.
If Angela says “great name”, don’t write “its beautiful nomenclature” or stuff like that: write what you hear.
👂 Part 3
Allow me to introduce you to Part 3:
It’s a bit thrown together, sorry about that, but otherwise it’d been difficult to graphically transpose it here.
So, here’s how it works. You listen to five 30-second monologues (Speaker 1 to 5) and you have to associate each of this with the correspondent option on the left (A to H). ▶️
To be successful in Part 3 you have to be able to get the big picture of what is told, details, feelings, etc. As usual, it is not difficult – as long as your upper intermediate level is real.
The gentle lady will utter the rubric: “You will hear five short extracts…” adding in the end that you have thirty seconds to look at Part 3.
Please find here the transcript of the Speaker 1’s recording:
We spent a day exploring the shops and markets in the city and bought some souvenirs. Then, we wanted to see some of the area outside the city and discovered it was easy to get to loads of places by train, including the mountains, where we were told there were great hostels.
You can do bushwalks out there, and apparently the scenery is stunning. But it can be dangerous: we were warned to have the right gear and tell other people where we were going, so we decided to give it a miss.
Anyway, we weren’t short of things to do in the city, we were spoilt for choice!
Which answer is correct here?
As you may expect, there are distractors: some candidates would mark B, C or H but the right answer is G, the range of leisure opportunities. Why? Because it is what the speaker states the most, explicitly (in the last paragraph) and more subtly (in the first paragraph).
Three little tips:
#1 The importance of building your ladder to fluency, step by step.
Let’s consider the example above. At an A2, you’re fine with: we have many things to do. At a B2? Not any more. We weren’t short of things to do and we were spoilt for choice are odd sentences if you have never heard them and yet they mean the same thing.
A part of your learning should always be broadening your range of vocabulary and expressions. 📖
This is an excellent tool to get there:
English Collocations in Use – Intermediate, by Michael McCarthy and Felicity O’Dell: excellent, as I said.
#2 Seek the right idea, not the same word.
Single words – or sentences – may mislead you. Focus on rather finding the right concept.
#3 Use the second hearing wisely.
You are going to hear Speaker 1 to 5 in one go and then them all again. Take advantage of it.
Let’s take the example above again: if after the first hearing you’re doubtful between sentence B and G, just write with a pencil next to both of them “1?” to remind you later that you thought it could be one of these two options.
Each letter is used only once, so by the end of the first hearing you may have used already one of such letters for another speaker because it’s clearly the right answer.
👂 Part 4
Part 4 is constituted by a three-to-four minute dialogue: seven multiple-choice questions are given to you, following the flow of the recording – which is an excellent thing.
You’re given one minute to look at Part 4. ⏰
Please find the audio script relevant to this part:
I: This evening, in our series “Career in a difference”, our guest is Rachel Reed, who works for a small commercial art gallery. Rachel, welcome.
I: Rachel, what exactly do you do?
R: Well, there’s two great things about working for a really small company. Firstly, you get to do a bit of everything, the other is that you can practically invent your job title. Mine is “Marketing Manager”, although I do a lot of other things too, it does describe the majority of what I do. (…)
Hmmmm what’s the right answer here?
Well, A is definitely wrong; B gets closer but not as much as C. Rachel’s job title is appropriate for most of the work she does: it’s correct because she tells the interviewer that although she does a lot of other things too, her job title describes the majority of what she does.
Two words of advise:
#1 Get a gist of Part 4 before the recording start.
More often than not, in Part 4 you listen to an interview. It’s quite beneficial to speed-read all questions before to have a look at single answers: it helps you understand which way the interviewer frames the conversation, thus, what to expect. 🛣️
#2 Don’t rush to the answer.
Sometimes you might have the impression, after only a couple of sentences, that you have already nailed the right answer. Still, it’s better to wait till the end of the intervention: the interviewee could throw in one or more distractors before to say what truly answers the question.
#3 Learn phrasal verbs and idioms.
Interviews are plagued with both of them. It’s a marvellous idea to do some specific work on them:
English Phrasal Verbs in Use – Intermediate, by Michael McCarthy and Felicity O’Dell: this is an outstanding textbook too. So is the following:
English Idioms in Use – Intermediate, by Michael McCarthy and Felicity O’Dell: it shouldn’t surprise you that anything coming from the Cambridge University Press is of great quality.
FCE Listening: Traps you should be aware of
Too much self-esteem when the exam is remote
Unless you plan to call in a bomb threat when the Listening is about to start, you better set to prepare yourself very carefully upfront. Don’t be overconfident.
Do you remember Question 1 from Part 1 above? I guarantee you that during the exam most of us shrink, shudder and begin to wonder:
Oy vey, what if to issue mean something different? What if to persuade has a broader meaning than what I suppose? Shame on me, why didn’t I read the dictionary top bottom when I had the chance? 😨
This is a delicate chapter of the exam. It pays off to keep studying and rehearsing even when it seems you’re doing okay. Try to do better.
Binging on mock exams is dumb
Getting used with the exam format is fundamental, you already know that. Mock exams are useful for that purpose, but too many candidates use them the wrong way.
Many candidates, indeed, cram their last fourteen days before the exam with one, two or even three mock exams per day. WTF?
Please refrain from burning one mock exam after the next: it’s just pseudo-work. Do one by one, part by part.
If you find your performance wanting, don’t rush to the next mock exam, have you lost your mind?
It’s like taking blood tests one after the other in order to make your triglycerides drop. 🩸 You’re better off stopping eating chips and sundaes: it’s way more effective.
If you fail a Listening part, don’t hurry to the audio scripts! Instead:
- Do the same exercise again,
- understand why you failed where you failed, and
- only at this point proceed ahead.
Quality before quantity.
The world is populated by many Englishes
The first English you were introduced to was RP, Received Pronunciation: the kind of language you have in textbooks, BBC, classes in most of the world.
However, there are as many Englishes as there are countries.
Get back to Part 3 for a moment: did you notice the word bushwalk? It is an australianism, a noun primarily used in kangaroo land. 🦘 The most common meaning of bush is that of a shrub or thicket of shrubs; in Australia, nevertheless, bush means
A large uncleared or sparsely settled area usually scrub-covered or forester : WILDERNESS —usually used with the”
(definition gently offered by Merriam-Webster)
Why do I tell you this? Because English is a multifaceted creature: around the world, it changes not only in pronunciation but also in lexicon, prepositions, verb usage, etc.
Again, no need for a PhD in English varieties: a passing acquaintance with the most popular is enough, at a B2.
How to gain such acquaintance? There are hundreds possible ways. I’ll briefly mention stuff about just three major varieties.
In terms of American English – British English’s fiercest opponent – there are tons and tons of content online, but the book I’m about to suggest you has no match in terms of content, style and pleasantness:
Made In America: An Informal History of American English, by Bill Bryson: not an essay of comparative linguistics. It’s your typical Bryson’s masterwork: chucklesome and informative, dealing with language and neighbouring disciplines.
Then, Peter Smissen is a good source about Australian English: his website offers both free and premium content. At a B2, with the free part you may have sufficient knowledge.
For Hiberno English (classy way to say Irish English) you may gain your rudiments by reading the specific section of Stan’s Sentence First: accurate and fun to read, ideal for an English B2 student.
FCE Listening: Should I go paper-based or computer-based?
There’s a major difference, between the paper-based and the computer-based exam, in terms of Listening: in the latter, you have headphones at your disposal.
I mean, in the computer-based you have everything on screen rather than on paper, including the answers of the Listening section: but, boy, you have headphones here. 🎧
Is it a game changer? It can be.
I struggle to understand people speaking quietly in languages I know less than perfectly: you too? If that’s the case, the burden of Listening can be heavily lifted by taking the computer-based exam.
Nevertheless, it has to be said that:
- If you have no hearing impairments,
- the exam centre has fine loudspeakers, 📢
- there’s no pandemic of whooping cough among the examinees,
Then you shouldn’t have major issues in taking the paper-based exam either, especially if you feel more at ease with paper rather than technological white elephants. 💻
Want to dig further into the magic realm of the two exam formats? Read: Paper or Computer: Choose your Cambridge English Exam Format.
FCE Listening: Useful tips for the exam day
Listen to some varied audio tracks before the exam
It’s like when you need to take your car in a frosty winter morning: you should allow your linguistic brain to idle for some minutes, in order to warm it up, before starting driving.
It does make a difference, believe me.
Expect some some weariness
If you consider a bit of buffer time before the exam and in between each paper, when Listening starts you’ve been sat in the exam room already for at least three hours, right after the Writing.
Why do I highlight this?
Because after three hours of edginess and heavy cognitive load, you’re going to feel tired.
Maybe you want to eat a banana 🍌, swallow a mouthful of sandwich 🥪: you are allowed to bring some food and water in the exam room, so I’d do it if I were you.
At the very least, after three hours of nervousness and concentration, get a fix of coffee or sugar: just swallow something.
My secret weapon of choice is Pocket Coffee: this sip of caffeine held in a tiny chocolate chest is to mankind what spinach is to Popeye.
Pocket Coffee: lifting up spirits since 1968 👍
I started bringing Pocket Coffees with me when once I almost fell asleep during the exam.
It was a Portuguese one and, much to my dismay, I realized we were allowed to leave at mid exam in a moment of break for the loo, but the coffee machine was too far away for me to be back in the exam classroom in a couple minutes.
As the exam was a big one, I was definitely nervous, but also as sleepy as a flock of dormouses. It was a challenging time for me, juggling between many challenges, all on the front burner: so, I was tired and sleep-deprived. 🥱
In most exams, Cambridge’s included, you’re allowed to bring water and a snack in the exam classroom, but – theoretically – not coffee.
That’s when I resorted to these bonbons: practical to handle, delicious and effective.
So, once the Writing ends, in those five minutes before the Listening starts, I imbibe some water, honour myself with a Pocket Coffee, breath deeply 🕉️ and I start focusing on the task ahead.
By the way, want to read a full guide about the FCE Writing? Read: Cambridge English: First. Tips for the FCE Writing.
Practice a bit of meditation
Even just sitting on a chair, with the back straight up, breathing rhythmically, may be useful, if you’re not into yoga, mindfulness or transcendental meditation.
You can do it at home, when you’re waiting for the exam to start at the exam centre, while on the bus on your way for the exam centre… whenever you feel you need it.
If you have another sort of personal rituals, perform it. If you have a relaxing Spotify playlist, listen to it. If you’re religious, pray. 📿
I do it even in the pauses between one section and the next. You are not going to experience any supernatural transformation – but hey, even 10% less stress is 10% more chances you can focus on the exam and demonstrate what you know.
FCE Listening: FAQ
Q: I did well in all areas except Listening. There I got the worse possible result. What did I do wrong?
A: Well, there are many things that may lead to a subpar result, but the worse? I’m left here wondering what you did in the months leading up to this moment.
However, now you know that’s your weakest point. Strengthen it as much as you can by following the bunch of stuff I gathered here, then get back to your FCE and nail it, Listening included. 💪
Q: Can I pass FCE if I’m bad at Listening?
A: You listening skills may be lower than the rest, but if they’re bad there’s little room for passing it. You have to be an all-round examinee.
However, as you have seen, Listening is made of four parts: some are easier than others. You still may score lower here than in Writing or Speaking, but get enough right answers in the Listening to pass the FCE.
Q: I have no problem in understanding English in real life, but I find FCE Listening overly tricky, playing with subtle differences, which is why I get such low scores in my mock exams.
A: Language – any language – is tricky. You find the FCE Listening tricky because:
- You are so proficient in your native language you do not notice how tricky it is any more; 🧐
- in real life you may speak mostly with other foreigners, which implies the usage of a simplified form of English; or you may just get away from an exchange thinking your interlocutor meant A when in reality he meant B, because in real life there is no such a thing as testing.
I’m not saying it’s easy – getting a FCE certificate is not. But it’s just the way it is. In order for languages to convey specific, nuanced concepts, there must be a degree of complexity involved.
FCE Listening: Conclusions
And that is it.
In this long guide (great that you’ve reached the end, by the way), I tried to condense all what I know and teach to future FCE holders. 📜
All over the Internet, you may find all sorts of tips: some underline a lot, some focus on guessing all answers prior to the recording, etc. I, of course, suggest here what worked for myself and for my students.
Let me remind you the master guide whence this post about FCE Listening stems:
If you have your heart set on this FCE certificate, don’t waste the occasion: go for it! The Listening section is difficult though of course not impossible.
I hope you found this post useful: if it’s so, would you please share it with fellow learners of English? It costed me weeks to put it all together. Thank you. 🙏
And thank you for the time taken to read this, when you could have devoted this twenty minutes to watching funny stories on Instagram or cool video recipes on Facebook. 😁 Should you have any doubt, feel free to comment below.
If you need guidance and support in your pursuit of your FCE certificate, as always I’m at your disposal. I’ve been helping for years candidates like you to achieve these results:
Wash your hands, get enough sleep, wear a mask, get vitamins, keep learning English. 😉
Your personal exam trainer,