Online vs. Traditional Proficiency Tests: Listening

ote listeningMy first language exam in years

A couple of months ago, I had to take my first Listening test in a foreign language in the many years since I left university. I’d quite forgotten what the experience was like.

I was sitting at a desk in a fairly conventional classroom, with a pencil and a few sheets of paper lying face-down on the tabletop, and some twenty-five other people sitting around me. We had said “hello” and “good luck” to each other just a few minutes earlier, and there was a feeling of tense anticipation around the room.

The two invigilators stood at the front of the room, smiling politely, and looking quite pleased with the situation, the same way the teachers used to look at everyone when I was in high school. Somehow, the whole scene felt quite unreal.


So one of the invigilators welcomed us all, and explained that we had to read the instructions and questions, then answer the questions on the answer sheet by using a pencil to shade the corresponding one of the four boxes marked A, B, C or D, which were in a row next to the number of the question. It seemed a bit tricky to have to keep an eye on the right part of the answer paper, but at least there was nothing difficult about colouring a box in dark grey.

The test begins

Then the Listening test started. The sound came from the front of the classroom, but I couldn’t see whether it was a portable CD player or computer with speakers, because I was sitting near the back. First, the recording explained the same instructions as the invigilator had read out a moment before, and then the questions began.

Sound quality and background noise

I could hear the recording quite well most of the time, and it was all quite easy to understand, but there was a bit of noise from a few of the people in the room: a couple of people coughing, the occasional sneeze, and one middle-aged man in the corner who kept clearing his throat “ahem-ahem-ahem” every minute or two. He was so distracting that after a while, when I was waiting for the second reading of the same recording to finish, I ended up counting the seconds until he made the next grunt. I noticed a lady in front of me turning round to look at him disapprovingly. Another guy kept turning the question and answer sheets over, forwards and backwards, as if he were searching for a missing question somewhere in the middle. I suppose they were just feeling nervous.

So what about the Oxford Test of English?

The Listening module of the Oxford Test of English is very different from the traditional sort of exam that I took.


First of all, the test is done online. You sit in a computer room at your Test Centre, and put on a headset with a microphone included, though of course you won’t need to use the microphone in the Listening test. This means that there’s no background noise to distract you, because if other people in the room cough, sneeze or clear their throats, you won’t be able to hear them, unless you’re trying to. You’ll be able to concentrate better on what you’re listening to.

Questions on the screen

Another important thing to remember is that there is no paper in the Oxford Test of English, because the questions are on the computer screen, and of course that’s also where you answer, which makes everything simple. Instead of shading in boxes on an answer sheet, you click on whichever one of the three options you think is correct. The trick is to understand how the three options are different from each other!

So you’ll only see one question at a time, and you won’t be distracted by all the dozens of other ones. There won’t be any noise either from people moving paper around on the desk, or dropping their pencils on the floor and picking them up again!


The best thing about the Listening test in the Oxford Test of English is that it uses adaptive technology. This means the level of each question depends on how well you answered the previous questions. The test adjusts automatically to your level, so you won’t find it too hard or too easy – you’ll see very quickly how comfortable it feels. Also, you get a personalised test, so nobody can copy you even if they can see what you’re doing on your screen.

Listen just once if you prefer

If you find, particularly at the beginning, that the Listening task is quite easy, you’re completely sure about the answer and listening a second time is just going to be a bore when you’ll get distracted, you can move on to the next question: you don’t need to listen twice if you don’t want to. This also means that in the Oxford Test of English, you have a bit more control over what’s going on in your test.

Social distancing

Because the Oxford Test of English is available on any date and at any time, it’s possible for your Test Centre to organise several sessions for smaller groups of students on the same day, so you don’t all need to be in the same room at the same time. This means you can be sitting comfortably at a safe distance from everyone else.


At the end of your test session, you’ll be able to leave the test room, take your belongings back, and if you have a smartphone, you’ll be able to access your account as you leave the test centre. You’ll find the results of your Listening test are there already, and you’ll have an individual Report Card for Listening – as with all the other skills you take – which you can save, send or print as soon as you want.

If you take Listening as part of the complete four-skill test, you’ll also receive – in a maximum of 14 days – an Oxford Test of English certificate from Oxford University Press, which is certified by the University of Oxford. This will be valuable help to you on your way towards future studies or employment.

Try it and see!

Take a look at the demo of the Listening module on the Oxford Test of English website.

Don’t forget to check out our blog on English words that don’t sound how they’re spelt, so you don’t get caught out in your test!

Simon Ferdinand is Head of Market Development for ELT Assessment at Oxford University Press, where he is in charge of launching the Oxford Test of English worldwide. His career spans 26 years in the field of English Language Teaching, first as a teacher of English and French at a language school in Madrid, then as a sales rep and product manager with Oxford University Press working on English File and exams material.

Simon speaks six languages fluently and he is also the author of ‘Cómo negociar en inglés’ (How to Negotiate in English) which was published in Madrid in 2006 and has sold 27,000 copies.

Author: Oxford University Press ELT

Every year we help millions of people around the world to learn English. As a department of the University of Oxford, we further the University’s objective of excellence in education by publishing proven and tested language learning books, eBooks, learning materials, and educational technologies.

4 thoughts

  1. What does”going to do something”mean in English? could you please explain the phrase with examples?

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