Listen up: here’s what to look out for in your DSE English listening exam

By Ben Pang

The DSE English listening exam is coming up, but there’s no need to panic, or strain your ears. Simply follow our handy tips from the pros for acing the test

By Ben Pang |

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The HKDSE English listening exam (Paper 3) might seem daunting at first but it isn’t as hard to gain marks as you’d think.Young Post spoke to Beacon College’s tutor Kenneth Lau, and Maggie Yuen – an English Language teacher at Po Leung Kuk Ngan Po Ling College – for useful tips on how to ace the exam and the common mistakes that you should avoid.

Part A generally comprises note-taking (form-filling, sentence completion, Q/A, flow chart), a map or logical questions. Yuen says that you really need to listen to what people are saying here, as the questions on your paper might not directly reflect what they are saying.

“Most of the answers come in an indirect way,” says Yuen. “They won’t say ‘the answer is …’ or repeat the script. In last year’s Part A Task 1, Q13-15 asked why the speakers decided to visit the Museum of Youth Culture. They used different expressions to talk about why they went. They said: ‘We’ve got a museum. Let’s have a look at where the museum is’. That’s when you needed to be alert because the answers came after that. Other phrases to listen out for [in this part] are ‘let’s say’, ‘like what’, ‘and then’, ‘which is’ or ‘such as’.”

Lau says you should also focus on connectives or conjunctions, as they tell you what the answers are for the next set of questions. Expressions like “also”, “or”, “and one more thing”, “because”, “apart from”, and “the other reason” are important to note. Last year’s Task 2 Q26-27, for instance, asked why the Cabbage Patch Doll exhibit was so popular. The recording did not use this exact phrasing, and instead used phrases like “best-selling toys from the past”, and “it was really popular in the 1980s”.

For questions on sentence completion, Lau says to remember all the parts of speech that are used. Common grammatical errors include mixing up singular/plural nouns, forgetting to capitalise proper nouns, and mixing up active/passive voices. Spelling is also important – you need to correctly spell family names, countries, cities, nationalities, streets, and tourist destinations.

Sometimes there are multiple-choice questions that will ask you about the attitude of the speaker, too. That’s because, Lau says, you should be able to note the differences in the tones that they use. They will also use synonyms, which will tell you what the answer is. For example, if a speaker is terrified, they use words like “frightened”, “scared”, “afraid”, or “creeped out” to express how they feel.

When it comes to map filling, Lau says to stay as focused as possible, because if you miss even one step, it’s possible to lose track of things entirely. Listen carefully to the speaker who might tell you something about their position (words like “opposite”, and “in front of”) or direction (“heading south”, or “turn right”). If a question asks you to find the correct order of events, be all ears for connectives like “first”, “then”, and “finally”.

Lau says last year’s Task 4 recording was hard because it was just a speaker giving a lecture. Listening tests normally feature a conversation between two or more people, and you can find the answer to a question from another person’s speech. There are three different ways to approach Task 4 if it’s just one person speaking: remember that the speaker will ask and answer his own questions. Last year, Task 4’s Q50-51 wanted to know why James Dean is still famous. You should have known to look out for clues when the speaker said, “But why is he so recognisable?”, as he went on to answer it. Listen to similar expressions to the questions on your paper. The speaker in last year’s test used “recognisable”, which has the same meaning as “famous”. Finally, connectives – they will tell you what the next batch of answers are.

You have about 75 minutes for all three tasks in Part B of Paper 3. Lau says you should at most spend 20 minutes on each question; then you can focus more on Task 10 if you’re completing the difficult section in Part B.

Candidates were asked to write a report in 2016, an article in 2015, or a letter to the editor in 2014. Lau says that to do this part well, you should look for key words that have been repeated several times. The best thing you can do here is to do Task 10 from past papers.

If you have time, you should try to answer past papers from the HKALE Use of English’s Practical Skills for Work and Study, Lau adds.

Lau says there are three main types of reports that come up in Part B. The first is a recommendation report (like the one in Task 10 in 2016), which asks you to investigate an issue and give suggestions. To so this one, follow these steps: first, list what the problem is. Second, describe it and talk about what incidents the problem has caused. Finally, offer solutions or recommendations. The second one is an analytical report. Again, talk about the running of the events, their effectiveness and what recommendations can be given. The last is a research-based report. This asks you to look at the research results of several proposals, talk about their benefits/limitations and draw a conclusion.


Lau also notes there are a few important points to completing Part B. First, don’t copy chunks out of the Data File, as that makes you look as if you are doing your tasks without giving it enough thought. Look out for similar words or expressions – if the task asks you to talk about the positive effects of eco-tourism, be aware of words like “impact”, advantages” or “benefits”. Second, find the connectives. Thirdly, don’t forget you are also being assessed on your language skills, coherence, and organisation of the information. Check your spelling. Use reported speech.

Yuen says you need to consider the situation that you are being asked to write about on a personal level. Be aware of your audience; you should write your answer in the appropriate register, tone and style. For instance, if you are writing a letter to the school principal, you have to be polite and humble. Avoid using an authoritative tone because you are writing to someone who is in a senior position. Try warmer, well-mannered expressions if you want to make a suggestion. If you are writing a leaflet though, you should adopt a more positive, promotional and professional tone.

Edited by Ginny Wong