About the TOEFL Listening Test

The listening section is the second part of the TOEFL.  Students will listen to a both academic lectures at a university level and conversations between professors and students.  They will be required to answer questions following 

Building Your Listening Skills

Practicing for the exam is hard.  It is tough to find practice recordings that accurately simulate the type of lectures and conversations that you will hear while writing the TOEFL.  For this reason I do recommend finding a textbook with an accompanying CD that contains practice lectures and simulated testing.

There are, however, a few online resources that are helpful for students trying to build their general listening and note-taking skills.

Websites for Listening Practice

Many news websites have student and ESL sections.  Some of my favorite are:

  • BBC's learning English section. In particular, check out the 6 Minute English podcasts.  You can listen to the podcasts, download them and consult a transcript for more help.  Each podcast also includes a (short) vocabulary section.
  • CNN Student News. This is not, specifically, for ESL students but it does contain a wonderful daily video podcast and transcript. Since it is CNN the people on-screen speak very quickly. It will test your ability to follow along and take good notes.  
  • Learn English with Voice of America. This one is for beginners. It contains a video podcast and spoken versions of news articles. English is spoken very slowly on this site.  
  • Spoken Wikipedia. This is an interesting resource. You may not know that many articles on Wikipedia have been recorded and are available for listening. Click the above link for a big list of Wikipedia articles that you can listen to. Some are long and others are very short. Using Wikipedia will give you a chance to hear many different types of voices speaking about a variety of subjects using high-level vocabulary.
  • The lectures at TED.com are wonderful academic level speeches on a variety of topics.


Types of TOEFL Listening Questions

In the TOEFL listening section you will listen to a number of conversations and academic lectures. You will then be asked questions about what you've listened to. You are allowed to take notes while listening. Good notes will make it much easier to answer the questions. There are several types of questions.

One: Main Idea Questions

This type of question asks you to identify the main idea of the lecture or conversation you have heard.  The answer is usually found at the very beginning of the recording. In a lecture, find the answer by listening for phrases like "Today we are going to talk about..." or "Today we will discuss..."  In a conversation, listen for "What can I help you with today?" or "I need to talk about..."

If the above method doesn't provide an answer (most often this happens in lecture questions) look for an answer choice that expresses the whole idea of the lecture.  Don't pick a choice that expresses only a small detail from the lecture.

Two: Detail Questions

Questions of this type are about a specific detail from the lecture. Answering them depends entirely on the quality of your note taking.  Questions of this type might be phrased like "What is one characteristic of _________?" or "What does the professor suggest that the student do?" or "What is a TECHNICAL TERM?"

Three: Delivery Questions

Before answering questions of this type you will often get a chance to listen again to a part of the lecture or conversation.  You are then asked a question regarding the delivery of the lecture.  An example is:

"Why does the professor say 'please stop me if I am going too fast here.'"  The answer to this question might be "Because he is worried that the students might not understand what he is saying."

When taking notes try to make record all suggestions given by a professor that don't directly relate to the topic of the lecture and all asides that the speaker makes.

Four: Attitude Questions

Questions of this type ask you to identify the speaker's opinion (attitude) about the lecture topic or about the issue being discussed in the conversation.  You might also be asked to make an inference based on tone of voice, vocabulary choice or word stress.  Answer this type of question by taking good notes when you hear words and phrases that express opinion, concern or emotion.  When studying before the test, try listening to practice materials that illustrate what native speakers sound like when they are expressing different types of emotion.

Five: Organization Questions

Questions of this type are somewhat similar to the rhetorical purpose questions of the reading section.  They are usually structured something like this: "Why does the profession mention ___________" or "How does the professor support the claim ____________."

To correctly solve this type of question, take notes of all examples and illustrations given by the professor and what they are examples of.  Also try to record the meanings of any complicated terms mentioned in a lecture.  Also make careful note of causal relationships notes in a lecture (XXX is caused by YYY).

Six: Inference Questions

These questions are very similar to the inference questions found in the reading section. An inference is an educated guess based on evidence given in the lecture or conversation. The answer to the question is not explicitly stated in the listening, but strongly hinted at based on the facts that are stated. You'll be asked a question like "What does the professor imply about _______?" For an illustration of what an inference is, look at the following example:

By the 18th century ballet had migrated from the royal court to the Paris Opera. During this century the ballet spread through Europe and developed from a courtly arrangement of moving images used as part of a larger spectacle, to a performance art in its own right, the ballet of action. This new form swept away much of the artificiality of the court dance and strove towards the concept that art should aspire to imitate nature. This ultimately resulted in costumes that allowed the dancer much more freedom of movement than before and were conducive to a fuller use of the expressive capacity of the body. It also opened the door to a technique called pointework, for this acceptance of more naturalistic costuming allowed the development of the heel-less shoe, which led to the dancer being able to make more use of the rise onto demi-pointe.

This is a from a lecture about the history of ballet dancing. A question might ask "What does the professor imply about costumes" and present the following answer choices:

          A.  Costumes used in the 17th century often restricted the movements of ballet dancers

          B.  Early ballet costumes were modeled after the appearances of animals in nature

          C. Dancers performed barefoot on stage

          D. Early ballet costumes differed between European countries

The answer is choice A.  The author says that in the 18th century costumes "allowed the dancer much more freedom of movement than before..." thus we can infer (guess) that costumes in the 17th century sometimes restricted the movement of dancers.


And that is a brief look at the listening section of the TOEFL. Don't hesitate to contact me if you need more assistance or have questions about the listening section.  I am easily reached via the Facebook form below.