Page 1 - 11th Grade English Language Arts and Literacy: Listening Study Guide for the SBAC

How to Prepare for the Listening Questions on the SBAC English Language Arts and Literacy Test

General Information

The listening questions on this test will refer to short listening passages of about 1 to 1.5 minutes in length. There are no performance task items for listening, and there will be about one listening stimulus per three or four questions. You will use some of the same skills you use to read critically, so going over our SBAC ELA/Literacy Reading study guide would be a good idea.

How the Listening Questions Work

The Listening portion of the SBAC requires you to listen to a recording and answer questions based on what you hear. The recording may be from science, history, or a technical topic, but you do not need to have prior knowledge about the subject to be able to answer the questions. All the information you will need to be able to address the questions will come from listening to the recording. Generally speaking, the recordings will be of non-fiction text, like excerpts from magazine articles, textbooks, or other sources. They are not usually recordings of literary texts or poetry. Recordings are roughly one and a half minutes in length and make limited use of visuals. While a picture of the speaker or an image related to the topic may be included, the section is really designed to test your ability to listen to information and use that information to answer questions. Some questions do ask you to draw a conclusion based on the evidence and content of the recording, meaning you will need to understand the overall purpose and message of the recording.

This section requires careful listening skills. Sometimes, it is difficult to catch all of the important information in just one listen. Remember, you can replay the audio recording as many times as you need to when you are answering the questions. You can also pause the recording as you are listening to it.

Level of Questions

The questions in the Listening section are designed to assess your comprehension, not of what you read, but of what you hear. Listening comprehension is as important as reading comprehension, so these questions ask you to recall information and evidence presented and to use it to answer the questions. You will need to be able to analyze the information presented, interpret it, and use it to answer the questions.

Types of Questions

The types of questions included in the Listening section are similar to the types of questions you will see on the other parts of the SBAC. There are multiple-choice questions where you select the one best answer and multi-select questions where you determine the best answers with multiple selections (the question will usually guide you to how many options to answer with, e.g., “Select three”). There are also matching questions where you are asked to complete a table with the information presented in the recording and evidence-based questions where you make a determination of the best conclusion, for example, and then support your answer with the detail(s) that best support that answer. Many of the questions ask you to evaluate the evidence given in the recording or determine an appropriate conclusion based on the evidence provided.

Tackling Differently Formatted Test Items

There is important information about differently formatted test items on the SBAC exam. Go here to read it as you prepare. Scroll down to “Tips and Tricks.”

Your Listening Focus

Trying to listen to every word can be overwhelming, and test fatigue will quickly set in. Instead, try to relax during the Listening section. Pay attention and listen carefully, but focus on these elements of listening rather than trying to get everything.

Central Ideas

What seems to be the main idea of the recording? If you had to summarize it to someone who hadn’t listened to it, what would you tell them? Listening for the main or central idea and getting the “big picture” is much more important than getting caught up in the details. So try to determine what the speaker wants you to know or remember after listening to the recording.

Key Details

Key details, or supporting details, are the pieces of evidence that support or explain the central idea. When you are listening to the audio, it may be difficult to catch all of the key details in just one listen, so make sure to use the pause and replay buttons as needed to listen again to the recording. The key details will all have some connection back to the central, or main, idea so when you are asked to select the detail(s) that best support an answer, make sure there is a connection somehow and that the evidence supports that main idea.

Word Meanings

As you listen to the audio recordings, you may hear words that are unfamiliar to you. Try not to get too caught up on them, but keep listening to see if the presentation gives some context clues to help you figure them out. Very often, the presentation may include another word or phrase that means the same as the unknown word so that you can figure it out. The recording may also go on to provide a definition or an example that you can use to determine a word’s meaning.

Remember, too, that a single word may have multiple meanings depending on the context in which it is used. Consider that when listening to the audio recording and determine the correct meaning based on how it is used by the speaker. Unless it is a key detail to understanding the central idea, try not to worry if you don’t understand all of the words.

Listening to the presentation again may help you determine a word’s meaning by hearing something you may have missed the first time through.

Evidence and Reasoning

When an author or a speaker makes a claim or presents a main idea, he or she must then support that claim with evidence and reasoning. Evidence is data and information used by an author to support or prove the claim. Evidence must be sufficient and appropriate for it to be effective. Without enough evidence, the audience may not be convinced of the author’s claim or understand the main idea. Reasoning requires the audience to put together the claim and the evidence and draw a conclusion or determination. The audience thinks about and considers the claim or idea put forth by the author, weighs the evidence the author provides, and makes logical, reasonable conclusions based on the author’s overall presentation of the material.


Analysis questions call for close and careful examination of the words of the author. In the Listening section of the SBAC, that means listening carefully to the recording and breaking the information down into manageable pieces. As you consider each key detail, you must determine how effective it is in supporting the central idea. And, because this is the Listening portion, you must do so based on what you hear and not what you see written on the page. Listening not just to how the material is presented, but what the material is, is critical to good analysis. Don’t be fooled by a smooth talker—what is that speaker saying and how well is it supported? Is it reasonable based on the evidence and details provided?

Text Structure and Features

Text structure is just a fancy term for how information is organized. Don’t let the text part fool you; though this is the Listening section, you are listening to excerpts from texts or speeches, so the rules of organization still apply. If the presentation of ideas is not logical or does not flow well, the audience will have a difficult time understanding it and appreciating its message.

The text (and therefore the recording) should start with the main idea, support that main idea with key details, and provide a sense of conclusion or closure. If the ideas jump around too much and are too difficult for the audience to follow, the piece is ineffective. Texts may be organized in a variety of ways, but should always have a sense of beginning, middle, and end. The middle may be organized as a description of the central idea, a chronological explanation, a compare/contrast setup, cause/effect approach, or problem/solution, as examples. Listening for the structure and organizational patterns can help you anticipate what content might come next and better understand what you hear.

Textual features—though they may not be seen as text on a page in the Listening section—are still important to consider as they help to create structure and organization of the ideas. If there are any charts, graphs, or images included with a text recording in the Listening section, don’t ignore them! They are included with a purpose and may help you better understand the content of the recording.

Language Use

Language use involves everything from the diction an author uses to the figurative language he or she includes. In the Listening section of the SBAC, listen to how the author uses language to express his or her central idea. How long are the sentences? What level of diction is used? What style is the author expressing ideas using? Is there figurative language? Are there effective transitions from one idea to the next? All of these are things to listen for and analyze in the Listening section.

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