Five Mistakes to Avoid on the TOEFL® Listening Test

The Listening portion of the TOEFL® assesses your ability to listen to an English speaker, then answer questions about what he or she said. The audio recordings vary somewhat in length and are followed by several questions about the topic of the recording. If you are going to thrive in an English-speaking college or university, you have to be able to listen to and understand lectures and conversations in English. Your scores on the TOEFL® Listening test suggest your readiness for this challenge.

Here are some commonly made mistakes on the Listening portion and some advice on how to avoid these pitfalls:

1. Not Enough Practice

Listening is a difficult skill in any language, but when you have to listen and respond in a language that is not your native tongue, the challenge increases. Can you ever really practice enough? Maybe not, but this test needs to be taken at some point, so practice as much as you can ahead of time. For the listening section, this means putting yourself in situations where you have the opportunity to practice listening to people speaking English. Here are some ways and places you can practice your listening skills:

  • Watch TV. Listening to news programs or documentaries and then writing a response to the stories you heard is great practice for the listening portion of the TOEFL®. Most of the audio portions of the test are lectures, conversations, or classroom discussions, so find listening opportunities that mimic what you are going to face on the test.

  • Watch a movie and take notes as you listen. Then, write a mock review at the end, referencing specific scenes or moments from the film.

  • Listen to audiobooks, online lectures, or podcasts. Practice determining the main idea and message to the audience.

  • Have conversations with native English speakers. Increase the difficulty of your practice by calling them on the telephone. Without non-verbal clues like body language to rely on, you are really honing your listening skills.

2. Inability to “Crack the Code”

In college classrooms, the lectures are structured with a purpose: to disseminate information to the students in a meaningful and memorable way. Knowing this will help you to listen more effectively.

  • The format of a lecture or presentation normally has a beginning, a middle, and an end, or an introduction, body, and conclusion. Learn about the structure of lectures.

  • Then practice listening for the key words, types of information, and transition words that will help you navigate through a lecture.

  • Listen to the speakers’ tone, where they place their emphasis, and where they pause. This will help you understand the main idea and be able to catch the supporting points.

When you learn to listen like an instructor, as opposed to a student, you will be able to “crack the code” and determine what the speaker is trying to accomplish in his or her lecture or discourse. Anticipating the questions that will be asked about the audio portion will help you.

3. Poor Note-taking

Your comprehension of spoken material is negatively affected when you don’t take enough notes. Or, you try to take too many notes. Note-taking, while you are listening to someone speak, is a skill. You must pay attention to what is being said while also trying to process the information and jot down the noteworthy information. Because it is a challenge, some people don’t bother trying to take notes. That is one approach. But it may lead to you forgetting or not catching important points that may help you answer or address the questions that will follow. At the other end of the spectrum are the listeners who madly try to write down everything they hear, which also doesn’t result in much that is useful. Improve your note-taking skills in these ways:

  • Take good, but quick, notes.

  • Jot down anything that is repeated and any key words or phrases you hear, specific numbers that are used, or ideas that are stressed by the speaker’s voice.

  • Any time the speaker pauses, as though to give an idea a chance to “sink in” to the listener’s brain, is a good time to jot down the thought they just shared.

  • Be sure that your notes are objective—made up of what you hear—not subjective or your interpretations, thoughts, or feelings about what you heard.

  • Remember, your score is actually based on your ability to answer the questions, not how good a note-taker you are; your notes will not be reviewed or assessed. So take notes that make sense to you, using your own shorthand to record specific words or phrases and focusing on the nouns and verbs more than the filler words.

4. Getting Caught Up in Details.

You need to understand the “big picture” of what is being presented. Don’t worry about the minutia; listen to understand the main idea. As you listen, anticipate the types of questions you’ll likely be asked about the topic. Usually, a main idea question follows every listening piece, so rather than focus on the details, think about what the main idea is and what questions you might be asked about that idea. Listen with a purpose—and let that purpose be to figure out what questions might be asked about this topic, not what the answer is. Your brain will figure out the answer if you allow your ears to listen without worrying about the details.

5. Letting Others Get into Your Head.

The testing environment can be a distracting one. Others may have questions or problems that can cause a distraction to you and ruin your concentration. Try to live in the moment—your moment—and stay focused on the screen in front of you. Don’t look around; focus on listening and taking relevant notes that will help you answer the questions at the end of the audio. Relax, take a deep breath, and know that you can do this!

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