Listening Study Guide for the TOEFL Test

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Types of Listening Prompts

There are two types of listening passages in this section of the test. Both measure your listening skills in an academic environment. As you listen, you will see a still photograph of the listening passage’s environment. For example, in a conversation passage, you might see a student and a professor/counselor, or two students in the library, at a gym, or in a place of business. During the lecture part of the listening section, you might see a class (from the back) and a lecturer or professor in front of the class.

Fortunately, before each listening passage, the narrator will introduce the audio. The narrator might say, “Listen to a conversation between a student and the housing manager”, or “Listen to a professor in an Art History class.”

Conversations in an Academic Setting

More often than not, the listening section begins with a conversation in an academic situation. You might listen to a student asking a professor for more time on a project or a student speaking with the housing coordinator. The conversation could also be one involving a student and a gym worker or that between a student and an employee discussing parking permits.

The conversations are usually short in length (two to three minutes) and will very likely include idioms or expressions. It’s a good idea to brush up on American idioms and expressions. You can find many lists on the Internet.

Academic Lectures

The second portion of the listening section deals with lectures. They are longer, usually four to five minutes long. Taking notes is critical, but you shouldn’t stress or worry too much, as many of the pragmatic questions include a short replay of a section to help you answer the questions. The questions in this part of the listening section have more charts, tables, summarizing, and organizing ideas or major points.

Improving Listening Skills

We hear all sorts of things in daily life, but actually listening to them requires skill and focus. This is especially important if you are trying to understand a language that is not native to you. Purposeful listening practice will enhance the meaning of spoken language. Here are a few ideas to help.

Vocabulary Development

Listening can be very frustrating if you don’t know the meaning of the words you hear. If you increase the number of words you understand in English, you will instantly gain meaning from lectures and conversations that include them. Thus, your understanding of the entire spoken passage will improve. Here are a few ways you can add to your listening vocabulary.

Read Widely

Reading will most certainly help your vocabulary. Find some short academic passages, or read from technical, business, or industry magazines. Read the same article often. When you come across words that you don’t know, underline them and look them up. Write your new words in a list. If you need to, you can translate the word, term, or phrase into your native language, but do that on another list. You will find that your vocabulary development slows down if you are always referring to your native language.

Study Word Lists

Study your self-made word lists every day. The best way to study new words is to write them down on an index card. Write the new word on one side and the definition on the other side. Each day, go through your cards and say the word aloud and define it or use it in a sentence. If you can do that without looking at the back side, put the card down in one pile face up. If you must look at the back to remember the meaning, put that card in another pile. Then focus on the “more difficult” list of words. Your goal will be to have all the cards in the “know” pile! You can also find lots of word lists online. There are many sites with TOEFL vocabulary words.

Active Listening

You can do several things to practice being a critical listener, instead of just hearing what is said. The specifics of these have been discussed previously in this guide and are repeated here as reminders of practice strategies.

Take Notes

Practice taking notes from any source. You can take notes of conversations you hear in your daily life, you can listen to the news (in English) and take notes. Even English-speaking programs and documentaries can help you identify themes and important information, as well as connect ideas, summarize, and organize information. Taking notes while listening to movies or programs will also develop your vocabulary. Be sure, though, that listening to longer things will require you to listen over and over again.

Focus on the Speaker

Whenever you are in a position to listen to someone speak on any topic, practice gearing your focus toward the person speaking. Look for previously discussed components, like tone, volume, and indicators of purpose and assurance. You can do this in any situation: meetings, religious gatherings, classes, etc.

Connect and Compare Ideas

Apply the practice of making connections and comparisons to conversations and lectures you experience in daily life. You won’t be taking notes for most of these, but you can attempt to study any speech for comparison and connection purposes.

Listening Practice

You will become more comfortable with, and better able to gain meaning from, a language that you hear a lot. It is important to practice listening to English often in order to more easily comprehend what you hear. There are many opportunities to do this, including several things you probably do daily. Listening to television and radio broadcasts can serve as practice, as long as you are focused on what you hear.


For listening practice, the best sources provide a written transcript of what is being said. These can be found all over the Internet, including on many news sites in which posts contain a video as well as a written account of the report. This way, you’ll have two forms of language input to solidify your understanding.


You can find numerous sources on the Internet that include a pause feature for listening. Practice using this to assemble your thoughts while listening and also in refining your note-taking skills.


Be sure to try to make sense of everything you listen to. This can be done quickly by just asking yourself things like: “What was his main point?” or “Did she support her argument with facts and what were those facts?”

Other Ideas

  • Join conversation clubs at local language centers or universities. You can practice your speaking and listening skills in a natural environment.
  • Listening to the radio (in English) is another excellent source for casual, natural language.
  • Get online and search for ex-pats in your country. They are always looking for language partners to help them with their new language, and they can also help you to improve your vocabulary, speaking, and listening skills.
  • Buy a movie. Watch it. Watch it over and over again until you understand everything said in the movie. You may need to watch it 30 times. It’s okay, because you will gain accent acquisition, language that isn’t taught in an ESL book or language course, and become accustomed to natural speed and tone that will definitely help you in the listening section of the test.
  • Finally, another good source of listening is getting on YouTube and finding motivational talks. They are usually less than 20 minutes and an excellent way to listen and practice summarizing, taking notes, organizing information, and connecting ideas.

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