Page 1 Listening Study Guide for the TOEFL®

How to Prepare for the TOEFL® Listening Test

General Information

The TOEFL Listening test assesses your ability to do “academic listening.” This includes listening with understanding to lectures like the ones you would experience in college classes and to conversations you might have while attending college. The speech you hear will not be very formal and should sound natural to you. You will have 60 to 90 minutes to listen and answer 34 to 51 questions. Therefore, approximately 10 minutes should be allotted to each listening task.

On this test, you will listen to lectures and conversations wearing headphones and you will be able to take notes as you listen. Then, you will mostly answer typical, written, multiple-choice-type questions about what you heard. A few questions, however, will have a slightly different format:

  • questions with more than one correct answer out of over four possible choices
  • questions asking you to put steps in a sequence
  • questions asking you to place objects or text into the proper place on a chart

Note: Our practice format does not allow for more than four answer choices, but we have attempted to provide practice in all of these question formats within our system limits. Just be prepared to see a slightly different format for some questions on the actual test, including more than four answer choices.

Here are some specific things you should know and ideas for practicing your listening skills before test day.

Academic Listening

The academic portion of the listening section has three to four lectures, and each listening task is generally followed by six questions. The lectures are usually excerpts of longer classroom lectures. Don’t worry, the information you listen to will include all the information you need to answer the questions correctly.

The topics covered are from a broad range of topics, from the arts to life sciences to physical sciences, and topics from the social sciences.

The academic listening section has seven different types of questions, shown below under the three broad question categories. These questions are very similar to the questions you experience in the reading section. They are worth practicing because understanding the type of question being asked will help you in selecting the correct answer.

Basic Comprehension Questions (1–2 of these per lecture)
* Identifying the gist (main idea or topic) and/or major points (flow of ideas)
* Listening for details (key words, phrases, and details)

Pragmatic Understanding Questions (1–3 of these per lecture)
* Understanding the function (purpose)
* Understanding the speaker’s attitude and degree of certainty

Connecting Information Questions (1–2 of these per lecture)
* Understanding organization
* Connecting content (categorizing information, summarizing a process)
* Inference and predictions

Listening for Basic Comprehension

The word comprehension refers to the various kinds of understanding you achieve after reading something. It ranges from learning specific facts to gaining meaning from things that weren’t actually stated in the material, but merely implied by other things the author stated.

During the listening task, you will encounter several questions designed to test if you have basic comprehension of the lecture/conversation you listened to. It’s important to take notes as you will not be able to review or go back and listen again. Each listening task will be approximately 3 to 5 minutes long. You will hear the entire listening passage. Don’t worry, there are key sections that will replay so that you can answer the questions accordingly. Let’s begin with questions that ask about the main idea, or gist, of the passage.

Main Idea

As you listen and take notes, you will listen for the gist. The gist is the main idea or main topic of the conversation and/or lecture. In other words, the gist is what the lecture/conversation is about. It is the big picture and not the little details. You will answer one to two questions that deal with the gist or main idea.

Listen for what the topic is about. The lecturer or speaker will usually give you a clue in the beginning of the passage. For example, the lecturer might say, “Good morning class. Let’s continue our talk about the geographical features of the Great Lakes.” You will know right away that the gist of the passage discusses the geographical features of the Great Lakes.

Therefore, when you see a question that asks what the topic is mainly about, You can identify immediately that it is a gist or main idea question. You can recognize a main idea or gist question by looking for clues in the question. Is the question worded in general terms? For example: “What are the students talking about? Why is the professor reviewing the chapter?” Does the question include the word mainly, mostly, or about? These are clear indicators of a main idea question. The answers may be inferred or directly stated by the speaker.

Major Points

Major points are similar to new paragraphs in a reading passage. The lecturer/speaker will often use transition words to indicate that a major point is about to be spoken; therefore, notes should be taken here. You’ll hear words such as first, second, third, or the lecturer may even state the major point outright. For example: “Our first major point about Navahoe architecture is that it was designed to …” You’ll also hear words like additionally, furthermore, lastly, finally. These are clear clues that you will hear a major point. Prepare yourself to write notes here as details will follow that will help you in answering detailed questions.

Supporting Details

Supporting details is exactly that—information that supports the main idea. You will hear examples or other specific information. There may even be a person restating the information incorrectly so the speaker can reiterate the information, or someone in the listening passage may repeat the information. This is done for your benefit: to let you know that it was an important detail. Write this information down because it will most likely be a question after the passage is finished.

When you get to the questions, the supporting details question will require you to remember specific information. The level of difficulty can vary. A supporting detail question might be as simple as, “According to the professor, at what age does a child begin to ____?” A more difficult question may ask you to refer to more than one section of the passage to determine the correct answer. For example: “What two factors contribute to the philosophy of ____?” Again, the importance of good note-taking cannot be stressed enough.

Listening for Pragmatic Understanding

Pragmatic understanding is a key element in determining your level of English language ability. In fact, it is so important to the TOEFL scoring that pragmatic understanding is found in three out of the four sections of the TOEFL iBT test.

In the listening section, pragmatic understanding, simply put, is what you understand about what you hear. How does the speaker say it? Are they using terms and expressions that say one thing, but mean another or how certain or uncertain the speaker is by the way they say something? Pragmatics are what you understand about why they say what they say or the meaning in their tone. You could say that pragmatic understanding is indirect understanding. Not what the speaker says directly, but what their purpose is, or what they mean.

Let’s explore ways to improve your skills for one of the key listening purposes you will be tested on in the listening section: Listening for Pragmatic Understanding.

Speaker’s Attitude

The speaker’s attitude is used to imply information that is not directly said. You will need to use implied information to decide what the speaker’s thoughts, feelings, or opinions are at some point in the excerpt. The information you need may not be linguistic (direct words or phrases), but in the speaker’s tone of voice. The speaker’s attitude can be determined by volume, pitch, and speed. To really get the point of the excerpt, you’ll often have to pick up on clues in the speaker’s tone and attitude. Is the speaker using a calm or emotional tone? Is the speaker using casual or formal or professional language? Is the speaker’s voice loud, hard, or firm, or is it slow, soft, and nervous? Does the speaker’s voice sound friendly or unfriendly? Confident or angry? Noting these rises and falls in tone, speed, and volume can give a clear indication of the speaker’s attitude.

Questions that address the speaker’s attitude will have key words like seem to feel or best expresses. When you see question clues like these, you will be required to answer based on your pragmatic understanding; in other words, what you understand by the speaker’s tone, volume, speed, and pitch.

Speaker’s Degree of Certainty

In English, the speaker’s degree of certainty can be found in several different ways:

If a speaker thinks they are saying something important, they’ll probably say it firmer or louder. They will emphasize the point more strongly. A sentence spoken louder stands out and this can indicate a degree of certainty and importance.

When a speaker has a very strong opinion, the volume will also most likely increase. This is true whether the emotion is positive or negative. People use a higher volume or stronger emotional voice when they are excited about something or when they are angry, annoyed, or being sarcastic. When people are sure of something, they tend to speak louder. However, when people are not confident, they will tend to speak more quietly.

Speed also plays an important role in the degree of certainty. English speakers tend to talk faster when they are excited about something. Volume, speed, and strong emotion can determine certainty, and even uncertainty.

Lastly, the speaker’s word choice can determine certainty. They’ll use words like a little, kind of, sort of, more or less, maybe, not so much and other words of this kind. These words are called qualifiers. If a speaker uses a lot of qualifiers, then it is very possible that the speaker does not have a high degree of certainty. If the speaker doesn’t use qualifiers, then he/she most likely has a high degree of certainty.

Speaker’s Function or Purpose

The speaker’s function or purpose is not what the speaker says, necessarily, but the function or purpose that lies beneath. While listening, you must determine if the speaker is complaining, agreeing, narrating, questioning, or recommending, and so forth. Understanding the meaning within the context of an entire lecture or conversation is significant in cases where the speaker’s opinion or perspective is involved.

When taking notes on a lecture or conversation, you can pay close attention to whether the statement is intended to be understood literally or if it has another meaning beneath the surface expression.

Questions of this type usually begin with why. The question may also include a direct reference to a speaker in the lecture or conversation. One example would be, “Why does the professor say, ‘You’re better than you think’?” or “Why does the housing director listen to Matt’s complaint?”

Other clues that indicate the question is a function/purpose question are words such as imply, inferred, and purpose. These questions are usually followed by a replay of a portion of the lecture/conversation. Here are some examples of these types of questions:

  • “What does the professor imply when he says this?” (Then you will be directed to replay a part of the audio.)

  • “What can be inferred from the professor’s reaction to the student?” (replay)

  • “What is the purpose of the woman’s response?” (replay)

  • “Why does the student say this?” (replay)

Listening to Connect and Synthesize Information

The questions that involve connecting and synthesizing information ask you to understand the passage as a whole. Synthesizing information is taking information from the entire passage that is connected and determining the importance of the sections of the passage and relationships between ideas, drawing conclusions, and making inferences from the information you heard. Simply put, you’ll need to have a handle on more than just the main idea. You’ll have to understand how the speaker presents his/her ideas, deciding which are important and how the ideas are connected. Let’s look at ways to tackle synthesizing information.

After a listener identifies what is important in the text, he/she must go through the process of organizing, recalling, and recreating the information and fitting it in with what is already known. Ellin Keene and Susan Zimmerman, the authors of Mosaic of Thought - Heinemann, 2007 state: “Synthesis is about organizing the different pieces to create a mosaic, a meaning, a beauty greater than the sum of each shiny piece.” The questions you answer in this category measure your ability to integrate information from different parts of the listening passage. The relationships you hear in the conversation or lecture may be explicit or implicit. To choose the right answer, you have to be able to identify and account for the relationships among the ideas and the details you hear.

There are several types of Connecting Information questions. Let’s look at a few tips and tricks for you to succeed in answering this type of question:

Organization of Information

As you listen, remember that taking notes is vital. Find a system that works and practice it. A question regarding organization of information is usually worded in this fashion: “How is the information in the listening passage organized?” Or it might refer to a particular section of the passage. For example: “Why does the professor describe the magic trick? What is he trying to demonstrate?” These types of questions measure your understanding of how the speaker organized the information.

In your notes, you can mark topic changes with a star or brackets. Circle introductions and conclusions, use symbols like + and to show for and against, or positive and negative. Mind mapping is also a good way of taking notes quickly. (See illustration below.)


Also, listen for transition words. Words like first, second, and third will guide you through the speaker’s ideas.

Relationships Among Ideas

As you are taking notes and organizing the relationships and important information, your note-taking system can identify logical relationships between the speaker’s ideas and your notes. For example, you could show cause and effect with arrows, steps in a sequence, or comparisons with a quick chart. Here again, mind mapping is a useful visual tool to reveal organization of content.

Making Inferences and Drawing Conclusions

Making inferences and drawing conclusions is just that—listening to what is stated and drawing conclusions or inferring about unstated information. You will see questions that have key words such as imply, inferred, and/or what does the ____ mean…. When you see these key words in a question, you’ll know that you need to understand what was not explicitly stated. Let’s look at an example:

Library Worker (man): Welcome to the university library. You look a little lost.*
Woman: I think so. I have a paper due about Mount Everest on Monday. I’m not sure where to look for information.
Library Worker (man): Absolutely. That’s what I’m here for.*

From your notes, you can conclude that the woman is a student and the man works for the university’s library. Your notes will also reveal that the woman is most likely a student and she is looking for resources about Mount Everest at the library. The library worker responds positively.

A good example of a question that asks you to infer or draw a conclusion might look like this:

  1. What does the man imply when he says: (audio replay) “Absolutely. That’s what I’m here for.”?

And the answer choices might look like this:

  • The man is going to help her visit Mount Everest.
  • The man is going to help her find the information she needs.
  • The woman wants to go to Mount Everest.
  • The man is here to reserve his book at the library.

The man in this audio implies that he will help the woman find the information she needs.

Making Your Own Connections

During the question portion of the listening passage, you may be asked to put information together in a table, fill in a chart, or put events in order. This is where your own connection and organizing of information is critical. The question prompt may ask you to categorize certain information. Pay attention to the way you format your notes. As you take notes during the passage, you will recognize certain pieces of the conversation or lecture that connect together. The lecturer might introduce the lecture as a discussion of the working conditions for teachers in the 1800s. However, you will identify through your notes that the lecturer may have started out discussing working conditions, but you can connect and organize that the passage actually goes into detail about the rules and policies of female teachers in the late half of the nineteenth century. Through your notes, you will identify a recurring idea of rules (not so much about conditions) and will be able to categorize the information in a table or chart. These kinds of questions will have you using information from more than one place in the listening passage.


Transitions are a great tool in identifying important information in the listening passage. Listen for the signal words that indicate the introduction, major ideas, examples, and the conclusion or summary. These might be sequence words like first, next, and then. Or they might indicate time or the passage of time, like before, during, or since. Or they could show cause and effect, like accordingly or as a result. Listen for the speaker to say, for example, for instance, and such as, when providing examples. You can note conclusions when you hear the speaker say to summarize, in conclusion, or finally/at the end. These signal words are good cues for note-taking.