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Understanding the TOEFL Listening Section

 This article covers:
  • What is the format of the TOEFL listening section?
  • What questions are in the TOEFL listening section?
  • How can I help my students practice for the TOEFL listening section?
  • What’s the best way to prepare for the TOEFL listening section?
  • How to improve TOEFL listening section score?
  • What are some tips for maximizing success on the TOEFL iBT exam?

The TOEFL iBT is an evaluation of academic English skills that is accepted at institutions around the world. This focus on academic English means the TOEFL exam can help students stand out to prospective schools.

To score well on the TOEFL exam, students need to know what to expect on test day. For the listening section, students should know how to interpret and summarize academic conversations. Students studying abroad have these types of conversations often, so TOEFL helps prepare them for their studies.

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TOEFL Listening Section

Students will need to complete the listening section if they take the TOEFL iBT in-person or TOEFL iBT Home Edition. The listening section is the second part of the TOEFL test. It takes between 41 and 57 minutes to complete.

In this part of the test, your student will listen to three or four academic lectures and two or three short conversations. Each lecture is around five minutes long and each conversation is around three minutes long. After each lecture and conversation, your student will answer five or six questions.

If the listening section on your student’s test includes four lectures and three conversations, some of the questions will be unscored. Your student won’t know which questions are unscored, so encourage them to answer every question to the best of their abilities.

Curious what a good TOEFL score looks like? Click here to learn more about how the TOEFL iBT exam is scored.

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Each lecture is around five minutes long. This equates to between 500 and 700 words. Most of the speaking is done by a professor, but occasionally they include comments from students.

The topic discussed in the lecture will be aligned with first-year university classes. This means test-takers don’t need any special background knowledge to understand the lecture. The lecture might cover any topics from the arts, social sciences, life sciences, and physical sciences. The most frequent subjects in the practice tests published by ETS, the creators of the TOEFL, are:

  • Environmental science
  • Art history
  • European history
  • Biology
  • Literature
  • Astronomy
  • Geology
  • Ecology

This is not a complete list of possible topics. Your student may get a lecture about a different subject, so they should be prepared for any topic.

The lectures themselves are fairly specific. For example, the lecture may be an environmental science professor discussing how building houses reduces the habitats of a certain bird species.

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Two students talking

There are two types of conversations on the TOEFL exam:

  • Office hours discussions between a student and a professor
  • Service encounters between a student and a person working at a campus facility

An “office hours” conversation could feature a student talking to a professor about joining a research group on campus. A “service encounter” conversation could be a meeting between a student looking for a job and a person working at an employment office.

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The Questions

Each lecture is followed by six questions, and each conversation is followed by five questions. There are eight different types of questions in the listening section. All but one are multiple choice. Multiple choice questions can include four or five answer choices, and your student may be required to pick more than one correct answer.

TIP: It’s important to help your student understand the types of questions that appear on the test and how they are structured. This will make the TOEFL more predictable and help maximize your student’s success.

Gist-Content Questions

These questions test understanding of the main idea of the lecture or conversation. Example gist-content questions:

  • What problem does the man have?
  • What is the talk mainly about?
  • What aspect of X does the lecturer mainly discuss?

TIP: The best way to solve these questions is to look for answer choices that summarize the entirety of the lecture or conversation. Encourage your student to eliminate any choices that are very specific or that refer to supporting details or examples.

Gist-Purpose Questions

These questions test understanding of the purpose of the conversation or lecture. They might look like this:

  • Why does the woman visit the professor?
  • Why does the professor mention X?

Your student can master these questions by taking notes. For example, they may note why the professor mentioned certain supporting examples in the lectures.

TIP: During an office hours conversation, remind your student to pay careful attention to what is said at the very beginning. Sometimes the student is visiting the professor for a reason unrelated to the main topic of the rest of their conversation.

Interested in more tips to help your students succeed in their TOEFL Exam? Discover tips to give your students extra confidence for their exam day with this TOEFL practice advice:

Detail Questions

These questions test your student’s ability to recall specific details and facts from the lectures and conversations. Generally, these details are used to support the main idea of the listening content. Some example questions:

  • According to the professor, what are two problems associated with X? (Choose two answers)
  • According to the professor, why did X occur?

TIP: Similar to gist-purpose questions, the best way to prepare for these questions is to take careful notes. Your student should note examples and arguments that are used to support the speaker’s main point. A key tip you can give to your student is carefully read each answer choice. Choices that include words they heard in the conversation or lecture are deliberately used to create attractive but incorrect choices.

Function Questions

For these questions, your student will listen to a short excerpt from the lecture or conversation. They will then be asked something like:

  • Why does the professor say this? (followed by an excerpt replay)
  • What does the professor mean when he says this? (followed by an excerpt replay)

TIP: These are quite similar to purpose questions. Advise your student to look for answer choices that support the main idea. They should avoid choices that present new information not found in the replay.

Attitude Questions

These questions require your student to understand the attitude of a speaker. They test your student’s ability to determine how the speaker feels about a subject. They also evaluate how certain the speaker is about specific details and whether they are attempting to use irony. They often look like this:

  • Why is the woman surprised by the man’s request?
  • How does the professor feel about X?

TIP: To answer these questions well, your student needs to pay careful attention to the speaker’s tone of voice. Does the speaker ever sound confused? Do they ever sound excited? Encourage your student to avoid answers that use words like “never” or “always.” These are extremes that are often used to create incorrect answer choices.

Learn more about each TOEFL section in greater detail or find out which TOEFL test is the right choice for your students.

Organization Questions

These questions test your student’s ability to grasp connections between ideas and examples. For the lectures, students will also need to understand why details are presented in a certain order or sequence. This question type generally appears following lectures rather than conversations. Questions of this type resemble these examples:

  • The professor mentions the example of X. What point does he use this example to illustrate?
  • How does the professor organize the details related to X?

TIP: Answering these questions requires fairly detailed notes. When your student sees one of these questions, they should look at their notes for clues about the overall organization of the lecture. They should try to determine if the details in the lecture are presented in chronological order or some other intentional sequence. If they are not sure why a specific example was mentioned in the lecture, they should check to see if the reason was given at a later point.

Inference Questions

This question type requires your student to make conclusions based on facts and details they heard. The correct answer choices are not explicitly mentioned in the lecture or conversation. But, the answers are logical and correct based on details that were mentioned. These questions usually look like this:

  • What can be inferred about X?
  • What does the man imply about X?
  • What was the student likely doing before the conversation?
  • What will the man probably do next?

TIP: When selecting an answer, your student should look for choices that use vocabulary not heard in the lecture or conversation. Encourage them to also eliminate answer choices that don’t make sense based on their overall understanding of the lecture or conversation.

Connecting Content Questions

These are the only questions in the listening section that are not multiple choice. They ask the test-taker to place a list of items into specific categories. Or, they sometimes ask the student to organize a list of items into a specific order.

For example, following a lecture about the body types of animals, your student may be required to sort the animals mentioned into vertebrate or invertebrate categories. If the lecture was about technological changes in the early motion picture industry, your student may be required to organize changes mentioned in the lecture from earliest to latest.

TIP: You can help your student master this type of question by teaching them to take organized notes. Remind them to use techniques like charts and arrows to ensure that the order of their notes matches the order used by the speaker.

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Maximizing Student Success

The listening section is important to prepare for because it focuses on academic topics. For this reason, it’s important that students are exposed to relevant content on a regular basis. A few good examples of podcasts that can help prepare your students for this section:

Each podcast is just a few minutes long. Remind your student to take notes as they listen to them. See if they can determine the main ideas of each episode, and why certain supporting details and examples are given.

Want to learn more about other TOEFL sections? Check out the links below: