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Common TOEFL Listening Difficulties

Not knowing the subject matter

The TOEFL is designed not to require any prior knowledge of the topics on the test. In other words, hypothetically an artist should find every recording as easy as the engineer next to him does. In spite of this, there’s no doubt that if you’re already familiar with the subject matter, your score can only go up. On the other hand, if you have no familiarity with the topic, you may be unfamiliar with words that you need to know to fully understand the recording.

Inevitably, you will not be an expert on all of the subjects you’ll encounter on the TOEFL. So prepare for the worst by applying the same study practices to listening that you would to reading. When we read, we learn how to pick up on all kinds of context clues, or hints that help us figure out the meaning of unfamiliar words. For example, in case you were unfamiliar with the phrase “context clues,” I defined it immediately after saying it for the first time. Professors will frequently do this in lectures, as the words that are central to the new ideas they’re discussing are often unfamiliar to their students.

Even if the speaker doesn’t define a word, you can try to figure it out by looking at what else s/he says: examples, clarifications, and so on. When you encounter an unknown word, don’t let it distract you. Instead, focus your attention on what hints the speaker might be giving as to the word’s meaning.


“Natural” style

The TOEFL listening section is full of informal language that is designed to sound like real-world speech. It’s also not as slow as some resources for non-native speakers. These two facts combined are the biggest challenge for a lot of test-takers in the listening section. It’s hard to navigate the “umms,” “wells,” and mid-sentence topic changes that characterize the listening section. One great way to deal with this is to listen to interviews. The speakers are not reading from scripts, unlike TV characters, so they’re generally slower and more broken up, with those pauses and repetition. You can find interviews from American shows and radio online, and many websites include transcripts or offer subtitles which can help you out at first. Be sure not to rely on subtitles forever, however, since you won’t have access to them on the test.


Not understanding intent

It’s easy to get wrapped up in the subject matter of a recording and forget to pay attention to the big picture, but a large portion of the listening section requires you to do just that.  You need to know not only the information contained in the lecture, but also the speakers’ attitudes, the situation in which the recording takes place, and what is likely to happen next. You will find these kinds of questions much easier to answer if you allow yourself to visualize the scene as the recording is taking place. If it’s a conversation, where do you think the speakers are? In the cafeteria? In an office? Is the professor behind a desk (as at office hours or a formal meeting), or did the speakers meet casually? If it’s a lecture, try to imagine what the professor might be doing with his or her body and facial expressions. This can help you tap into unspoken information that may be crucial in understanding attitude and intent.


Getting all the details

The TOEFL recordings include a lot of information, and you will be asked about some specific details. In order to answer those questions you need to be able to remember the specifics. But which details will you need? Remember that you don’t need to remember every single word of the lecture or conversation. You just need the most important details. If you hear a number, it’s probably not going to be the answer to a question. You don’t have to memorize or note little facts. But if you hear two numbers compared, and the message is that one of those numbers is much larger than the other (for example, in comparing the populations of two countries), you should definitely remember which one is bigger. Focus on the speaker’s intentions. If you can understand how the details fit into their main points, then you’re in a good place.

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