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TOEFL Listening Question Type: Organization

Organization questions occur almost exclusively in lectures and are of three basic types. The first type will deal with the overall organization of the lecture; the second will ask you about the relationship between two (or more) parts of the lecture; and the third is similar to a function question, but deals with a whole sentence.

If you learn to notice how the information is organized automatically as you listen, then answering overall organization questions will be a breeze. When the overall organization is in question, these are some of the most likely ways that the lecture may have been organized.

Likelihood – This type of organization is most often used when the lecture deals with different theories or possibilities. The speaker will begin with the least likely and proceed to the most likely (more rarely, s/he may begin with the most likely and move toward the least likely).

Complexity – The speaker may list the ideas in the lecture from simplest to most complex in order to make the more difficult information more accessible.

Chronology – Lectures in history are often (but not always) organized chronologically—that is, beginning with the first event that occurred and moving up to the one that occurred most recently.

Comparison – This scheme of organization groups all the similarities among the items being discussed, then groups all the differences (or the other way around). The professor’s thesis statement, or statement of the main idea of the lecture, will likely give you a clue when a comparative organization is going to be used.

– General to specific – Very often, a lecture will start out with the professor talking about a general concept, and then they will start talking about some more specific details about how that idea works and examples of it in real life.

Cause and effect – Don’t expect this to be so simple as “A happens, then B happens.” Instead, you might hear about some phenomenon, and then the professor will talk about the three main causes for that phenomenon. Or, conversely, you might hear about one phenomenon and then three different effects it has.

There are others, too, and these structures can also be combined. For example, you might have a comparison structure, but one of the parts in the comparison is more important than others, so it has a general to specific structure within the comparison structure. This makes it quite tricky, sometimes, to hear the main organization. Keep in mind that the overall organization should include all parts of the lecture: there may be a cause-and-effect relationship that doesn’t relate to the rest of the lecture, for example, and that would not be the main organization.

The second kind of organization question is the one that deals with the relationships between various parts of the lecture.  For example, the test may ask you, “How does the professor explain his theory about the causes of the war?” To answer this question, you would need to look back at your notes and find the information that is relevant to that question. These questions are about the smaller relationships, rather than the overall structure.

Finally, we have the function-type organization questions. These will ask you about whole sentences that provide a clue to how the professor is structuring the lecture. For example, the professor will sometimes go off topic, give a personal example to clarify the information, or give information that is redundant. Often, s/he will announce this by saying something like “You don’t need to write this down” or “Let me show you what I mean.” To answer the third type of organization question correctly, you need to pay attention to these cues. In particular, pay attention to any time the professor appears to be digressing (going off topic), as you may be asked about the digression later.


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