As you study for the TOEFL, it’s important to practice English listening as much as you can. This means using both TOEFL practice materials and non-TOEFL practice. For this reason, Magoosh recommends listening to podcasts, news videos, TED Talks, and so on. Listening to a variety of academic and educational English audio tracks will make you a stronger listener who is better prepared for the exam.
Still, you need to be aware that certain TOEFL audio is different from other kinds of English listening. For one thing, TOEFL listening tracks tend to have slower speech compared to other kinds of listening practice. (As Kate points out.) This may be a relief for you if you’re having trouble keeping up with the speech on websites like Al Jazeera English or 60 Second Science.
However, the biggest difference between TOEFL audio tracks and the speech on news and educational websites is not speed. The biggest difference is pacing. Most podcasts and news reports have a steady, even pace of speech that is typical of English language news broadcasting. TOEFL Listening tracks are different. They usually have a somewhat uneven pace of speech. TOEFL speech is less like broadcasting and more like the unscripted talking heard in everyday life. TOEFL speakers speed up, slow down, and change their tone. They also sometimes have abrupt verbal pauses.
What doesn’t change or shift in TOEFL speech is the speakers’ use of the basic rules of English intonation. English intonation hits high pitches and low pitches, with rising and falling notes that are a bit like musical notes. It does this in a way that is very predictable. If you can understand these intonational rules, you can follow the pace of TOEFL Listening, even when the pace is not as consistent as your other listening practice.
Here are three very good tutorials on the intonation rules of English. The first two sources are from the Magoosh TOEFL Blog. The third source is from the Rachel’s English YouTube Channel:
- The Rise and Fall of English
- English Intonation: Knowing When to Rise and Fall
- Question Intonation with Rachel’s English
The links above help you understand English intonation and stress across whole sentences. It’s also important to know about stress of individual words in English as you follow the TOEFL’s sometimes choppy pace of speech. Here are some good sources of information about English word stress:
- Jonathan Pierrel’s Wordstress.info
- Clear Speech (This is not a website, but a book. I highly recommend it. It’s very reasonably priced and comes with an audio CD. It’s great for self-study and has helped a lot of my students over the years.)
- Heather Hanson’s YouTube Video on Word Stress
The pace of the English you hear can vary a lot. It can be extremely fast, medium-paced, slow, or uneven. But what doesn’t change is the rules for how words and sentences are stressed. If English is a kind of music, then the tempo changes, but the actual notes stay the same. Learn the notes and practice listening in a variety of tempos. Soon you’ll be humming along nicely to the tune of your second language, both on the TOEFL and off.