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TOEFL Tuesday: Listening Practice – Main Purpose Questions

Stop where you are! Before you watch the whole video, and before you read further, you need this TOEFL practice material to understand today’s TOEFL Tuesday lesson:

ETS Practice PDF

That pdf has free, official TOEFL questions, made by ETS. And today, we’re going to analyze the first listening question in that document. It’s on page 11, and the question is this: “Why does the student come to the library?”

TOEFL Listening “Main Purpose” Questions

On your TOEFL, there will be two or three conversations in the listening section. Those conversations often have a question like this after. In fact, every TOEFL listening has a “main idea” question as the first question. But for conversations specifically, it’s very common that the main idea question is a “main purpose” question. In other words, it asks about why the conversation happened, not just the content of the conversation.

These questions are interesting because they aren’t always about the whole conversation. Sometimes, there is a topic change in the middle of the conversation, so the reason why the conversation started is almost unrelated to some of the discussion.

But really, you want to focus on both the beginning of the conversation and the structure of the conversation as a whole. Let’s look at the answer choices to this sample question from Quick Prep Volume 1.

(A) To learn about the library’s resources

This is the correct answer. At the beginning of the conversation, the student says this: “I’m wondering if you can give me a few quick pointers about the library?”

The word “pointers” is a big help here. “Pointers” are pieces of advice. The student is asking for advice about the library. He wants to know more.

It also helps to consider the complete conversation. The student asks about a few things: how long he can borrow books, where he can use a computer, and how much it costs to make copies. The librarian also gives him more information. It’s a very general description of what the library offers. (A) matches that well.

(B) To ask about interlibrary loans

This is an important example of a common type of wrong answer. It’s tempting because the librarian does talk about interlibrary loans. But it’s so specific! The student also asks about several other things. This doesn’t match the total structure of the conversation, and the student doesn’t ask about it at the start. In fact, the student never asks about them at all! The librarian talks about interlibrary loans without being asked. So this can’t be the answer

(C) To attend the new student orientation

Here we have another important type of wrong answer. These words match some of the words in the beginning of the conversation, but it’s not the same. The student says “I, uh, couldn’t come to the student orientation.” That’s the opposite of “attend the…orientation.” He didn’t go!

Be careful when you see words or phrases that look familiar. Having some words in common doesn’t make an answer choice right. It has to completely match the listening. In this case, the word “attend” doesn’t match.

Just because it’s at the beginning doesn’t mean it’s correct!

(D) To start work on a research project

And again, this is a common type of wrong answer. This makes some sense. Maybe the student does have a research project. And maybe that’s why he wants to know about the library’s resources. But he never says anything about a specific research project that he’ll work on. The whole conversation is about library resources in general, not about specific plans.

Don’t infer too much. An answer choice that makes sense can be wrong if it’s not directly evidenced in the recording. What you think might be true doesn’t matter. Only the words that are spoken are important.

Eliminate wrong answers when you know they’re wrong

As you go through answer choices to main purpose questions on your TOEFL, identify why certain answers are wrong—you will certainly see a few similar to the examples above! That will help you be more confident in the right answer, which will be the only choice that’s not flawed.


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