Kate Hardin

The TOEFL Listening Section

The listening section of the TOEFL is similar to the reading section in format and question type. The major difference is that while the reading section dealt only with expository texts on academic topics, the listening section will include a mixture of lectures and conversations.


General content questions

General content questions ask you to identify the main idea of a passage.  Regardless of whether the sample is a lecture or a conversation, the answer to this question will almost certainly be at the beginning. General content questions generally begin with “What’s the main idea of…” or, in a conversation, “What’s ______’s problem?”


General purpose questions

Nine times out of ten, general purpose questions will be asked about conversations. These questions require you to identify the reason that one of the interlocutors is having the conversation. “Why does the professor want to talk to the student?” and “What information does the student need?” are examples of general purpose questions.


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Specific content questions

You may also be asked about specific details in the passage. These are the first of several question types where note-taking will be essential. They will often ask about some key term that was explained in the lecture or mentioned in the conversation. So if you hear any technical vocabulary or specific offices/places mentioned, be sure to write them down!


Function questions

Function questions are pretty easy to recognize, as they generally begin, “What is the function of…” followed by a sound clip. The purpose of these questions is to testy our ability to recognize the purpose of a particular phrase, usually some sort of rhetorical device that shows the speaker’s attitude or approach to the subject at hand.


Attitude questions

Given my above explanation of function questions, attitude questions may seem superfluous. They are, indeed, very similar to function questions, with one major difference: function questions almost always deal with a very specific part of the text not more than a few words in length. Attitude questions will ask about the speaker’s attitude towards a wider issue (perhaps, but not necessarily, towards the main topic of the lecture).  It’s important when answering attitude and function questions not to limit yourself to what the speaker actually says, as the correct answer will be implicit rather than explicit.


Inference questions

 Inference questions generally are one of two types: either they ask “what can be inferred about ___”, or they ask what will happen immediately after a given excerpt. By definition, of course, inference questions will not be directly stated in the passage. You will often have to synthesize information from several parts of the sample to reach the correct answer.


Organization questions

Organization questions are less common than other questions types. They’ll ask you to comment on the overall organization of a lecture by asking questions like “How does the professor structure his/her argument?” and “How is the information in the lecture organized?” These questions are not usually asked about conversation excerpts.


Synthesis questions

To answer a synthesis question, you will have to take information from different parts of the lecture and organize it in a new way to reveal patterns. These questions can involve tables, comparisons, and relationships between different topics mentioned in the lecture.



  • Kate Hardin

    Kate has 6 years of experience in teaching foreign language. She graduated from Sewanee in 2012, where she studied and taught German, and recently returned from a year spent teaching English in a northern Russian university. Follow Kate on Google+!

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