David Recine

TOEFL Listening Tips and Tricks

headphones around an alarm clock, representing TOEFL listening time

TOEFL Listening involves precise types of tasks. While these can feel unfamiliar at first, they actually provide a great introduction to campus life in the United States! However, mastering them for the TOEFL iBT does take some practice. From timing to note-taking, focus to intonation, here are Magoosh’s top TOEFL Listening tips and tricks to help raise your score on test day.

Table of Contents

TOEFL Listening Tips: An Overview

TOEFL Listening Tips and Tricks: Test-Taking Skills

TOEFL Listening Section Timing and Pacing Tips

TOEFL Listening Note-Taking Strategies

TOEFL Listening Tips and Tricks After Losing Focus

TOEFL Practice Tips

Common TOEFL Listening Problems and Tips to Address Them

TOEFL Listening: Some Final Thoughts

TOEFL Listening Tips: An Overview

While your TOEFL Listening score measures many different factors, from your understanding of the prompts to your ease with English, there are a few tips that will serve you well on each and every task! Here are Magoosh’s top TOEFL Listening tips and tricks for a higher score on test day.

Pay Attention to Intonation

Recognize the intonational rhythm of English. You don’t have to study intonation as much as you would for TOEFL Speaking. However, knowing the tones of important words and sentence transitions is key to understanding what you hear.

Distinguish Between Sounds

Be able to hear and recognize the sounds in English. You don’t need to study every sound as intensely as you would for spoken pronunciation. But you should make sure you can hear the difference between slightly different but distinct sounds in English, such as “d” and “t,” “b” and “v,” “l” and “r,” etc.

Practice Paraphrasing and Inferring Meaning

As you listen to TOEFL lectures, conversations, and audio recordings in practice and on practice tests, think about other words the speaker could have used. This will come in handy on test day, when the correct answer choice is often a paraphrase of the text, instead of an exact quotation. Similarly, there may also be times when the speaker uses a word you don’t know. That’s okay! Use inference skills to get to the correct answer.

Listen Better by Taking Good Notes

The fastest way to answer questions more accurately on the TOEFL Listening test? Become a good note-taker. Learn to keep pace with what you hear, taking notes attentively but quickly. This includes knowing which information is important and which information you can probably ignore. Effective note-taking also involves proper pacing. Check out more on these note-taking strategies below!

While these general tips will set you on the right path for success on test day, another way to raise your score in this area is to become familiar with the test format. The Listening section has very specific types of passages and questions, and understanding them before you set foot in the test center will lead you to a more comfortable experience!

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TOEFL Listening Tips and Tricks: Test-Taking Skills

Now that you have a general understanding of how to approach TOEFL Listening, let’s dive into how you can use the format of the section to your advantage. The TOEFL is a standardized exam: it presents similar material in the same way to each and every test-taker in order to provide a valid assessment. Because of this, there are a few TOEFL Listening tips and tricks that you can use to master the exam that are more about the test than your fluency in English!

Know the Tasks

One of the most basic TOEFL Listening tips and tricks is also one of the most important! Be familiar with the different kinds of Listening passages on the TOEFL. You’ll hear conversations that involve opinions, problem solving, and student life. You’ll also hear academic lectures, some that include student participation, and some that don’t. Be aware that different kinds of recordings require different approaches from the test-taker. The important points in different task types will look very different!

Know the Questions

Know how to answer the different types of TOEFL Listening questions. Understand the different requirements and strategies for questions related to detail, attitude, function, organization, main ideas, inference, categorizing, and so on.

Understand How to Approach Conversations

On the TOEFL, you will listen to two types of speech: lectures and conversations. Lectures are fairly formal and well-organized. In fact, lectures actually have a structure similar to straightforward academic writing.

Conversations are not so straightforward. There are a number of features in conversational English that make conversations hard to follow at times. Below is a list of some of the common “sloppy” features of conversational English.

  • Verbal pauses: Conversation has verbal pauses. Speakers use these pauses to buy themselves time as they think of what they’ll say. Many verbal pauses are non-words that don’t really have any meaning. Other verbal pauses are real words and phrases, but they are stripped of most of their meaning. English speakers say things like “so, okay,” “now,” “I suppose,” and so on, just to give themselves more time to think before they say something more meaningful.
  • Repetition: One of the first things you’re taught about writing in English (and probably about writing in your native language) is to avoid repetitive wording. In writing, you don’t want to repeat the same words and phrases over and over. Transitions need to vary, and so do adjectives, conjunctions, and other language pieces. In speech, however, repetition that would seem just awful in writing is a lot more common. That said, when an English speaker says the same phrase a few too many times in a short period of time, ideas can sound too repetitive and “run together” a bit.
  • Interruptions: In English conversation (and conversation in any language!) people interrupt each other. Someone can be abruptly cut off mid-sentence by another speaker. Excessive interruptions are rude. But a little interruption here and there is normal and unavoidable in conversation.
  • “Talking over”: This is closely related to interruption. There are times when speakers “talk over” each other—that is, they talk at the same time while saying different things. A conversation with lots of “talking over” is almost impossible to understand. But that doesn’t happen very often—except maybe in heated arguments or other kinds of excited speech. Instead, “talking over” is minimal and quick. But it often happens in more emotional, more interesting parts of a conversation, so it can cause important keywords to get “lost.”
  • Misspeaking: Sometimes a speaker will say a completely incorrect word or phrase, so that the meaning of the speech changes in a way that’s unintended, and may not even make sense in context. This can happen in lectures, too. In fact, some official TOEFL lectures will include misspoken words from the professor. Misspeaking is even more common in conversations, because conversations are more fast-paced and not as planned, compared to lectures.

TOEFL conversation tracks have fewer “messy” features than real-life conversations. But the messy features are still there, and you will be expected to know how to handle them on the exam.

In part because of the natural, fast-paced nature of TOEFL Listening passages, many test-takers notice that the TOEFL Listening section can go by very quickly. This is such an important part of the test-day experience that it requires its own section! Next, let’s take a look at how you can use the timing on TOEFL Listening to your advantage.

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TOEFL Listening Section Timing and Pacing Tips

Mastering the format of TOEFL Listening is incredibly important to test-day success. A key part of this format is the quick pacing of this section. Before we get into the TOEFL Listening tips and tricks you’ll need to master the fast pacing, let’s take a quick look at the time you’ll be working with. The total TOEFL Listening section time is 41 minutes, with time allocated for the lecture and audio tracks, instructions, and answering questions. Here’s the breakdown:

  • Time for Lecture and Audio Tracks: 21 minutes
  • Time for Answering Questions: 16.5 minutes
  • Time for Instructions: 3.5 minutes

In other words, you get about 24.5 minutes to listen to the three lectures, two conversations, and various sets of instructions. Then you get roughly 16.5 minutes to listen to and answer 28 questions.

Note that the 16.5 minutes is the only time you’ll actually see the TOEFL clock ticking down on your exam screen. What does this mean for the time per question on the TOEFL Listening section? Read the section below for a more detailed look at how you should pace yourself as you answer TOEFL Listening questions.

TOEFL Listening Section Time Per Question

As I mentioned above, expect roughly 16.5 minutes to complete the combined number of questions for the five recordings in the TOEFL Listening Section. That’s 16.5 minutes for 28 questions, or about 35 seconds per question.

But because you can’t go back and listen again (unlike the Reading section, which allows you to re-read the passage), you have the option to answer your TOEFL Listening questions quickly. Most students only take 10-20 seconds per question, and that’s the timing you should ideally aim for. By learning to quickly consult your notes, you should be able to avoid running out of TOEFL Listening time on test day. (We’ll talk more about this in the note-taking strategies section).

Also, always remember that once you’ve submitted an answer, you can’t go back to it as you can in the Reading section. That means there’s no strategy of answering some questions before others, and skipping will always hurt your score. Answer every question in the order you see it, even if you have to guess.

TOEFL Listening Pacing Strategies

The challenge with TOEFL Listening practice materials is that not all materials perfectly emulate the real test-day experience. Even official TOEFL materials sometimes reflect the old, pre-2019 version of the TOEFL Listening section, and surprisingly, no TOEFL Listening practice, official or otherwise, has an onscreen timer that matches the one you’ll see on test day. This can make it particularly difficult to perfect your TOEFL Listening pacing. But by understanding the differences and following the TOEFL Listening tips and tricks below, you can make sure you’re making the most of your time.

Practice Listening to Audio One Time Through

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You need to brace yourself to stay as attentive as possible because you can’t pause, rewind, replay, or slow down the speed of an audio track on the real test, even though you can do these things in TOEFL Listening practice. Your goal during practice should be to reach a point where you aren’t dependent on practice-only features. Listening to a TOEFL lecture or conversation one time through and answering the questions well is an important mark of success in managing your TOEFL Listening time.

Ideally, you’ll pay attention perfectly for the duration of the test, understand all of the main ideas the first time they’re mentioned, and understand the context of every recording. But practically speaking, this may not be possible. If you miss some information, how do you ensure the highest possible score? We’ll look at that in the section on making the most of your TOEFL Listening time after losing focus.


Be Wary of the Practice TOEFL Listening Timer

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As I mentioned earlier, the timer you see on the exam screen only ticks when you’re answering questions. The TOEFL Listening clock does not run while the lectures or conversations are playing. The TOEFL Listening clock also does not run during the instructions that come at the beginning of the section and come at the beginning of each question set.

This means that the TOEFL Listening clock also comes to a halt during the question sets if any sort of audio is played. Whenever a small part of the lecture audio is replayed before a question, the clock stops. The timer also stops momentarily for the brief spoken audio instructions that come before every single question.

Practice for your TOEFL exam with Magoosh.

This ETS-based timer software is very difficult to duplicate. As a result, most of the TOEFL practice materials out there—including Magoosh and even the ETS official guides—have a timer that starts at 41 minutes and ticks throughout your practice section. For this reason, it’s very important to make sure you’re listening to the audio no more than once. You also must practice keeping your TOEFL Listening time per question to an average of 35 seconds per question. In fact, 10-20 seconds is even better; it’s a pace that most students are able to reach, and it ensures you won’t risk running out of time on the Listening section.

Now that you’ve mastered the timing of TOEFL Listening, we’ll take a look at another important part of getting a high score on TOEFL Listening: note-taking. Good note-taking skills can help you maximize the brief time available to you on test day, making the most of the time you do have!

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TOEFL Listening Note-Taking Strategies

As we’ve just seen, TOEFL Listening can feel a lot faster than other sections, like Reading, because of how quickly each task goes by. There are a couple of other ways in which your strategy on the Listening section will be different from that of the Reading section. First of all, of course, you can’t go back to the recording as you answer the questions. That’s why note-taking during TOEFL Listening is such a powerful tool.

However, it can also be a double-edged sword when it comes to managing TOEFL Listening time. So it’s important to develop good note-taking habits. Here are our top tips and tricks!

Strike a Balance in the Amount of Notes You Take

When you take notes, make sure you take just enough notes to remember the key points in the lecture or conversation. If you take too many notes, you can actually find yourself frantically focusing on writing all the words down, to the point where you lose focus on what the lecture actually means. And needless to say, you should only work on your notes while the lectures and conversations are playing. Never let note-taking time cut into your TOEFL Listening time to answer questions.

Magoosh’s TOEFL expert, Lucas, weighs in with more about note-taking here!

Adjust Your Note-Taking Style Based on the Prompt

When you compare conversations to lectures, there are a couple of advantages. Conversations are usually much shorter (just a few minutes long). The subject matter may be academic or non-academic, so you’re more likely to get a topic that you already know something about. And best of all, if you miss something one speaker says, the other speaker’s response will probably give you a clue as to what you missed. Whereas in lectures it’s important to understand as many words as possible, the conversations reward people who may not get every word, but who are good at interpreting implied information, idioms, and tone of voice.

On the other hand, you have very little time to figure out what’s going on, as the structure of a conversation moves very quickly and doesn’t usually return to a point made at the beginning. What’s more, the greater emphasis on informal language requires you to know a different vocabulary set than the rest of the lectures and readings on the TOEFL.

Taking Notes on Lectures

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Conversations usually deal with information that is fairly familiar to the speakers. Lectures are a little different: the professor is teaching, so of course s/he will use words and discuss concepts that are unfamiliar not only to you, but to the (imaginary) students s/he’s lecturing to. So if you get confused, relax and look for ways that the professor may be explaining those new words and ideas. If s/he defines a key concept and you miss the definition, don’t worry too much. The professor will probably give some examples to clarify his or her point. Listen for clarifications given after the new, unknown words or phrases.

Sometimes, you will need to answer questions about the overall structure of a lecture. Try to preserve the original structure of the lecture in your notes so that you don’t get stuck when an organization question comes up. Yes, you may skip around (as some lecturers inevitably will) to place details and examples under the appropriate heading, but make an effort to at least write the headings in the same order that the professor mentions them.

Remember that a lecture is a lot like a passage. In TOEFL class lectures, the professor puts forth academic information in a way that’s similar to a TOEFL Reading passage. There are main ideas, organized into paragraphs, with supporting details. As you listen to the lecture and take notes, imagine you are outlining a passage. Listen for topic sentences, supporting ideas, transitions, and other “markers” that you would also see in an academic text. In other words, think of the exercise as “reading” a TOEFL lecture.

Finally, keep in mind that a lecture is not the same thing as a “Listening discussion” on the TOEFL. Some classroom talks in the TOEFL Listening section are really discussions between a professor and some students. These talks will still be similar to a reading passage in some ways because the professor’s speech takes up the majority of the audio track. But the professor will also have direct interactions with students. And these interactions are conversation-like. In TOEFL Listening discussions, each speaker plays a different role and offers different kinds of information. Once you get to the questions, be ready to identify specific ideas related to the words of individual speakers in the discussion.


Taking Notes on Conversations

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Taking notes on a conversation may seem very easy in comparison to your practice lectures, since it’s almost possible to write every detail. You may even be tempted to do just that, simply because you can. But as I said above, conversations are less about explicit content than implied content. If you’re writing furiously throughout the recording, you’ll miss important nuances that are bound to be in the questions.

Below I’ve given an example one style of note-taking. Below that, I’ll describe another style that may be helpful (you might also want to take a look at our TOEFL Note-Taking post and this TOEFL Tuesday video for more helpful tips).

The notes below are on the practice recording found in ETS QuickPrep Volume 3. Listen to that conversation as you look through the notes below. Then try taking notes using each of these methods in turn, so you can choose and adapt one so it works best for you.

People: student, registrar

S. bring form—4 dip.

R. (checks PC). grad OK…? warn on rec.

R. required—cred. need plan. Sent letters b4, don’t now.

S. met chair. prof said okay.

R. PC = reliable.

S. bas. courses. no int. chair: field work = int. clssmates for req.s. Him for xtra

R. But not int. course

S. No grad?

R. Don’t worry. tell chair talk to reg. Do soon. wait = can’t help.

Notice that there are few full words (and definitely no sentences!) in those notes. If they’re hard to understand then that’s good. Nobody needs to understand them except you, and you only need to understand them for a few minutes.

In fact, I made the notes above long compared to what you might write during your actual TOEFL. Be sure you don’t spend the whole time writing. Remember that you need to listen enough to understand the bigger ideas and implications.


The Other Method: Two Columns

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I promised another style, too: the truth is that it’s pretty similar to what’s above. Only instead, of writing in one column, alternating between R. and S., you will write in two columns. On the left side will be one speaker, and on the right side will be the other. This helps you keep straight who said what without always including the speakers identity at the beginning of the line.

Some test-takers have trouble doing the two column approach, though, and prefer to just keep it organized in one up-and-down column. That’s fine. But I’d suggest that you try both during your practice sessions, so that you can find out which is more efficient for you!

Practice Using Flowcharts

Flowchart of whether or not to eat chocolate
Image by Julie R. Thomson

A flowchart is a chart that shows the process for making a decision or completing a task. The flowchart above, for instance, shows how to decide whether you should eat another piece of chocolate. The Internet is full of cute, funny flowcharts like that. Flowcharts can also be more serious and complex. This flowchart, for example, shows the difficult and complicated task of keeping computer data secure.

As you can see, flowcharts can get pretty elaborate. But don’t worry—the flowcharts for TOEFL Listening conversations are a lot simpler. Because flowcharts diagram decisions and tasks, they’re perfect for representing the conversation tracks you hear in the Listening Section.

In TOEFL Listening, one speaker (usually a student) has to accomplish something on campus, and the other speaker (usually a professor or university employee) helps the student accomplish the task. Sometimes the actual task is completed by the end of the conversation—this is especially common if the task is simply a matter of getting information. And sometimes the task is not completed by the end of the conversation, but several steps in the task have been discussed or done by the speakers. Either way, decisions are made on how to accomplish the task, so that a flowchart can be created to show task-based decisions and processes.

There are two main approaches to note-taking for conversations: either taking two-column notes (one column per speaker), or putting notes in a single column for the whole conversation. Below, you can see two different flow charts. Both charts depict the conversation from the Listening task on page 10 of TOEFL Quick Prep Volume 3 (transcript on pages 30 to 31, audio file here).

TOEFL Listening tips and tricks: Flowchart options

As you can see, the arrows and flowchart style of note-taking helps you envision each conversation as a process. This in turn helps you understand the most important ideas that you hear. This format makes for an excellent study guide once you start answering the questions—and really, that’s the whole point of taking notes.

Balance Notes and Listening

It’s important to strike the right balance of note-taking and listening so that you hear and remember all the important information. You can do this by making your notes an extension of, rather than a distraction from, your listening. How? By learning to listen and take notes actively. These TOEFL Listening tips and tricks may help you find the ideal balance.


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Part of listening actively is putting in your opinions and reactions along with the information expressed in the lecture. Not only will this make the note-taking process more interesting (and therefore help you maintain concentration), but by connecting personally to the recordings, you’ll give your memory a boost when you answer the questions.

Of course, your priority should still be to record the facts. But even putting an emoticon (smiley face or sad face) to mark information that you agree or strongly disagree with can help you to connect with (and therefore remember) the information on a deeper level.


Write Often

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While you’re listening, your pen should never leave your hand. You will not write every word, or even every sentence, but you will ideally never forget to note the important stuff. Listen to a thought or sentence, figure out what they’re saying, and then ask yourself, “Is this important enough for my notes?” Focusing on your notes not only helps you to remember important details, but also helps you focus on the big picture—the structure of a lecture or the main problems and emotions of a conversation.


Write What You Understand, Not What You Hear

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Don’t try to write out complete sentences. If you try to copy word for word what is said, you will be left behind and then you will miss important information. Test-takers who write too many notes end up confused and frustrated. Instead, listen carefully and try to understand the main messages. When you do understand a concept, note it down briefly. Every major idea that you hear about can be noted with just a few words—and many of those words will be abbreviated or represented by symbols.


Structure Your Notes

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The act of physically putting words on paper is an important skill for doing your best on the TOEFL, but it’s not everything. You also want to separate the big ideas from the small ideas. For many test-takers, only the big ideas need to go on the paper at all—memory will help for the small ideas. But that’s not for everybody, and there are some “small” ideas that are actually pretty important. Make it clear which parts of your notes feel like larger concepts and which parts are smaller but important details while you listen.

Practice, Practice, Practice!

Ultimately, good note-taking is integral to good pacing during your TOEFL Listening. So be sure to check out Magoosh’s TOEFL Listening tips and tricks for note-taking. Here are the most essential ones:

Once you’ve read through the best note-taking practices, try your hand at note-taking on the TOEFL with this sample lecture!

These note-taking strategies will help you jot down the key facts and information from TOEFL Listening passages. However, you may have noticed that they require intense concentration–and in the real world, our focus can slip from time to time. Next, let’s go over some tips for what to do when you lose focus in TOEFL Listening.

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TOEFL Listening Tips and Tricks After Losing Focus

Note-taking is a great way to keep your focus on the TOEFL Listening passages. However, nobody’s perfect: at some point, you will probably miss some information that might be central to one (or more) of the questions. Your mind may have wandered, or you were busy trying to figure out a phrase that didn’t quite make sense, or you were guessing what questions you’ll be asked, or you’re just tired. The Listening section is fast-paced, so this is an almost inevitable mistake test-takers make in managing their time.

What should you do, and how can you make sure you don’t fall so far behind that you cut into your TOEFL Listening time to answer questions? Here are our best TOEFL Listening tips and tricks for when you get off-track.

First, Let it Go

The rhyme I have my students remember when they miss something they heard during their TOEFL Listening time is “It’s gone; move on.”

Everyone gets off track sometimes—that’s why even native speakers often don’t get perfect scores on the TOEFL. But it’s way too easy to get caught up in scolding yourself for letting your mind wander, which only compounds the problem. So when you notice that you’ve gotten off track, simply get back on track. Be careful not to dwell on how you got off track or let yourself get distracted when you hear something for which you missed the context. The only thing worse than breaking concentration once is breaking concentration more than once.

Second, Refocus on Note-taking

Now that you’re listening again, put more effort than usual into taking notes and less effort than usual into predicting and synthesizing. If you’ve missed a segment of the lecture, you want to write as much of the key information you’re hearing for two reasons:

  • You may not know for sure what information is most important now, and
  • The more information you have, the easier it will be for you to fill in the blanks of what you missed.

When the Listening track is finished, take a little time during the questions to put together the pieces and try to reconstruct the information you missed by looking at your notes. With any luck, you will be able to infer enough information to answer most of the questions without too much difficulty. Your notes really can save you, and they’re important even when you’re not falling behind in TOEFL Listening pacing.

One of the best ways you can keep your focus on TOEFL Listening passages is to practice extensively before test day, training your brain to treat TOEFL Listening clips as super important. In the next section, we’ll take a look at some resources for this type of practice.

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TOEFL Listening Practice Resources

The more you practice with TOEFL Listening materials, the easier it will be to keep your focus on test day. Of course, you won’t know ahead of time what the subject of your TOEFL Listening passages will be. For this reason, make sure you’re using a variety of different materials throughout your TOEFL practice! Magoosh has a variety of posts that can help you familiarize yourself with lectures and conversations on tons of topics. Here are just a few!

TOEFL Listening Practice: Entertainment

Who said TOEFL Listening practice has to be boring? Everything from movies to comedy to karaoke can help you build your listening skills. Here are some of our favorite resources.

TOEFL Listening Practice: Academic

Looking for more TOEFL-like practice? Magoosh has you covered here, too! These resources will point you in the right direction for lectures and conversations in English, just like you’ll hear on test day.

TOEFL Listening Practice: Other Resources

Looking for more TOEFL resources to hack the Listening section? Check out these posts for everything from accents on the TOEFL to finding TOEFL Listening practice in your everyday life!

One of the best things about practicing with TOEFL-like materials is that it will help bring problems to your attention before test day. While it can feel demoralizing to lose interest in an unfamiliar subject, misunderstand native speakers, get confused about intent, or miss a detail, we have tips to help you solve these issues, too, so that they won’t affect you during the official exam!

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Common TOEFL Listening Problems and Tips to Address Them

As you practice incorporating these TOEFL Listening tips and tricks into your test prep, you may find that you encounter some challenges. This is completely normal! Here are a few common issues we see students facing—and our best TOEFL Listening tips and tricks for fixing them.

Not Knowing the Subject Matter

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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 an engineer would. 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 lack confidence listening to it, and this can certainly hurt your score.

Inevitably, you will not be an expert on all of the subjects you’ll encounter on the TOEFL. So prepare for this 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, 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. In the TOEFL Listening section, 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 about the meaning of the word. That way, even if you still have some doubts about the word’s exact meaning, you’ll still have an educated guess.

Understanding “Natural” English Speaking Style

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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 other practice materials 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 like TV characters, so they’re generally slower and more broken up, with those TOEFL-like pauses and repetition. You can go online to find interviews from American shows and radio, 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

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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 pay attention to that big picture. 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 is a powerful way to tap into unspoken information that may be crucial in understanding attitude and intent.

Getting All the Details

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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.

Exact numbers are seldom tested in TOEFL Listening. So 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 those kinds of 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. Again, focus not on highly specific statements, numerical or otherwise. Instead, 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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TOEFL Listening Tips and Tricks: The Takeaway

About half of your success in TOEFL Listening relies on knowing the facts about the TOEFL Listening section: what tasks you’ll see, what kind of answers you need to give, how the timer ticks during TOEFL Listening time, how much time per question you have on TOEFL Listening, and so on.

However, the other half is focus: your ability to focus on the audio tracks while also devoting some attention to your notes. Maintain this good balance of knowledge, focus, and note-taking, and you can conquer this section in time for test day.

And remember to practice, practice, practice! You can go through a TOEFL Listening practie test in our TOEFL Listening Complete Guide post.

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  • David Recine

    David is a Test Prep Expert for Magoosh TOEFL and IELTS. Additionally, he’s helped students with TOEIC, PET, FCE, BULATS, Eiken, SAT, ACT, GRE, and GMAT. David has a BS from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and an MA from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. His work at Magoosh has been cited in many scholarly articles, his Master’s Thesis is featured on the Reading with Pictures website, and he’s presented at the WITESOL (link to PDF) and NAFSA conferences. David has taught K-12 ESL in South Korea as well as undergraduate English and MBA-level business English at American universities. He has also trained English teachers in America, Italy, and Peru. Come join David and the Magoosh team on Youtube, Facebook, and Instagram, or connect with him via LinkedIn!

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