Lucas Fink

TOEFL Tuesday: How to Improve English Listening Skills

The advice below is for improving listening skills in English in general—not just the TOEFL. So if you’re studying English, watch this week’s video!

1. Experience

This advice is simple and obvious, but it’s extremely important, so I need to include it. You can’t improve your listening just by reading, learning vocabulary, and studying grammar. And you can’t improve by only listening to fake conversations from an English learning textbook. You need to listen to real English conversations when you’re at an advanced English level.

Movies, radio, and any other conversations between natives you hear are all helpful—maybe even on the street! Listen as often as you can, for as long as you can. Listen to English radio if you’re in a car, bus, or subway. Watch English videos on your phone or computer when you’re at home. Any time you can focus your attention on listening to English, consider doing some practice.  

2. Listen 3 times

If you have a video, this is especially helpful. Your goal should be to understand about 75% of what you hear the first time. Don’t stop and replay anything—you will listen again twice more.

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And if you understand everything the first time, then the video or audio isn’t difficult enough; find something harder!

When you listen the next two times, you’ll get the extra information you need to to learn new words and phrases so you can understand more than that original 75%.

3. Read while you listen

The second time you listen, if it’s possible, you should read what the person is saying at the same time. Again, online videos can be very good for this, as can movies or TV that have subtitles. I often recommend because they have so many interesting talks in English with subtitles.

The second time you listen, you can focus more on the words and phrases you didn’t understand the first time. Seeing them in text helps you to remember them and follow a bit better.

4. Listen and repeat

The third time you listen, after those difficult or new phrases, stop the video or audio. Your goal is to learn how they’re said, and you will do this by imitating the person who spoke.  If you learn to say it the same way, you will understand it well when you hear it again later. This is great pronunciation practice to improve your speaking, by the way. Try to sound exactly like the original speaker, using the same speed, rhythm, and sounds. Slow down at first, focusing on the difficult sounds, then speed up to get the rhythm and speed.

You almost definitely won’t have perfect accent, and that’s okay. But the more you practice sounding the same as a native speaker, the easier it will be to understand native accents.

5. Context

Remember that it’s okay if some words or phrases are unclear, especially the first time you listen to something. There should be some things you don’t understand; as I said, 25% should be confusing.

That’s partly because you want to understand the big picture first. In other words, focus on the main ideas. In real life, if you don’t understand some phrases, it’s okay. If you understand the intention, then you can communicate. Focus on what the person speaking acts like, what they probably want, and what key words give you hints about the big meanings. Only focusing on those smaller parts in your second or third listen. So if you can only hear it once (like on TOEFL listening), don’t get stuck thinking about those small part. The main ideas are more important!


  • Lucas Fink

    Lucas is the teacher behind Magoosh TOEFL. He’s been teaching TOEFL preparation and more general English since 2009, and the SAT since 2008. Between his time at Bard College and teaching abroad, he has studied Japanese, Czech, and Korean. None of them come in handy, nowadays.

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