TOEFL Tuesday: Practice Listening with Documentaries

Documentaries might be the easiest way to learn about a new topic. They’re relaxing and pleasant to watch, and for many students, they’re more engaging than books on the same topics. But they’re also good for TOEFL preparation in particular, because there are many documentaries available on academic topics. Basically, you can learn about the same types of topics that you might see on the TOEFL, but by watching TV instead.

Granted, it’s not as good as actual TOEFL practice questions if you are new to the TOEFL. But if you are studying for a longer time and need a lot of general English practice, you’ll need some authentic listening material. These recommendations are a good place to start!


How We Got to Now

This short documentary series describes important inventors and events that helped create the modern world, including many technologies we take for granted or don’t think about much. For example, one of the episodes is about the invention and improvement of glass.

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This is particularly helpful for the TOEFL because the topics of each episode are similar to topics of some TOEFL reading passages. In particular, some parts of How We Got to Now explain the lives of important inventors—but most of them are not at all famous. Similarly, most TOEFLs will include a reading passage about an important inventor or historical figure who most test-takers have never heard of before.


David Attenborough

If you don’t know David Attenborough already, I highly recommend his nature documentaries. He has been creating them for many decades and has covered almost every topic on plants, animals, and the natural world that you can imagine.

And that’s great for TOEFL listening and reading because, similar to How We Got to Now, Attenborough’s documentaries have topics that are close to real TOEFL topics. The TOEFL loves nature: animal biology, evolutionary history, and environmental sciences appear often.

Possibly the best known documentary that Attenborough narrated was BBC’s Planet Earth. If you haven’t already seen it, then don’t hesitate!


Ken Burns

Burns, much like Attenborough, has created many documentaries, and I recommend almost any of them.

Whereas Attenborough focuses on the natural world, Burns creates documentaries on Americana: histories of particularly important events in U.S. history or certain aspects of American culture. Two of his best known series are on baseball and the U.S. civil war, for example.

But to be honest, unlike my previous two recommendations, Burns’s works are not similar in topic to the TOEFL. The test will generally not include modern American history or culture. Still, it’s very good listening practice: Burns has very clear pronunciation, and the guests that he films have a range of American accents. It’s also a great way to get some background in U.S. culture and history—helpful if you’re going to study at an American university!

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  • 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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