What to Do When You Don’t Know a Word in TOEFL Listening

In my very first post on this blog, I wrote about how to get around “vocabulary road blocks” in reading. In that article, I gave strategies for how to understand the whole meaning of a reading passage, even when you can’t understand some individual words and phrases.

These kinds of context-based, critical reading skills are very important—in TOEFL Reading, you can’t let an unknown word stop you or slow you down. The same is true in listening. An unheard word should not halt your comprehension of everything else that you hear. If you get distracted by hard-to-hear words, you will easily and fall behind and get lost in your listening. This is just as much of a problem in real English use outside the test itself.

So if you’re listening to something in English and you miss a word, don’t dwell on it. Instead, focus on everything you do understand, and keep your attention on the overall meaning of what you hear. (Check out more TOEFL Listening tips and tricks to help you develop these skills!)

Practice for your TOEFL exam with Magoosh.

To help you practice this skill of listening for context, I’m going to share an audio track with you. In this audio, you are pretty much guaranteed to miss a few words or phrases. It’s a recording of an interview between a reporter and CISCO Executive Chairman John Chambers at the 2016 Davos World Economic Forum. Although the speakers both make an effort to speak clearly, they have somewhat unusual accents. The interviewer has a very strong Australian accent, and the Chambers has an American Southern accent, which sounds a lot different from standard North American English.

Below the playable audio track in this post, you’ll find a series of comprehension questions. Listen to the audio and see how many of the questions you can answer correctly. How much general meaning can you understand, even if you aren’t able to hear every word that’s said? Look at this transcript of the interview to check your answers.


Comprehension questions

  • What concerns about China does the interviewer mention?
  • What does John Chambers think about these China-related fears? And what reasons does he give for his opinion?
  • John Chambers compares Cisco to other similar companies. What does he say in his comparisons? (Bonus: What are the specific companies he compares Cisco to?)
  • Chambers mentions fiscal quarters where Cisco had no growth. How does he explain this lack of growth?
  • What does Chambers regret about his past business activities in China?

I hope this has been helpful! For more prep in this part of the TOEFL, be sure to check out Magoosh’s complete guide to TOEFL Listening.

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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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2 Responses to What to Do When You Don’t Know a Word in TOEFL Listening

  1. Reis February 17, 2016 at 2:51 am #

    Hey David
    It’s really hard to keep up par with native english speakers in a natural conversation.
    I managed to get some notes and respond to some of those questions but the majority stood behind.
    As I started my TOEFL prep now, I realized that my english listening skills are a concern, therefore, I need to ameliorate them. Have you any advice for me, on how could I improve my listening skills, while taking notes?

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert April 1, 2016 at 8:30 pm #

      It’s nice to hear from a student who’s putting so much hard work and careful thought into their studies, Reis! Note-taking while listening can be tough even for native speakers sometimes. The trick with TOEFL Listening is to understand the structure of the conversation and lectures. The audio tracks on the TOEFL have a fairly predictable pattern.

      TOEFL Listening conversations all involve campus life and business, and focus on a student who has a question or problem. The conversations in Integrated Speaking are predictable too. In the first conversation track, one student expresses a strong opinion about a school issue to another student. And in the second conversation, two students discuss a “school life” problem and two possible ways of solving the problem.

      The lectures in TOEFL Listening, Integrated Speaking, and Integrated Writing are even more predictable. They cover the same kinds of academic topics as TOEFL Reading, and they are basically structured like short academic essays .

      In short, get really comfortable with general academic topics and topics about campus affairs. And be able to anticipate what might be said in the audio tracks, and anticipate when and how the important information will be stated. This will make it easier to understand everything you hear, and multitask by taking notes and actively listening at the same time.

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