Academic is done typically for one of three purposes i.e. basic comprehension, pragmatic understanding or connecting and synthesizing information. The best way to increase one’s vocabulary and build listening skills is to actually listen to the English language and read a variety of academic material in English. Listening is found to be most engaging when it is entertaining. Movies, live interviews and television shows are therefore perfect opportunities to hone listening skills especially because they also have visual cues and reinforcements. Just as useful are audiotapes and CDs of other material such as lectures and books.
For basic understanding, there are varied general listening activities that are recommended. Listening to a variety of material on different subjects whose length and complexity increases progressively is a good start. You might kick off with recordings on familiar topics and move on to new topics gradually. It’s also advisable to start off with short segments and graduate to longer ones with time as you learn.
You may also want to start with conversations, television shows and movies which are mostly entertaining as they are more gripping. Once you have built basic knowledge, you can progress to listening to programs that carry more academic content. Listen to each recording several times, initially those with English subtitles where possible then those without, listening out for main ideas and key details. Listen subsequent times for connections between ideas, structure of the talk and to distinguish fact from opinion.
A key point to note when listening is to do so actively. Take notes of main points and key details, note new words and expressions and trying to predict what you will hear next. For practice, cover every fifth word in the script of a story or article and see if you can fill in the missing words. Listen to a news story or lecture while reading the script and try to identify why there is stress on specific words.
As you listen to material from all of the recommended sources for pragmatic understanding, think about what each of the speakers is looking to achieve for instance apologizing or suggesting something. Note their various distinctive styles; do they use formal or casual language, calm or emotional voice, what does their tone suggest? Note their degree of certainty as may be indicated by their voice’s tone. It is also important not to strain trying to memorize low frequency technical vocabulary but rather focus on high frequency language that is applicable cross-disciplinarily.
When listening to recorded lectures or talks there are important points to note to enable you connect and synthesize ideas. Consider the organization of what you are listening to look out for signal words that indicate the introduction, major steps or ideas. Identify hoe different ideas relate for instance cause/effect, compare/contrast or steps in a process relationship. Listen for transitions that show connections and relationships between ideas. Once you are confident enough, try to predict what idea might be expressed next. Pause the recordings regularly to summarize what you have heard up to that point. Practice listening for and comparing two speakers’ points of view. Study their words – whether negative or positive to see which speaker is for and against the idea.
At the end of the day, all practice and no test will not be able to show you precisely where you are at or how ready you are for the paper. To establish that, you need to take a test before the actual TOEFL® as a measure of progress in your learning; for that, look no further. Jump to the section of our website that allows you to take a simulated test. If you fail, note your weak points and go back practicing more; if you pass practice even more and come back to see how much better you are. All the best.