toefl guide

Signal Words in TOEFL Listening

Madison Oster October 12th, 2021

When you are listening to a lecture in the TOEFL listening section, you don’t want to pay the same amount of attention to every single word.  A better strategy is to listen selectively, paying more attention to the important words. So what words should you pay extra attention to? The answer is signal words. Signal words give clues as to the direction of the lecture and will help you understand the organization of the talk, connections between ideas, and the importance of ideas.

Signal words can be simple like “Okay”, “Well”, “Now”, “But”, and “So”.

  • “Okay” and “Now” are usually used to transition into a different topic or a different key point.
  • “Well” is usually used before answering a question.
  • “But” and "So" are usually followed by a key point.

Look at the following TOEFL listening transcripts:

That's right. There's local difference. And that's why we say folk tales are communal. By communal, we mean they reflect the traits and the concerns of a particular community at a particular time. So essentially the same tale could be told in different communities, with certain aspects of the tale adapted to fit the specific community. Um, not the plot, the details of what happens in the story would remain constant. That was the thread that held the tale together. But all the other elements, like the location or characters, might be modified for each audience. Okay. So what about fairy tales? Th…they also are found in most cultures, but how are they different from folk tales? I guess the first question is: what is a fairy tale? And don’t anyone say “a story with a fairy in it” because we all know that very few fairy tales actually have those tiny magical creatures in them. But, what else can we say about them? Mary.

Today I want to talk about a way in which we are able to determine how old a piece of land is. I’m going to talk about a particular dating technique. Why? Good dating is a key to good analysis. In other words, if you want to know how a land formation was formed, the first thing you probably want to know is how old it is. It’s fundamental. Um… Take the Grand Canyon for instance. Now, we geologists thought we had a pretty good idea of how the Grand Canyon in the southwestern United States was formed. We knew that it was formed from sandstone that solidified somewhere between 150 and 300 million years ago. Before it solidified, it was just regular sand. Essentially it was part of a vast desert.

Anyway, Uranium-Lead Dating has produced some surprises. Two geologists discovered that about half of the sand from the Grand Canyon was actually once part of the Appalachian Mountains. That’s really eye-opening news, since the Appalachian Mountain Range is, of course, thousands of kilometers to the east of the Grand Canyon. Sounds pretty unbelievable, right? Of course, the obvious question is how did that sand end up so far west? The theory is that huge rivers and wind carried the sand west where it mixed in with the sand that was already there. Well, this was a pretty revolutionary finding. Um… and it was basically because of Uranium-Lead Dating. Why? Well, as everyone in this class should know, we usually look at the grain type within sandstone, meaning the actual particles in the sandstone, to determine where it came from. You can do other things too, like look at the wind or water that brought the grains to their location and figure out which way it was flowing. But that’s only useful up to a point, and that’s not what these two geologists did. Uranium-Lead Dating allowed them to go about it in an entirely different way.

Other types of signal words are groups of words:

  • Let’s move on to ...
  • This brings me to my next point, which is….
  • So far we have have been looking at…. Now I’d like to….
  • So now that we've covered…
  • What … is all about is this…

Look at the following TOEFL listening transcripts:

All right folks, let’s continue our discussion of alternative energy sources and move on to what’s probably the most well-known alternative energy source--- solar energy. The sun basically provides earth with virtually unlimited source of energy every day, but the problem has always been how do we tap this source of energy. Can anyone think of why it’s so difficult to make use of solar energy?

OK. Another ancient Greek philosopher we need to discuss is Aristotle—Aristotle’s ethical theory. What Aristotle’s ethical theory is all about is this: he’s trying to show you how to be happy—what true happiness is. Now, why is he interested in human happiness? It’s not just because it’s something that all people want to aim for. It’s more than that. But to get there we need to first make a very important distinction. Let me introduce a couple of technical terms: extrinsic value and intrinsic value.

All right, so far we have been looking at some of the core areas of linguistics, like syntax, phonology, semantics. Now I’d like to talk about the branch of historical linguistics, and the comparison of several different languages, or the comparison of different stages of a single language.   Now, if you are comparing different languages, and you notice that they have a lot in common. Maybe they have similar sounds and words that correspond to one another that have the same meaning and that sound similar.   

In addition, there are signal words that give important information for opinion and theory speeches.

  • (opinion) I think, It appears that, It is thought that
  • (theory) In theory, the hypothesis is that

Look at the following TOEFL listening transcripts:

You have an advertising budget to spend, but how do you to spend it wisely. Again, research is the key. Good research gives you facts, facts that can help you decide, well, as we already mentioned, decide the right market to target, and the best media to use. But also: When to advertise? or…or how to get the best rates? Like, maybe you’re advertising Sport equipment, and you have been spending most of your budget during the holiday season when people buy gifts for each other. Now, in theory, that would seem a great time to advertise, but maybe a research shows you’re wrong, that the customers who buy sports equipment tend not to give it as a holiday gift, but want to use it themselves. In that case, advertising during a different season of the year might give you better results.

We recently noticed an increase in cloud cover over an area of the ocean waters around Antarctica. An increased area of low thick clouds, the type that reflects a large portion of solar energy back to space and cools the Earth. Well, the reason for this increased cloud cover, it turns out, is the exceptionally large amount of microscopic marine plants. Well, the current hypothesis is that these microorganisms produce a chemical that interacts with the oxygen in the air, creating conditions that lead to the formation of the low thick clouds we observed. Well, that's true. It could have huge implications. So, maybe we are talking about controlling the weather. Perhaps, if the microorganisms near Antarctica really are responsible, perhaps we can accelerate the process somehow.

Finally, there are signal words that connect ideas

  • reasons (because, since)
  • results (as a result, so, therefore, thus, consequently)
  • examples (for example, such as)
  • comparisons (in contrast, than)
  • an opposing idea (on the other hand, however)
  • another idea (furthermore, moreover, besides)
  • a similar idea (similarly, likewise)
  • restatements of information (in other words, that is)
  • conclusions (in conclusion, in summary)


As you practice with more and more TOEFL listening practice lectures, it’ll become easier to spot signal words and improve your TOEFL score.

Now, in addition to signal words, speaker’s intonation is another important concept to look out for. In the next post, we will talk about how you should listen for speaker’s intonation to get an even higher listening score.


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