toefl guide

Studying TOEFL Listening: Passive Listening and Active Listening

Madison Oster October 12th, 2021

Most people struggle to improve listening comprehension despite listening to a lot of English. Have you ever felt this way? You have already taken the TOEFL test and you realize your ears weren’t fast enough for the long conversations and lectures on the listening section. Well, don’t worry, because You’re not alone. Many people find TOEFL listening practice difficult. Even though you work hard on your listening skills and spend a lot of time training, you still aren’t seeing significant improvements. A lot of students wonder why there is no improvement, so today we will cover why most students don’t improve their listening skills despite all their effort and hard work.

Before we get into the technical English Jargon of why your listening has not improved, it could benefit you to read about a success story that one of our students experienced.

Even though I used many TOEFL practice tests, TOEFL listening practice was always difficult for me. My English teachers and all the books I read always said to listen to spoken English. They suggested watching movies without subtitles or listening to English podcasts and radio shows. I did most of them, but without success.

Some days I felt like my listening improved, this was usually after listening to the same audio over and over again. I was excited, but then I would listen to a new audio and realized my English listening did not improve, but through muscle memory, was able to understand that specific audio.

It wasn’t until I moved to Vancouver, Canada that things changed. At first, I wasn’t sure how it happened, but my listening skills improved dramatically in a short period of time. I then realized it wasn’t due to listening, but because I was forced to speak English every day. Here’s the reason why. Because I needed to speak English, I started paying more attention to my pronunciation and my grammar, which helped improve my listening significantly.”

So, what is the lesson we can take out of that story? The lesson is you must immerse yourself in English every day. Not just listening to English audio or watching movies, but speaking English, as well. Interestingly enough, there is a technical terminology for what our student experienced which is Passive Listening and Active Listening.

Passive listening & Active Listening

With passive listening, you simply listen to an English recording. The idea is that even though you don’t understand it now, over time you will start to understand through a natural process of absorption. However, there are two reasons why only using passive listening will not help you improve your listening comprehension a lot.

First, when you are listening to a recording, it is easy to lose focus and feel relaxed. There isn’t anything to push you to improve. If you want to improve your listening skills you need to have something that forces you to concentrate and focus. That's when active listening comes into play. Active listening is when you listen attentively to what a speaker says because the speaker is expecting a response from you. This is the key to see faster improvement.

Second, studies show that as you practice pronouncing new words, the ability to recognize them in the natural flow of speech improves. Correspondingly, as one’s ability to recognize the new words increases, so does the clarity and accuracy of one’s pronunciation of these words. In other words, listening and pronunciation are a virtuous circle, in which focus on pronunciation helps improve listening and focus on listening helps improve pronunciation. This principle explains why passive listening fails to help improve listening skills since you’re not actively focusing on pronouncing words.

Despite these two disadvantages, passive listening is still helpful in familiarizing yourself with sounds and it helps you keep the language fresh in your mind.

In short, to improve your listening skills effectively, you need both passive listening and active listening. When your brain absorbs the information from passive listening, it will stay in the short-term memory. As you try to pronounce a word or read a sentence out loud, another part of your brain is activated and your brain starts building a stronger synapsis meaning the information will be remembered for a longer period of time. Another way to look at this is learning to ride a bike. You can’t learn to ride a bike by reading instructions and watching others; the only way to learn is to get on a bike and start pedaling. Of course, watching someone else peddle or reading the instructions can help you understand the basics, so you know where to sit and what the pedals are used for.

How to create an active listening environment WITHOUT moving to an English country.

The good news is you don’t have to move into an English speaking country in order to have an active listening environment. Here are some of active listening activities you can use to help simulate an active listening environment.

  1. As you listen to a sentence, repeat what you just heard. Or even better is to repeat what you just heard in your own words. This is a great exercise and it will also help improve your paraphrasing skills. Paraphrasing is an extremely important skill in the TOEFL.
  2. Find a partner or an English teacher you can practice speaking English with.
  3. Instead of listening to a podcast in the car, listen to it with a pen and paper and start to transcribe what you hear. (Don’t transcribe while your driving.)
  4. Write down what you understand and see if you can fill in the holes on your own without re-listening to the audio. Then, listen to it again and see how accurate you were. Focus on your inaccuracies and continue improving.

Remember that passive listening is still required!

How to Study for the TOEFL Listening with Passive and Active Listening

So now you understand it is vital to improving your listening skills with both active and passive listening. The next step is to find TOEFL listening material and employ your passive and listening strategies and see your listening skills improves by leaps and bounds.

Remember listening skills are not only vital to the TOEFL listening section. In TOEFL Integrated writing task and TOEFL Integrated writing tasks, you need to listen to conversations and lectures as well. So if you look at it that way, TOEFL Listening aspect actually accounts for at least 50% of the entire test.


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