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Everything TOEFL® Listening

Learn useful information about scoring high in TOEFL listening

About the TOEFL® Listening Section

Academic Listening Skills

The Listening section measures the test taker’s ability to understand spoken English. In academic settings, students must be able to listen to lectures and conversations. Academic listening is typically done for one of the three following purposes:

Listening for basic comprehension
  • comprehend the main idea, major points, and important details related to the main idea (Note: comprehension of all details is not necessary.)
Listening for pragmatic understanding
  • recognize a speaker’s attitude and degree of certainty
  • recognize a speaker’s function or purpose
Connecting and synthesizing information
  • recognize the organization of information presented
  • understand the relationships between ideas presented (for example, compare/ contrast, cause/effect, or steps in a process)
  • make inferences and draw conclusions based on what is implied in the material
  • make connections among pieces of information in a conversation or lecture
  • recognize topic changes (for example, digressions and aside statements) in lectures and conversations, and recognize introductions and conclusions in lectures
TOEFL Fact: You can take the exam multiple times and you can have your highest scores reported to the university you desire to attend.


Length of each passage Number of passages and questions Timing
4–6 lectures, each 3–5 minutes long, about 500–800 words 6 questions per lecture 60–90 minutes
2–3 conversations, each about 3 minutes long, about 12–25 exchanges 5 questions per conversation

Listening material in the new test includes academic lectures and long conversations in which the speech sounds very natural. Test takers can take notes on any listening material throughout the entire test.

Academic Lectures

The lectures in the TOEFL iBT reflect the kind of listening and speaking that occurs in the classroom. In some of the lectures, the professor does all or almost all of the talking, with an occasional comment by a student. In other lectures, the professor may engage the students in discussion by asking questions that are answered by the students. The pictures that accompany the lecture help the test taker know whether one or several people will be speaking.

Conversations in an Academic Setting

The conversations on the TOEFL iBT may take place during an office meeting with a professor or teaching assistant, or during a service encounter with university staff. The contents of the office conversations are generally academic in nature or related to course requirements. Service encounters could involve conversations about a housing payment, registering for a class, or requesting information at the library.

Listening Question Formats

There are four question formats in the Listening section:

  • traditional multiple-choice questions with four answer choices and a single correct answer
  • multiple-choice questions with more than one answer (e.g., two answers out of four or more choices)
  • questions that require test takers to order events or steps in a process
  • questions that require test takers to match objects or text to categories in a chart

What is Different?

  • Note taking is allowed. After testing, notes are collected and destroyed before the test takers leave the test center for test security purposes.
  • Conversations and lectures are longer, and the language sounds more natural.
  • A new multiple-choice question measures understanding of a speaker’s attitude, degree of certainty, or purpose. These questions require test takers to listen for voice tones and other cues, and determine how speakers feel about the topic they are discussing.
  • In some questions, a portion of the lecture or conversation is replayed so test takers do not need to rely on memory of what was said.

Listening Tips

Listening to the English language frequently and reading a wide variety of academic materials is the best way to improve listening skills.

Watching movies and television, and listening to the radio provide excellent opportunities to build listening skills. Audiotapes and CDs of lectures and presentations are equally valuable and are available at libraries and bookstores. Those with transcripts are particularly helpful. The Internet is also a great resource for listening material (e.g., or or

Listening for Basic Comprehension

  • Increase vocabulary.
  • Focus on the content and flow of spoken material. Do not be distracted by the speaker’s style and delivery.
  • Anticipate what a person is going to say as a way to stay focused.
  • Stay active by asking yourself questions (e.g., What main idea is the professor communicating?).
  • Copy the words, “main idea, major points, and important details” on different lines of paper. Listen carefully, and write these down while listening. Continue listening until all important points and details are written down and then review them.
  • Listen to a portion of a lecture or talk and create an outline of important points. Use the outline to write a brief summary. Gradually increase the amount of the presentation you use to write the summary.

Listening for Pragmatic Understanding

  • Think about what each speaker hopes to accomplish: What is the purpose of the speech or conversation? Is the speaker apologizing, complaining, or making suggestions?
  • Notice each speaker’s style. Is the language formal or casual? How certain does each speaker sound? Is the speaker’s voice calm or emotional? What does the speaker’s tone of voice tell you?
  • Notice the speaker’s degree of certainty. How sure is the speaker about the information? Does the speaker’s tone of voice indicate something about his/her degree of certainty?
  • Listen for changes in topic or digressions.
  • Watch a recorded TV or movie comedy. Pay careful attention to the way stress and intonation patterns are used to convey meaning.

Listening to Connect and Synthesize Ideas

  • Think about how the lecture you’re hearing is organized. Listen for the signal words that indicate the introduction, major steps or ideas, examples, and the conclusion or summary.
  • Identify the relationships between ideas. Possible relationships include: cause/effect, compare/contrast, and steps in a process.
  • Listen for words that show connections and relationships between ideas.
  • Listen to recorded material and stop the recording at various points. Predict what information or idea will be expressed next.
  • Create an outline of the information discussed while listening or after listening.