TOEFL Exam Pattern: Listening Section
The TOEFL iBT Listening section is designed to measure your ability to understand conversations and lectures in English. It includes listening for:
- basic comprehension
- understanding the speaker's attitude and degree of certainty
- connecting information
Like Reading, listening varies in its length and number of questions due to the possibility of getting unscored, experimental questions. This section can range from 41 minutes and 33 questions long to 57 minutes and 34 questions.
The TOEFL Listening consists of two parts, and each part includes one conversation and at least one academic lecture. The first part will consist of one campus conversation and one academic lecture, while the second will include one campus conversation and two academic lectures. These are covered in detail in the next section.
The TOEFL Listening section is comparatively hard as you can hear the recorded lectures and conversations only once. You can’t jump around to answer questions like in the reading nor can you go back to an answer you skipped. You must choose an answer then move on to the next question no matter what. As you listen to a clip, you will see a picture on the screen that indicates the context of the question and the number of speakers. You may also see specific terms or concepts written on a blackboard.
As the TOEFL Listening section consists of both campus conversations and academic lectures, we suggest that you focus your preparation on the academic lectures. Why? Because academic lectures are more challenging to comprehend than conversations.
The Listening section includes native-speaker English accents from North America, the U.K., New Zealand or Australia to better reflect the variety of accents you might encounter while studying abroad.
There are three different types of listening passages you will hear. Some use formal language while others are more casual. Language is natural sounding, in that pauses, errors, and false starts occur.
Conversations: The first style are called conversations. These take place between a student and a university employee. The employee is often a professor, but can also be another worker on campus such as an advisor or housing officer. The topics are usually about life on campus.
Academic Discussions: You will also hear Academic discussions, which take place in a classroom setting. In these passages there are more than two speakers. Usually the professor does most of the talking, and a few students ask and answer questions and make comments. They are usually longer in length than the conversations.
Lectures: Lectures involve only one speaker. These lectures test your ability to comprehend academic subject material spoken by a professor. You will hear topics on just about every type of subject, from Biology, to Art, to Geology. It is not necessary for you to learn any background material for this section. Everything you need to know to answer the questions will be stated in the lecture.
Listening Question Types
The TOEFL Listening section has eight different question types.
- Gist – content (a main idea question)
- Gist – purpose (only in the conversations, not lectures)
- Detail (most popular)
- Understanding the speaker’s attitude
- Understanding the function
- Understanding organization
- Connecting content
- Making inferences
1. Understanding Gist Main Idea Questions:
The “gist” of something is the main point or key idea. Some Gist questions focus on the purpose while others focus on the content.
Gist-content questions ask you to identify the topic or main idea of a lecture or conversation, questions along the lines of: What is the subject of the conversation/lecture? What is the topic of the discussion/academic talk? Keep in mind these are general questions needing general answers. You can recognize gist-content questions because they use phrases like ”mainly about“, ”mainly discussing“.
Every listening prompt will begin in the same way: with a main idea question. These questions usually take one of the following forms:
- What is the main idea of the lecture?
- What subject is the professor mainly discussing?
- What are the speakers mainly discussing?
- Who is the student talking to?
When you see this kind of question, remember that you should only be concerned with the main idea of the passage. Supporting ideas, examples, and counter-examples will not be correct answers.
2. Understanding Gist Purpose Questions:
Gist-purpose questions ask you to identify what the main purpose of the conversation or lecture is. The purpose question often looks for the overall purpose of the dialogue or why the dialogue happens in the first place, but not any specific detail. You should only focus on the big picture of the dialogue for this question.
These questions usually take the following form:
- Why does the professor ask to see the student?
- What problem does the student have?
- Why does the professor discuss..?
3. Detail Questions
As the name suggests, the purpose of Detail questions is to test your attention to detail and your ability to pick out key facts discussed in the audio recording.
You can recognize this question type through the following phrases:
- What is...?
- What does?
- According to...
The detail question is often asked following a lecture, though is sometimes asked following a conversation, as well. The question asks why a minor detail is mentioned in the talk. This detail is often an example provided in the lecture. This question can be difficult because you can be asked any detail about the listening, even minor ones.
Detail questions are roughly equivalent to the factual questions from the TOEFL Reading section. They are not as specific as detail questions in the Reading section, because you don’t have the option of listening to the recording a second time. For this reason, detail questions in the Listening section rarely deal with very specific information like numbers or names. Instead, they focus on those facts that you would recognize as important as you listened to the recording.
4. Understanding Attitude
As the name suggests, the attitude question type asks you about the intention and attitude of the speaker. In other words, this question is about WHY the speaker mentions the detail. It means you have to tell about the speaker's feelings which are not directly stated, by understanding the given excerpt. In other words, this question is about WHY the speaker mentions the detail.
Attitude questions, like function questions, often deal with information that’s given not just by what the speakers say, but also by how they say it. They will ask you about the speaker’s attitude—that is, what information the speaker’s intonation and word choice give you about the speaker’s feelings and relationship toward the subjects he’s discussing.
Attitude questions may also ask you about feelings that are directly stated or strongly implied, as in the following example.
- What does the student think about… ?
- What is the student is impression of...
- How does the professor feel about...
- What does the professor mean when she says...(listen again)
5. Understanding Function
Function questions test your understanding of pragmatics, or the implied meaning that we get from context. The Function question type asks you to identify the real meaning of a statement in the given context. Function questions do not deal with the meaning of the words the speaker says, but rather with the information that is implied by how the speaker says them.
The exam will often ask about a very particular part of the passage, even just a single word. The question will replay a segment of the recording that contains the topic of the question, and then will replay just the topic. There will be no transcriptions provided for any part of these questions—all the information will be provided through listening. Make sure that you are listening for function of what is being said.
You can recognize this question type as it includes the following phrases:
- What does the professor mean when he says...?
- What does the student imply when she says this...(listen again)
- What is the purpose of the professor is response...(listen again)
Organization questions ask you to understand how the details and information are organized in the talk or lecture. Organization questions occur almost exclusively in lectures and are of three basic types. The first type will deal with the overall organization of the lecture; the second will ask you about the relationship between two (or more) parts of the lecture; and the third is similar to a function question, but deals with a whole sentence.
In order to answer this question type, you need to understand the main theme and purpose of the lecture or conversation. Here, you will be asked about the relationship between two or more parts of the excerpt and its overall organization, including filling out a chart or matching terms with definitions.
Though it is easy to recognize organization questions as they often include phrases such as:
- Why does the professor mention…?
- Why does the professor discuss...?
- Why does the speaker mention/discuss...
- How is the lecture organized?
7. Making Connections
Under this question type, you are required to put together information from different parts or sentences of the lecture or conversation. You are generally asked to identify steps in a process, classify items in categories or cause/effect relationships.
Steps in a process Connecting content questions ask you to show understanding of the relationships among ideas in a lecture and may require you to fill in a chart or table. Categorizing questions ask you to sort key items from the lecture according to certain criteria. Some of the answers will usually be stated, whereas others will be implied, and the categories will usually differ from the most obvious ones mentioned in the lecture.
Question type includes phrases such as:
- Fill in a table or chart
- What is the likely outcome...?
An Inference question requires you to understand an indirect meaning of a sentence stated in a lecture. This type of question requires you to look further than the surface and literal meaning of the speech, ideas, or sentences to find the correct answer. Inference questions require you to come to a conclusion about a statement not directly stated and requires interpretation, often involving the words “infer” or “imply.”
Inference questions will usually look very similar to one of these examples:
- What can be inferred from the Professor’s discussion of X?
- What will the student probably do next?
- What is implied when the speaker says this? (replay a short segment)