TOEFL Listening: Getting Ready

Let’s take a break from our focus on Reading and start thinking about the Listening section of the exam.  Before getting into the particulars of the types of listening and the questions that appear on the exam, I’d like to begin by framing the issue of listening in terms of training.  Many of you may only have a more or less solid plan to do the exam in the coming months.  However, it’s never too early to begin training yourself to listen regularly to advanced, informationally dense material, increasing the time and frequency of your listening as the exam date approaches.  What I will present below then is the outlines of a listening training program that should have your listening skills in optimum condition before starting the focused TOEFL preparation.

A lot of people who come to see me about my TOEFL preparation classes tell me, rather proudly, that they watch TV series in English both for enjoyment and as a way to work on their English.  I smile and tell them that while «How I Met Your Mother» is a fine program, it’s not terribly useful for the TOEFL exam.  Students need to work with informational English in which complex ideas are presented and developed.  Thus, my first recommendation is for students to establish a regular routine of listening to radio reports on National Public Radio ( from the US.  Certainly there are plenty of other sources for useful listening, yet NPR offers a TOEFL student a number of advantages.  These are:

•  Like the TOEFL exam, a predominance of American English.

•  A wide variety of topics, many which are within the realm of TOEFL topics:  environmental, health, scientific, and social issues are common, and if a student wants to focus on the university issues so common on the exam, the website’s archives have plenty of material. These archives can also be very helpful when a student wishes to listen to something of particular interest (a hobby, a professional subject, etc…).  Nevertheless, it is wise to avoid the confusion that is American politics.

•  Different time lengths and listening options.  The programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered have reports that normally range from 3 to 9 minutes, and the program Fresh Air can run as long as 45 minutes in which both information and conversation are mixed, allowing a student to work on the two types of TOEFL listenings at the same time. Moreover, the reports can be listened to directly on the computer or downloaded to a device for easy mobility.

There is no magic formula to this however.  It’s work, and what I would like to do now is present the best way to work with these reports in order to get maximum advantage from them.  There are three steps:

1.  Read the article that comes with the radio report to get oriented about its content.  Look up any words you don’t know.

2.  Listen to the report without any support from the article.

3.  Find the transcript of the report (located at the top of the report).  Listen a second time while reading the transcript.  Stop and start the recording as needed to focus on grammar and vocabulary.

These three steps allow you to combine the more improvisational skill of getting substantial meaning from less than perfect understanding with the analytical skills needed for a specific focus on grammar and vocabulary, a focus that allows students to improve.  Remember that the listening section of the TOEFL representes 25% of your score, 4 of the 6 speaking tasks involve listening as well as the first composition.  Clearly, without strong listening skills, doing well on the exam is an uphill struggle.  Working in this way, starting with one radio a story a day and progressively extending the time you spend with the radio, is one of the best ways I know to prepare for the demands of the TOEFL exam. However, the issue of listening goes far beyond preparation for the TOEFL.  If you are serious about achieving and maintaining a strong level of English even when you don’t have access to native or advanced speakers or substantial converations, listening is the surest way to build a floor through which your English level will never fall.