Module 4


1. Listening Section Strategies

The TOEFL exam contains an entire section devoted to listening skills. You will likely spend a large portion of your day at college listening to and trying to understand your professors.

The listening section of the TOEFL tests how much you understand of a listening excerpt. From your response, the TOEFL examiners can determine whether you are eligible for university-level English.

In this section, you will learn tips and strategies that will prepare you for the exam’s Listening Comprehension section.

You will also learn important strategies that every TOEFL student should know if they want to succeed in their listening task.

Here is an overview of what you will learn in this section of the module:

  • Training Stage: Exposing yourself to lots of recordings
  • Training Stage: Listening to recordings only once


  • Acquiring Skills Stage: Distinguishing between active and passive listening
  • Acquiring Skills Stage: Understanding the stance and attitude of the speaker
  • Acquiring Skills Stage: Looking out for lists, keywords, and concepts mentioned in the listening excerpts
  • Acquiring Skills Stage: Recognizing and understanding the question types in the listening section
  • Application Stage: Combining all the skills into one answer checklist

Are you ready? Here we go:

Training stage: Exposing yourself to lots of recordings (radio, podcasts, and audiobooks)

Remember that this section is about training for the exam.

To succeed on the listening portion of the TOEFL exam, you will need certain skills. However, before you learn about these skills, you must train your ear to absorb information that contains no visuals, only sounds.

Listening to something with no visual aspect (such as the radio, audiobooks, or podcasts) can be more helpful than watching videos/TV.

This is because when you watch something, you can understand the general situation. However, when you listen to a recording, you are forced to understand the situation based only on what you hear, not what you see.

The best way to train yourself for the listening section of the TOEFL exam is to listen to a variety of recordings.

The ESL creators want to test your understanding of what is happening in a particular recording. They want you to be aware of the situation and to quickly grasp the topic, general ideas, and certain key details of the recording.

Once you have listened to recordings about different subjects, you will automatically have gained important listening skills. However, you must also master the art of active listening. We will elaborate on this below.

Training stage: Listening to recordings – only once!

This section is also about training for the exam.

When you practice for the listening section, play the recording only once. After all, the recording during the exam will be played only once, so you should train yourself to listen to something only once.

Do not worry about catching all the details. Simply listen to a recording of your choice, and write down what you can.

Do not worry if you are not as quick as you would like to be. There are millions of recordings out there to listen to, and eventually, this skill will come naturally. You have unlimited access to whichever radio and news channels interest you.

Here are some good programs that will help you improve your English skills. Listening to native speakers with accurate pronunciation will also help you pronounce words correctly.

List of websites with excellent podcasts


Acquiring skills stage: Distinguishing between active and passive listening

This section is about how to acquire some of the skills which you will need for the exam.

Passive listening (i.e. hearing) and listening are not the same thing. Hearing involves perceiving sounds with the ear and recording only the facts you hear (without true comprehension). Listening is the process of perceiving and constructing the meaning of what you heard.

When you are not actively listening, you will have difficulty grasping all the details of the recording because you are treating your brain like a recording machine.

Active listening is important because the brain can recall information only when that information makes sense to us. First, we process the information into something our minds can recall. Once you have processed and retained the information, write it down in your notes. After a lot of practice, you will be able to follow the active listening procedure in seconds.

When you hear a recording as only a list of facts or information, you are forcing your brain to memorize the facts without comprehending them. Then, when you try to retain this information seconds later, you will remember only half of what you heard. In brief, hearing is similar to memorizing, while active listening focuses on understanding.

Still confused?

Although we have demonstrated the difference between hearing and listening, this difference may still be confusing to many students. Here is a rundown of how you can make sure that you are listening to – and not just hearing – what is being said.

When the extract is playing, relax and listen to it casually. Try to understand what you hear without memorizing every detail. Enjoy the listening process while paying attention to the time and any upcoming tasks. Regard the extract as part of a normal conversation among classmates, as in a casual setting, we quickly process and understand what we hear. As you listen, try to find the points mentioned below. You will be tested on these points in the question comprehension section after the listening extract.

Be sure you can comprehend the following:

  • Main Idea:

The main idea will appear in the first few sentences of the lecture.

  • Major Points:

The major points will follow the topic’s introduction. Pay attention to lists of major points the speaker might provide at the beginning of the lecture.

  • Important Details:

Important details might be facts, explanations, or supporting details of a major point in the passage. Note any important details you hear from the speaker, as you might forget them when you are answering the listening comprehension questions.

What about if you cannot remember certain details?

If you are unsure about the correct response, choose the answer most consistent with the main idea.

Remembering to look for the main idea, major points, and important details can be difficult. The solution is to write all this down as you’re listening. You want to be relaxed and to listen in a natural manner, but you also want to note important points while you are in this stress-free state. You will be listening to the extract as though it were a college-style lecture.

Again, the key to success in this strategy is to combine as much as possible between being in a relaxed/natural state, and writing down whatever you understand to be important. Although these might sound like contradictory states of being, you need to start practicing this combination now, so that you will be able to excel at using this strategy on the exam. In short, learn to make effective note taking an easy, relaxed and natural affair.

When writing these key points down, divide your notes into three categories: main idea, major points, and important details (examples and details). Here is what it should look like:

As soon as you hear anything from any of these categories, write it down. Remember: never write complete sentences when taking notes. Instead, use short forms and abbreviations to save time. Again, learn to combine between being fast/efficient, and relaxed.

Finally, keep in mind that the TOEFL listening section is meant to test your understanding skills (while casually listening), not the details you memorized and wrote down while you were hearing carefully. Most of the questions will explore your understanding, while only a few will focus on details related to the text.

To summarize, we have categorized the listening section into three parts: (1) the main idea, (2) the major points, and (3) any important details. You should only listen to and understand (1) the main idea and (2) the major points of the text. Engage in the listening process casually, as though you were listening to an informal or spontaneous conversation.

You do not need to listen to any (3) important details, such as dates, numbers, places, names, etc. Instead, these need to be heard and either written down, or memorized as raw data.

  • Step 1: Listen to the recording in a relaxed manner.
  • Step 2: Understand and comprehend the situation at hand.
  • Step 3: Process this information quickly and note it down on paper with quick/scrappy handwriting, or in short forms and abbreviations.

Acquiring skills stage: Understanding the stance and attitude of the speaker

This section is also about acquiring some of the skills you will need for the exam.

To follow step 2 (see last paragraph) and easily understand the recording, you must study aspects of the speaker’s attitude and tone.

Understand the speaker’s stance in a recording

Make sure you understand the exact stance the person is assuming by asking yourself whether the speaker is supporting, criticizing, or being neutral toward the topic about which he/she is talking. In the comprehension question section, you might be asked about what the speaker thinks of the topic. The following is a breakdown of the three stances the speaker might hold:

  • Criticism: Here, the speaker is disagreeing with or disapproving of the topic about which he/she is speaking. He/she might be talking about the topic in a negative or disapproving manner.
  • Neutrality: Here, the speaker has a neutral stance toward the topic. He/she will mention the topic’s positive and negative points.
  • Support: Here, the speaker is talking about the topic in a positive manner, projecting a strong belief in it.

Continually practice identifying which of these three categories best describes the speaker’s stance on an issue when listening to practice passages, so that this will become second nature for you on the exam.

Now that you have understood that, we can move on to the next thing we should be focusing on:

Understand the purpose & feeling/attitude

  • The purpose of the speech:

Listen for the theme of the conversation. That will help you grasp the main concept.

  • The feelings or attitude of the speaker:

Directing, recommending, questioning, objecting, accepting, reporting, agreeing, describing etc. are all feelings and attitudes of the speaker. Non-native speakers can easily misunderstand these attitudes, so pay attention to the speaker’s tone. That way, you can identify his/her attitude, and how they truly feel about something.

Listen to the stressing of words

Listen to the words that the speaker stresses and write them down as keywords. You will be asked about them later during the comprehension question section.

The speaker usually stresses words or phrases that are key to the topic at hand. So, note any word or phrase the speaker stresses, along with the speaker’s explanation of these words.

A detailed explanation will typically follow such words or phrases.

Acquiring skills stage: Looking out for lists, keywords, and concepts mentioned in the listening excerpts

This section is also about acquiring some of the skills you will need for the exam.

When listening to a passage, you need to be paying attention to the following things:


While listening to the recorded extract, look for verbal clues that indicate that what you are hearing is a list:

  • There are four main events that led to the Second World War.
  • There are 10 types of personality traits the professor mentioned.
  • These three symptoms might indicate you have a cold.

If you hear a list, you can be sure that the upcoming questions will cover it. At this stage, notes will come in handy. Such details can be difficult to memorize, so be sure to write them down.

Keywords and concepts

The next thing we need to be looking out for are keywords and concepts.

It is actually quite easy to spot keywords or key concepts. Here are some clues:

  • “X means Y”
  • “X, which refers to…”
  • “This important idea/concept/term”
  • “This idea is what most people believe in, which is…”

Connecting ideas

Now, we need to be looking at connecting any ideas that might have been presented in the listening passage. The process of connecting ideas and information can involve making inferences, drawing conclusions, forming generalizations, and making predictions.

You must know how to classify items into categories, identify a sequence of events or steps in a process, infer a cause-and-effect relationship, specify a particular sequence of events, and specify relationships among objects. If you can do the above, you have mastered the concept of connecting ideas from other given sources.

The true art of notetaking involves being able to comprehend and connect ideas and then transfer them into your own words. Therefore, you must pay attention to the way you format your notes.

In fact, you might feel more comfortable drawing diagrams. You can use circles and arrows to more easily connect ideas.

Otherwise, stick to the same format you learned in the reading section. For example, if a lecture is about time or a historical era, you must sequence the events accordingly.

Acquiring Skills Stage: Recognizing and understanding the question types in the listening section

This section is also about acquiring some of the skills you will need for the exam.

The exam’s listening section contains 34 to 51 questions from among the eight question types you can see below. If you understand these question types, you can tackle all the questions that will be given to you during the exam:

Listening Question Types

  • Basic Comprehension Questions
  1. Gist-Content
  2. Gist- Purpose
  3. Detail
  • Pragmatic Understanding Questions
  1. Understanding the Function of What Is Said
  2. Understanding the Speaker’s Attitude
  • Connecting Information Questions
  1. Understanding Organization
  2. Connecting Content
  3. Making Inferences

Let us start with the 3 types of Basic Comprehension Questions:

Basic Comprehension Questions

1. Gist-Content Questions

The word gist means the essence of a word or text, so in the context of the TOEFL exam, the word gist needs to be seen in the light of the main idea or general topic of the lecture or conversation you hear. The gist of what you will hear might be conveyed implicitly or explicitly.

The word “implicit” describes something that is expressed indirectly and unclearly.

The word “explicit” describes something that is stated clearly.

For a gist-content question, you must understand the general idea of the lecture or conversation.

In this question type, you might also have to synthesize/combine information from other sources (such as a reading passage) to be able to answer well.

We already discussed synthesizing in the important academic skills section (Part 3) in this e-course. It is the process of combining two or more ideas to make them more effective. The act of synthesizing tests your ability to understand two or more sources and to find connections between them. A writing task that asks you to integrate reading and listening is an example of a synthesizing information question.

How to identify gist-content questions

Gist-content questions normally look like this:

  • What is the key point of the passage?
  • What difficulties did the girl face?
  • What are the narrators generally talking about?
  • What is the lecture trying to address?
  • What idea does the professor refute?

Tips to remember:

  • Gist-contentquestions address the main points of the listening passage.
  • Remember to exclude choicesthat are related to only small partsof the listening passage, as they are most likely unimportant details.
  • Choose the answer that comes closest to describing the overall theme.
  • Consider that for gist-contentquestions, all of the choices—including the incorrect answers—can often be worded conceptually/abstractly. Therefore, you need to consider everything; those ideas which are obvious, and also, those which are less obvious.

Now, we can move from gist-content to gist-purpose questions.

2. Gist-Purpose Questions

Gist-purpose questions focus on the purpose of the conversation rather than on its content. You are actually more likely to come across this type of question with conversation-based excerpts. However, some of the recordings for this question type could portray a lecture from a professor.

How to identify gist-purpose questions

Gist-purpose questions are often phrased as follows:

  • Why does the student visit the professor?
  • Why does the student visit the registrar’s office?
  • Why did the professor ask to see the student?
  • Why does the professor explain X?

Do you see how you are being asked about the main purpose of why something happened?

Tips to remember:

  • Listen for the unifying theme of the conversation. For example, when a student meets up with his professor, he asks him for help in his thesis about animal conservation. Of course, their discussion will contain lots of facts about this subject, but the unifying theme is not animal conservation; rather, it is about the fact that the student needed help in his dissertation.
  • You will do well in the gist-purpose question if you can identify the problem the student has encountered, and what type of solution might solve this problem. This is called a service encounter discussion, and being able to recognize it and then identify the problem and solution will help you greatly on the exam.

Let us now move on to the next question type.

3. Detail questions

As you can understand from the words, detail questions involve comprehending and recalling specific information from a discussion or lecture. Keep in mind that these facts are normally related in one way or another.

Sometimes this can be a direct relation, and sometimes it can be an indirect relation. They provide elaborations on, examples of, or support for the gist of the excerpt. Therefore, although we are dealing with details here, you can appreciate why they are still important to fully understanding the passage.

How to recognize detail questions

Detail questions are typically phrased as follows:

  • According to the professor, what is one way that bad students can affect the whole class?
  • What is mercury toxicity?
  • What came about from the invention of the McGraw garbage incinerator?

According to the professor, what is the main problem with the preservation theory?

Tips to remember:

  • When answering, use the notes you have carefully made, keeping in mind that your notes and answer should not pay any attention to insignificant details. Learn to differentiate between important supporting details and irrelevant ones.
  • Concentrate on jotting down the key points from the audio passage, along with their important supporting details.
  • Do not think that the wrong answers will not also contain terms from the audio passage. They often do, so be extra careful when answering.
  • Detail questions often test new terminology, so listen carefully for any new terms.

The next question type on the listening component of the exam is related to your understanding of the speaker’s purpose or attitude.

We are now ready to examine the 2 types of Pragmatic Understanding Questions:

Pragmatic Understanding Questions

Understand that pragmatic understanding questions transcend basic comprehension of the passages. Indeed, they test your ability to comprehend the speaker’s attitude and the reason for his or her speech. In most instances, pragmatic understanding questions test parts of the conversation or lecture in which a speaker’s purpose or attitude is expressed indirectly.

Sometimes we say something, but we do not expressly communicate the exact purpose or function of what we are trying to get at. The statement needs to be considered in relation to the context of what is really going on or what is truly intended by what is said.

For example, if a father says to his children, “I really love you so much, and like to be around you a lot,” you might interpret this literally to mean that the father has a deep affection for his children, and that he is very expressive in that. However, if it was said in the context of his children asking to go out with their friends, the father’s statement needs to be seen in the light of his displeasure in allowing them to go out at that specific time.

This is the true function of the speaker’s statement which you will need to consider when doing this section of the exam. These are the types of nuances in purpose or attitude that you will need to pick up on when considering pragmatic understanding questions.

Let us examine the two types of pragmatic questions you might be faced with.

There are two pragmatic type questions:

4. Function of What is Said Questions

Pragmatic understanding questions determine whether you comprehend the function of what has been said. By function, we are talking about the purpose or meaning of what is going on. For function of what is said questions, you might have to replay various parts of the passage.

How to identify function of what is said questions

Function of what is said questions are typically phrased as follows:

  • What does the speaker infer when he states this: (replay)
  • What is the rational of the young man’s answer? (replay)
  • What can be deduced from the professor’s response to the student? (replay)
  • What is the student trying to learn from the professor? (replay)

For the function of what is said questions, you will often hear the relevant section of the listening passage replayed for you. Listen for the inferred function of what is being said. Keep in mind that there might not be a direct association between the function of what is said and what the speaker in the passage says. Rather, you should be looking for indirect associations, with keywords such as infer, deduce, rational and purpose being key.

5. Speaker’s Attitude Questions

We are presently looking at the pragmatic understanding questions of the listening section of the exam. The first question type is the function of what is said kind, while the second is speaker’s attitude questions. This question type will be dealing with your degree of comprehension of the opinion or attitude of the speaker. From amongst the things you could be asked about:

  • The speaker’s general feeling
  • The speaker’s reason for joy, anxiety, fear, or amusement
  • The speaker’s level of doubt and certainty about their position
  • The speaker’s basis or source for taking a position

How to identify Understanding the Speaker’s Attitude Questions

Understanding the speaker’s attitude questions are typically phrased as follows:

  • What can be understood about the quote? (replay)
  • What can be deduced about the way the professor spoke? (replay)
  • What is the student’s opinion about the professor’s statement? (replay)
  • What did the professor base his opinion on? (replay)

Tips to remember:

  • When listening to the passage, think carefully about how the speaker talks, not just what they say. Carefully consider the tone of what is being said. What is the speaker really feeling, and what is he/she really trying to communicate?

Let us take a look at the final category of listening questions. There are 3 types of Connecting Information Questions:

Connecting Information Questions

Connecting information questions test your ability to integrate information from different parts of the listening passage to make inferences, draw conclusionsform generalizations, and make predictions. This tests your ability to combine information, and then come to a correct conclusion about what you have just combined.

To choose the right answer, you must identify and explain the relationships that exist between the ideas and details in a text. Remember that these associations might be clear or implied, so do not limit yourself to looking for clear/obvious relationships only.

There are three types of connecting information questions

  • Understanding Organization Questions
  • Connecting Content Questions
  • Making Inferences Questions

6. Understanding Organization Questions

When answering understanding organization questions, you are normally going to have to deal with the general organization of the listening passage. Similarly, you might also be asked to identify any relationship that might exist between two parts of the audio passage.

Consider the following examples:

  • In what way does the dean organize the trip to the art museum?

She organized it in the manner which Professor Zain had suggested.

  • How does David convey his ideas to his professor?

By tying his points in to the lecture his professor gave in the first part of the class.


As you can see, in the first example, you had to deal with the overall organization of what you heard, whereas in the second question, you had to deal with the relationship that exists between two parts of the listening passage.

How to recognize understanding organization questions

Understanding organization questions are typically phrased as follows:

  • How does the student organize his presentation?
  • How is the question and answer session organized in relation to the lecture?

Tips to remember:

  • Understanding organization questions are more likely to be asked after a lecture than after a conversation.
  • If any comparisons are made, take special care to note them down. Furthermore, if you hear anything that is off-topic, ask yourself what point the speaker is trying to make. In other words, do not just overlook something that the professor mentions that might seem a bit strange; there probably is an important reason for this. So, pay attention to anything that might seem unusual.

7. Connecting Content Questions

Do you really understand the relationships that exist among ideas when looking at the various ideas and points of a passage? This is what connecting content questions are all about. With this question type, you will be asked to:

  • pinpoint cause and effect relationships within a passage
  • draw comparisons between points
  • classify points
  • pinpoint steps of a particular process
  • show a sequence of events
  • pinpoint any points of agreement or contradiction in a passage

This type of question also tests your ability to make a logical deduction based on the facts that you hear. You might also be asked to predict a result of something that happens.

In short, you must understand the deep and underlying connections and relationships that exist among the ideas in the passage.

How to identify connecting content questions

Connecting content questions are typically phrased as follows:

  • What can be deduced about what the professor said?
  • What is the probable result of the student asking his professor before, instead of after class?
  • What does the dean intend when he mentions the professor’s educational background?
  • What can you also conclude from the dean’s manner of dealing with the professor?

Tips to remember:

  • For this question type, your notes will come in handy. Using your notes, understand and connect the ideas to create a logical explanation about what the question is asking.
  • The answer you derived from your notes should match one of the answer choices you received.

8. Making Inferences Questions

To make an inference is to reach a conclusion about something based on evidence and reasoning. Therefore, for this type of question, you must form a conclusion based on the facts you have heard.

How to identify making inferences questions

Making inferences questions usually look something like the following:

  • What does the assistant professor imply when making his speech?
  • What does the student infer when he asks his professor the following question? (replay)
  • What will the professor most likely do after hearing the mistakes made in the speech?
  • What do you think can be implied from the cleaner’s response to the professor’s remark?

Application stage: Combining all the skills into one checklist

We have moved from the training stage, to the acquiring skills stage, and have now arrived at the application stage. Are you ready to put everything together now to perfect your test-taking process for the listening section?

  1. Before you start, make sure you have enough paper for your notes.
  2. Draw lines to structure your notes similar to the image below:

  1. When the recording is playing, identify the main topic or subject matter. Summarize the main topic or subject matter in one word (or group of words).
  2. Write that word at the top of the page.

  1. While listening to the recording, apply the strategies from the “Acquiring Skills Stage” (such as active listening) to ensure you understand the concepts. Jot down any details or facts you will later find hard to recall.

Here are the strategies:

  • Follow the active listening process of perceiving and constructing the meaning of what you hear. Remember that active listening is superior to hearing, as the latter involves only the memorization of raw data, not comprehension.
  • Understand the speaker’s stance and attitude. Ask yourself whether the speaker is supporting, criticizing, or being neutral.

Also, understand the three possible stances a speaker might take.

Tips to remember:

  • Criticism: Here, the speaker is disagreeing with or disapproving of the topic about which he/she is speaking. He/she might be talking about the topic in a negative or disapproving manner.
  • Neutrality: Here, the speaker has a neutral stance towards the topic. Because the speaker has no exact stance, he/she will mention the topic’s positive and negative points.
  • Support: Here, the speaker is talking about the topic in a positive manner, projecting a strong belief in it.
  • Listen for the conversation’s themeso that you can grasp its main concept.
  • Study the speaker’s feelings or attitude. Is the speaker allowing, directing, recommending, criticizing, accepting, narrating, questioning etc.?
  • Listen for words that the speaker stresses and write them down because they are key to the topic at hand. You might be asked about them later, so you will want to be prepared with a detailed explanation of why the concept is important.
  • Look for verbal clues that indicate the presence of a list. If the speech contains a list, you will most likely be asked about it. You cannot memorize such details, so write them in your notes. For example: There are 10 types of personality traits that the professor mentioned.
  • Spot keywords or key concepts. For example: X, refers to …
  1. Fill out the note template you previously created to correctly apply the active listening strategy.

7. Answering the question:

Even if your notes are excellent, choosing the right answer from among the given choices can still be confusing at times. With that in mind, we have summarized the most effective techniques for answering multiple choice questions.

Practice these techniques over and over:

The Elimination Technique

  • First eliminate all choices that don’t include the ideas that the recordings discussed. If an answer does not make sense to you, eliminate it immediately.
  • Second, identify the tricky answers (those that do not seem clear). Verify that the meanings of those answers match your notes and the recording. If they do not, eliminate them too.

The Matching Technique

Study the remaining answer choices carefully. Determine whether they match the recordings in:

  • Stance
  • Attitude
  • Opinion
  • Tone

This is a good way to verify that your choice is correct. Correct answers always match the passage’s ideas.