Three Tips for Better Listening on the TOEFL iBT

Listening is a skill that dominates the TOEFL iBT. This section takes 60-90 minutes and has two conversations (3-5 minutes long) and four lectures (3 minutes), with 34-51 questions measuring your ability to understand what was heard. Additionally, the last four speaking tasks require you to (3) to read, listen, and speak in relation to a campus-related topic; (4) to read, listen, and speak in relation to an academic-related topic; (5) to listen and speak in relation to a campus-related topic; and finally (6) to listen and speak in relation to an academic-related topic. Finally, the second writing task will require you to read and listen, and then, in 20 minutes, write an essay in response to the two academic sources. Are you starting to get the picture? Without good listening comprehension, you will not do well on the listening, speaking, and writing sections of the TOEFL iBT.

“How do you listen more effectively to TOEFL iBT listening passages?” you ask. There are three secrets to helping you become a better listener: listening for rhetorical cues, paying attention to focus words, and listening for pauses. Paying attention to the three areas will help you to be a better note-taker and listener of TOEFL iBT listening passages.

Rhetorical Cues
The first secret to good listening is that you should listen for signal words and phrases that create a coherent flow of information: to introduce new information, to connect ideas, and to emphasize important points.

Addition: and, also, besides, further, furthermore, in addition, moreover, next, too, first, second

Example: for example, for instance, to illustrate, in fact, specifically

Compare: in the same manner, similarly, likewise

Contrast: but, however, on the other hand, in contrast, nevertheless, still, on the contrary, even though, yet, although

Time: after, as, before, next, during, later, finally, meanwhile, then, when, while, immediately

Place/Direction: above, below, beyond, farther on, nearby, opposite, close, to the left

Summary/Conclusion: in other words, in short, in summary, in conclusion, to sum up, that is, therefore

Logical Relationship/Cause-effect: if, so, therefore, consequently, thus, as a result, for this reason, since

Focus Words
The second secret to good listening is that you should listen for focus words, important stressed words within speakers’ ideas. Speakers typically organize speech into thought groups, a meaningfully related thought of five or six stressed syllables. Within each thought group, there is a focus word(s) more prominently stressed than other content words such as nouns, adjectives, adverbs, or verbs. The focus word represents new information, which is why it is more prominently stressed. Paying attention to focus words help you to get the most important ideas of a lecture.


You will now read and then listen to a lecture which has been divided into thought groups, each separated by slash marks [/]. The bolded word in each thought group is the focus word.

To continue our discussion about environmental issues, / let’s take a look at a very hot issue:/ leaf blowers. / Many regard them as being hazardous to our health. / In fact, a gasoline-powered leaf blower generates / as much tailpipe emissions in one hour / as an automobile does over 350 miles. / The difference is that a car emits all that pollution over a big stretch of road, / while a leaf blower deposits it all in one back or front yard. /

The third secret to good listening is that you pay attention to pausing. At the end of a final thought group, there is a sharp drop in pitch, which indicates that the speaker is done with his statement, at which time another speaker may begin speaking, or, in the case of a lecture, the speaker begin a new idea.


If a thought group is not the final thought group, there is a half pitch fall, which means the speaker is not done with his turn. Listen to the two examples: in the first example, the speaker is not done speaking; in the second example, the speaker is done speaking.

Example: Not done I would like to go….(to the store later on today).

Example: Done I would like to go.

Read and then listen to the following paragraph. First, as you read the paragraph, try to identify the different thought groups in which the speaker slightly lowers his pitch. Second, listen to see if you were able to correctly identify the different thought groups.

Many of the sports which the ancient Greeks practiced and which made up a part of their own Olympics still survive in some way or other in the sports which we practice today. Their motivation, however, was for practice for war and it is in such motivation that one can understand the emphasis on martial skills such as wrestling, boxing, the javelin and running, while still including such less directly applicable sports as discus and jumping. Overtime, as interest grew in sport and competition alone, new sports were added, but it was these core sports, which stood the test of time, and which have continued to be practiced, in similar form, right up to the present day. Wrestling must be regarded as the most important sport practiced in ancient Greece; the very name palaestra “wrestling school” must indicate its importance in Greek life. Nor need we be surprised at this, for all over the world in cultures far_distant from each other, one can find styles of wrestling and fighting, for it is a useful skill in war.

Ancient Greek Sports

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7 thoughts on “Three Tips for Better Listening on the TOEFL iBT”

  1. Pingback: TOEFL iBT Listening: Turn the Caption Off! - Better TOEFL Scores Blog

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