Listening Section of the TOEFL iBT

Summary of the TOEFL iBT Listening Section

The listening section of the TOEFL internet-based test (iBT) includes 4-6 academic lecture excerpts (each 3-5 minutes in length) and 2-3 conversations on a variety of general topics relevant to university life (approximately 3 minutes each). Students answer six questions per lecture and five questions per conversation, and total section timing ranges from 60 to 90 minutes. Listening section exercises are delivered by audio recording, and pictures on the computer screen indicate both the context of the exercise and the number of speakers. Listening section scaled scores are from 0 to 30.

Types of Listening Section Exercises

TOEFL iBT listening section exercises are intended to duplicate either classroom lectures or common administrative tasks. Lecture topics are taken from a variety of academic subjects in the arts and sciences, such as architecture, music, biochemistry, computer science, and anthropology. Lectures can feature either a single speaker (the instructor) or a classroom discussion (interaction between the instructor and several students). Conversations are either based on office hours or service encounters with university staff. Each listening section exercise will be played only once on the exam, but students are permitted to take notes on all iBT listening section exercises.

Categories of Listening Section Questions

Educational Testing Service (ETS) has classified eight total types of questions into three categories: basic comprehension questions, pragmatic understanding questions, and connecting information questions. Each type is discussed in greater detail below. Nearly all of the questions on the iBT listening section are multiple choice with four answer options and one correct answer, but there are also multiple choice questions with two or more correct answers, questions that require matching objects to categories in charts and tables, and questions that ask students to order events or processes. All three question categories and most of the question types within those categories will appear in both lectures and conversations.

Basic Comprehension Questions

According to ETS, this question category includes three question types: gist-content questions, gist-purpose questions, and detail questions. Correct answer choices for gist-content questions concern the broad content of the lecture or conversation rather than more specific and limited information. Gist-purpose questions ask about the primary reasons for lectures or conversations as opposed to the main content. In order to successfully complete detail questions, students must be able to reproduce factual information from conversations or lectures.

Pragmatic Understanding Questions

In the ETS-designated category of pragmatic understanding, students will see two types of exercises: understanding the function of what is said questions, and understanding the speaker's attitude questions. The former type evaluates test-taker competence in terms of understanding the speaker's motive for including specific statements. The latter type asks about the speaker's preferences or feelings. A few of these questions require students to be able to detect irony, disapproval, or sarcasm through tone of voice or intonation.

Connecting Information Questions

The Connecting Information category includes three question types: understanding organization questions, connecting content questions, and making inferences questions. In understanding organization questions, students must be able to choose answer options that accurately reflect the structure of a listening exercise or the purpose of individual statements. Connecting content questions concern the explicit or implicit relationships between ideas. This question type is often associated with charts or tables, and will appear in lecture-based exercises only. Making inferences questions ask test-takers to draw conclusions from the statements presented.

Important iBT Listening Section Skills and Strategies

One of the most important TOEFL iBT listening section skills is the ability to recognize context. This skill area includes separating main points from supporting information, understanding speaker purpose, and recognizing verbal cues such as word emphasis, pauses for effect, and tone of voice. While practicing listening section exercises, students should take notes (once again, this allowed while taking the exam). During the preparation period, students have the advantage of being able to listen to exercises several times, which is prohibited on the test itself. Multiple hearings of all exercises will gradually develop the necessary listening comprehension skills for strong performance on all listening section question types.