The Listening Comprehension Section of the Paper-Based TOEFL

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Warning: Please note that this page refers to the old paper-based TOEFL (PBT). This version of the test is still offered, but only in a very limited number of locations. The vast majority (over 97%) of test takers take the new internet-based TOEFL (iBT). Please click here to learn about the sections of the TOEFL iBT.

PBT Listening Comprehension Structure

The listening comprehension section of the TOEFL paper-based test (PBT) has a three-part structure of 50 total multiple-choice questions, designated on the exam as parts A, B, and C. All listening passages and questions are delivered by audio recording. Part A includes very brief excerpts from two-person conversations. These conversations have one line of text for each of two speakers in the conversation (a man and a woman), followed by a narrator who asks a question about the exchange. Part A covers 30 of the listening comprehension section's questions, and each question deals with a separate dialogue. The remaining 20 questions are split about equally between parts B and C. Part B features longer conversations between two speakers (approximately 10 lines of text), and students answer several questions about each conversation, provided by a narrator on the recording. On part C, students listen to lecture excerpts approximately one minute in length, and then answer questions read by the narrator. On all three parts of the PBT listening comprehension section, test-takers are given 12 seconds per question to record their answer choices on a provided answer sheet.

PBT Listening Comprehension Question Types

All of the questions on the PBT listening comprehension section are multiple choice with four answer options and a single correct answer. Part A questions generally ask about the meaning of statements by the speakers or the actions that will be taken by the speakers according to the information given. Questions for parts B and C cover issues discussed as well as factual information in the lectures or conversations. The text of all questions is straightforward, such as "what does the woman mean?," "what does the man imply?," "what is the main purpose of the talk?," "based on the lecture, what is x?," or "why does the lecturer mention y?".

Skills Evaluated by PBT Listening Comprehension

The TOEFL is an American test, and all listening excerpts are thus read in standard American English. Test-takers must be able to understand American pronunciations, speech patterns, and certain idiomatic expressions. Students must also have strong command of English grammar and a large vocabulary of English words. Effective time management is especially important on the PBT's listening comprehension section, because of the large number of questions and the brief period allowed for each answer. Students must therefore practice learning to understand spoken English quickly, and guessing answers if necessary.

Policies and Procedures for PBT Listening Comprehension

While taking the listening comprehension section of the PBT, students may not take notes or write in the test book. Entering more than one answer for any single question will automatically result in that question being marked as incorrect, even if one of the given answers is correct. Listening excerpts and questions will be played only once and cannot be heard again. Test-takers should not turn pages in the test book until they are instructed to do so by proctors. Students who finish all of the listening comprehension questions before the expiration of the designated 30-40 minutes may not immediately move on to subsequent exam sections (each PBT section has its own assigned block of time). The penalty for violation of these policies is dismissal from the test center and cancellation of scores.

PBT Listening Comprehension Scores at Selected Universities

Most universities list their PBT requirements in terms of total scores only, but some programs have specific standards for listening comprehension. The Graduate School of Education at Harvard University, for example, expects all of its international students to receive a scaled listening comprehension score of at least 60. At the University of Kansas, the listening comprehension standard for regular admission is 53, with provisional admission available to students who score 51-52. University of Kansas applicants with listening comprehension scores below 51 are denied admission. Oakland City University, a small private school in Indiana, has a minimum listening comprehension score of 45. According to ETS data on the PBT, the mean listening comprehension score for all test-takers is 53.1.

Research Relevant to PBT Listening Comprehension Skill Development

A recent paper written at Northern Arizona University concluded that accented English did not significantly affect listening comprehension. Though test-takers are advised to focus their preparation efforts on American English, this research suggests that the inclusion of other types of accents is not harmful to TOEFL scores. Another recent paper argued that test preparation specific to the skills evaluated is more effective at producing high test scores than language instruction alone. Students taking the TOEFL PBT should therefore devote ample time to learning listening comprehension skills as they are assessed on that version of the exam.