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Jane Birkenhead, January 22 2020

TOEFL Listening: 5 strategies to improve your proficiency

Do you need a TOEFL iBT listening score of between 18 to 22? Read on to find out why you should aim for a much higher score than that. 

Many TOEFL students think they don’t need to worry about practicing listening because they only need a low listening score of around 18 to 22 but the problem is that many students also need an advanced speaking score (26+) and a high writing score (24+). It’s very hard to get high scores in those other sections of the exam if you have low listening proficiency. 

Good listening skills are essential for both the speaking and writing sections of the TOEFL exam, as well as the listening section, of course. In all these sections, you need to quickly understand what is being said in the conversations or lectures, then be able to explain them fully. It’s very hard to explain something if you haven’t completely understood it. 

I always advise students to aim for a listening level of around 24, and even higher if possible, regardless of what their actual target score is. If you can consistently score 24 in listening passages, then it means you've understood the main information and most of the supporting details. It also means you'll  be able to understand the listening parts of the speaking and writing sections.

The order that you build your language skills is important. You can save yourself a lot of time and stress if you concentrate first on improving your listening skills, and then work on improving your speaking and writing.

Here are 5 strategies that you can use to begin to build your listening proficiency.

Listening Strategy #1 Notice which words and phrases the speaker stresses

In English, we can stress any word in a sentence. We say the stressed words a bit louder and a tiny bit slower than the other words. It’s like we’re saying those words in BOLD font.

Speakers stress important words in their messages because these are the words they want you to pay attention to. You should get used to listening for these stressed words as the speakers in TOEFL lectures and conversations use this technique. 

How can you practice this?  Listen to as many interviews as you can. Interviewers are very good at getting their questions across and making sure their interviewees understand exactly what they are asking, so they use stress a lot. 

It’s also good to listen to comedy shows. Comedians often over-emphasize (use a lot of stress) when they’re telling stories so this will help you to pick out the stressed words and phrases. And it’s a fun way to practice for TOEFL.

Listening Strategy #2 Listen for contractions and shortened forms of words

In modern English, speakers use contractions and shortened forms of words a lot. They do this even in formal speaking situations.

Professors in TOEFL academic lectures mostly do this and speakers in the conversations definitely do this. They say shouldn’t instead of should not, couldn’t instead of could not, would’ve instead of would have, hadn’t instead of had not….there are many more examples.

This is a normal pattern of modern English and you’ve got to be prepared for it. The contracted part - the ve or nt for example, - is unstressed which makes it even harder to catch. Understanding the contractions is crucial for understanding the timeframe of the action. For example, if the speaker says ‘they might’ve known about this’, it’s a different meaning from ‘they might know about this’.

How can you practice this? Listen to other people’s conversations (not private ones, just when people are talking normally around you 😊 ) and try to catch the contractions. You will get better as you practice.

Listening Strategy #3 Pay attention to repetitions and other explanations.

If a speaker repeats something, or says it again but in a slightly different way, or gives an explanation, then that’s a big clue. It means that what they just said is important. 

So when you hear the speaker say a phrase like, 

‘for example’, 
‘that’s when’, 
‘let me explain’, 
‘let’s consider this in more detail’ 

it means then you should focus and get ready to write notes for the next bit. The repetition or further explanation is also a good opportunity to check that what you've already heard is correct.

How can you practice this? Get used to listening for the phrases professors and other speakers use to introduce explanations. If you listen out for these phrases then you’ll know that what comes next is going to be important and that you should listen extra carefully to it.

Listening Strategy #4 Check what you heard

Good listening practice for TOEFL involves analyzing and checking your understanding of what you just heard. If you don’t understand a sentence or a phrase in something you’re listening to, then make sure you find out what it means. Don’t assume that it’s unimportant and move on, as it may be critical for your understanding of the rest of the passage.

If there is a transcript, then use it to check what you heard. It’s not cheating to do this! In fact, it’s a really effective way of building your listening skills. Or, if you don't have a transcript, replay the bit of the audio you weren’t sure about. Do this again and again until you do understand it. 

If you’re still finding it difficult to understand, then ask another English speaker to help you. Investigate what you don’t understand as this will help to build your overall proficiency.

Listening Strategy #5 Practice properly 

Listening, like all the other parts of language, is a skill. You'll get better at it by practicing properly. 

Practicing properly means checking your understanding and analyzing any problems. It doesn't mean racing through as many listening passages as you can and thinking "Oh, I got some questions wrong, never mind. I'll try some more." 

Learn to review your errors and give yourself feedback, then you'll make much faster progress.

Here are some ways you can practice improving your listening proficiency. 

Try these different ways of practicing to check your understanding. And keep practicing. You will improve if you practice.

Too many students don’t practice listening either because they think it’s unimportant (it’s really important!) or they keep listening and hope everything will make sense. “Hope” is not a good strategy for anything but especially not TOEFL.

Written by

Jane Birkenhead

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