11 Tips for improving your TOEFL® Listening score

Okay, so you might have already done a TOEFL practice test and are getting ready to do the actual test. Or maybe you have got your score back from the TOEFL test and want to get some extra points on the listening section next time you take it. 

Either way, I hope this post will help you find some ways to get the points you need on the listening portion of the exam. While you may be doing some of these already, others will probably be new to you.

So let’s get to it!

1. Motivation

I wrote about this in the blog post I did on speaking tips for improving your TOEFL score, but I think it is definitely worth repeating here. Motivation is everything because the “why” for doing something is what drives us. If it is too shallow, it doesn’t help us to persevere when things get hard. Or perhaps we do it, but we don’t really want to, so we do it half-heartedly.

Try to come up with a reason that is a little bit deeper than “I am doing this because I want to get into such and such a university.” Why do you want to go to that university? And why is that important to you? Keep asking yourself “why” until you get to the point that you want it merely because you want it. That is the “why” that will keep you going, especially when things get tough.

The best motivation has passion as its foundation. If you just love the English language and can’t stop studying it, you are passionate about English, which will help you push through the difficulties more than any other motivation. 

For some people, this passion can seem almost innate. They will study and practice for hours on end, and they don’t seem to get tired of it. 

This probably isn’t the case for most people, but that’s okay because passion can also come from getting results. When you start getting good at something, that is another way to become passionate. Use that to your advantage!

2. Know the structure of the listening test

While it doesn’t have anything to do with learning English per se, knowing what the test is like will prove very helpful in getting your score where you want it to be. You can lose precious points for wasted time as you try to figure out what you need to do. 

It’s like understanding soccer or basketball rules before you step onto the field or the court. If you are not familiar with them, you may end up getting kicked out of the game.

The overall goal you should be trying to achieve on the listening portion of the TOEFL is threefold:

  • Basic understanding (main ideas) about what is happening in the recording
  • The speaker’s attitude and how certain he or she is in expressing himself or herself
  • Being able to make a synthesis of what you hear and being able to connect various pieces of information

You will be listening to a series of brief lectures or classroom discussions, and the number of these can vary. The listening portion is 41-57 minutes long, depending on the number of questions. Typically, you will find between 28 and 39 questions in the listening section on exam day. 

Just so you know, ETS® will sometimes include questions that will not be counted towards your final score. This is just to give them data to see what types of questions they can use on future tests.

3. Active listening

You have to think of yourself as a journalist when you are listening to something, which means you are trying to look for the following information: 

  • Who is involved?
  • What are the main ideas? What details support these ideas?
  • When is this taking place?
  • Where is it taking place?
  • Why are they saying what they are saying?
  • How do the various points support the main idea?

Keep in mind that these are general questions, so you might need to adapt them for the specific thing you are listening to. When you do this, you will be practicing “active listening.” You become like a detective, so you will be able to recognize the information you are looking for more easily. 

By listening actively and taking adequate notes, you will have a pretty good summary of what you just heard when you get to the questions.

You should not only prepare yourself mentally by asking yourself the 5 Ws and 1 H (Who, what, when, where, why, and how), but you should also take notes as you listen. When you do this, you will be able to listen even more actively (and prevent distraction). 

By listening actively and taking adequate notes, you will have a pretty good summary of what you just heard when you get to the questions. It will be a lot easier to get the information from your notes than trying to remember what the recording said without having taken any.

4. Listen to anything you can get your hands on

When it comes to practicing your listening, there are so many ways to do this. If you need to improve your score quite a bit, I would suggest starting with short listening sessions as a general rule. This can be things such as the news or the weather on the radio). If you start out with too much, you may end up getting very tired. 

Podcasts and audiobooks could end up leaving you exhausted if you were to start with these! They take quite a bit of effort to focus on our own language, let alone in a language we are trying to learn! As you progress, you can start listening to these, and you will enjoy them so much more!

Podcasts and audiobooks are great because they can stretch our listening abilities. Since they tend to last longer than the news or the weather, we have to be able to follow the progression of what they are saying over a more extended amount of time. 

So how do you do this well? Firstly, make sure you take notes to stay engaged and follow the progression of ideas. Stop the podcast or book every once in a while to make sure you are understanding the main concepts. Otherwise, go back and listen to the parts that do not make sense. If not, you may have difficulty understanding the rest!

5. Practice, practice, practice

This is so key with anything we want to learn! The more you practice, the better you get and the easier it becomes for you to do it. Have you ever learned to do something new, like playing a musical instrument? At first, it is challenging to play a song because you struggle to play a few notes. But as you practice, you will improve. Sooner or later, it will be a lot easier to play songs, as you will be able to play a series of notes together with a certain rhythm.

It is no different from English. You have to practice listening a lot. When you first started learning English, you did not understand a lot. There were words and grammatical structures that weren’t familiar to you, and so you had to struggle to piece things together. Now, most likely, things are more manageable, although you still need to put in practice time to try to understand something you haven’t quite grasped yet.

A word of warning. We human beings can sometimes kill our own motivation, and having motivation is number one on our list! If we are not careful, our minds can make us focus way too much on what we don’t know yet. 

Focus your mind on your progress you make rather than on the things you don’t know. 

While this is a good thing when it is balanced because it motivates us to grow, it can also be detrimental to the learning process. If we are not careful, we can get easily frustrated because we can focus a lot more on what we don’t know than on what we are learning. 

To combat this tendency, do the following: as you practice, keep a journal of the improvements you are making, and be grateful for them! This way, you focus your mind on your progress you make rather than on the things you don’t know. 

We put too much weight on our shoulders when we get frustrated with ourselves for what we don’t know. We know from experience that it is hard to study well with this attitude. Just think, if we as human beings were to focus on what we don’t know all the time, we would be sad all the time. There will always be much more that we don’t know than what we do know!

On the other hand, if we focus on the progress, we will become excited. This will give us new and positive energy every time we sit down to study.

6. University lectures on YouTube

If you go onto YouTube, you should be able to find lectures from many universities. This will closely mimic the type of thing you will be seeing at the university you may go to, so this is excellent practice. Remember that you will not have video during your TOEFL iBT test, but this is still great practice for you!

Try to look for a variety of topics as you search because on test day, your favorite subject may not come up. Although, it won’t hurt to throw in things that interest you as well. 

7. TED talks

TED talks are also a great way to practice your listening. They are usually just under 20 minutes long each, and they typically focus on only one main idea. Take notes as you listen to these talks, paying attention to the main idea and how the various points the speaker makes connect to the main idea. 

At the end of the talk, you should have notes that give you a useful synthesis of what it was about, as well as how the talk flowed. These talks are quite nice because the speakers practice a great deal before giving the actual talk. They want to make sure you come away with the main idea, so they will typically be very well done and structured. 

Just be aware that the real world is not always like this, so don’t be surprised if you struggle with the other mediums more than TED talks.

8. Movies with and without subtitles

You may be surprised that I am suggesting that you do this both ways, but there is an excellent reason for this, I promise! They will give you different skills, but both forms of watching a movie will help you on your listening portion of the TOEFL.

Movies with subtitles 

First, try to watch movies with subtitles. Here I don’t mean the subtitles in your own language, but in English. While subtitles in your own language can be nice to have, they can also become a crutch that you may begin to rely on for understanding. English subtitles are definitely better!

The point of this exercise is that it will help you to connect pronunciation with certain words. If you are just listening to the words, you may not always understand the pronunciation. However, if you see the word on the screen while it is being said, you will be able to connect the pronunciation and the word. This will also help you with your writing, as you will know how certain words are spelled!

Movies without subtitles

As you can imagine, this exercise is a little more challenging than the previous ones. It is an excellent exercise for engaging over a long period of time with English and having fun while learning how to listen better! As you watch and listen, ask yourself the 5Ws and 1H, and take a few notes as you go. You don’t need to take a lot of notes – bullet points will work just fine. 

At the end of the movie, come up with a synthesis, and then speak to someone about it in English. By explaining it to someone else, you will be able to get feedback from them to see if you have understood the movie’s main points. As a bonus, you will get to practice your speaking while you are at it!

9. Conversation

While this is not listening per se, it definitely involves listening skills. When you have a conversation with someone, you will not be doing all the talking, so you will need to listen to them to see what they are saying. After that, in some way, you will need to show them that you have understood. Otherwise, the conversation cannot continue. Then, they do the same for you, and so on.

This is a great way to kill two birds with one stone, since, just as when you are explaining a movie to someone else, you get to practice your speaking as well. If you are having trouble finding someone to have a conversation with, see if you can find a group where you live. If you use an app like MeetUp, you should be able to find language groups where people get together to practice. If you are lucky, you may even find some native speakers!

10. Accents

English is a language spoken in many countries, so when you are studying abroad at a university, you will most likely come into contact with people from different English-speaking countries, whether they be faculty, staff, or students. 

To prepare for these situations, TOEFL uses a series of different accents on the test. You should try to become familiar with native English accents from North America (the United States and Canada), the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand. Don’t worry too much about the differences between the US and Canadian accents, as they are quite similar.

11. Intonation

Intonation is critical in any language. Without it, it can sometimes be challenging to understand if the speaker is asking a question, a rhetorical question, making a statement, or emphasizing something. For this reason, it is always a great idea to practice understanding the various types of intonation.

To get some practice in, I would suggest using a medium with video, such as YouTube or a movie. This way, you will be able to focus on visual cues as well. Go through the video, and listen carefully to what they are saying, trying to pick up the different types of intonation. You will eventually start noticing patterns.

Try asking yourself the following questions to help you:

  • What type of a sentence is this? A question? A statement? A rhetorical question?
  • What words does the speaker emphasize? Why?

Write down the patterns that you start seeing in a journal, then go back every once in a while to see if what you wrote is still valid or if you have to change it. This will help you become more precise, and you will also be able to incorporate this knowledge into your speech.

Happy studying!


Hey English Learners! I'm Ryan and I have over 4000 hours of English teaching experience. Even though I am now a management consultant in Ireland by day, I have created this blog because I am a teacher at heart and am passionate about the English language! Look forward to help you get your English Exam Passport. Cheers!

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