Listening Training for the TOEFL

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Andrew Obermeier, Berlitz, Japan; Osaka Gakkuin University


  • Key Words: Testing/Evaluation
  • Learner English Level: Intermediate and above
  • Learner Maturity Level: University and Adult
  • Activity Time: two hours

During Summer vacation, on a pilgrimage that testifies to the test's status, one hundred fifty Ritsumeikan University students cram for the Test Of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. for three straight weeks. A TOEFL score in the mid five-hundreds carries clout; immediately important to many students is the fact that high scores earn acceptance into major universities overseas. For university students who want to study abroad, the TOEFL is gatekeeper to transferable academic credit. English teachers, however, cannot lead students directly to the points they seek (Hamp-Lyons 1999). "Beating the test" is a misguided aim. I approach teaching the listening section as I would approach teaching walking. Listening scores can only be improved through extensive listening comprehension practice.

A course about a test as difficult as the TOEFL is doomed to generate low student morale. Students want to learn how to beat the test, but as they work with the questions they will be repeatedly reminded of the numerous aspects of the language that they do not know. In the listening section, an additional difficulty occurs: The material is not visible, and disappears as memory fades. Therefore, I try to structure activity to reduce dichotomous right-wrong patterns of discussion and lead the class toward considering all of the language involved in the passages, not just the snippets that lead to the right answers.

Before the course begins, students should be given the tapes, transcripts, and answer keys. (For the Listening Section of its TOEFL Course, Berlitz distributes its TOEFL tapes, transcripts, and answer keys to students before their course begins. Teachers using a commercial text can direct students to its transcripts, audio, and answer keys, easing them into the independent role the course structure requires.) Students begin the course with the understanding that each Listening class will require around one hour of preparation at home. This homework is to be done using the following steps:

Practice the test. Listen to the tape and answer the questions unassisted. Use the bubble answer sheets.

  1. Repeat if desired.
  2. Listen while reading the transcripts. Underline unknown words. Adjust answers where appropriate.
  3. Re-read the transcripts. Look up unknown words in a dictionary.
  4. Listen again, books closed, and adjust answers.
  5. Check answers in the key; highlight any questions for the next lesson.

The listening homework is designed to gradually increase the comprehensibility (Krashen 1982) of the listening text. Students can deduce more meanings at each step. They will successfully solve many problems at step two; simply hearing the question a second time results in tremendous leaps in comprehension. After completing steps three and four, many more answers will become apparent. Reading along while listening utilizes their stronger reading skills to build aural capabilities by connecting what they hear and what they see. At step five, students know what answers they have chosen, and can act from memory, but this step is valuable because listening and answering "unassisted" will help build confidence, and reconfirm the memory of newly-learned items. Checking their answers in step six is invaluable, freeing the teacher from the role of sole bearer of knowledge

Considerable class time is freed by assigning mechanical listening tasks for students to do in their own time. Class work can be dedicated to student questions, explanations, or teaching specific skills. The presence of the tape is greatly diminished, opening the classroom to more interactive and normal discourse between teacher and students. In real life, very seldom will students be subjected to listening tasks like those seen in the TOEFL: The interlocutor is usually visible or interactive (as on the telephone), and the topic to be covered is understood before listening begins (Ur 1997). A two-hour class can cover about twenty Part A passages, two Part B dialogs, and two Part C lectures. I conduct class as follows:

1. Questions from students. Students will come to class with many questions, but getting them to ask these questions is challenging. A class driven by student questioning is worth working for, far more interesting to students and teachers than the lecture format the TOEFL leans us toward. I usually put students through long, awkward silences in the first few classes to bring about questions, but there are other viable ways to encourage students to take the initiative. Coercion here is good; it lets students off the hook: Asking questions is embarrassing, complying to a requirement is not. When the questions come, I am ready. Going through the transcripts before the lesson, predicting questions, and thinking of clear explanations and examples makes for smoother lessons. Also, students will miss important points when they question, and these should be brought to light.

2. Listen to the test problems with books closed; students answer in their own words.

3. Ask a variety of questions about each dialogue (Longheed 1997). On the practice tests, there is one question asked for each segment, but many more questions can be created.

4. Other class time should be allocated to focused practice of specific TOEFL skills as outlined in commercial test preparation books.

As teachers of test preparation courses, we risk being reduced to mere technicians. This is particularly evident in listening comprehension courses, where pushing play and rewind can fill too much valuable class time. If we shift our focus from "beating the test" to "advancing language proficiency," we return the test to its proper status, that of pedagogical tool.


Ramp-Lyons, L. (1999). The forum. TESOL Quarterly 33(2): 270-274.

Krashen, S.D. (1982). Principles and practice in second language acquisition. Oxford, Pergamon Press.

Longheed, L. (1997). Developing TOEFL skills. Tokyo, Macmillan Language Warehouse.

Ur, P. (1997). Teaching listening comprehension. Cambridge, UK, Cambridge University Press.