What's Tested on the TOEFL Listening Section

Beginning in the Listening section and continuing through to the Writing section, you wear headphones that have a special microphone for speaking. You have the opportunity to set the volume before the test resumes. After the section begins, a Volume button at the top of the screen can be used to change the volume at any time.

You use the Next button at the top of the screen to move through the Listening section. On choosing an answer for a question, you must click Next to proceed to the next question, and you also must confirm each answer choice as your final answer. Before you finalize your answer, you can change your selection, but once you confirm your answer, the next question begins right away. It is not possible to return to any question in the Listening section.

While conversations and lectures play, photos of people in academic settings appear on the screen. These photos are sometimes helpful in providing very limited context to the conversation or lecture. For example, the photo for a conversation between a student and a librarian may show two people in a library with one of them—the librarian—seated behind a reference desk. This offers a small clue to the location of the conversation. However, the photos do not offer any detailed information that is directly relevant to answering the questions. Therefore, do not study the photos; focus on listening instead.

After a conversation or lecture has finished, questions appear on the screen one at a time. Each question is spoken by a narrator as it appears on the screen, though answer choices are not. A few Listening section question types require listening again to an excerpt from the conversation or lecture. In these cases, the narrator mentions that you must listen to an excerpt, and a sign appears on the screen as the excerpt plays. A Help button in all sections takes you to a list of topics for which helpful explanations are available.

NEWS: TOEFL iBT® Enhancements Launching July 2023 

ETS has announced a series of TOEFL iBT enhancements debuting July 26, 2023. As of this date, the test will be shortened from three hours to less than two hours. 

Changes to the shortened TOEFL iBT exam include:

  • Streamlined instructions and navigation throughout the test
  • A new “Writing for an Academic Discussion” task, which will replace the previous Independent Writing task
  • A shorter Reading section
  • A shorter Listening Section
  • The removal of all unscored test questions

A simplified registration process for the TOEFL iBT will go into effect in July 2023, making it easier to register for a test date. Increased score transparency will also begin at this time, allowing test-takers to see their official score release date upon completion of the test as well as receive real-time notification of changes to their score status. 

The TOEFL score scale will remain the same despite these changes.

Listening Passages

The Listening section of the TOEFL measures the ability to understand English as it is spoken in North American academic settings. The section contains:

  • Two conversations between two people, each followed by five questions
  • Two lectures with student comments and questions, each followed by six questions
  • Two straight lectures, each followed by six questions

The conversations are generally between a student and a professor or other university staff member, such as a librarian, counselor, administrative assistant in a university office, and so on. The conversations are often of a problem/resolution type, where the student needs assistance from the other person and must explain her needs in an attempt to obtain the desired assistance, and the other person attempts to assist the student. The conversations average two and a half minutes or more.

The lectures are on a range of topics, covering history, art, business, science, and social science. The lectures do not assume specialized knowledge in any field, nor do they assume detailed knowledge of United States culture, government, history, and so on. However, a basic, introductory-level understanding of a variety of fields will make the lectures (and reading) much easier to follow. Lectures average four to five minutes.

Markers of authentic speech—such as pauses, digressions, interruptions, hesitations, false starts (e.g., “I’m not . . . I don’t really know the answer to that question”), idioms (e.g., “I don’t have a clue what you mean”), and colloquial language (e.g., “The scientists were sort of surprised by the results”)—are evident in both the conversations and lectures.

Listening Questions

There are eight different question types on the TOEFL iBT Listening section. You can expect to find most or all of these question types on the lectures, but only three or four of them on the conversations. Like the Reading section questions, Listening questions can be divided into three general categories, according to what each is testing: (1) understanding of language use, (2) basic comprehension, and (3) the ability to listen to learn.

Following is an overview of the question types you will find in the Listening section of the TOEFL. The number of each type per test is an approximation, since the number on the actual test may vary.

Language Use

  • Function (speaker to listener): 3 to 5 per test
  • Function (text support): 5 or 6 per test

Basic Comprehension

  • Main idea questions (lectures only): 4 per test
  • Function questions: 3 to 5 per test
  • Detail questions: 12 to 14 per test
  • Inference questions: 3 to 5 per test

Listening to Learn

  • Content relationship questions (lectures only): 2 per test

For most of the language use questions, you will hear an excerpt—that is, a repeated portion—from the conversation or lecture. The excerpt contains a word, expression, or comment that is the focus of the question. Often, the proper interpretation of the excerpt depends on the intonation and exact word choice of the speaker. Therefore, you should listen carefully to these excerpts, and you should also think back to the broader context of the conversation or lecture as you hear the excerpt.

All Listening section questions are four-option multiple-choice, with the exception of content relationship questions. This question type comes in two formats, both of which present five options. In the first format, you must choose the three correct answers from the five choices. In the second format, you must click Yes or No for each of the five options. In addition, one or two of the detail questions on lectures may ask you to choose two correct answers out of four options.