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Don’t stress out over the conversational listening passages on the TOEFL; once you know how to manage them, they’re not that bad. Here’s the help you need to make it through them.

TOEFL Conversations

Most of the listening passages on the TOEFL will be lectures in a classroom setting. But in every test, you’ll also see two to three conversations. Each conversation will be three minutes long and followed by five questions. Conversation listening passages re-create the types of conversations that you’ll probably have in an English-speaking academic environment. For example, you might hear a student and an administrator talking about course registration or paying tuition fees.

Conversations can sometimes be tricky to follow because they aren’t usually planned out in advance. Instead, they grow more organically and unpredictably. In a lecture, the professor will usually give you an outline of the whole lecture before she starts, which can help you keep everything organized.

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But, in a conversation, you won’t get anything like that; you have to follow everything on the fly. In this lesson, you’ll get some tips for following along without getting lost or mixing up which speaker said what.

Listening to the Passage

One of the biggest ways you can help yourself on the conversations is to listen well and take good notes. On the TOEFL, you’re allowed to take notes while you listen to the passage and refer to them while you answer the questions. Realistically, you will not understand every word in a passage. That’s okay.

The point is to listen for the main idea. Be especially alert for:

  • Agreement and disagreement.This can help you tell the speakers apart and stay clear on whose opinion is whose.
  • Topic changes and transitions.Transitions will really help you follow the flow of the conversation as a whole.

Taking Notes

As you listen for these things, you’ll want to take notes that record them. Here’s one way to organize your notes.

In a chart like the one below, you clearly represent what each speaker has to say about the topic. In the central column, you write down each main topic covered in the conversation and in the columns on the side, you write down what each speaker says about it.

Example chart for taking notes
three column chart for taking notes

You don’t have to write down all these things in that particular order. Sometimes, you might have notes in the speaker columns that don’t correspond to any particular topic. But, just to show you how it works, here’s an example conversation. This conversation is between the captain of a basketball team and the coach.

TEAM CAPTAIN: Coach, can I talk to you about one of our players?COACH: Sure, what’s going on?CAPTAIN: It’s Johnson. He’s a good player, but he’s always late to practice, and he gets angry about it when I ask why.COACH: Hmm, it might not be his fault. I know he gets rides to practice with his brother, and his brother just got a new job with a really crazy schedule. Could that be it?CAPTAIN: Maybe.COACH: You know, Fred lives out in his area, too. I’ll ask if Fred can start driving him to practice, see if that might help him.

CAPTAIN: Good idea. Actually, speaking of Fred…COACH: Yes?CAPTAIN: He’s been doing really well lately. I think we should start giving him more game time.

COACH: He’s earned it. You’re right; let’s put him in on Friday and see how he does.

Example notes
example notes from conversation

These are effective notes for three reasons:

  • They clearly mark important topics of conversation.This conversation has two topics: Johnson and Fred. That’s clear from the notes.
  • They clearly distinguish between speakers.

    If you go off these notes to answer questions about the passage, you’ll never get confused about who said what.

  • They show the flow of conversation.The numbered points indicate the order of that statement in the conversation.

    So, you can reconstruct the flow of the conversation by looking from one to two to three, and so on.

Of course, this particular format for notes won’t work for everyone, but it’s a good basic template to use for your own notes. Try it out, and see how you like it.

Other Tips

Once you’ve taken good notes, you’ve won half the battle. But to help you with everything else, here are some more strategy tips and tricks:

  • Be alert for questions with multiple answers.

    Most TOEFL listening questions are simple multiple-choice, but not all of them are. You don’t want to lose points for not reading the directions!

  • Use elimination to narrow down answer choices. Even if you don’t know what’s right, eliminate incorrect answers to help you make a better guess.
  • Don’t be afraid to skip questions.

    If you don’t know the answer, don’t waste your time on it. But, just bear in mind that once you’ve answered, you can’t go back and change it later.

Lesson Summary

In this lesson, you got some tips for making the TOEFL listening conversations work for you. You’ll hear two to three conversations on the test. Each conversation will be around three minutes long and followed by five questions. First of all, set yourself up properly:

  • Listen for agreement, disagreement, topic changes and transitions.

    This will help you follow the flow of the conversation. Don’t get hung up on understanding every word; focus more on the big picture.

  • Take effective notes. Make sure your notes distinguish between speakers and give you some way to track the flow of conversation. You can use the column chart or something else, if something else works better.

Then, when you’re actually working on the questions, use elimination to help you, be wary of questions with more than one correct answer and don’t be afraid of skipping if you’re really stuck – you might as well use that time for a question you can get.And then, of course, there’s the most important thing: practice! Try out these tips on some practice passages and watch your score improve.

Learning Outcomes

Once you’ve completed this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Describe the structure of the TOEFL conversation listening passages section
  • Explain how to listen and take notes on the conversation effectively
  • Identify other tips for performing well on this test

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