TOEFL listening

Love Your Score: Valentine's Day Inspired TOEFL Prep

Valentine's Day Inspired TOEFL Practice Blog Post.png

Love Your Score:  Valentine's Day Inspired TOEFL Prep

Implementing new words regularly after you've learned them is one of the best ways to promote retention, so tying your language lessons and test prep back to upcoming holidays and seasons is a perfect recipe for making sure that you are finding phrases and idioms that you are ready to use. Furthermore, finding emotional and personal connections to the new terms will help you remember and recall them later.  Valentine's Day is both timely and emotional, so below is a roundup of practice that you'll love.

1| Your love language: phrasal verbs related to love

Daily spoken communication for native speakers is largely based on using Phrasal Verbs. Phrasals are considered more casual, making them useful for everyday speaking and listening, like interacting in English with those closest to you, as it will convey your message in the correct register.

In addition to learning Phrasal Verbs that the TOEFL loves asking about, check out this awesome infographic from Cork English that lists Phrasal Verbs related to love here.

2| What are the odds: Valentine's Day Math

Most students focus on the humanities when they practice TOEFL-style listening. Show mathematics some love with this Ted Talk from a mathematician.  Hannah Fry delivers her Talk with a sense of humor, asking us what are the odds, statistically, of finding that person you are compatible with.

3| The science behind attraction

When those in love have a physical connection, native speakers say they "have chemistry." Practice note-taking with a Ted Talk about pheromones, the scents and chemicals responsible for creating those feelings of desire. This talk even starts with a brief overview of the history of this word, so if you are a logophile, the beginning of the lecture is sure to catch your attention. (PS-logophile isn't really a common term, as explained in this post, but it is made up of up common Greek roots. Learn more words based on common roots here.)

4| The economic impact of Valentine's Day

Most people associate holiday spending with the Christmas season, but Valentine's Day also has a huge impact on the economy.  For a quick read with a focus on spending trends for February 14th, check out this passage from Mint. 

Ever considered how all those packages arrive after you've placed your order? For a no-frills listening passage, take notes on this Ted Talk on the  logistics behind how all those online orders get fulfilled.

5| History of Valentine's Day

Valentine's Day might be associated with flowers and love, but there is a darker side that seems to have been forgotten. Practice reading in English with a passage from NPR on the not so rosy history of Valentine's Day.

6|  Valentine's Day Idioms

While there are many idioms related to the body more generally, the heart, in particular, is frequently the source of figurative language and idiomatic expressions.  Grab the infographic to become familiar with the top phrases, or check out this post for all of the sayings using the word heart.

Heart Phrases and Idioms for ESL Students.png


7|  True love: vocabulary related to honesty

The best type of love is often referred to as true love.  Check out this video lesson that you will truly benefit from on vocabulary related to being honest.



Bonus topic | Fall in love with the independent essay

Get some Valentine's Day-inspired independent essay questions.  Download your 4 free prompts below!

Valentine's Essay Printables.png


Which Valentine's inspired practice strikes your fancy?  Tell me which one caught your eye in the comments below.

How To Improve Your Notes for a Better TOEFL Listening Score

Improve TOEFL Listening Score Blog Post.png

How To Improve Your Notes for a Better TOEFL Listening Score

Why Listening Matters-- And Why It Is So Hard To Listen, Especially in a Foreign Language

There's a lot of advice out there on how to be a better listener, even for native speakers. While one can find articles for how to be an active or empathetic listener, which offer techniques and cultural expectations that can greatly enhance your daily interactions, these strategies are often not taught in formal classroom settings and do not always take into account the additional struggles faced by non-native speakers. According to BBC's Learning English, listening is the skill that occupies most of our time, making up 45% of communication for adults.  Yet, it continues to be a frequently overlooked skill. 

In his Ted Talk full of tips for making you a more attuned listener in any language, listening expert Julian Treasure bemoans the lack of formal listening instruction in schools.  In this way, foreign language students are at an advantage as this is a skill that is practiced while in the second language classroom.  However, how many people are actually given instruction on how to do it properly rather than just having an instructor read off the answers to the questions?  When the topics become more complex and the language more academic, like that on the TOEFL and in university classes, listening becomes nearly synonymous with note-taking. Below, learn 5 strategies for successful listening and proper note-taking   

When the topics become more complex and the language more academic, like that on the TOEFL and in university classes, listening becomes nearly synonymous with note-taking

5 Essential Strategies for Better TOEFL Listening and University Note-Taking

1| Set up your notes for the type of listening passage given

When listening to a conversation, divide your paper into 2 columns, one for each speaker. This will help you keep your notes organized, making it easier to find the answers to the questions when you are working under serious time constraints on test day.

When working with any listening that has more than one speaker, often the other person responds by voicing their agreement, approval or support; their confusing or lack of clarity; or their disapproval or disagreement.  Remember to pay attention to both content and tone.  As soon as someone replies with a strong positive or negative, use a quick symbol to record this.  I recommend using a check mark or a minus symbol before taking note on the other information in the reply.

 When it comes to lectures, there are three major types you could encounter the day of the test.   You can either here a lecture where only the professor speaks, a lecture with student interactions, or a seminar-style class.

 A seminar-style course is not very likely, but if the professor informs or reminds listeners that this is the structure, be prepared to hear multiple speakers and have the professor simply guide the students rather than give the majority of the information.  

Treat lectures with student interaction similarly to conversations, noting in particular how the professor responds, affirmatively or not, to student supplied answers.  Let questions from the professor or the students guide your note-taking.  These questions can act as subtopics, helping again to locate the information from your notes quickly when the time comes.

The most difficult type of lecture to take notes on are those that only have one speaker.  The professor will often introduce the main topic in the first few sentences.  Be sure to take notes on lists (as those easily convert to multiple choice questions), definitions,  and subcategories.

              Read more: 3 Qualities of Strong Notes for University and TOEFL Success

2| Don't attempt to take notes on everything someone says

On the TOEFL, you can and should take notes, but you only have the ability to note take on scrap paper.  Most people can type faster than they can handwrite notes, and, as a result, your strategy must adjust accordingly.

Strong listening really boils down to the ability to differentiate between what matters and what doesn't.  Consider, if the lecture were given in your native language, what would you identify as important.  The content of what is important does not change.

Even if you were able to write down every word when you are actually attending lectures in the university program you wish to attend, you would not want to do that.  First, you would not actually be processing what the professor says and you wouldn't want to review the dictation you had taken in order to prepare for your midterm or final.  Second, you would not be truly processing the information that is incoming.  Even if you could do that on the TOEFL, remember, right answers tend to use paraphrases rather than the same exact language from the lecture.

           Read more: 9 Podcasts To Listen to for TOEFL Prep

3| Anticipate the questions

No matter what section you are preparing for, you always want to make sure that you predicting the questions that will come up.  Thinking like the test-makers instead of the test-taker is one of the most important mental shifts one can make for more successful test taking.

Questions on the TOEFL listening fall into several common categories, and your notes should reflect each style of question. Detail questions, like those found on the Reading section, are quite common.  Look out for lists of 3 in order to prepare for detail and negative detail questions.  Those detail questions could also take the form of charts rather than simple multiple choice, especially if there are more or less than 3 items that fit a particular criterion the professor has outlined.   The Listening is more concerned with structure, function, and attitude than the Reading section, so be sure that your notes reflect this as well. While frequently a small snippet of the recording will be played again for those types of questions, by taking note on the attitude the first time, you can use the replay to confirm what you already know.

4| Keep in mind the natural stress patterns in English

Remember, English is a stressed timed language. This means that stress normally occurs at regular intervals rather than on each and every syllable in every word. This is why the subject, verb, and object--known as content words-- receive more stress and are as a result easier to catch than the other function words. The good news is, the content words tend to be the ones that questions will be asked about.

When the usual stress pattern is broken, note it. If the stress has been placed on a word that isn't expected, the entire meaning and tone of the sentence has likely shifted. 

5| Take the hint

Some phrases are the equivalent of the speaker telling you to take notes. This isn't just an artificial, contrived component of the exam. Instructors frequently will set expectations or encourage students to pay particularly close attention to a subject.   The professor might actually provide gentle reminders, make recommendations on how to prepare or what to review or to take note on.  These may become speaker's purpose, function, or even detail questions on the test.

Rhetorical techniques like repetition are another way that the instructor is trying to highlight a given point. If the instructor is saying the same word or phrase (or a synonym for it) again and again, this will almost certainly come up on the exam.  This is almost always how detail questions get developed.

Being familiar with casual phrases utilized in speech and their respective purposes will help you make the most of these clues.  Grab the 2 page TOEFL Listening Phrases At a Glance to printable to become familiar with more than 30+ phrases you'll want to know for TOEFL lectures and university level classes.

Key Takeaways

Having a set system for note-taking based on the types of questions you anticipate will come up will help make you better prepared for the TOEFL now and for midterms and finals down the road. Prioritize content, note tone when multiple speakers are involved, and look for common phrases that set expectations to improve your listening comprehension.


Listening Phrases At a Glance.png

What is the hardest thing about the TOEFL listening section in your opinion?  Leave your thoughts in a comment below.

From Podcasts to Points: 9 Podcasts to Listen to for TOEFL Prep

9 Podcasts for TOEFL Prep.png

9 Podcasts You Need to Listen To When Preparing for the TOEFL

In the United States, nearly 1/4 Americans listened to a podcast within the last month, according to a report from the Pew Research Foundation, a figure that is climbing year after year.  Podcasts are becoming a way of life for many individuals, but they also present a great opportunity for language learners.  Podcasts can be a great TOEFL prep tool because their format lends themselves to test prep and as the podcast listenership increases, so do the amount of quality shows being offered.

Why Podcasts

The most obvious reason why podcasts are a great fit for TOEFL prep is that the format is most similar to what you listen to on test day itself.  While watching television, documentaries, or Ted Talks can offer good practice, their visual nature might mean that you are not truly getting the true note-taking experience that you should need for something like the TOEFL.  With few visual clues on test day, you need to rely on what you can hear only.  Podcasts come in this format to begin with, but many will include show notes or transcripts that you can use to check against the notes you've actually taken.

Additionally, podcasts are fantastic because they allow you to multitask.  As an absolute podcast addict myself, I love spending time listening to podcasts while I"m doing other solitary activities.  Before getting into the car, going on a run, or cooking dinner, I love to have a podcast to make the most of my time.  It makes me feel more productive and helps me use my time efficiently.

Don't use podcasts exclusively for practicing note-taking.  If you decide to listen to podcasts while doing other tasks, you can increase the amount of time spent engaging with English.  This can help you internalize stress patterns, making speech sound more natural.

Additionally, for podcasts that come out regularly, simply subscribe so you get each new episode as soon as it goes live.  Instead of needing to find Listening Practice, the practice will come to you naturally, making you more likely to follow through.  This can help keep you on a regular schedule as episodes tend to broadcast the same time each week.  Get additional motivation to listen to the podcasts by using push notifications so you listen right away.

Don't feel like podcasts end with consumption.  Instead, many of the podcasts can leave you with new words to use, new strategies to implement, and new ideas to make small talk about.  This is particularly true if you are listening to a podcast that features current events. 

Some students make the mistake of only looking at podcasts that are designed for English language learners, but for advanced students like those preparing for the TOEFL, be sure to select a mix of those designed for non-native speakers and those that are produced by and for native speakers.

TOEFL Prep Podcast Round-Up: What Podcasts To Listen To

D2B English

Down 2 Business English is a business focused podcast that covers current events and trends.  Hosts Dez, Skip, and Samantha frequently make small talk before the strictly business portion of the conversation takes place, and this is also quite valuable for learning slang.  As they move into the business conversation, listen for definitions of terms.  The trio takes on interesting and relevant topics that make this podcast appealing even if you aren't interested in business.

Why this podcast is great for TOEFL prep: The business conversation casually mixes in business terms and concepts.  This will be helpful for growing your vocabulary in this discipline but also in regards to listening for definitions of new terms.  The conversations mirror the types of conversations that you might hear if a student goes to see a professor during office hours as one host will sometimes provide definitions or clarification and the other might ask about a term that they anticipate the audience will not know.

Business English Pod (Specifically the Business English News)

The Business English podcast is another great option for those who plan on joining the corporate world either before or after they take the TOEFL.  While some episodes offer advice for business interactions, like making small talk or placing phone calls with clients, the episodes labeled Business English News are particularly useful for students intending on studying any major.

Why this podcast is great for TOEFL prep: The Business English News episodes in particular parallel the integrated essay nicely.  Typically the episode will start with a summary of the current understanding or thought process on a topic and then the rest of the lecture will go into detail about the opposite, clearing up a misconception, or emerging information and trends on the topic.  Take a look at Episode 40 on Renewable Energy here.  Additionally, the length of the episodes is ideal for TOEFL prep.  Although the lectures on the integrated section won't be of nearly that length, the lectures in the Listening section are often about six minutes long.

6 Minute English

The BBC's 6 Minute English is a fantastic podcast designed for more advanced language learners.  One topic is discussed for the length of the episode, and the topics focus on trends in society.

Why this podcast is perfect for TOEFL prep: The information from 6 Minute English is great for small talk.  They cover topics from fads in health, technology, food and so much more.  The tone between the hosts is casual, but they incorporate facts and academic terms throughout, making it great for practicing TOEFL note-taking.  Use those facts you've written down to add to casual conversations next time one of these current events comes up during the course of everyday conversation.

BBC Radio's A History of the World in 100 Objects

While this podcast no longer produces regular episodes as all 100 objects have been featured, this specialized podcast presents an extremely academic and in-depth look at one object per episode.  This podcast sounds like a series one might find on the History Channel.

Why it is perfect for TOEFL prep: The TOEFL covers a number of different academic disciplines.  This podcast is great for getting additional exposure to anthropology.  The objects date back hundreds of years.  Given the variety of objects covered, interdisciplinary connections can be seen with art, economics, and much more.  The level of detail in each of these podcasts make it useful for TOEFL listening.

ESL Pod's English Cafe

Expand your vocabulary with ESL Pod's English Cafe.  This podcast covers cultural topics regarding famous Americans and significant locations, commonly confused words and phrases, and a ton of new vocabulary that you can find in the show notes for the episode.

Why it is great for TOEFL prep: These episodes feature a number of shorter segments.  The portion that features a tutorial on commonly confused words and phrases is an excellent tutorial that can help you avoid mistakes on the productive sections-- Speaking and Writing-- of the exam.

I Will Teach You a Language

This podcast, delivered in English, is on the topic of language learning.  Olly Richards, a renowned polyglot, shares his own insights on language learning and interviews other language learning experts.  This podcast goes live twice a week, so you have tons of new content to digest.  There are a ton of worthwhile episodes to listen to but stay focused by beginning with this list of his most popular episodes.

Why it is perfect for TOEFL prep: This podcast goes beyond simply listening to English; this podcast features actionable items related to the process of making your language learning experience more efficient and effective.  Covering topics from best practices for flash cards to finding more time for practice to overcome problems with fossilization and pronunciation, Olly provides many useful tips that can be applied to English learning and even test prep.

Luke's English / Luke's Phrasal Verb Podcast

Luke's English Podcast is great for those who are looking for British English pronunciations as well as entertainment.  With nearly 500 episodes regularly over an hour long, there is a nearly endless supply of listening material here.  Luke is incredibly honest and entertaining.  He expresses his views on a variety of real-world topics from friendship to fatherhood to television shows and everything in between.  (Bonus- for quick vocabulary tutorials, check out Luke's Phrasal Verb Podcast, too!)

Why this podcast is perfect for TOEFL prep: Because Luke regularly works humor into each episode, this podcast presents a great opportunity for increasing your listening stamina.  This is one of the most vigorous in terms of length, but Luke's engaging personality will make it easy to stay interested. 

NPR's Ted Radio Hour

To get a well-rounded dose of academic English, don't miss Ted Radio Hour.  This weekly podcast gives you the same type of quality information and insight you expect from a Ted Talk in a convenient podcast format.  Hear from experts in a variety of fields share a wealth of knowledge, providing tons of chances to expand your vocabulary in everything from psychology to computer science.

Why this podcast is perfect for TOEFL prep: Ted Talks are given by academics, so you are sure to encounter plenty of TOEFL level terms.  Additionally, because these experts are speaking to a generally educated audience, they will be sure to give plenty of background information and define industry jargon, which will make you comfortable with locating this type of information come test day.

NPR's Hidden Brain

Humans are fascinating, in no small part because of how our brains function.  This podcast is never dull, exploring the inner workings of the mind.  Psychology, anatomy, and physiology dissect the inner workings of the human brain in an attempt to discover why we do with what we do in terms of money, crime, exercise, nostalgia, and so much more.

Why this podcast is perfect for TOEFL prep:  Practice English while also getting a better understanding of how to find your inner motivation, to become a better decision maker, and to make more accurate predictions.  Episodes like Deep Work, detailing methods of immersing ourselves in meaningful work to make progress,  or Summer Melt, explaining the annual deterioration of what has been learned during the months we take off during the summer, might even change the way that you plan your prep time.

Key Takeaways

Podcasts are exceptional sources of free English practice material.  As an advanced language learner, don't limit yourself to podcasts designed for non-native speakers alone.  By combining a mix of ESL focused podcasts, general language learning podcasts, and podcasts intended for native speakers from a variety of disciplines, you can increase your listening time while gaining access to new vocabulary and tons of new ideas.


Trello for TOEFL.png

If you love podcasts, you are probably a big fan of technology.  Don't use your phone and laptop for the Listening section alone.  Take all of your TOEFL prep into the 21st century by getting Trello for the TOEFL-- your organization system for all your TOEFL resources.

Take Note: How To Note-Take for TOEFL and University Success

How To Note Take for TOEFL.png

How To Note-Take for TOEFL and University Success

Getting prepared for university classes shares a lot in common with getting ready for the TOEFL; this should come as no surprise given that the TOEFL was built to mimic university situations that non-native speakers will encounter in college classes and is used to, therefore, gauge student readiness. While some sections certainly do this better than others (for example, the independent essay questions are probably not on par with the type of essay you will need to write for college level classes while the reading passages seem just like those that may come out of a college level textbook), effective note taking on lectures is an essential skill to master for TOEFL and university success.

Why Note-Taking Matters

Note-taking is a component of several sections of the TOEFL. It is not limited to the Listening section only; the integrated questions for the writing and speaking sections require you to take good notes as well. Without these, you will not be able to provide enough detail to craft a fully developed response.

When you do make it to the university of your dreams, classes (especially those taken by freshman undergraduates) tend to follow a lecture format.  This means that the professor is typically standing in the front of the room delivering information without a lot of input from students and often (though not always) without putting notes on the board or projecting slides. Because first-year university students are typically required to take a certain number of core classes, these classes can be quite large, so you need to be an excellent note-taker in order to know what questions you want to ask your TA or during office hours and what to study when the midterm or final approaches.

Qualities of Strong Notes

The best notes, whether you are listening to a TOEFL lecture or one in your college or graduate school, are efficient.  To be a skillful note-taker, you must work quickly, identify important pieces of information, and stay organized.  All three of these essential characteristics work hand in hand.

Working quickly combines using smart symbols and abbreviations with finding only the most important items to record, tasks that non-native speakers frequently neglect to do in test-taking situations.  Do not try to write down everything the professor says. First, it is impossible, even for native speakers, to keep up with the speaker word for word. Additionally, if you are only copying verbatim what is being said, you aren't actually processing what he/she has stated.  Instead, only write down the key words (who/what/when/where/why/how) eliminating all the extras (articles, prepositions, most adjectives and adverbs).  Can you summarize the main point of the sentence?  Write it in your words, not necessarily the words the professor used.  Furthermore, you don't need to write out the entire word.  Is this lecture about a person?  Use abbreviations for names, places, etc. especially those that occur more than once.  Use symbols for common words like increase/decrease, similar to/differs from, and causes.  Drawing an arrow is much faster than writing down a series of letters (plus you remove the need to think about spelling when you are working under these time constraints).

Good notes need to be organized or it will be impossible to find the information when a question prompts you to recall specific information.  Remember, unlike the Reading section, the Listening section will only give you a certain amount of time per question.  In other words, while the Reading questions are self-paced, the Listening questions are not.  While this does have pros and cons, it means that you need to be able to call upon information in your notes quickly.  This necessitates good organization. Just like reading passages tend to follow a specific format, listening passages are usually organized in a similar fashion.  The professor will begin with a short introduction which will give you an idea about what the main idea of the lecture will be and this will help you guess the structure the lecture will take.  Additionally, you want to learn to anticipate the types of questions that you will be asked.  Only take notes on these pieces of information in order to avoid clouding your notes with distractions.

Where To Note-Take Before and After Test Day

Obviously, when you are taking practice tests or doing TOEFL practice problems, you should be taking notes in order to polish this skill.  But are you taking advantage of all the other opportunities you have to make good note taking a habit?

Do you take notes when listening to TOEFL prep strategies, like videos you find on YouTube?  Note taking more often will clearly improve your abilities, but it will also better help you retain information that you will need come exam day.  Because you are putting into practice the qualities of good note taking above, you are actually internalizing the information by note taking instead of passively listening and hoping to absorb some of it.

Don't limit your listening sessions solely to those dedicated to advice for language learning or TOEFL prep.  Use high-quality lectures to hone your note taking skills, and be sure to get a good balance of language learning/test prep and lectures across disciplines.  Using lectures from and Ted Ed as well as quizzes created on ESLvideo will give you a nearly endless supply of material to work with.

Get used to taking your note organization one step further.  Instead of just organizing the information on the piece of paper itself, make sure that if you encounter valuable information for the long term, you store it in such a way that you can find it again.  Use my free Trello Boards while you are prepping for the test, and then move over the relevant vocabulary and academic skill advice to a university resources folder so you can keep it for reference well after test day.

How Small Talk Can Make A Big Difference For TOEFL Speaking And Listening Section Scores


13 Useful Small Talk Transitions To Look for on the TOEFL

Speaking and listening go hand-in-hand, something that all language learners and teachers can tell you.  Too often, though, students don’t realize that the same holds true when it comes to the TOEFL test.  Frequently students tend to study skills in a bit of a vacuum, isolating one language skill from another unless they are practicing an integrated question, ETS’s term for questions that involve multiple skills. But because the listening section features a lot of informal phrases, the same that are used in everyday conversation, participating in daily conversation with your classmates and teachers could make you more ready for the TOEFL as well as for life post-test. 

So what should you talk about? The possibilities are nearly endless (eventually). Of course, it is important to know your audience, meaning you want to avoid topics Americans consider taboo if chatting with someone in the US. In other words, don't bring up religion,  only, or politics as many people in the States would find this rude. Americans love to start by talking about the weather, light-hearted (non-controversial) stories from the news, sports (especially local teams or big games like the World Series) or general plans for the upcoming weekend or vacation/break.

How does this help you on the TOEFL? It isn't likely that you'll hear a full conversation of small talk. 

A frequently overlooked skill is the ability to transition from small talk to what you actually want to speak about.  While we often associate transitions with writing, they are just as important and useful in speaking.  This is even more true given that Americans expect small talk before actually discussing the reason for the meeting or appointment.  In fact, most people would consider it rude to skip the small talk.  So, how do we get from small talk to what you actually want to discuss that day?  By using transitions--the same transitions that you might hear in a conversation on the TOEFL when a student goes to see his/her professor during office hours, begins by being polite, and then gets to why he/she actually stopped by.

Here are some key transitions that native speakers use that you can use as well when you want to move from small talk to the real reason for why you started up a discussion or if you just want to change the topic of conversation for whatever reason.

By the way…
That reminds me of…
Speaking of…
Before I forget…
Oh, while I remember…
I just thought of something.
Oh, there’s something else I wanted to say/ask you.
This has nothing to do with what we’re talking about, but…
Changing the subject for a minute…
That’s funny, because something similar…
      (note, it does not actually have to be funny.  This is more used like “That’s interesting because I had a similar situation”)
I know this isn’t really what we are talking about, but…
I know this is changing the subject, but…

Using these phrases during the course of your regular routine will help you recognize these phrases when they come up on the listening section (or integrated speaking question 3 and 5); as an added benefit, if you are using them regularly, that means you are speaking regularly, gaining extra practice in pronunciation, pacing, and word choice along the way.


Get all the phrases you need and a recap of all the topics to discuss (or to avoid) in a convenient one page printable that you can take with you wherever you go.

Privacy Policy