10 tips for successful TOEIC listening and reading preparation

10 Tips for Successful TOEIC Listening and Reading Preparation

Want to get a job where you’ll use your English skills?

Well, then, I’ve got another important question for you:

Are you signed up to take the TOEIC yet?

A TOEIC Listening & Reading Test certificate can be a great addition to your resume.

The exam combines both reading and listening comprehension tests, which could make you nervous, but don’t worry!

Want to know how to get a great score? Then it’s great that you’re here right now!

These tips and advice will help you reach your goal.

Even better, in this post we’ll practice together. Because, folks, the best preparation for the TOEIC is practicing, practicing and practicing some more.

Why? Uh, that’s how you get better at anything.

Oh and, by the way, practicing is key. Practicing.

That’s it, end of the post. Thanks for reading me.

Just kidding! Did you really think I was going to leave you high and dry?

Don’t know what the idiom “high and dry” means? You don’t need to look it up in a dictionary. In tip 5, we’ll try to understand the meaning together, and we’ll ask Joey and Chandler, from the ’90s TV show “Friends” to help us with that.

(Hint: It has nothing to do with the weather or heights.)

But first, let’s start by making sure everyone knows what the TOEIC is.
 


 
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What’s the TOEIC?

TOEIC stands for the Test of English for International Communication. It tests your ability to understand work-related writings, instructions and conversations, in spoken and written English.

Remember that the TOEIC Listening & Reading Test does not have a speaking part — so that’s one less thing to think about. Plus, it’s not a pass or fail test. This means that simply taking the test will make you stand out (be noticed) among candidates (applicants) who haven’t taken it.

Format: Multiple choice, pencil and paper
There are two sections: listening section (100 questions) and reading section (100 questions).

Length: 2.5 hours
The listening section is 45 minutes, the reading section is 75 minutes and then there are 30 minutes to answer non-scored questions about yourself.

Score: 10 – 990
A higher score is a better score. In the reading and listening parts you can earn 5 – 495 points each, and then the two scores are added together for your final score. A score above 785 is very good, but sometimes employers aren’t necessarily looking for a score that high, depending on the tasks of the job. Granted, you’re going to want to aim to score above 550.

Here’s a table that shows how different TOEIC scores align with the European CEFR levels (A1-C1), plus a description of each level. And here’s an even more detailed description of the score levels.

Cost: $75 – $85 USD
The cost of the exam depends on your country. Contact a local test center to find out your fee.

How to sign up: Education Testing Service (ETS)
The organization that makes the test is the ETS. Contact your local test center for sign-up details. We recommend downloading their Examinee handbook (for free) and looking at the other resources available on their website (practice tests, for example).

TOEIC Listening and Reading Format: What It Means for You

Let’s take a closer look at the format of the TOEIC Listening and Reading exam:

Part 1. Listening comprehension — 100 questions (45 minutes)
– Photographs
– Question-response
– Conversations
– Short talks

Part 2. Reading comprehension — 100 questions (75 minutes)
– Incomplete sentences
– Error recognition or text completion
– Reading comprehension

See the problem here? There’s more time for the reading part, which means that you’ll need to be very focused during the listening test, because there aren’t any replays. It’s fast, which is why test takers usually study and practice more for the listening part.

But you’ll still need to practice for the reading section, too. While there are no essays to write, some questions will test your grammar and vocabulary.

Also, some reading questions will use many different business communication methods (e-mails, newsletters, etc.) that are connected together. This will test your ability to find, gather and understand information from different sources.

So, unless you find out that you’re better at listening than reading, it would be best to focus on listening when you study.

What will help you get better at listening and the other skills needed for success on the TOEIC?

Here are 10 tips that will show you how to be best prepared for the TOEIC.

10 Tips for Successful TOEIC Listening and Reading Preparation

1. Evaluate Your Level for Free

The best way to start is to download the TOEIC Examinee Handbook and try to read it up to page 7. Then stop! (Otherwise you’ll accidentally read printed transcripts of the audio questions of the online sample test provided by ETS).

Then, take the sample test from the ETS site to evaluate both your listening and reading skills. Then, take a rest.

After 1-2 days, take a second test of 45 TOEIC training questions that’s online for free.

Compare the results between these two tests. Did you do better the second time?

Congratulations! We’ll see how that’s even possible in tip #2.

If you didn’t improve between the practices, don’t worry — we have ways (tips #3 and #4) to help everyone get better.

In any case, make sure you check all commented answers that show up once you finish the 45 TOEIC training questions test. These comments will explain why wrong answers were wrong, and why correct answers were correct. This is very useful information to have.

While the ETS sample test doesn’t come with commented answers, the ETS site links to official, ETS-approved but paid online preparations that do.

It’s your decision whether or not you want to pay for that.

One other great — and free — source of information is the TOEIC Facebook page. Every week, they publish a tip on preparing for the test, together with sample questions and comments.

2. Use “Practice Effects” to Your Advantage

“Practice Effects” are real and scientifically proven: the second time you do something, you become better at it. Take a test once, and then take a similar one sometime later. Chances are very good that you’ll improve just because you’re now familiar with the technique of test-taking, even if you don’t do anything else to prepare for the second test.

The weird thing is that this works for almost any skill. It works for throwing a ball, playing the violin, driving a car and even kissing. (My mom would add that it works for doing the dishes as well, but I say this has yet to be proven true…)

The great thing about the TOEIC is that you can take it as many times as you like. Your previous score(s) won’t affect the most recent one. However, it does cost time and money. So, the best plan is to practice taking the exam.

A good study method is to use a lot of written and audio questions that have commented answers (answers with comments explaining why other answers are right/wrong).

You need to be doing as many practice questions as you can. That extra work you’ll put in will change everything.

Now that we’ve seen how practice can work like magic, let’s see what we can do to make it more fun.

3. Put Some Fun into Your Practice

The more you practice, the better you’ll get.

The better you practice, the easier it all gets. You’ll practice better when things are more interesting for you!

It’s okay to spend time studying without the practice tests.

This is especially true if this studying time involves watching a TV show in English and trying to understand what’s happening.

It’s best to watch a show that you’ve already seen, and be sure to pick a show that has work-related scenes.

“The Office” and “House of Cards” constantly feature business conversations, and have actors who speak very clearly. Kevin Spacey’s accent in “House of Cards” is very close to the American male voices you’ll hear on the test.

You could also watch this old Tex Avery cartoon called “Symphony in Slang,” in which a cartoon character tells the story of his life — but using only idioms, which are literally put into animated images. So when the character says he put his foot in his mouth, you see him literally (actually) put his foot into his mouth. But you also understand from the animation what the expression truly means (in this case, that the character had said something wrong, silly or embarrassing).

Once you get comfortable, and can understand conversations on your favorite U.S. TV shows without subtitles, you can move on to listening to an English radio station. This will bring you closer to the real conditions of the listening exam (no images, just audio).

4. Look for the Best Possible Answer, Not the Right Answer

So what’s the difference between a “right answer” and the “best possible answer?”

A right answer usually means that there’s only one correct answer and all the other choices are wrong.

But when you need to find the best possible answer, there could be many correct answers. The best answer is supported by facts found in the exam material. Your job is to find out which answer is best, based on what you’ve heard, read or seen. We’ll call that the context.

So how does it work?

Often, the test will ask you to infer something from a conversation or chain of documents.

“To infer” means to deduce, to derive, to draw conclusions based on facts and reasoning” (not opinions). Inferring is not guessing, though, because you must have facts and reasons to support your answer.

So when the TOEIC asks you what you can infer from a conversation, it wants you to find at least two valid clues in the text or in the conversation that support your conclusion.

Let’s look at this extreme example:

You hear a conversation between two coworkers. They discuss their schedule, complain about long hours and say they want to quit their current jobs and find better ones.

The test asks what you can infer from the conversation. It tell you to pick the best summary (short description) and gives you some options. Here’s one:

1. Long hours may affect (have influence over) your overall work productivity (how well you work).”

At first this looks okay. There’s nothing wrong with that statement. It’s probably true in most cases. The verb “to affect” is even used correctly (as we’ll verify in #6). It looks like an answer that could be right.

But the conversation summary doesn’t mention the co-workers’ productivity — how much they get done at work. So the choice, while a true statement, isn’t the best possible answer based on the context of the situation.

This is why the safest method is to check the text (or for the listening part, your notes), to see if they support your answer.

A great way to practice doing this is to ask yourself why each of the other answers is not as good as the best one. We’ll do that with Joey and Chandler in the next tip.

5. When You’re Unsure, Don’t Panic, Look for Clues

So remember how I said I’d never leave you high and dry? Let’s find out what I meant by that.

In “Friends” episode 6 (season 2) “The One Where Joey Moves Out,” Joey and Chandler (who’ve been roommates for years) have a fight. Joey, who now has enough money to live alone in a bigger apartment, tells Chandler he’s going to rent another place. Chandler doesn’t seem too happy about it.

Joey notices that Chandler isn’t very happy. Joey’s worried that moving out will leave Chandler without a roommate. Here’s the dialogue (the conversation) between them:

Joey: Hey, are you cool with this? I mean, I don’t want to leave you high and dry.

Chandler: No, I’ve never been lower or wetter. I’ll be fine. I’ll just turn your bedroom into a game room.

When Chandler answers, “I’ve never been lower or wetter,” he’s making a play on words by saying the opposite of “high” (low → lower) and “dry” (wet → wetter). This is like what Tex Avery did with idioms in the cartoon we mentioned in #3. But that’s not what the expression “high and dry” truly means.

To figure out what it means, let’s look at what we can infer (conclude) from what we know. So which of the following can be safely inferred from the text and the dialogue above?

  1. Chandler is afraid he will experience high variation in temperature.
  2. Joey is concerned because he is leaving Chandler without a roommate.
  3. Joey is really slow at packing his stuff.
  4. Chandler is about to look for another roommate.
  5. Joey is going to get more dates.

So (1) isn’t a good choice because we know that we’re looking at an idiom, and not the actual meaning of the words.

(3) isn’t good either because there’s nothing in the text or dialogue that says Joey is packing.

(4) may become true in the next episodes, but if you only look at what we know, there’s nothing that says Chandler is already thinking about looking for another roommate. In fact, Chandler said he’ll turn Joey’s room into a game room.

(5) Although living alone in a bigger apartment can help improve your love life, that would just be a guess. The text never mentions Joey’s dating life. Can you see why this option is a “fake” good answer? Joey’s always going to get more dates, but this isn’t the best possible answer, using what we know from the conversation.

So our best possible answer is (2) — Joey is concerned because he is leaving Chandler without a roommate. Why?

The text says that Joey is worried, which is a synonym of “concerned.” Plus, in the dialogue, Joey asks Chandler if he’s okay (cool) with Joey moving out.

So from this example, we can infer — and not guess — three things:

  • What matters is what’s actually written or said in the exam material.
  • You don’t need to know all the words and idioms to understand a conversation if you’re given the context. Since the TOEIC will always give you context, if you come across a word or expression that you don’t understand, don’t panic! Don’t try to guess, but instead look for clues (hints). They’re there.
  • To “be left high and dry” means to be left helpless, without options or in a difficult position. Joey’s worried he’ll be doing this to Chandler when he moves out, because Chandler will be in a difficult situation. Who’ll help pay rent? Where will Chandler find a new roommate?

Remember, use only the information in the exam. That’s where you can look for helpful clues.

6. Watch Out for Words That Sound or Are Spelled Almost the Same

The TOEIC will try to trick (fool) you.

It may ask you to choose a grammatically correct sentence from a list of possible options.

Consider this potential answer: “Long hours may effect your overall work productivity.”

Don’t choose this answer. It sounds alright but it’s not grammatically correct. There’s a similar sounding verb, to affect, that should be used in that sentence instead. Take a look:

  • To Affect is a verb that means “to have influence on/over,” as in, “Long hours affect my mood.”
  • Effect is a noun that means “consequence,” or “result,” as in, “This post will have a good effect on my TOEIC score.”

There are two things you can do to make sure you don’t get tricked:

(1) Get used to similar sounding words before the test. You can start with a written list of similar sounding words, and then move on to a list of business terms that comes with a recording of the pronunciation for each word.

The TOEIC is easier to take when you’re familiar with many work-related words. If you don’t have much time, you can focus on words that appear the most times in the test. This document has a list of words that show up often on the TOEIC (page 169).

(2) Rely on words that you know for sure. Use them to figure out the overall meaning of the sentence. Then. infer from the context what the other, less familiar words could mean.

For instance, if the dialogue takes place at a restaurant, the waiter will ask if anyone wants to have apple pie for dessert — not desert (dry sand). (Remember: It’s better to have more for dessert. The dry and hot, sandy desert only has one “s” because the other died of thirst.)

7. Don’t Use Your Dictionary Too Much and Practice Listening

The TOEIC is timed. Even if you were allowed to bring a dictionary, there just wouldn’t be enough time for you to look up every word you’re not sure about.

Instead, you’ll need to be able to determine (figure out) the meaning of an unknown word or idiom using context.

Use the words and information provided, and trust your gut (instincts / initial reaction).

We think it’s best to use a dictionary as little as you can. Use a dictionary less and less as you get closer to your test date.

In the listening section, since there’s no body language or visual information to help you, you’ll need to focus on two elements: the tone and the verb tenses. The tone is not the same as the accent.

An accent is the way people talk from a certain place. Remember, the “I” in TOEIC stands for “International,” which means the listening part will have voices with mild American, Australian, British and Canadian accents. The accents vary, but ETS makes sure there are no real extremes.

Tone, on the other hand, is the change in pitch (higher or lower) when someone is speaking. It’s used to express questions, affirmations and negations. Identifying the tone requires practice, but the TOEIC audio won’t try to trick you with tone.

Another hint can be found in verb tenses or changes in tenses. These show that something has happened or is going to happen, and the testers want to make sure you notice it. So, you need to write down anything you hear about the time. For example: yesterday, last week, within a month, tomorrow, in a couple of days, soon, shortly, it won’t be long, etc.

8. Practice Listening to English Spoken at Conversational Speed

Because the test is timed, and because there are no replays of the audio parts, you’ll have to take notes while listening to the audio.

Don’t try to write down everything you hear! It can’t be done, even by native speakers. Instead, write down as many key words as you understand. Try to figure out the location, the context, the time and dates, the names and the verb tenses (or changes in tenses).

This takes time. We need to be patient and practice listening to conversations in English with different accents.

To start getting used to different accents at a normal pace, you can check out this website, Transcribeme! It provides audio samples of different English accents. The company has a number of audio transcription tests aimed at checking a person’s ability to transcribe (type what you hear). You can take these tests just for fun (and for free), if you wish.

It’s not exactly like the real exam, since you can play the conversation or speech as many times as you want. However, it’s great listening practice for your ears, and it’ll help you get used to different accents.

Another great way to practice listening is the Bloomberg live radio. There are a few good benefits to using this as a study tool:

  • The hosts usually speak very clearly.
  • The same advertisements are played over and over again, and they usually contain business-related words.
  • They often announce the time during the radio show, saying “it’s 58 past the hour, now.” Check the time on your computer as you hear this, to see if you heard correctly.

If you’re a bit lost in the beginning, start with videos that you can replay, such as interviews. Don’t be afraid to open the transcript (written text of everything spoken in the video), whose link is below the replay.

9. Know the Spoken Instructions Before the Test

On the listening test, you’ll hear instructions before a group of questions is played. Knowing these instructions before the actual test means you won’t need to focus on them so much during the test. You can then use that extra bit of time to look at the written questions for the audio part.

Here are the spoken instructions for the listening part:

“You will hear ten short talks given by a single speaker. For each short talk, read the three questions and the four answer choices that follow each question. Select the most appropriate answer. Mark your answer by circling (A), (B), (C), or (D). You will hear each short talk only once.”

And then:

“Questions 71 through 73 refer to the following report/talk/conversation.”

Finally the conversation or speech begins. The speaker won’t be the same person who told the instructions. This change of speaker means that you need to start taking notes. 

There’s always going to be a general question, but the other questions are more specific. This means you need to take good notes, especially when you hear dates, numbers, places, locations, names or professions.

It’s not easy, I know, but with time and practice you’ll get there.

10. Prepare for Poor Sound and Extreme Temperatures

Be aware that the sound during the test may not be as clear as the sound from your home computer speakers, as the ETS Examinee handbook does continue to refer to audio-cassettes (page 2).

You could be unlucky and have low volume or not the best audio. So, just in case, you might want to turn down (lower) the sound of the practice questions and of your favorite radio station. That way, if the sound is low on the actual test, you can survive because you’ll be prepared.

I didn’t leave you high and dry, but the ETS center might leave you lower and wetter, depending on where and when you take the test. The room could be too hot or too cold, so wear layers of clothes that you can put on or take off.

I took the TOEFL in the heart of a cold Parisian winter. The boiler (heater) was out of service and it was snowing outside, so we all wore our coats, gloves and scarfs during the exam. Be prepared for the worst!

So, folks, we’re near the end of this post. Almost. I’ll close with five important facts to remember about the TOEIC, and then list some vocabulary from this post that you’ll see on the exam.

5 Facts to Remember About the TOEIC

  1. The exam scores are for employers. The TOEIC shows employers how well you understand work-related English — spoken and written — expressed in various accents (British, American, Australian, Canadian).
  2. Use context clues. The TOEIC will always give you context, clues and hints that support the best answer. You’ll just need to find them.
  3. Prepare for various test conditions. The TOEIC test conditions, such as timing, temperature and poor sound quality matter a lot. It’s best to be prepared for anything.
  4. Hold onto your score report. Official exam centers don’t have to keep your test results for more than two years, nor can they give you another copy of your results at the end of that time period. This is meant to encourage regular evaluation of your English level, but not all employers require such frequent testing. So, make sure you keep your score report, because it’s much better than not having one at all.
  5. You get better every time you practice. TOEIC is used by some companies as a learning tool, meaning companies know that just taking the test makes their employees improve their English. You should use that fact to your advantage and know that each practice session you take is an improvement in itself.

TOEIC Vocabulary Words for Flashcards

You’ve seen these words throughout this post, so here they are once more for your reference:

To infer: to derive by reasoning, to deduce

A desert: a dry, sandy area

A dessert: a sweet course or dish at the end of a meal

An effect (noun): consequence, outcome, result

To affect (verb): to have influence over

Concern: worry

Now get out there and practice, practice, practice! Good luck!
 


 

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If you’re looking for great material to practice for the TOEIC, try FluentU.

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If you want to watch it, FluentU’s probably got it.

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Tap on the word “brought”, and you would see this:

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FluentU lets you tap to look up any word.

Videos become English lessons. With FluentU’s questions, you can always see more examples for the word you’re learning. This way, you’re not just practicing listening. You’re also learning the grammar and vocabulary in the videos. The questions will also help prepare you for taking tests like the TOEIC.

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FluentU helps you learn fast with useful questions and multiple examples. Learn more.

The most interesting part? FluentU knows the vocabulary that you’re learning. It recommends you examples and videos based on those words. You have a 100% personalized experience. This means you know exactly what you need to work on, and can study more efficiently.

Start using FluentU on the website with your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes store.

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