Rules of the Game: TOEFL Reading and Listening

ScoreNexus TOEFL Blog

I made ScoreNexus to be a tool to help you maximize your students’ TOEFL scores in the shortest time possible. In order to do that, however, you have to have clear strategies to apply. In order to have clear strategies, you have to know the rules.

In this post I will discuss the “rules” of the first two TOEFL sections: Reading and Listening. These rules were created in response to the basic structure of each section, so I will first discuss the structure of each section, followed by the rules themselves.


1. Reading is always the first section of the TOEFL. This section has three or four Reading passages, and each passage has a 20-minute time limit.

  • The Reading section is a very long, tiring section. It is only the first section, and there are three sections after it. Therefore…
  • Reading Rule #1 is to not get too tired on the Reading section. You cannot expend all your energy on the first section if you hope to get a great score overall.
  • Students should use our Reading strategy in order to do well on the Reading section while expending the minimum amount of energy needed.

2. Each Reading passage has 12 or 13 questions. Each question is worth one point, except for the last question, which is worth two or three points.

  • Each question is worth the same (except the last question), and there are up to 13 questions. Therefore:
  • Reading Rule #2 is to spend no more than 1 minute on each question (except the last question). Students must be disciplined and watch their timers to make sure they are keeping a proper pace. There is no penalty for wrong answers, so students should make sure they have enough time to answer every question.
  • Students should use our Reading strategy to know exactly what steps they should be doing, and how much time they take to do each step. Timing is crucial on the Reading section.

3. Note that the format of this section is not always the same. Sometimes there are three passages, sometimes there are four. Most of the time there are 13 questions, but sometimes there are 12.

  • Students should know that if they get four Reading passages, that one of them will be the “experimental” passage, meaning that their answers will not count on that section. This is a cruel trick played by ETS, the makers of the TOEFL, to help them create new questions for future tests.
  • If a student gets only three passages on Reading, this means that they did not get an experimental Reading passage, and that they will instead get an experimental part in the Listening section. There will always be an experimental part, and it is random luck whether they get it in Reading or Listening.
  • Reading Rule #3 is to always know what to expect. This is not only a rule for the Reading section, but for the entire TOEFL test.

1. Listening is always the second section of the TOEFL. This section has two or three campus conversations, and four to six lectures. (Remember, this section will be longer if it has an experimental part.)

  • This section comes after the long, tiring Reading section. Students will likely be tired, however…
  • Listening Rule #1 is to concentrate, even if tired, in order to take good notes. Good notes are the key to doing well on the Listening section.
  • Students should use our Listening strategy in order to quality notes, focusing only on the information that is needed. Students should learn to see the patterns in each listening campus conversation or lecture.

2. Each campus conversation has five questions and each lecture has six questions.

  • Even though a campus conversation lasts several minutes, and a lecture lasts much longer than that, there are not many questions asked for each conversation or lecture. This means…
  • Listening Rule #2 is to take notes only on the big ideas. There are not too many questions, so students are asked about large, important ideas.
  • Our Listening strategy helps students take notes only on the important items that happen in each campus conversation or lecture. This helps to clarify what is important information, and what are extra details that will not be tested.

3. Each question is worth one point. If more than answer is needed for any question (for example, choose two correct answers for one question), students must be 100% correct to receive credit.

  • If a student is taking notes according to our Listening strategy, then the correct answers should stand out. However, sometimes students be asked a question about information that is not directly on their notes. In that case…
  • Listening Rule #3 is to know what bad answers look like. Students must know that even if they don’t exactly know what the right answer is, they can still figure it out by eliminating bad answers.
  • Our Listening strategy discusses how to identify a “trick” or bad answer.
In summary:

Reading and Listening are similar in that they are both multiple choice sections. To do well:

  • Students must know what to expect. There should be no surprises when taking the real test, which is why taking multiple practice tests is so important.
  • Students must know what to do for each step. They should know exactly how to take notes and how to spend their time.
  • Students must know what a good answer looks like and what a bad answer looks like. Remember, this is multiple choice, so students need only figure out the “good” answer compared to all the “bad” ones.

Until next time,
Ed, founder of ScoreNexus