TOEFL Test Designers Have a Secret


A great way to understand TOEFL Listening conversations, like anything complex, is to break it down into smaller parts. And we can do that with TOEFL conversations. In fact, it’s a thing – it’s called ‘discourse analysis’. 

That’s when interactions between people can be analyzed. We can do some analysis of our own here with TOEFL conversations. That’s because, even though these interactions try to appear genuine, of course they’re not, right?

Here’s a secret: TOEFL “conversations” are actually scripted by test designers at ETS and performed by voice actors.

You knew that, right?

See below to see the transcript of a conversation.

Here’s something you may not have known: TOEFL conversations are divided into three parts. You may not recognize these parts at first, but with a little practice, you will.

Conversation Analysis

Conversations like the one used in this lesson from TPO 47 use signal words to indicate important information, a change in conversation direction, or both.

The main signal words used in this conversation are:

  • But (8x)
  • So (6x)
  • Well (5x)
  • Okay (3x)

Notice the “3-Act Structure” of the conversation below (“Act” additions are mine). Of course, you’ll never see these transcripts in the real TOEFL iBT exam, but if you study enough of them, you’ll begin to see the 3-Acts more clearly.

  • Act 1: “The Misunderstanding”
  • Act 2: “Scholarly Perspective”
  • Act 3: “Anglo-Celtic Music”

The 7 answers to the 5 question prompts are distributed evenly throughout the conversation. 6/7 answers (4/5 question prompts) focus on the director/professor/teacher.

Notice how only 3 of the answers actually deal with Appalachian music.

Notice how the answers do not appear in chronological order:

TPO 47 Conversation

1. Why does the student go to the woman’s office?

a To schedule an audition to join an orchestra
b To ask a question about a music class he is taking
c To get information for an article he is writing
d To ask a question about a lecture the woman gave

2. Why does the woman assume that the student wants to join the orchestra?

a He has taken some music classes.
b He plays the double bass.
c She has advertised for musicians in the newspaper.
d She hears that request often.

3. What does the woman imply about the members of the orchestra? Click on 2 answers.

a They might know more about the history of Appalachian music than she does.
b They will teach the student to play the banjo.
c They are all music majors.
d Some of them have lived in the Appalachian Mountains.

4. According to the professor, how did im immigrants’ music change when they moved to the Appalachians? Click on 2 answers.

a It began to incorporate new instruments.
b Musicians began to experiment with new rhythms.
c Singers started to use a nasal singing style.
d The words of some of the songs was changed.

5. Why does the woman say this (Uh…Do you really think you can keep these all in your head?):

a To emphasize a point she just made
b To find out if the student needs more information
c To suggest that the student takes notes
d To praise the student for having a good memory

TPO 47 Transcript

“Act 1 – The Misunderstanding”

Student: Miss Harper?

Director: Yes, can I help you?

Student: Hi, my name’s Eric Paterson. I’m a journalism Student. I wanted to ask you about the orchestra.

Director: I’m sorry, Eric. But the orchestra is only open to music majors. [INFERENCE QUESTION 3 ANSWER]

Student: Really? Well, see-

Director: But the policy is changing next year. After that, if you’ve taken three music courses, you will be able to audition.

Student: Well, I have taken some music courses and I do play the double bass. So, maybe that’s something to think about. But, actually, I was here about something else.

Director: Oh, sorry. It’s I… I get that question all the time. So… [DETAIL QUESTION 2 ANSWER]

Student: That’s okay. The thing is I work for Magna – the school paper and I am reporting on last week’s concert. Now I went to it and I really enjoyed it, but now I’m looking for some background knowledge. [GIST-PURPOSE QUESTION 1 ANSWER]

“Act 2 – Scholarly Perspective”

Director: Well, I can refer you to some of the Students in the orchestra if you’d like a young musician’s point of view.

Student: Uh…l guess that might be helpful. But…um…l am really looking for a little bit of scholarly perspective. Some history of the music that was performed that evening, where it originated, how it’s developed over time.

Director: Well, some of our musicians kind of specialize in Appalachian music. In fact, that’s part of the reason we performed it. So you really should talk to them, too. Okay, so we were playing Appalachian music from communities in the Appalachian Mountain regions of the United States. [INFERENCE QUESTION 3 ANSWER]

Student: All right.

Director: Uh…Do you really think you can keep these all in your head [ATTITUDE QUESTION 5 ANSWER]

Student: Oh, don’t worry. All I need are a few key facts. I’m sure I can keep them straight until I get back to my dorm.

“Act 3 – Anglo-Celtic Music

Director: So the music is generally based on folk ballads and instrumental dance tunes. It started with Scottish and Irish immigrants who brought over their styles of music. It’s called Anglo-Celtic.

Student: So, people brought their musical traditions with them.

Director: Well, this Anglo-Celtic music was considered an important link to the past for these people, which you can see in the way that Appalachian singers sing ballads. They have sort of a nasal quality to them, like in Celtic ballads. In their new land, some of the lyrics were updated, you know, to refer the new locations and the occupations that settlers had in America. But at the same time, lots of ballads were still about castles and royalty, lords and ladies, stuff like that, which is what they were about originally. [CONNECTING CONTENT QUESTION 4 ANSWER]

Student: Okay. And was that some sort of banjo I saw on stage during the performance?

Director: Yes, we are lucky that one of our student’s, Stewart Telford, has a nineteenth-century banjo, a real antique. He’s able to play in most of the traditional styles. Did you know that banjos are of African-American origin and that settlers in Appalachia adopted banjos for their folk music? They became very common in traditional Appalachian music along with guitars and violins, of course. But if you want to learn about that banjo, talk to Stewart.  [CONNECTING CONTENT QUESTION 4 ANSWER]

Student: That’s great, Miss Harper. Thanks a lot. Now, can you recommend any sources where I could look up more about this?

Director: Sure, I have a great book. A student has it today, but you can borrow it tomorrow if you’d like.

For more TOEFL training, check out my course Clear Strategies & Tactics.

9 Replies to “TOEFL Test Designers Have a Secret”

  1. One observation: Question 5 needs a quote or soundfile that says this, “Uh…Do you really think you can keep these all in your head? ”

    This will help the students to reference the question.

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