Strategies for the TOEIC Listening & Reading Test – PART 1: Photographs

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the listening section of the TOEIC test is 45 minutes long and has 100 questions in total, divided into four categories or parts. In the first part, you will be presented with a total of six black and white photographs in your test booklet. While you look at each image, you will listen to four statements. Of course, you’ll not be able to read these statements; you will only hear them. You must choose the one statement that best matches the photograph. So here’s a quick example:

a) The young man is typing an essay.

b) The young man is holding a paper.

c) The young man is doing his homework.

d) The young man is writing an email.

C is the correct answer here. Although we see something that might be an essay in the photo, the man is not typing, so A is incorrect. There is paper in the photo, but the young man is not holding it. B is incorrect. There is no computer in the photo, so D cannot be correct. All of these incorrect answers are called “distractors,” because they distract you (or take away your focus) from the correct answer. We’ll talk more about distractors in a minute, but first, let me outline the four strategies I have to share with you for this photograph section of the exam:

  1. Predict the statement type.
  2. Listen for the correct nouns and verbs.
  3. Listen for details.
  4. Listen for prepositions.

– plus a few bonus tactics along the way!

1. Predict the statement type.

My first strategy for the photograph section is to look at each photograph to predict what you will hear. You can see the photo before you start listening, so you should have time for your brain to process information. In the photographs section, most verbs are in the simple present or present continuous (or present progressive) tenses, and they are very short sentences. You should also know that most questions in this part of the TOEIC test are about one of three things: the activity, the general situation, and spatial relationships (so, phrases like next to, near, across from, etc.).

In the photograph above, for example, a statement about the activity might be, “They’re working together on a project.” A statement about the general situation might be, “There are many objects on the table.” A statement about spatial relationships could be, “There is a pen next to the smart phone.” If you’re aware of these three statement types, you will be better able to predict what you might hear, which will increase your likelihood of choosing the correct answer.

2. Listen for the correct nouns and verbs.

My second strategy for the photograph section is to listen for the correct nouns and verbs. Many of the distractors in the photograph section are incorrect because they use an inappropriate noun and verb for the situation. If you can identify the right vocabulary, you might be closer to making the correct choice. When you look at a photograph, the first thing you can do is start thinking of all the possible verbs that could be used to describe it. For example, in this photograph, what verbs can you think of? Try to think of as many as you can BEFORE the audio starts.

I thought of sit, relax, smile, hold (as in hold a cup), lean back (as in lean back against the wall), enjoy (as in enjoy a drink), put (as in put his foot on the table or put a cup on his knee). etc. Then try to think of as many nouns as you can. Again, in this example, we have man, woman, dog, cup, cold weather, and maybe boots, coffee? … hot chocolate? After you think of verbs and nouns, you can even make example sentences in you head. “They’re relaxing in cold weather… They’re holding cups… The dog is sitting on the woman’s lap…,” etc. All of this thinking should happen very quickly – in just seconds or less!

Bonus Tactic 1:

When you’re listening to check that the verb relates to the picture, echo (or repeat) the sentence silently as you listen and compare the verb used with what you see in the picture.

Bonus Tactic 2:

When you silently echo or repeat a sentence and you think it’s correct, keep your pencil on that answer choice. Don’t move it until you hear a better choice. Answer quickly and move onto the next question.

3. Listen for details.

My third strategy for the photograph section is to listen carefully to every detail. Most incorrect choices in this part of the test will use some correct subject verb, and object words, and also some wrong ones. You need to be able to pick out the incorrect one and eliminate them. Most TOEIC Part 1 questions follow a subject-verb or subject-verb-object (SVO) sentence structure. Listen carefully for SVO words and compare the words you hear to what is in the photograph.

For example, in the photograph above, some possible statements are, “The man and the woman are holding hands,” “They are wearing backpacks,” “The couple is walking.” (It’s also possible to say the “couple are walking” by the way, but that is outside the scope of this video). Anyway, my main point here is that you need to be aware of these main patterns and also be careful of SVO (subject-verb-object) problems. Sometimes, part of the sentence is correct, but the rest of it is not. Back to this lovely photograph of the elderly couple here, “The man and the woman are wearing hats” is incorrect, and so is, “They are holding each others’ bags.” The object in both example is incorrect. “They are carrying backpacks” is also incorrect – wrong verb! So, you need to listen for distractors that contain the wrong subject, wrong verb, or wrong object. If any part is incorrect, you can safely ignore that answer choice.

4. Listen for prepositions.

My fourth strategy for the photograph section is to listen for the correct prepositions. A final common type of statements in Part 1 of the TOEIC Listening and Reading test is those that test your understanding of position and direction. Being familiar with words and phrases used to describe where things are and where they are going will definitely help you to do better on this part of the test. Prepositions are commonly used in English to talk about the position of people or animals or objects in photos. Do you know and can you use these typical prepositions? If you don’t, it’s time to review!

in, on, at, in front of, (in) between behind, inside, outside, under, over, above, below, beneath, through, around, far from, near, beside, next to, on top (of), at the top (of), at the bottom (of), along…

Listen carefully so that you can identify if the preposition used is correct or not for the situation shown. Which is correct? a. “The cat is behind the tire.” b. “The cat is in front of the tire.” c. “The cat is sleeping near the tire” d. “The tire is in front of the cat.” The answer is b. You must listen for the correct preposition that indicates the correct spatial relationship.

Bonus Tactic 3:

Beware of words that sound similar but have different meanings. Typical distractors in the listening section usually consist of these words – a type of homonym called homophones. For example:

  • “The man is pointing.” vs “The man is painting.”
  • “She’s setting the table.” vs “She’s sitting at the table.”
  • “They’re walking across the road.” vs “They’re working on the road.”

Be careful of those words that sound similar! You might think that distractors like this are meant as a mean trick, but actually, you’re simply being tested to check if you can hear the difference.

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