This blog post is for both students taking the TOEFL and the teachers or tutors who are helping them.
I’ve never had to take the TOEFL myself (other than for “fun”), but I’ve tutored many students who have had the pleasure of taking this infamous test.
No matter what level a student is at, doing these things will help them improve their TOEFL iBT scores.
1. Learn what’s on the test
The first step of any test prep. Here’s the content of the test, straight from ETS’s website:
Reading (60-80 minutes, 36-56 questions) Read 3 or 4 passages from academic texts and answer questions
Listening (60-90 minutes, 34-51 questions) Listen to lectures, classroom discussions and conversations, then answer questions.
Break (10 minutes)
Speaking (20 minutes, 6 tasks) Express an opinion on a familiar topic; speak based on reading and listening tasks.
Writing (50 minutes, 2 tasks) Write essay responses based on reading and listening tasks; support an opinion in writing.
What stands out right away?
There are way more questions in the reading and listening sections. These sections have multiple choice questions.
The speaking section only has 6 tasks, and the writing section only has 2 tasks, but for these, you can’t just choose: you have to produce an answer. These tasks are graded by trained raters (more on how they’re graded later).
It’s also important to note that in the speaking section, 4 of the 6 prompts ask you to respond to something you hear.
Similarly, 1 of the 2 prompts in the writing section asks you to respond to a listening and a reading.
What that means is that the speaking and writing sections are also assessing listening and reading, and are therefore usually the most difficult.
2. Study vocabulary
For any standardized test, I highly recommend studying as much vocabulary as you can. Flash cards, quizzes, lists – use whatever works for you. Cramming vocabulary doesn’t always help you improve your language skills, but no standardized test 100% accurately measures your language skills. Standardized tests only really measure how good you are at that standardized test!
Google “TOEFL Vocabulary” and find a good list. I like this one; most materials from Magoosh are high quality.
You will also want to know how these words sound, so ask someone to read the words to you or use Google Translate to hear the correct pronunciation.
If you can then use those words in your own speaking and writing, that’s great! But you don’t need to. Remember: you will be using your listening skills in 3 of the 4 sections of the test, and reading in 2 of the 4 (actually all four, because you need to read directions!). It’s important to know as much vocabulary as possible so you’re not confused when you hear or read a difficult word.
As a teacher or tutor, give vocabulary words as homework and quiz your students consistently. Make sure you quiz the words in both listening and reading. For example, you might say a word aloud and ask students to write a definition in addition to the traditional vocabulary multiple choice questions on a test paper.
3. Know your weaknesses
Usually students are better at certain skills. Some students are great at listening, but need a lot more time to read something. Some students are great at the receptive skills and multiple choice questions (reading and listening) and do worse at the productive tasks (speaking and writing).
Find out which sections of your test you are weakest at and practice those the most.
Most likely, the last two sections will be more difficult.
Analyze what the problems are. For example, if the student is a great writer – grammar, word choice, and ideas are all great – but they’re not responding to the prompt correctly, maybe they need more practice understanding the listening and reading that accompany the prompt.
4. Study example prompts, essays, and speaking tasks
Go to the ETS website again to see example writing prompts and essays. Find out what kinds of prompts you will be responding to and what kinds of essays get good scores.
Compare your own writing to the example essays that are scored highly. Find out what you’re missing, what you do well, and what you do poorly.
For speaking, ETS has “Quick Prep” practice tools with listenings for speaking questions.
Around the web, there are plenty of example prompts for the first two speaking tasks. You’ll also be able to find example conversation and lecture audio for the remaining four tasks. Learning the types of prompts you’ll encounter in the speaking part is especially essential so that you aren’t spending your precious time trying to figure out what’s going on rather than speaking your answer.
5. Find your strategy
There is strategy in both receptive and productive skills.
In listening and reading, you need to have a strategy for finding the answers to the multiple choice questions. A note-taking strategy for the listening section is very helpful for the majority of the students. Skimming and scanning strategies are likewise crucial for doing well on the reading sections.
For speaking and writing, you also need to employ strategies. In speaking, you should study what a good answer should have (listen to examples and look at the speaking rubric) and then come up with a formula that you can modify to answer different questions: if you get a new prompt, plug in the new information into your formula.
It will lesson some of your stress if you memorize some phrases you can use in the introduction, body, and conclusion of every answer you give.
Some language teachers might cringe at the idea of “memorizing phrases and formulas”. But the TOEFL speaking is unlike any kind of speaking you’ll do anywhere else: it’s not a real conversation, it’s not a real presentation. It’s speaking a structured, supported idea with a very minimal amount of time to prepare. It’s unrealistic. But students have to do it, so at least try to beat it.
Writing is just as artificial. The things you’ll write are much shorter than most of the essays you’ll write in college classes. Study the rubric for writing and come up with strategies you’re comfortable using to match this rubric.
6. Practice, practice, practice
The more comfortable you are with the different parts of the TOEFL, the better you will do.
The more you listen, the better you will be at listening.
Same with reading, writing, and speaking.
It feels unnecessary to say because it’s so simple, but it’s the most important part of TOEFL prep. Practice, practice, practice.
Practice is especially important for the productive sections because the TOEFL speaking and writing sections are so different from what you might have already encountered as a student. If you’re good at listening and reading already, you’ll likely do well on those tests. But even if you’re good at speaking, the TOEFL speaking section might catch you off guard because it’s so unusual. Same with the TOEFL writing. You just have to practice those formats to get better at them.
7. Get feedback
The quickest feedback you get will be on the first two sections. You see right away which multiple choice questions you missed. And you might be able to figure out why you missed them on your own.
For the speaking and writing sections, you’ll need someone to give you feedback.
Comparing your essay to the rubric and example essays (see point 4) is great, but you want someone else to read your essay to see if they agree. Tutors, teachers and friends are proofreaders for things that you missed or couldn’t see when you’re focused on your own writing.
When you practice speaking, you can record yourself and play the recording back, but that’s not always useful. People don’t like listening to their own voice. And, like writing, you might not be able to see what’s wrong with your own language. Practice giving your speaking answers to a friend (who is also timing you), and then ask for their feedback on what you said.
A good tutor and teacher will help you see what you’re doing well and will help you improve on your weaknesses.