The Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL)
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The TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) is an internationally recognised assessment used by English-speaking universities to assess the English language ability of non-native speakers applying for their courses.
It is accepted by more than 11,000 institutions around the world, including universities in the UK, US, Canada and New Zealand. The test is also used in employment and immigration.
The Educational Testing Service (ETS) designs and administers the TOEFL, which, alongside the IELTS, is one of two main English proficiency tests.
What Does the TOEFL Assess?
The TOEFL assesses an applicant’s reading, listening, speaking and writing skills in a series of tasks that combine these four areas.
So, applicants might read a passage, listen to an audio clip and then speak or write in response to a question.
Much of the test focuses on academic language and situations and is designed to demonstrate to admissions officers that a student can perform confidently in the classroom.
Many English-speaking universities and institutions will require non-native speakers to take the TOEFL as part of the application process.
Question Format and Types
The TOEFL is divided into four sections – reading, listening, speaking and writing – although, as mentioned above, some sections will require you to demonstrate a combination of these skills.
The test takes about three hours in total and is usually administered at an authorised test centre. These are located around the world.
At home testing is also currently available in some locations due to coronavirus restrictions.
The overall structure of the test is as follows:
- Reading: 30 to 40 questions in 54 to 72 minutes
- Listening: 28 to 39 questions in 41 to 57 minutes
- Speaking: Four tasks in 17 minutes
- Writing: Two tasks in 50 minutes
1. Reading Section
In this section, you will be presented with three or four reading passages, each about 700 words long and taken from university-level textbooks.
For each passage, you will be asked 10 questions.
The passages will cover a range of subjects and you are not expected to have prior knowledge of the topic – all the information you need will be included in the text.
You will be given a glossary of words that are not commonly used.
There are several different question types in the reading section:
Factual Information Questions
Here you will be asked to identify information that is explicitly stated in the passage.
You may be looking for key ideas or supporting details.
Questions might begin: ‘According to paragraph three what is...?’
Negative Factual Information Questions
Here you will be given four answers and must identify which one is false, based on the information in the passage.
Questions might begin: ‘The passage mentions all of the following EXCEPT...?’
Inference and Rhetorical Purpose Questions
In these questions, you will be asked to recognise or understand an idea or concept that is not overtly stated in the passage you have read.
Inference questions might begin: ‘The author of this passage implies that...’
Similarly, rhetorical questions will ask you to explain why the author has included a certain piece of information.
This type of question might begin: ‘Why does the author mention...?’
Here you must explain what words or phrases mean as they are used in the text. The word or phrase will be highlighted and you will be asked a question such as:
‘When the author says X they mean...’ or ‘The word X is closest in meaning to...’ with a choice of answers.
The words you will be tested on are academic vocabulary that a student with university-level English is expected to know. You will not generally be able to guess the meaning from the context.
These questions ask you to choose a sentence that presents important information contained in the passage, but in a simpler way.
It should mean the same as the given sentence but may leave out less important details.
The relevant sentence in the passage will be highlighted, and the question will ask you to choose the sentence that 'best expresses the essential information' from a choice of answers.
All options will contain words or phrases similar to those in the given sentence, so this question can be challenging.
Here you must find where a sentence would fit best into a given paragraph.
You will be shown a sentence and a passage with four black squares at certain points in the text and must choose which black square represents where the sentence should most logically be inserted.
You can try the sentence out in different locations as many times as you need before deciding on the best fit.
Prose Summary and Fill in the Table
In this question, you will be given a sentence that introduces a brief summary of the passage, followed by six possible answers to complete the summary.
You must choose three answers that correctly express the key ideas in the passage you have read.
Once you have chosen your answers, you will drag and drop them into the box provided.
You don’t have to put the answers in any order and can go back and change them during the time allotted for the reading section.
The Fill in the Table question is similar, except here you must drag your answers into two or three different categories.
2. Listening Section
In this section, you will listen to three or four lectures, each lasting three to five minutes.
You will have to answer six multiple-choice questions per lecture.
You will also listen to two or three campus-based conversations between two people, which are each three minutes long and will be followed by five questions.
You may take notes throughout the test.
The types of listening questions you will be asked are:
Gist-Content or Gist Purpose
'Gist' means the key idea or main point, so these questions ask you to identify either the main content of a conversation or lecture or the primary purpose.
Any TOEFL listening test will contain either a gist-content or gist purpose question, but not both.
Questions might ask what a lecture is mainly about or why a conversation takes place.
In some cases, you may be asked to choose two options if the audio clip has two main ideas or purposes.
Here you will need to remember specific facts heard in the conversation or lecture.
Questions might include phrases such as 'according to' or 'why does'.
These questions will always be about a key detail that is stated explicitly in the audio clip.
These questions ask you to identify what a given statement means in the context it is spoken.
For this, you must be able to recognise that sometimes what someone means can be different from the literal meaning of what they say.
For example, if someone at a crowded dinner table says:
“I’m finding it difficult to hear”
What they may really mean is:
“Could everyone please talk more quietly”.
These questions might include phrases such as: 'Why does the lecturer say...?' or 'When the student says X what do they mean?'
In this question, you will need to decide how the speaker feels or what their attitude is.
You might be asked: 'What does the student think about...?' or 'What is the lecturer’s attitude towards...?'
You will be listening out for tone of voice, as well as phrases that indicate feelings and attitude, such as 'I think...' or 'It would seem to me...'
These questions assess your understanding of how a lecture is structured.
You will often be asked about the examples a lecturer uses, with questions such as: 'Why does the professor talk about...?'
It is a good idea to listen out for when key ideas or examples are introduced during the lecture and to take notes.
This type of question requires you to demonstrate that you recognise how different ideas in a lecture are related.
You may be asked to place items in different categories by filling in a table, make a prediction or identify the various steps in a given process.
Here you need to show that you understand the meaning of something that is not mentioned directly in the audio clip.
You may be asked: 'What does the student imply...?' or 'What can we infer from...?'
3. Speaking Section
This part of the test is made up of four questions that mimic situations you may come across either in or outside the classroom.
You give your answers by speaking into the microphone on your headset. Your response is recorded and sent to ETS for marking.
Independent Speaking Task
The first question is called the independent speaking task.
You will be given a topic to speak about and must draw on your own experiences and opinions in your response.
You will have 15 to 30 seconds to prepare and 45 to 60 seconds to speak.
The question will present you with two opposing opinions or situations and you must say which you prefer/agree with and why.
'Some people like to live in large, busy cities, while others prefer the peace and quiet of living in the countryside. Which do you prefer and why?'
Integrated Speaking Tasks
Questions two to four are integrated speaking tasks that ask you to combine speaking with listening and/or reading.
Question two will be about a situation you may encounter on campus.
You will read a passage about this topic and then listen to a conversation on the same subject. The question will ask you to talk about the speaker’s opinion, and how that relates to what you read in the text.
You will have 30 seconds to prepare and 60 seconds to deliver your response.
Questions three and four are based on academic courses.
In question three, you will read a passage about an academic concept or term and then listen to part of a lecture discussing that same concept or term.
You will then be asked how what you listened to supports or illustrates the concept or term presented in the text.
You will have 30 seconds to prepare your answer and 60 seconds to speak.
For question four, you will listen to part of a lecture and must then summarise the main ideas and issues discussed.
You will have 20 seconds to prepare and 60 seconds to speak.
The questions may cover a range of academic fields but you will not need any previous knowledge or experience of the topic.
In all questions, the markers will be looking for the clarity and fluency of your delivery, strong use of language and vocabulary, and how fully you respond to the question and develop your ideas.
The audio clips in this section may include accented native English speakers from countries including Australia, North America and the UK.
4. Writing Section
This section comprises two tasks that assess your ability to organise your ideas and present them in written English at an academic level.
Integrated Writing Task
For this task, you will first read a short passage and then listen to a brief lecture which discusses the same topic but from a different viewpoint. You may take notes throughout both sections.
You will then be asked to summarise what you heard in the lecture, explaining how they relate to particular points set out in the written passage.
You will have 20 minutes to plan and write your response. There is no word limit but you should aim for around 150 to 200 words.
Markers will be looking for your ability to select and present relevant information, organise your ideas clearly, and use language correctly and effectively.
Independent Writing Task
Here you will be given a question and will have 30 minutes to prepare and write a response.
The question will ask you to set out your opinion on a topic or issue, giving examples and reasons to support your argument.
“Some people enjoy reading books about real people and events, others prefer to read fiction. Which do you prefer?”
Markers will be looking for your ability to address the issue and the strength of your supporting arguments, as well as how you organise your ideas and your use of language.
Again, there is no word limit but a good response would generally be at least 300 words.
For both questions, markers understand that your answer is a first draft and it is possible to score highly even if your essay contains some errors.
What to Expect When Taking the TOEFL
To take the TOEFL, you will need to find an authorised centre near you and choose a test date.
Tests are administered more than 60 times a year at locations around the world.
You should aim to register about four months in advance, selecting a test date that is at least two months before your earliest deadline.
You can register online by setting up an ETS account, or you can register by phone or post.
There is a fee to take the test. This varies depending on where you sit the TOEFL, but will typically be around $200.
On the day of the test, you should arrive half an hour before the start time to allow sufficient time for checking in.
You will need to bring at least one valid form of ID.
This should be government-issued and unexpired, with a recent photo and the exact name you used to register for the test.
It is a good idea to bring two forms of ID if possible in case one is not accepted.
You can check ID requirements on the ETS website.
Test centres employ several other security and verification measures alongside checking ID. These include providing handwriting samples, having your photo taken, emptying your pockets and removing head coverings for a visual inspection.
If you refuse any of these checks, you may be dismissed from the test.
You will be assigned a seat for the test and given headphones with a microphone for the listening section. You will also be provided with paper for taking notes, but must hand these in before you leave.
You may not leave the testing room or centre without permission, and the clock will not stop if you do leave to use the bathroom or for any other reason.
At the end of the test, you will receive instant, unofficial scores for the reading and listening sections. This will give you an indication of how you have performed overall and, if you wish, you have the option at this point to cancel your scores.
You cannot choose to cancel scores for only one section – if you cancel one you must cancel all.
If you do cancel, you will not be refunded for the test and will be charged if you wish to reinstate your scores later, so you should think carefully before making a decision either way.
How Is the TOEFL Scored and What Are the Results Used For?
Each of the four sections of the TOEFL has a score range of 0 to 30.
The scores from each of these are then added together to provide a total score of 0 to 120.
When you receive your scores you will see your four scaled scores as well as your total score.
There are four or five proficiency levels for each section, so your score in that section will tell you how proficient you are in that language skill.
These levels are as follows:
- 0 to 3 – Below Low-Intermediate
- 4 to 17 – Low-Intermediate
- 18 to 23 – High-Intermediate
- 24 to 30 – Advanced
- 0 to 8 – Below Low-Intermediate
- 9 to 16 – Low-Intermediate
- 17 to 21 – High-Intermediate
- 22 to 30 – Advanced
- 0 to 9 – Below Basic
- 10 to 15 – Basic
- 16 to 19 – Low-Intermediate
- 20 to 24 – High-Intermediate
- 25 to 30 – Advanced
- 0 to 6 – Below Basic
- 7 to 12 – Basic
- 13 to 16 – Low-Intermediate
- 17 to 23 – High-Intermediate
- 24 to 30 – Advanced
There is no pass or fail mark set by TOEFL – each institution will have its own requirements.
If you registered for the test online, you should receive your scores in your ETS account approximately six days after taking the test. These scores are then valid for two years.
When registering for the test, you can also choose for up to four official TOEFL score reports to be sent to institutions of your choice.
These institutions should receive these between six to 11 days after you take the test.
There is also the MyBest™ scores option, which allows applicants to combine their highest scores in each section from all tests taken in the last two years. You should check with your chosen university directly to confirm if they will accept this.
How to Prepare for the TOEFL Tests
Familiarise yourself with the format of all four sections of the test and try lots of practice questions so you know what to expect on the day. The ETS website has free practice tests and further sample tests are also available through websites such as Test-Guide and Magoosh.
Read in English for at least half an hour every day. Find a variety of reading material, including news articles, opinion pieces and academic texts. Ask yourself questions about what you have read, practise summarising the key points and keep a note of any new words you come across.
Find native speakers or English learners who you can practice speaking with. There may be an English club in your area, or you could set one up yourself. Set yourself speaking tasks, such as looking at a picture and then describing it for 45 seconds, or talking about what you have done that day.
Find audio clips and practice listening for the speaker’s purpose, key concepts and tone of voice. Try listening to a short clip and then writing down as much as you can remember. Many universities post their lectures online for free. You could also try listening to the radio, podcasts, TED Talks or YouTube clips. Look for clips covering a range of topics.
Practice writing to time. Find articles in magazines, newspapers or online that express a certain opinion. Then give yourself half an hour to plan and write about why you agree or disagree with what you have read.
The TOEFL is an important test for non-native English speakers who want to study at an English-speaking university.
To stand out, you need to show admissions officers that you have the language skills necessary to excel in an academic setting.
The test is demanding and the questions can be challenging, so it is vital to allow time beforehand to practise your language skills extensively. This will ensure that you are ready to perform your best on the day.