TOEFL Study Guide
Chapter 1 – An Introduction to TOEFL Universities in English-speaking countries get hundreds of thousands of applications every year from aspiring foreign students. Want to make your application stand out? Ace the TOEFL. Foreign candidates who get high scores on the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) are seen as more ready to study at English-language universities than their peers. Their applications get accepted at a higher rate than that of students with low TOEFL scores. Read more to learn about the fundamentals of the TOEFL.
Chapter 2 – Your TOEFL Journey Start preparing now. Read this chapter for details of each step on your TOEFL journey. An estimated 9,000 educational institutions from more than 130 different nations require applicants to provide their TOEFL scores. As a result, most countries conduct TOEFL tests, albeit with varying formats. The Internet-based (iBT) format is the most popular. However, some nations provide paper-based (PBT) tests as well. You can retake the TOEFL as many times as you want, starting from the 13th day of the previous test date.
Chapter 3 – TOEFL Test Format and Scoring TOEFL tests have four sections: 1) Reading, 2) Listening, 3) Speaking, and 4) Writing. You will get a 10-minute break between sections two and three. The maximum total score is 120 (30 points in each section). There is no failing or passing score. However, different universities have their own cut-offs, which is why you should aim to score as high as you can. Boost your understanding of the TOEFL format and scoring by reading this chapter.
Chapter 4 – Reading The reading section tests your ability to read and comprehend unfamiliar passages in subjects such as arts, social science, and business. You will be given 3-5 passages, with 12-14 questions based on each. Thus, in total, the iBT test includes 35 to 56 reading questions, which must be completed within 60 to 80 minutes. You can expect to find multiple-choice questions as well, with more than one correct answer. See reading section details, sample questions, and preparation tips in this chapter.
Chapter 5 – Listening The listening section tests your ability to follow oral communication, whether in class during lectures or outside class in social settings. You will be given headphones to listen to an audio file. Pictures will accompany the audio on your computer screen to help you understand the oration. The iBT test includes 34 to 51 listening questions, which must be completed within 60 to 90 minutes. Scores will be awarded based on seven listening competencies. See listening section details, sample questions, and preparation tips in this chapter.
Chapter 6 – Speaking The speaking section tests your ability to start or carry out a conversation both inside and outside the class. The iBT test includes six task-based speaking questions that must be completed within 20 minutes. The first two questions consist of “independent speaking tasks,” in which you must speak from your experiences individually. The last four questions are “integrated speaking tasks,” where you must include information from accompanying literature to finish the task. See speaking section details, sample questions, and preparation tips in this chapter.
Chapter 7 – Writing The writing section tests your ability to note down and express ideas, information, or opinions via written communication. The iBT test includes two task-based writing questions, which must be completed within 50 minutes. Like the speaking section, the writing section has independent and integrated tasks. Both tasks are scored on a scale of zero to five and then averaged to calculate your final score. See writing section details, sample questions, and preparation tips in this chapter.
Chapter 8 – Bonus – Tips on Quelling Test Jitters Confidence goes a long way in helping you score high on your TOEFL tests. Learn how to deal with the pressure of preparation and performance when sitting for the TOEFL, as well as different strategies to manage personal and parental expectations in this chapter.
An Introduction to TOEFL
The TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) is your very first stepping stone if you want to enroll for overseas education in an English speaking business school program and get accepted into an MBA degree or even a more traditional campus program. This mandatory test evaluates your ability to communicate with others in English and comprehend ideas presented to you in this language. If you want to opt for higher education in any academic institution where instruction is carried out in English, high TOEFL scores play a key role in ensuring that your application is viewed favorably.
The TOEFL test is conducted by the U.S-based Educational Testing Service (ETS), and it assesses language skills in four key areas that enable effective, unambiguous, and efficient communication. The test is designed to focus on how the English language is used in real life and identify if the candidate has been exposed to best practices in language learning and teaching.
The TOEFL used to have three formats: Computer Based (CBT), Paper-Based (PBT), and Internet-Based (iBT). At present, however, the CBT is no longer an accepted format, and the PBT is available only in some countries. Most centers have switched over to the iBT format. The skills tested and the scoring format differs when you compare the iBT and PBT. For instance, the iBT tests these four skill areas- Writing, Reading, Listening and Speaking. Your grammar skills are tested through the questions posed in these sections. The PBT has a Grammar section instead of the Speaking section. The PBT is shorter than the iBT, which has longer reading sections and two essays instead of the one requested on the PBT.
Your TOEFL Journey
Over 30 million candidates have taken the TOEFL exam until now, and over 9000 educational institutions and other agencies spanning more than 130 countries ask for these test scores. Many individuals use their TOEFL test scores to satisfy student or work visa requirements as well. A globally recognized test, the TOEFL plays a critical role in enhancing your application to institutions in English speaking countries. Here is what you should know to lay the appropriate groundwork for your TOEFL test.
Choose your Destination
The TOEFL test is conducted in more locations worldwide than any other English language test. It takes place on over 50 dates spread over the year, making it fairly easy for you to pick a date and location that is most convenient for you. The same format may not be followed in all countries, so you need to decide in advance where you will be taking the test. For example, if you insist on sitting for the test’s PBT version, you will need to take it in one of the few countries, such as Congo, Madagascar, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Fiji, and so on which still provide the test in this format. In most countries, only the iBT format is offered. Once you have decided about the test destination, it becomes easy to find out exactly when the test is being conducted, in what format you should expect the test to appear, and what you should do to prepare for it. For accurate information, you may get in touch with a local TOEFL iBT resource center.
Decide where to take the test
Select your destination on the ETS website, and you will see a list of test dates and test centers, along with other details. Pick a location that is convenient for you and verify that it has a test on a date that is suitable too.
Decide when to take the test
The TOEFL test can be taken as many times as you want without restriction. You cannot, however, repeat the test within a 12 day period. During the registration process, if you have already registered for or taken the exam, you will find that you cannot choose a test date within 12 days of an existing, registered test date in your name.
Register for TOEFL iBT starting three to four months before test date
Remember that you may need to take the test several times to clear it with good scores. This is why you should plan to take it two to three months before you need to complete the application that requires your TOEFL scores to be sent. Registration for the test opens three to four months before the actual test date. Make sure to register well in advance so that you can reserve a seat and take the test on the date of your choice. Select four institutions that you would like your TOEFL scores to be sent to. Remember that you can only change this information until the day before your test, so choose carefully.
On test day
You should remember two things to bring with you on test day- your Registration Confirmation and your ID. Report at your test center at least 30 minutes before the scheduled start of the test. You may want to carry water and snacks for the break time. Ensure that your ID is valid and that the name on it exactly matches the name you entered during registration.
Test Format and Scoring
To ensure that you can study effectively for the TOEFL test, you must understand how the exam is scored. Having a clear picture of the scoring is also important because there are significant differences between the iBT and PBT versions. For the PBT version, the score range is between 310 to 677, whereas, for the iBT format, it is between 0 and 120. The PBT is about an hour shorter than the iBT version, which is another important factor for you to know. The entire test can be completed within half a day, irrespective of the format you opt for. Take a more detailed look at scoring here.
iBT Test Format
Time allowed: 60 to 80 minutes
Total number of questions: 35 to 56 questions
The time allowed: 60 to 90 minutes
Total number of questions: 34 to 51 questions
The time allowed: 20 minutes.
Total number of questions: Task-based questions, 6 in number
The time allowed: 50 minutes.
Total number of questions: Task-based questions, 2 in number
Overview of each section
The first section is the Reading section. Here, what you will be required to do is read the passages given to you and then answer questions based on these passages. Pay attention to the selected text and read with care to ensure that you comprehend the passage accurately. In the Listening section, you are given audio inputs from a classroom discussion or a lecture. Based on your understanding and listening comprehension, you must answer questions based on what was being discussed.
A 10-minute break is scheduled after the Listening section. Following this break, you have to take the Speaking test (the PBT version substitutes this with the Grammar section). This section is broken up into six tasks. You are required to speak into a microphone about general topics that are familiar to everyone. You may also be asked to talk about material that you read about or something you have listened to. In the Writing section, you have two essays to write, though, in the PBT version, you must only complete one. You are required to read a passage, listen to an audio clip, and then formulate a written response to it.
The most important thing to know about your TOEFL score is that there is no failing score. However, the academic institution you wish to apply for may have a cut-off score, and unless yours is higher than this, your application may not be considered.
Each university or agency has its own norms for determining the TOEFL score cut-off. Some may accept a 70 point score, while others insist on a minimum of 110. Remember that you can take the test as many times as you want, so you can repeat the test and try to improve your score if you have enough time until the application has to be submitted.
Each of the four sections is scored between 0 to 30, resulting in a total maximum score of 120. The scores are ready 10 days after your test date; you can log into your account to view them without paying any fee or download them in PDF format, except in China. These scores remain valid for a period of two years. The scores are sent without charge to the four institutions that you chose during the registration process. To send additional scores, you must pay a fee. You can also opt for a hard copy to be sent to you.
This is the section of the test that evaluates your reading and comprehension abilities. Expect to see university first- or second-year level passages from a range of subjects such as business, arts, or social sciences. Typically, the language used is academic, so practicing with similar material will be of great help in this section. You will be given three to five passages with approximately 700 words, followed by 12 to 14 questions based on the passage. Even if you are unfamiliar with the subject of the passage, you should answer the questions by reading the passage effectively.
Reading question formats
The questions that follow the passages are not all of the same kind. Expect to see some different formats here, such as:
- Questions may have four choices and one correct answer in traditional multiple-choice format.
- Questions may have four choices and one answer, requiring you to “insert a sentence” where it fits in the passage in the best way.
- Questions may have more than four choices, among which more than one may be the correct answer. These are aimed at testing your reading comprehension.
Different types of Reading questions you should expect
In your TOEFL Reading test, you may encounter 10 different types of questions for the passages. Knowing what these different types are helps you prepare for them more effectively. You may be asked to identify:
- Negative facts
- Central idea
How to Practice Reading
The most effective way to prepare for the Reading section of the TOEFL test is to practice your reading skills with material similar to what you can expect in your test. As mentioned earlier, this test features questions that are university-level academic style writing. Usually, these are taken from textbooks and excerpted from chapters that introduce concepts. Here are a few more tips you can use:
One: Look for Internet content such as blogs, journals, magazines, or any other virtual material that’s academic in style. Research papers and journals are a good choice too.
Two: One of the biggest challenges that candidates from non-English speaking countries face is that their limited vocabulary prevents them from understanding all of the words used in academic material. To improve this department, you can jot down new words you come across during your Reading practice.
Three: Make use of flashcards to familiarize yourself with new words that are difficult to remember. You can use these cards to make the vocabulary building process simpler, quicker, and more fun.
Four: A simple trick to understanding many complex words is to spot the prefix/suffix and then try to work out the meaning of the whole word. Learn how typical prefixes and suffixes change the meaning of different words.
Five: Learn to identify the roots of various words and practice associating words with their roots. This makes it easy for you to comprehend the overall meaning of several words that may originate from a single root.
Six: When reading academic texts, a good strategy is to quickly find and comprehend the central theme rather than read every single sentence and try to understand it in detail. Once you have identified the main themes, start finding the supporting arguments in the passage and figure out how they are linked to the central idea.
Seven: One good way to practice for your Reading test is to split academic articles into sections, mix up the sections and then try to piece it all back together in the right order. To do this, you could start with a copy of an article, which you cut into segments. Learn to use the words in each segment to give you a hint of the sequence in which the pieces should go together.
Eight: Read as many academic articles as possible to improve your reading speed.
Nine: Try to summarize the material you read and jot down notes. Formulate possible questions based on the articles you read and practice writing responses.
Reading Strategies and Tips
You do not have unlimited time when you are taking the TOEFL test. Learning how to get the Reading test done most efficiently is really important for maximizing your scoring potential. The ideal strategy is to spend about 15 to 17 minutes on each passage so that you have some time left to do a quick review before time is up. Keep in mind that two key aspects are being tested here: one, your ability to read quickly through a passage; two, your ability to assimilate accurately what the passage conveys. Detailed, in-depth understanding of the passage or its technical implications is not necessary, but an overall understanding is required. To score well in the TOEFL Reading test, here are some strategies and tips you can follow:
One: Scan through each passage and understand the main idea. Now, read through it a second time at a slightly slower pace. This time, invest a little more time in grasping the main points and arguments being presented. This will help you answer the questions or locate answers from the passage when you go through the questions.
Two: The passage may contain several words you are not familiar with. Avoid wasting time trying to glean the exact meaning of these words. It will usually be enough for you to understand the context in which they have been used and the sentence’s overall meaning. Focus on being able to answer the questions rather than on understanding every single word from the passage. Try to understand what unfamiliar words mean by looking at the general discussion in that paragraph and the point being made through that specific sentence.
Three: If the passage has technical words that are not typically used in the English language we use for general communication, they may be underlined. On mouse-over, you should be able to see the meaning of these words. Check whether unfamiliar technical words are underlined so that you do not waste time trying to guess what they mean.
Four: The questions typically follow chronological order. That means you should be able to find answers for the first question at the beginning of the passage and so on. Use this tip to cut down the time taken searching for the passage segment where you should be focusing your attention on each question.
Five: The last question usually requires you to understand the general message or argument that the passage conveys.
Six: As you read, learn to identify the purpose of the passage, whether it talks about cause and effect, shows comparison and contrast, classifies, presents a problem and its solution, or is a description or narration. Knowing this makes it easier for you to follow the logical flow of thought in the passage, which, in turn, simplifies the process of locating answers quickly.
Seven: A common mistake that many candidates make is to read too quickly and miss out on critical words like ‘Not’ or ‘Except’ in the questions. Read the question and then re-read it to avoid these mistakes. Overlooking transitional words can lead to similar mistakes as well.
As an all-around proficient user of the English language, you need first to understand conversations correctly, completely, and in the right context. As a future student at an educational institution in one of the 130+ countries that accept TOEFL scores, you must be able to follow lectures and oral communications in both academic and social settings. This, of course, is precisely what the listening section measures: how well you can comprehend spoken English. The listening material comprises lectures, student-teacher discussions, and common conversations occurring on any university campus between students and teachers or university staff. Continue to examine the section in more detail.
Purpose and Description
TOEFL measures listening competency based on specific parameters relevant to effective learning in English. In particular, academic listening assesses your ability to:
- Make sense of the core idea, key points and important details of the core idea (Listening for Basic Comprehension)
- Recognize the purpose, function, tone and degree of certainty of the communication (Listening for Pragmatic Understanding)
- Connect and combine information from multiple sources by:
- Recognizing how the information is organized
- Understanding the relationships between ideas (chronology, compare/contrast, cause/effect)
- Deducing ideas and arriving at accurate conclusions based on the presented material
- Identifying changes in topic in conversations or lectures, as well as recognizing introductions and conclusions in lectures (Connecting and Synthesizing Information)
The listening section is your second test milestone that follows the reading section. What the listening test feels like:
- The audio is played (which you will listen to using headphones). Pictures will accompany it on the computer screen to help you visualize the conversations between speakers in their specific roles.
- You can hear as well as see each question and the answer choices.
- For some questions, a part of the conversation or lecture is replayed.
- You’re allowed to take notes when listening to the audio. But you will be required to destroy the notes before leaving the test center.
There are four question format in this section:
- Multiple choice questions with four answer choices and one correct answer
- Multiple choice questions with more than one answer
- Questions asking you to match text or objects to the correct categories in a chart
- Questions asking you to put events or steps of a process in the right sequence
The listening material you are tested on consists of academic lectures where a professor may be the sole speaker. Students commenting once in a while or lectures involving a two-way conversation between the professor and students. The lecture topics are divided into the following categories:
- Arts (books, photography, architecture, music, crafts, city planning, etc)
- Life Science (aquatic life, public health, bacteria and viruses, animal behavior and communication, plant and animal habitats, nutrition)
- Physical Science (atmosphere, astronomy, oceanography, computer science, alternative energy, technology, properties of light and sound, etc.)
- Social Science (early writing systems, mass communication, education, modern history, social behaviors, etc.)
Conversations revolve around a typical university setting, between a professor and a teaching assistant, a student, and a career services officer, or a student and librarian, and involve common topics of interest in an academic environment, such as class registrations, meal subscriptions, or the like. These conversations can be divided into ‘office hours’ and ‘service encounters.’
In both cases, the pictures appearing with the audio will make the setting clear to you.
As mentioned earlier, this section evaluates you on specific listening competency parameters. Here’s a look at the types of questions for various parameters.
Comprehending the main idea of the lecture/conversation
What is the main topic of the lecture? What does the lecture mainly discuss?
Absorbing the key details of the lecture/conversation
According to the professor, what is the problem with the company’s hiring approach? What does the experiment show about false widow spiders?
Understanding speakers’ attitude
How does the professor feel about the use of Shakespeare’s plays for movies? What is the student’s impression of Sherlock Holmes?
What does the student mean when she says: “Oh! But it’s hard to tell realistic stories in action movies.” (listen again) What is the purpose of the professor’s response when he says: “It’s important not to conclude by looking at just one or two cases of false widow spider deaths.” (listen again)
Organization and making connections
How is the lecture organized? In the lecture, the professor describes the K.I.S.S advertising strategy. Indicate whether each of the following is a step in the process. Place the following sequence of events in the analytical hierarchy process (AHP) in order.
How to Practice Listening
The audio material you can use to improve your English listening skills includes CDs and tapes of lectures, presentations and books. You can source them from a bookshop, universities and public libraries. The Internet, of course, is an excellent resource for all kinds of listening material and practice tests. For quality conversations and audiobooks, check out the following websites :
- Voice of America
Once you have sourced different listening materials, follow these steps for good practice:
One: Listen to audiotapes and files on a range of topics across various lengths and difficulty levels. Start with topics familiar to you and then advance to new ones. You can start with lighter fare like conversations and lectures on movies, books, photography, television shows, and cartoons to get comfortable. You can then move on to academic material, beginning with shorter segments and progressing to longer ones.
Two: Listen to each recording 3-5 times. Depending on your English language proficiency level, you can first listen to audio content with English subtitles and then without subtitles, taking care to note the core ideas and key details. Replay the recordings, find out how ideas are linked, how the conversation is structured, differentiate facts from opinion, and recognize speakers’ attitudes.
Three: Be an active listener. Jot down main points in the form of keywords, not full sentences. Create a separate list of new words and phrases, check their meaning and correct usage with a dictionary and thesaurus, and commit these to memory. Summarize the content in your own words; it should contain an introduction to the main idea, the most important points, and a suitable conclusion.
Four: Listen to a lecture or conversation and simultaneously read the script in your mind or out aloud (whichever works better for you). Notice where, how, and why the speaker emphasizes certain words.
Five: You will encounter various accents and pronunciations in the listening passage. Practice listening to conversations delivered in a variety of accents and pronunciations to establish a comfort level.
Six: Copy a lecture or conversation from a taped or online source. Strikeout or cover every fourth or fifth word in the script. Then, listen to the recording and fill out the missing words.
Listening Strategies and Tips
See the table below to learn how to recognize different listening comprehension questions and tips on answering them correctly.
- What is the lecture mainly about?
- What are the speakers mainly discussing?
- What is the main issue discussed in the conversation?
The questions ask you about the overall theme of the passage. This is the big picture, not the little details. Eliminate the choices that form only small parts of the passage.
Take notes of important points, and determine which answer choice best describes the overall theme.
Questions on the purpose of the conversation and sometimes the lecture.
- Why does the student visit the marketing management department?
- Why did the professor wish to meet the student?
- Why is the student waiting at the career services office?
Determine what the purpose of the conversation is. Often, the main idea or theme of a conversation is stated at the beginning of the conversation.
Sometimes, you need to listen to the full conversation and put all the information together to identify and validate the conversation or lecture’s purpose.
In service encounter passages, the student is often trying to solve a problem. Identify the student’s problem and the solution to it from the passage to correctly identify the gist-purpose.
- What is the result of the experiment?
- According to the professor, how can inland ports solve road congestion?
- What, according to the professor, is the main problem with the theory?
Detailed questions require you to understand and recollect important facts or details from a lecture or conversation. These details are related to the overall theme or gist of the text.
Make a note of the key points of the lecture/conversation. Refer to your notes before answering questions.
Don’t choose an answer just because it contains some of the words used in the listening passage. Some wrong answer choices may contain words or phrases from the passage.
When in doubt, select the most compatible answer with the main idea of the conversation/lecture.
Questions on function
- What is the purpose of the officer’s response?
- What is the professor suggesting when he says “…”
- Why does the student say this: “…” (replay)
For questions testing the function of what is being said, think of the answer in the context of the entire passage. The function may not be what is directly stated by the speaker.
For instance, if the phone rings and your friend is busy, he may say, “The phone is ringing.” He may actually be trying to convey that he wants you to answer the telephone.
Questions on speakers’ attitude
What is the professor’s attitude toward…?
What is the student’s opinion about…?
What does the man mean when he says “…” (replay)
What is the tone of voice used by the speaker? Is he amused, confused, anxious, or angry? The tone is the vital clue that will help you answer the question correctly.
What is the order in which the events occurred?
How is the discussion organized?
Why does the professor say that students must focus on the slides?
Organization questions are most often asked for lectures.
It may not be apparent right from the beginning that the professor has organized the information differently (say, chronologically). Be attentive to the comparisons made by the professor. When the professor digresses from the topic, ask yourself if there’s a point he’s trying to make.
Refer to notes when answering these questions.
Questions on connecting ideas
What can be inferred about…?
What does the student imply about…?
Indicate whether each sentence below refers to mined diamonds or synthetic diamonds.
These questions may require you to put events in order or fill up a chart.
Refer to your notes and look for the steps of a process described in the passage. Also, pay attention to the terms, definitions, and facts stated in the passage.
You may have to use information from more than one section of the passage.
What can be inferred about…?
What does the professor imply when he says…?
What do you think the student will probably do next?
These are quite similar to connecting questions. Here, you will have to make a conclusion based on the ideas presented in the passage. So, put the ideas together and see what emerges as the best answer choice to the question.
The information won’t be directly stated in the passage. The answer you choose may also not contain words from the passage. So, add up ideas to reach a logical conclusion.
TOEFL lecture listening tips
Familiarize yourself with and be prepared for the different types of questions in the listening section.
The main idea can usually be found at the beginning of the lecture, while the details will be scattered throughout the passage. Once you identify the main idea, the details will all start adding up.
Look at how ideas are presented in the passage. They may be presented in the form of cause/effect, compare/contrast, or steps of a process.
Pay attention to signal words and transitions, indicating different listening passage sections: introduction, major points/steps, examples, and conclusions. Transition words like ‘next,’ ‘afterward.’ ‘then.’ ‘so,’ and ‘finally’ can signal the direction and different stages of the passage.
Practice note-taking by writing down the main ideas, major points, and important details from the listening passage. Use keywords and phrases to represent the gist of the facts and ideas presented. Jot down key names, events, and places. For multiple speakers, create a column chart and note down the important information from their conversations in the appropriate column.
Listen to intonations; it will help you understand the big picture even if you don’t know the meaning of a particular word.
Be attentive to the visual materials accompanying the listening passage as they may offer clues about important ideas in the lecture. Graphics and illustrations can support the points stated in the lecture. Blackboards may show the keywords and phrases discussed in the lecture.
TOEFL conversation listening tips
Some of the above points also apply to listening passages revolving around conversations in an academic setting. Here are some more:
Pay attention when someone in the passage asks a question; it can indicate that information is about to be presented.
Determine the conversation’s key purpose by listening for how speakers stress on words and their intonation patterns. Are they trying to solve a problem? Resolve a conflict? Are they angry, sad, or relaxed? English TV shows, movies, and conversations on the street, in the supermarket, or at a party can help you decipher the feelings and attitudes lurking behind statements.
Use abbreviations and symbols when taking notes. Some you can consider include:
with – w/, without – w/o
or – /
times – x, pages – pp
important – imp
possible – poss
difference – diff
about/regarding – re
compare – cf
before – b/4
opposed to – vs
Expand your vocabulary. Learn high-frequency technical words (words that appear most often in printed materials) across various lecture topics instead of low-frequency ones, as these will be usually defined within the passage text.
The speaking section of the TOEFL evaluates your ability to initiate and carry conversations in an academic setting and out of it. When in class, your English speaking abilities will help you pose questions to professors, provide your opinions, express your views, and participate in classroom discussions. English speaking proficiency will also come in handy for on-campus situations when conversing with peers and university staff.
The speaking section is scheduled after the 10-minute break following the listening section. This is a 20-minute long section comprising six speaking questions based on a variety of topics. The first two questions (Independent Speaking Tasks) test you on how well you can verbally present your opinions and draw from your personal experiences. The next four questions (Integrated Speaking Tasks) require you to combine your English reading, listening, and speaking skills as you would for any academic and on-campus scenario.
Types of speaking tasks
Here’s a table briefly outlining the nature of the six speaking tasks and the time you have for each.
Time (Preparation time and response time stopwatches will appear on screen)
1. Personal Preference
Speak about a person, place, object, or event you are familiar with or an activity you enjoy in your spare time.
Preparation time: 15 seconds
Response time: 45 seconds
Here, you will need to cite why you enjoy a particular activity or how a particular person inspired or influenced you.
Preparation time: 15 seconds
Response time: 45 seconds
3. Campus situation
A reading passage on a campus issue/situation (~100 words)
A listening passage (up to 80 seconds, ~180 words) where a speaker comments on the issue/situation in the reading passage
You must provide the gist of the speaker’s opinion.
Preparation time: 30 seconds
Response time: 60 seconds
4. Academic course
A reading passage (~100 words) on an idea or a process on an academic theme.
An excerpt from a lecture (~90 seconds, ~200 words) stating examples and key points on the idea/process/definition from the reading passage.
You will need to integrate information from the reading passage and lecture excerpt to express your opinion on the matter with relevant justifications.
Preparation time: 30 seconds
Response time: 60 seconds
5. Campus-related situation
Listen to a conversation (~90 seconds, ~200 words) between two speakers regarding a campus situation/issue, and two reasons for or against the proposal or two possible solutions to the issue.
You will need to understand the situation and state your opinion and the reasons for it.
Preparation time: 20 seconds
Response time: 60 seconds
6. Academic course
Listen to an excerpt from a lecture (up to 120 seconds and 280 words) explaining a concept or term along with examples.
Provide a gist of the lecture using the stated points and examples.
Preparation time: 20 seconds
Response time: 60 seconds
How are speaking responses scored?
The rater will evaluate your responses based on three main parameters:
How fluidly you communicated your opinions and your pronunciation, pacing, and intonation.
How well you used grammar and vocabulary to present your opinions and ideas
How proficiently you answered questions, drew relationships between ideas, and presented ideas in a clear, logical way.
How to Practice Speaking
The easiest way to practice speaking in English is by conversing with native speakers. You can also consider joining an English language institute or an English speaking club in your city or neighborhood. Here’s a look at some more speaking activities you can practice at home.
Practice speaking about different academic and non-academic topics and subjects. For non-academic topics, you want to focus on presenting well-thought-out statements with a personal touch. For academic subjects, practice presenting opinions, explaining solutions, and comparing and contrasting recommendations.
The speaking section gives you a couple of seconds of preparation time, which you must use resourcefully. Think for 15-20 seconds about how your day went or what you plan to do tomorrow. Then, talk about it for a minute.
Practice impromptu speeches every day that can help you think better on your feet. Write down topics on paper pieces, choose one randomly every day, and talk about it for one minute.
Read a news story, feature, or a small lecture, or listen to an audio file online. Take notes. Then paraphrase it in your own words. Repeat the task using different synonyms and adjectives and adding more details.
Read about an issue on a topic of interest to you. Create an outline for a one-minute speech on it. The outline should comprise your opinion, two points supporting the opinion, and one or more reasons/examples supporting each point.
Find listening and reading material on one topic. The material can have different points and contrasting views/opinions. Note down the key points and connect ideas from the listening and reading material. Prepare a one- or two-minute oral summary. Then, state your personal opinions or solutions about the issue/information/ideas presented in the material.
Read up on a topical issue about your college campus or neighborhood. Describe it to your friend or sibling, stating your own opinions and recommendations.
Role-play with friends or your study group. Divide people into pairs. One can outline a problem and propose two solutions, choose a preferred solution, and indicate why.
When practicing your speech, use contractions like I’m, can’t, it’s, doesn’t, they’ll, and who’s, to name some.
Your speech will be assessed on correct pronunciation and effective intonation and rhythm, so do work to present your message clearly and ensure that its meaning is not confused or lost. This, this, and this can help you with the endeavor.
Speaking Strategies and Tips
The speaking section is the shortest among all the TOEFL sections, yet it can be quite challenging. You must familiarize yourself with the different questions and common topics for the sake of your success. Here’s a look at some strategies you can use for different speaking questions.
Independent speaking tasks
When describing a favorite activity or an inspirational teacher, provide two to three specific details, examples, and justifications. Avoid stating several reasons as this will prevent you from completing the rest of your response, and you have only so much time at your disposal.
Always state an opinion/preference/recommendation and then express the reasons and justifications for the same.
Your personal experiences and examples do not have to be true, just expressed clearly. Use your creativity to save time and come up with convincing answers.
Integrated speaking tasks
In multi-part questions involving listening, reading, and speaking, you will need to remember quite a few details. So, make sure you take notes on the reading and listening passages. Note-taking will also help you integrate and paraphrase information to deliver suitable responses.
Listen to the stress and intonation of the speaker to judge his/her attitude. This will help you understand how he/she feels about an issue more clearly.
Remember that there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer for the integrated speaking questions. What matters most is how well you convey an understanding of the issue, state your solution/recommendation, and explain the same reasons.
General tips for both sections
Structure your verbal response as you would for a written response, such as a mini-essay. Your response should have an introduction, body, and conclusion.
For dynamic and interesting responses, use verbs more generously than nouns.
Avoid using words that are difficult to pronounce or words for which you’re not completely sure of the meaning.
Use words and expressions like ‘hence,’ ‘therefore,’ ‘firstly,’ and ‘even though’ that help you connect ideas.
Don’t speak rapidly; enunciate clearly and sound confident. If you wish to correct yourself, say ‘excuse me’ or ‘sorry’ and restate what you want to say.
Keep an eye on the stopwatch. You don’t want to finish ahead of time or fail to complete your response within the timeline.
When practicing speaking exercises, record your responses to self-assess your pronunciation, intonation, pace, and fluency. Ask yourself the following questions:
Did I complete the task?
Did I repeat words, phrases, or ideas?
Did I speak clearly?
Did I make grammatical errors?
Did I use words correctly?
Did I organize my ideas clearly?
Did I use the time effectively?
Did I speak too quickly or too slowly?
Did I pause too often?
Don’t use filler words like ‘um,’ ‘okay,’ ‘you know,’ and ‘like.’ These make your responses sound fluffy and present you as a less confident speaker.
Pay attention to the tone of your voice. Don’t shout or mumble softly. If your voice goes quiet at the end of long words or phrases, make sure you rectify it in your practice sessions.
Stay focused on the questions and block out distractions. Assume a comfortable position when listening to passages, stay relaxed, and answer naturally.
You will be expected to do a lot of writing – from note-taking in class to assignments, papers, and projects – in a higher education setting. The TOEFL writing section evaluates your academic writing ability, scoring you on how well you can express information, opinions, and ideas via written communication.
This 50-minute section tests your responses to two types of writing: independent writing and integrated writing. Integrated writing involves combining information from reading and listening sources discussing an academic subject, paraphrasing and summarizing the information, and relating the information you’ve read to that you’ve heard. Independent writing includes essays and opinion pieces that you’ve written using your knowledge and personal experiences. It can cover a variety of topics.
A breakdown of the writing tasks
Task 1: Integrated writing where you listen, read and write
Time: 20 minutes – A short text of about 300 words on an academic topic appears on the computer screen. You are allowed a reading time of three minutes. Note-taking is allowed.
Next, you listen to a lecture, where a speaker presents a different perspective on the same topic and additional information on it. (During this time, the reading passage disappears from the screen.) This is about 300 words long. Listening time is two minutes. Note-taking is allowed.
You write a summary connecting points from listening and reading sources, and the reading passage reappears on the screen when you start writing. There is no word limit, but a length of 150-225 words is recommended.
Task 2: Independent writing where you write from your own thoughts, with no source material.
Time: 30 minutes – You’re required to write an essay explaining and supporting your opinion on an issue. It should be a minimum of 300 words. The questions ask you to present your opinion on an issue. For instance, ‘do you agree or disagree with the following statement?’
How writing is scored
The integrated task is scored by two human raters, while the independent task is evaluated by one human rater and the computer (e-rater). You’re scored on a scale of zero to five, and your average score for the two tasks is converted into a scaled score of 0 to 30. Your responses are evaluated on the following criteria:
How well you have developed ideas, details, reasons, and examples in your essay
How well you have organized various ideas and points in your response essay
The overall quality of writing, i.e., grammar, vocabulary, sentence structuring, and word choice
How to Practice Writing
Before you can write an effective essay, you need to have a good sense of language and grammar fundamentals; the conventions of punctuation and spelling, and the basics of paragraph creation. Depending on your existing English language proficiency, this can involve just brushing up on the basics or putting sustained effort into learning/relearning them. It will also determine how many months in advance, you will need to start preparing for the TOEFL.
Refer to the Official Guide to the TOEFL(R) Test and read up on sample essay responses. Make a note of how the essay has been outlined, ideas are presented, and sentences have been constructed.
Understand how transitions work and practice using them in sentences to give your response a clear and logical structure.
When practicing paraphrasing, first paraphrase two or three sentences. Once you improve your comfort level, try doing it for paragraphs.
Make a list of topics of interest to you and write essays on them. Aim to complete them within 30 minutes, including planning, writing, and editing.
Read essays and articles by journalists and columnists on leading dailies and magazines. Examine how opinions are stated, ideas are compared and contrasted, arguments are debated, and issues/solutions are described and explained.
Read an academic article on a particular topic and listen to a recorded lecture related to the same topic. Take notes, list out important points, and paraphrase and summarize the points. Pay attention to sentence construction, vocabulary, and passage structure. Reread what you have written after completing the essay.
Practice integrating information from different sources by reading two articles on the same subject or reading a news article online and listening to a recorded news story. Both sources can provide the same or contrasting views. Integrate the information and explain the similarities and differences in the ideas presented in the form of a 300-word essay.
Writing Tips and Strategies
At the very basic, you want to follow four basic writing strategies:
Organizing your essay
Planning your essay
Editing your essay
Timing your essay
How to organize
Every essay must have an introduction, body, and conclusion.
Every paragraph must discuss one idea.
Choose the appropriate tense that suits the topic. Maintain consistency of tenses throughout the essay
Use transition words that guide the reader seamlessly through your essay.
To indicate the similarity of actions, use ‘likewise,’ ‘similar to’ or ‘comparatively.’
To illustrate the essay structure, use ‘first,’ ‘now,’ ‘next,’ or ‘also.’
To present an example or illustration, use ‘for instance,’ ‘specifically,’ ‘including,’ ‘especially’ or ‘chiefly.’
To express contrasting ideas, use ‘in contrast,’ ‘on the other hand,’ ‘however’ or ‘instead.’
To stress a point, use ‘particularly,’ ‘chiefly, ‘above all’ or ‘especially.’
To conclude or summarize, use ‘in conclusion,’ ‘in brief,’ ‘in summary,’ ‘in short,’ ‘all in all,’ ‘all things considered’ or ‘to sum up.’
A thesis statement is an important sentence in your essay. The last sentence in your first/introductory paragraph clearly indicates your opinion to the reader.
You can structure your responses in two ways. One is to compare and contrast each point. Another is first to tackle the reading passage points in one paragraph and points from the lecture in the next paragraph(s).
How to plan
Know what to expect and familiarize yourself with the questions and format
Read the question carefully before planning.
Decide the thesis statement.
Decide the main idea to outline in each paragraph.
Stick to the outline; don’t change the plan mid-way
Don’t waste time trying to think of new, additional ideas.
How to edit
When editing your own writing, you want to watch out for the errors you’re prone to making. Look at your graded papers to find the common or serious errors, and be mindful of them while editing. Also, ask yourself the following questions:
Have I answered the question?
If a thesis statement is required, have I written it?
Does each paragraph develop the ideas of the essay logically?
Have I used the correct transition words?
How to manage your time
Organize and plan the essay for four to five minutes and reserve an additional four to five minutes to review and edit it. Dedicate the rest of the time to writing the essay. You can further break it down by deciding how much time you want to spend on each paragraph.
Other essay-writing tips
- Use short, crisp and simple sentences. Avoid complex sentences and flowery language.
- Write in the active voice to express your ideas and opinions in a more dynamic way.
- Do not digress from the main points. You may end up including unnecessary information. Moreover, time is of the essence, so you want to manage it efficiently.
- If there is scope for it, quote a known authority relevant to the topic or connect the ideas to a headline-making news story or widely-known larger social issue.
- Do not start sentences with a conjunction; reserve conjunctions to connect sentences.
- Perfect your knowledge of correct comma and apostrophe usage.
Tips on Quelling Test Jitters
What steps can you take to become a confident test-taker and perhaps even look forward to the experience? How can you ease exam pressure and deal with self-imposed performance expectations? Here are some suggestions.
What’s the reason behind the fear
Test anxiety is common. If you feel like doomsday will set upon you once you enter the test center, though, you probably did not prepare as much as you wanted to, or indeed, barely prepared at all for the test. The cardinal rule of taking TOEFL or any standardized test is preparing in advance and developing effective study habits.
Based on how much time you can devote and your current English proficiency level, set up a study plan a couple of months in advance.
- Take a pretest to figure out your current level
- Arm yourself with guidebooks and learning resources
- Do not hesitate to request help, support, or feedback from friends and family members who are native English speakers, highly proficient in the language, or high-scoring TOEFL test-takers.
If you have been sticking to a study schedule religiously and practicing hard, the anxiety you feel is quite irrational. Calm your mind and dispel negative thoughts through meditation, yoga, and pleasurable extracurricular activities from time to time.
Is your anxiety related to your behavior?
Sometimes, stress can stem from leading a hectic and careless lifestyle. For instance, you may party hard, work overtime, indulge in junk food and alcohol, and then force your tired brain to get through TOEFL practice late in the night. This behavior can take a toll on your physical and mental health, making you feel exhausted and ill-prepared for the test.
Are you disorganized?
The idea behind a well-considered study schedule is to balance your academic and social life more easily. If you study on a whim, making time only when you feel like it, there’s a good chance you will end up putting less than half the effort required to get a good TOEFL score. Haphazard studying can leave you with an unorganized desk with practice materials scattered all around, no sense of where you stopped previously in the guidebook, an incomplete list of vocabulary words, and a lack of clarity on where you are and where you are headed. All this adds up to a lot of wasted time and jitters as d-day approaches.
Clearing the TOEFL with a target score will take you one step closer to your university goals. Focus your mind on the goal; tackle new challenges, and stay committed to learning new things. That motivation will help you ace the test.
Use visualization techniques to imagine yourself in a happy state and feel calm.
Write down positive affirmations and motivational statements on a piece of paper and stick it to your desk or cupboard. Read it every day to boost your confidence and attack each practice session with gusto!
Spend time in the company of friends. Do not bring TOEFL into the conversation. Talk about other things that energize your mind and make you happy.
Take care of your physical health
TOEFL challenges your senses and body: you must listen, read, write, and speak! Eating nutritious food, getting adequate exercise and sleep, and moderating consumption of coffee and fizzy drinks can help you stay fit to endure marathon practice sessions and put your best face forward on exam day.
MORE Great TOEFL Resources
- Magoosh.com TOEFL Section
- MSU.edu TOEFL Study Guide
- Magoosh.com Best TOEFL Books
- PSTCC.edu TOEFL Guide
- i-courses.org – Free TOEFL Tests
- TestYourEnglish.net Free TOEFL Tests
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