What Is the TOEFL® Test?
If you’re a non-native English speaker planning to study in an English-speaking country, you might need to take an English language proficiency test, such as TOEFL, to demonstrate your language skills. There are other tests available, like IELTS and PTE, but TOEFL is widely accepted around the world and remains very popular with students, universities, and colleges.
A Test of Academic English
It’s really important to remember that the TOEFL is not just an English test. More specifically, it’s a test of academic English. Instead of just assessing your general English skills, the tasks on the TOEFL are meant to simulate the sorts of things students actually do on campus. This means that test-takers listen to challenging lectures, read dense articles, and both speak and write about academic materials.
Even people that are completely fluent in conversational English might find the test challenging. One way to overcome this challenge is to become familiar with the actual content of the TOEFL. Students who know what’s on the test have an easier time sharpening their academic English skills before taking it, and feel less nervous on test day.
Today’s blog post will describe each of the four sections of the test, and suggest a few resources for further reading.
Reading is the first section of the TOEFL. You will read three or four dense academic articles that are about 800 words each. The articles that appear on the TOEFL cover a wide range of academic topics. The most common topics seem to be history, zoology, and physical geography, but they could be anything covered in a first-year course. The articles are all introductory in nature, so you don’t really need background knowledge to excel in this part of the test.
Each article is followed by 10 questions. The first nine questions are all multiple choice. Usually each question has just one correct answer, but occasionally you must pick two correct choices. The questions test a variety of skills, including your ability to locate specific facts, make inferences, or guess the meaning of a tricky word. Each of these questions refers to just a single paragraph, which is identified for you. The final question refers to the entire article, and usually requires you to correctly identify its main and supporting ideas. You will have 54 minutes (three articles) or 72 minutes (four articles) to read everything and answer all of the questions.
If your test has four articles, one of them will contain questions that are not scored. This content is used to ensure that the difficulty level of the test is the same week by week. Don’t try to guess which questions are unscored.
Listening is the second section of the TOEFL. You will listen to three or four academic lectures, and two or three conversations occurring on a university or college campus. The lectures are about five minutes, and cover any academic topics in a first-year university class. The conversations, meanwhile, are about three minutes and usually involve a student and a professor or a student and someone on campus providing a service, such as a librarian, or a counsellor.
You will be asked six questions about every lecture, and five questions about every conversation. The questions are all multiple choice and test various skills, including your ability to comprehend the main point of a lecture or conversation, to recognize the attitude of a speaker, and your ability to make inferences based on what you’ve heard. The entire section takes between 41 and 57 minutes.
If you get a long listening section (four lectures and three conversations), part of the section will contain questions that are unscored. Again, don’t try to guess which questions are unscored.
The third part of the TOEFL test is the speaking section. This section takes about 17 minutes to complete. You will answer four questions that test a variety of skills.
First is the independent speaking question. This is purely speaking, as you will simply be asked to give your personal opinion on a matter usually related to education, working, or life in today’s world. You’ll speak for just 45 seconds.
The final three speaking questions are integrated tasks. In these tasks, you will read and listen to a variety of short materials—conversations, articles, lectures—before you speak. Your answers must include some details from these sources. In each of these tasks, you will speak for 60 seconds.
All four questions will be graded on your delivery, language use, and topic development.
The fourth part of the TOEFL test is the writing section. You will write two short essays, which will take about 50 minutes to complete.
First is the integrated essay. You will first read a short academic article (about 300 words). The article could be about any topic likely to appear in a first-year university course. Next, you will listen to a lecture about the same topic. Finally, you will be given 20 minutes to write a short essay which compares the two sources.
Next is the independent essay. Like the independent speaking question, you will respond to a short question about a topic probably related to education, work, or some other aspect of life in the modern world. You will be given 30 minutes to write an essay that states your personal opinion on the given topic.
Both essays will be graded on your ability to plan and organize your ideas and the strength of your grammar and language use skills.
It will take between six and 10 days for your score to be reported. You’ll be given a score out of 30 points for each section, for a total score out of 120 points. Remember that each section has equal weight when it comes to your overall result.
There are a few other resources that offer more general information about the test:
- The Official Guide to the TOEFL ( 2021) contains extremely detailed descriptions of every part of the test, and also includes four good sample tests.
- The best way to become familiar with the TOEFL is to just take the test. Fortunately, ETS has a free practice test available on its website. It even includes a few sample speaking and writing responses.