A good TOEFL study plan can do a lot to prepare you for the test. These steps will help you organize an ideal study plan.
- TOEFL format and scores
- Useful resources
- Practice strategies
TOEFL format and scores
Overall, TOEFL scores you on a scale of 0-120 points, with a maximum score of 30 points allocated to your performance on each skill; reading, writing, listening, and speaking. This list describes the test format, with each section listed in the order in which it is tested.
- Reading: 3-4 passages of approximately 10 questions each, with 54-72 minutes to complete the section
- Listening: 3-4 lectures with 6 questions each, and 2-3 conversations with 5 questions each, with 41-57 minutes to complete the section
- 10 minute break
- Speaking: one independent task and three integrated tasks, with 17 minutes to complete the section
- Writing: one independent task with 20 minutes to complete it, and one integrated task with 30 minutes to complete it
It’s important to understand the different question types in different parts of the TOEFL, since they are testing different skills. Here’s a breakdown of question types for each section.
Reading question types
- Vocabulary: Identify the meaning of a word or phrase
- Positive factual: Identify a small detail which is in the text
- Negative factual: Identify a small detail which is not in the text
- Inference: Make a logical conclusion based on what is in the text, to derive information which is only stated indirectly in the text
- Reference: Identify the subject of a relative pronoun in the text (that, which, those, whom, etc)
- Purpose: Identify the purpose of a phrase or sentence
- Table: Complete a table using information from the text
- Sentence insertion: Identify the best place in a text, to insert a new sentence
- Sentence summary: Summarize the key information in a specific sentence
- Passage summary: Summarize the key information in an entire text
Listening question types
- Gist purpose: Identify the main reason for the monolog or dialog that you hear; this is almost always the first question for conversation listening exercises, and is rarely used for lecture exercises
- Gist content: Identify the main idea of the monolog or dialog that you hear; this is almost always the first question for lecture listening exercises, and is rarely used for conversation exercises
- Detail: Identify a small detail which is revealed directly, clearly, and openly in the monolog or dialog that you hear; this is a common question for both lecture and conversation exercises
- Attitude: Identify a person’s attitude towards or opinion of a particular subject; this is a common question for both lecture and conversation exercises
- Function: Identify the function of a person’s statement; this question is typically phrased as “Why does the [person] say this?”, and is more common for conversation exercises
- Understanding organization: Identify the way a monolog is structured; this question is typically phrased as “How does the professor organize the lecture?”, and is normally found in lecture exercises
- Connecting content: Identify the way a person connects information within their sentences, with such structures as cause/effect, reason/example, etc; this question is typically phrased something like “How does the professor explain his theory about the causes of the war?”, and is normally found in lecture exercises
- Inference: Make a logical conclusion based on what a person says, to derive information which they only imply; this question is typically phrased as “What can be inferred about the student’s request?”, and is a common question for both lecture and conversation exercises
Speaking question types
- Independent speaking task: There are two types of independent task:
- describe a personal experience or present a personal opinion
- make a choice between two options, explaining which one you prefer
- Integrated speaking task: There are two types of integrated task
- read a short passage describing a university decision, listen to two students discuss the decision, then explain one student’s opinion of the decision and their reasons for their opinion
- read a short passage describing an academic topic, listen to a professor giving a lecture on that topic, then identify the topic using the definition in the reading passage, and explain the examples the professor uses to illustrate the topic
Writing question types
- Independent writing task: There are three types of independent task:
- Express your preference: Choose between two or more points of view, explain why you prefer one of them, and provide your reasons
- Advantages and disadvantages: Describe the advantages and disadvantages of a situation
- Describe and explain: Respond to a question about facts (such as “What is your favorite movie?”, or “If you could choose, where would you live?”), describe and explain your view, and provide your reasons
- Integrated writing task: There is one type of integrated task, with three steps:
- Read a short passage on an academic topic
- Listen to a professor giving a lecture on that topic
- Write an essay explaining how the lecturer agrees/disagrees, supports/rejects, or answers, the claims or problems in the passage
Understanding the test format
This is absolutely critical. Many students do not understand that TOEFL is not simply a memory test, nor is it only testing your vocabulary, grammar, and spelling. The key to TOEFL is that it is testing your ability to use your English knowledge and skills for very specific tasks which you will encounter in a typical Western style college environment.
Let’s look at the two types of listening tests.
- The conversation between a student and a college staff member, either a member of the faculty (such as a professor), or the administration staff (such as a librarian). This simulates a typical experience you may have when you study at an English speaking college. This test is assessing if you can use your English listening skills in a real life situation on campus.
- The lecture given by a professor. This simulates a typical experience you may have when attending lectures at an English speaking college. This test is not only assessing if you can listen effectively to a formal academic lecture in English, but checking if you are familiar with typical lecture features such as structure, vocabulary, and content.
Now let’s look at the two types of speaking test.
- The independent test: You have 45 seconds to express your opinion of a particular topic, and support your opinion with reasons and examples. This simulates a typical experience you might have when in a discussion at a college with another student, or with your professor or tutor.
- The integrated test: You need to read from a text, then listen to a recording, then explain the situation you heard, in 60 seconds. The text is either about a recent university policy decision, followed by two students expressing their opinion on the decision, or about a particular academic topic, followed by part of a lecture discussing that topic. The first situation simulates a typical experience you might have when in a discussion at a college with another student. The second is more complex, simulating a typical tutorial experience, during which you need to demonstrate you have read and understood the assigned reading for that week, as well as attended and understood the related lecture from the professor.
Understanding the real world situations which the different parts of the test are simulating helps you understand what kind of content, structure, and forms of expression the test requires you to use.
A complete mock test is an ideal way to assess your skills in a test environment, placing you under the mental pressure you will experience in the real test. One mock test in a single day is enough; remember, just completing the test will take a lot of time, and you still need additional time to review and revise.
You can use the mock tests in your standard TOEFL ETS study book, or the tests you can find freely available online. Here are some reliable online mock tests.
Alternatively, you might want to contact Englist to arrange for a more life-like mock test with detailed feedback and an accurate (though not official), test score.
Immersion vs. cramming
It is a good idea to study regularly. It is a bad idea to over-study. Break down your study plan into manageable sections. Focus on a small number of skills each day, with a small number of exercises. Decide which skills you’re going to focus on each day, and practice those skills with a small number of exercises.
It is a good idea to train related skills on the same day; reading and writing together, speaking and listening together. Figure out which skills you need to practice more, and which exercises will help you train those skills. Do a couple of exercises for each skill.
You need time to immerse yourself in the language and in the test environment, so give yourself enough time to prepare for the exercises, complete the exercises, review the exercises, and revise your work. This will take a lot more time than you think (see the previous explanation of how long writing tasks take to complete), so plan carefully.
Study environment and time needed
At this stage of your life you’ll already have a good understanding of the kind of environment in which you find you’re able to study best, so I won’t go into too much detail about this. However, you will definitely need large blocks of time in which you can focus on specific tasks without interruption.
Some tasks will take you longer than you might think. For example, the independent speaking task only lasts 60 seconds; 15 seconds of preparation time and 45 seconds of speaking time. However, you’ll need to select a speaking question, record your response, listen to your response (and maybe transcribe it to a document on your computer), and listen to it several times in order to detect any errors, and assess the content and structure. So that 60 second speaking task could very likely end up taking around ten minutes.
When it comes to reading, again you’ll need more time than you think. Even one typical reading text is about 700 words long, accompanied by 10 questions. If you give yourself 20 minutes just to answer the questions, you’ll need another five minutes to choose a passage, and even more time to review your answers carefully, grade them, and then figure out why you made your mistakes. That’s going to take around 40 minutes by the time you’re totally done, and that’s only one reading passage.
At the start, it is best to focus on practicing specific skills rather than doing entire sections or tasks in the test. Take your time working through the skill building exercises in your TOEFL study guide, and the freely available exercises you find online.
It is easy enough to practice listening and reading parts of the TOEFL test by yourself. However, if you want to really improve your speaking and writing skills, you’re going to need some reliable feedback from a tutor.
People approach this issue in different ways. Yes, you could find a local native English speaker for language exchange. Yes, you could find a local friend who is not a native English speaker, but who has successfully taken the TOEFL. They’ll be useful for general conversation practice. However, if you really want to train specifically for TOEFL, you’re best finding someone who is actually experienced and knowledgeable with the TOEFL tests, like an Englist test prep teacher.
It is always a good idea to purchase at least one standard ETS guidebook, but it is important to understand which are most suitable for your needs.
- The Official Guide to the TOEFL Test (fifth edition 2017): A general introduction to the test, containing an explanation of question types and test sections, along with training exercises for specific skills, and providing four real tests. Useful for beginners, with real tests which will also benefit intermediate and advanced TOEFL students.
- Official TOEFL iBT Tests Volume 1 (second edition 2020): Contains five real TOEFL iBT tests.
- Official TOEFL iBT Tests Volume 2 (second edition 2018): Contains five real TOEFL iBT tests.
Generally speaking, the official ETS material is the best to use. TOEFL questions are very carefully worded, and TOEFL exercises are very carefully written, for specific purposes and to test specific skills. Books by other publishers are not guaranteed to reproduce the exact same kind of questions and written material as the ETS material.
There are many other books by other publishers and authors, but most of them just provide test material, and many of them don’t provide the same kind of detail about the test that the ETS books do. There are a few exceptions, but not many.
One commonly used TOEFL study book is the Barron’s TOEFL iBT, currently in its seventeenth edition, published in 2020. However, it is worth noting that although the content in this book is generally useful, it does have a few issues of which you should be aware. Some reviewers suggest that the Barron’s study material is about 80% accurate when compared with the official ETS content. That’s not perfect, but it is still much higher than other study resources. I would recommend using this book, as long as you remain aware of its slight weaknesses.