How to prepare for your TOEFL Exam
Updated: Mar 23
One of the most important things to remember about the TOEFL iBT Test is that it isn’t just an English test. Students must be aware that the TOEFL is a test of academic English. Here’s what ETS (the creators of the TOEFL) say about it in the Official Guide to TOEFL:
“The language used in the test reflects real-life English language usage in university lectures, classes, and laboratories. It is the same language professors use when they discuss coursework or concepts with students. It is the language students use in study groups and everyday university situations, such as buying books at the bookstore. The reading passages are from real textbooks and course materials.”
The TOEFL test probably includes more academic language than any other major test of English proficiency. This means that preparing for it can be challenging, but also very rewarding. Students preparing for the TOEFL test shouldn’t just practice their English skills in general, but should focus on specific academic skills. For this reason, I strongly recommend that students start preparing for the TOEFL test as early as possible.
In this guide, I will quickly describe each section of the TOEFL test and suggest a few strategies for developing related academic English skills. The advice here will be most beneficial for people who have six months or more to prepare for the test, but I think there will be useful information for all readers.
The reading section is the first part of the TOEFL test. In this section, you will read three or four articles (about 700 words each) and answer questions that test your comprehension of them. The articles are similar to what you might find in a first-year university textbook. According to my study of the test, the most frequent topics in the reading section are history, zoology, physical geography, and biology. Since the articles are all introductory level, special knowledge of the subjects isn’t required. However, it can be very beneficial to practice academic reading in general before taking the test.
My favorite source of short academic articles is Science News Magazine. This magazine frequently publishes articles about animals and early human history that are about the same length and difficulty level as the articles on the TOEFL. Try reading a few of those every day. As you read, you should write short summaries (one or two sentences) of each paragraph. This will help you prepare for test day because most questions in the reading section of the test focus on a single paragraph, rather than the entire article. As you read, don’t stop to look up every word you don’t understand, but jot down each one. If an unfamiliar word appears in three or four different articles it is probably important and you should take the time to learn its meaning.
Another great source of reading material is History Today Magazine. It also provides articles that are about the same length as those on the test, and of a similar difficulty level.
The listening section is the second part of the TOEFL test. In this part of the test you will listen to three or four short academic lectures, and two or three conversations between a student and someone else on campus. After listening to each one, you will answer several comprehension questions. The most frequent topics seem to be history, environmental science, biology, and literature but you could get lectures about anything that a first-year university student might study. Note that the lectures and conversations are all about three minutes long.
My favorite source of academic listening practice is Scientific American’s 60-Second Science Podcast. Don’t worry… each episode is actually about four or five minutes long. About 1000 episodes are currently available, so you won’t run out of practice material anytime soon. Try listening to a few episodes each day, and take careful notes as you listen. Develop your listening skills by noting how evidence and examples are used to support arguments. Questions in this part of the test often ask why certain things are mentioned in a lecture or conversation.
An additional source of listening practice is National Public Radio’s Short Wave Podcast. It covers similar topics and its episodes are a bit longer. They might be especially useful if you want something to listen to while commuting to school or work.
It can be challenging to prepare for the speaking section of the TOEFL. Not everyone has access to skilled teachers and conversation partners who speak English at a high level. Moreover, hiring a specialized TOEFL tutor can be quite expensive. However, there is a lot you can do to prepare for this section. Remember that most of the TOEFL speaking questions are “integrated” questions. This means that they don’t just test your speaking ability - they also test your reading and listening skills. Therefore, the resources I have already mentioned will help you get ready for this section of the test.
You should also note that when you begin your TOEFL preparation, you probably won’t need a specialized (and expensive) TOEFL tutor. Much of your score comes from the way you deliver your answers. Your delivery includes things like your accent, your pronunciation, your intonation, and the number of pauses in your speech. These are things that almost any teacher can help you with. Try checking a language training site like Preply or italki for a conversational English tutor in your price range. Don’t worry if they know about the TOEFL test or not. Just remember to be clear with your tutor about what you want help with, and feel free to “shop around” for a tutor that matches your learning style and needs. You can also check out EdAgree's blog on 5 Ways to Practice English Daily.
The writing section is the final part of the TOEFL test. In this part, you will spend about 50 minutes writing two essays. The first essay is an integrated essay which tests your reading, listening and writing skills. Once again, the listening and reading resources I mentioned above will help you get ready for this part of the test.
The second task in this section is an “independent” essay, which tests only your writing skills. In this essay, you will support your position on a topic related to work, school or everyday life using personal examples. A great way to prepare for this is to keep a short daily journal. Try writing about events that happen at school, within your family, or (if you have one) at your job. On test day you will probably support your arguments by describing specific incidents from your life in five or six sentences, so do the same in your journal. Write about how you studied for a test, how you overcame some challenging obstacle or something fun you did with your parents. This will make it a lot easier to come up with unique ideas on test day. That is something that a lot of students struggle to do.
Unfortunately, I must also emphasize the importance of studying grammar. Part of your writing score is determined by the TOEFL e-rater software and it focuses, in large part, on your grammatical correctness. Studying grammar is quite boring, but it will pay off. If you have a few months to prepare, I recommend working through the units of a good grammar book like Grammar in Use - Intermediate from Cambridge University Press. You can also copy and paste your journal entries into an online tool like Grammarly to learn about your specific strengths and weaknesses.
I hope these methods help you develop the academic English skills you will need when taking the TOEFL, and in your entire career as a university student. Keep in mind that as test day gets closer you should shift to TOEFL-specific preparation. That means taking some of the practice tests provided by ETS and using tools like EdAgree’s English Speaking Practice platform that is powered by the same technology used to score your TOEFL speaking responses.
Good luck on your test!
Michael Goodine has taught TOEFL preparation classes in Paraguay, Korea, and China. He has worked as a writer and researcher for Hackers Education Group in Seoul. In that capacity, he contributed to several bestselling TOEFL and TOEIC preparation books. Currently, he teaches and writes about the TOEFL at Test Resources.
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