The Test of English as a Foreign Language is an English proficiency exam created and administered by Educational Testing Service. It assesses one’s competency in the four language skill areas (listening, reading, writing, and speaking) as a signifier of a candidate’s competency in terms of attending institutions of higher education. It also gauges a potential student’s ability to navigate through an academic environment, including both the informal one that makes up the social context of college life, and the academic one that will be encountered in the classroom.
The TOEFL is roughly four hours longs. The test is structured so as to integrate the skills, meaning that not one but two or even three skills are tested during one component. This structure is considered a more realistic method of gauging a potential student’s competency with the language and is part of the reason this test has been favoured by many universities and colleges in the US.
The test format is as follows:
The reading section contains 3–5 passages on various academic topics and will last from 60–100 minutes. Only three passage/question (12–14 questions) sets will count toward your score. Like the Listening section, the Reading section may have an experimental passage and questions that some test takers will have to do while others will not (though they may have the extra listening parts). It is possible to get both a long Reading and Listening section.
In the Reading section, you will always be able to view the questions and the passage simultaneously. As well, you may skip a question that you have difficulty with and return to it later. Learn to manage your time, as you must pace yourself well in this section (time management is a skill that must be practiced.) Some of the questions will direct you to a specific area in the passage to look for the answer. Others will demand you look for the answer(s) throughout the text. Skimming and scanning are invaluable skills that you must practice before attempting this test (if you are unfamiliar with these skills, check here).
Answers have values of one point, up to four points. You do not need specialized knowledge for any topic. This is a test of your ability to comprehend formal writing, and to utilize your language skills to analyze text, structure, and purpose. The Reading section requires a strong base of English vocabulary.
The Listening section presents 6–9 script/question sets, lasting 60–90 minutes. ETS, the maker of the TOEFL test, evaluates future questions by practicing them with current test takers. Some of you will have only six parts to the listening test, while others will have nine. Those who have only six will likely get the experimental readings in the Reading section of the test.
The recordings you will hear will be in the context of a university or college. You will hear students having conversations, or other campus members discussing everyday things. You will also hear professors giving lectures and occasionally discussing a point with 1–2 students in class. These lectures are academic and can be in various subject areas, such as history, science, art, or others. This means that the topic variety is wide. It does not mean that you need any specialized knowledge in any particular area in order to do well on this section.
You will wear headphones during the Listening section, including for the questions (they are both spoken and presented on screen to be read.) You will not know the questions during the presentation of the dialogue or lecture. It is crucial that you take notes (if you are unfamiliar with note taking, check here). You will not be able to listen to the recordings again. Similarly, you must answer a question in order to proceed to the next question. You cannot return to previous questions.
Answers are multiple choice. There are no deductions for wrong answers. Most answers are worth one point, though there question types that have answers worth two points. The questions will ask about the main idea, a detail, a language point (idiom, phrase, tone, etc.), structure, the author’s purpose, and inferences. Some questions will replay a segment of the recording and ask a specific questions about what was said. Some questions may ask you to complete a diagram or table.
The Speaking section tests your oral communication ability in various situations. You will have to complete six tasks over the course of approximately 20 minutes. You will speak directly into a microphone that will record your speech online, which will then be evaluated by ETS examiners. You will be wearing headphones throughout this section.
You will be scored on several factors: delivery—How well you answered in terms of voice, clarity, pronunciation, pace, tone, etc.; content—Did you answer the question? Did you provide relevant examples and points? Did you provide reasons? Etc.; structure—Do your ideas flow from one to the next logically? Do you use a variety of sentence structures? A variety of vocabulary? Etc.
The first two tasks will ask you to speak about something personal. The first will ask about you, or the world around you, and the second will ask you to provide an opinion on a topic. You will be given 15 seconds to prepare for each answer, and 45 seconds to speak into the microphone.
The next two tasks will provide you with 30 seconds each to prepare, and 60 seconds to speak. In this part of the test you will have to deal with the first of the integrated tests: you will read a short passage (45 seconds to read). You will then listen to a conversation or talk on the same topic as the reading; you will then hear and see the question to answer. These two tasks will ask you about everyday campus life and an academic topic, respectively.
The final two tasks will also require you to speak for 60 seconds, but you will only be given 20 seconds to prepare. You will not be given a reading passage; however, the recordings will be longer and deal with different topics than the previous two questions. They will again be a dialogue about campus life, and an academic talk.
In this section (the last 4 questions, at least) note taking is a crucial skill to utilize.
Like the middle part of the Speaking section, the first of two tasks in the writing section will consist of an integrated evaluation. You will be given a reading passage, then listen to a talk related to the reading, after which the reading will return to the screen as well as the question to be answered. You will be given 20 minutes to type your response of 150–225 words.
You will be scored on grammar and usage, structure, and content. Note taking skills are crucial to success in this part of the Writing section.
The second task will provide you with a prompt and directions to answer a particular question. You will be given 30 minutes to write your response in a formally structured academic essay of 300 or more words. Your answer will reflect your opinion or argument on the topic.
Time management is crucial to this section of the test.
For more information and details about the test, you can visit the official ETS site at: http://www.ets.org/toefl