Today I’m beginning a series of blog posts designed not for students, but for teachers. I often talk to English teachers who have been asked to “teach TOEFL” to students, and who struggle to do so. The teachers try their best, but they don’t know where to begin. I’ve also met many students who tell me that they’ve paid hundreds of dollars for TOEFL tutoring that doesn’t help them very much. This “How to Teach TOEFL” series will, I hope, help both parties. I’ll begin with some basic concepts regarding language acquisition before dealing with each section of the test in turn.
Update: Part Two of this article is now online. It will show you show you how to teach TOEFL writing.
Who am I?
I’m the creator of TOEFL Resources. I’ve been preparing students for the TOEFL online, one-on-one and in the classroom for about five years. I don’t profess to be the best TOEFL teacher out there, but I do believe that I am well-informed and understand the test thoroughly.
The first thing you need to do as a teacher is become familiar with the test. This is because the TOEFL is a stupid test. You and your students both need to know that the TOEFL is not a true measure of one’s ability in the English language, but a measure of one’s ability to understand the types of questions that are on the test. Fortunately, the types of questions never change. There are two types of writing questions, a half dozen types of speaking questions and nine or so types of reading and listening questions. I highly recommend that you get a copy of the official guide to the TOEFL. This book will give you a great overview of every type of question. I’ll go into each section in more detail later, but you can also visit the guides section of TOEFL Resources for a quick overview of each section.
The biggest challenge I have as a TOEFL teacher is working with students who have poor English skills. Preparing for the TOEFL should NOT be about learning English! Students attempting to take the test should ALREADY have strong English skills. It’s really tough to tell a student that he needs to spend a year improving his overall English before preparing for the test, but sometimes it is necessary.
If you do want to make language acquisition part of your preparation regimen, here’s how you can do it:
How to teach TOEFL Vocabulary
Flashcards, flashcards, flashcards. You already know how to do these: one side has a definition and the other side has the word (in various forms). Go through as many of these as you can. I usually stick a check mark on the card each time my students gets the word and after he’s accumulated three check marks the card is cycled out in favor of a new word.
Don’t just study any words. To get ready for TOEFL students need to study a combination of core vocabulary (the most commonly used English words) and more obscure topic-specific (academic) words. A few months ago I pored over the official TOEFL guide and made a list of the fifteen subjects students are most likely to be asked to write essays about. Check out my article on the topic. I also made a list of the academic subjects that students are most likely going to encounter in the listening section of the TOEFL. Consult those two lists as you start to make flashcards for your students. They will help you to understand what words your student should be focusing on. The second link will show you a nifty trick you can use to build word lists using Wikipedia.
If you need a starter set of flashcards, Amazon sells a 500 word box set from Princeton Review. It’s pretty great. Another good resource is McGraw Hill’s 400 Must-Have Words for the TOEFL, which is new in 2014.
How to Teach TOEFL Grammar
I’ll go into this in more detail when I get to teaching for the writing section, but there are a few general ideas that can help you starting out. First, make sure that your student has a good grammar practice book. There is no excuse for not having one – they are easy to find. Emphasize to your student that she NEEDS to keep studying grammar right up ’till test day. Even if she feels confident in her ability, studying grammar will pay off in spades. However, your student should not be studying willy-nilly. The TOEFL writing section requires just two simple essays, neither of which needs to contain particularly complex grammatical forms. There is no need for your student to study any difficult or obscure grammar points. Here’s the areas that I ask my students to focus on:
- Simple Present
- Simple Past
- Present Perfect
- Countable and Uncountable nouns
- Basic Punctuation
- Descriptive Collocations
This may not look like a long list, but for the most part, those three tenses are all that a low-level student needs to write a decent TOEFL essay. The other areas mentioned are where I notice that most low-level students make errors.
A recommended textbook is The TOEFL Grammar Guide by Timothy Dickeson and Collins Vocabulary and Grammar for the TOEFL Test. Both are pretty concise, and focus only on the grammatical forms that students will actually use on the test.
Part Two of this article is now available. It shows you how to teach TOEFL writing.